Friday, September 5, 2008

Street Mu

My neighbors have several cats. The two black ones are named Jake and Elwood. They can tell them apart by temperament; one is friendly. But I don't try. I enjoy calling them both Mu, which is a Japanese word that means something like No, or Nothing. This is a picture of one or the other of the Mu's, taken one sunny day.

Mu is the first koan worked in some traditions. Many non-Buddhists have heard of it. A student asks Joshu, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?"
Joshu replies, "Mu."

One way this koan was presented to me was that the student is asking, Worthless as I am (gosh, I'm just a woman, and I'm not exactly perfect . . . ) can even I be enlightened? Is happiness open even to me? Much Zen operates on metaphoric levels; it is considered helpful to confuse you.

So I was out this evening in a misty twilight, trying to walk my way out of surprisingly strong feelings brought on by a note from what we like to call in Buddhism "a difficult person," one for whom you have feelings you don't enjoy. I had grown bored by the question of whether my physical sensations represented anger or fear, and was noticing that the crickets in the lawns were louder than the ones in my head, when something brushed my ankles. Mu! I said. It was the friendly one.

I bent to stroke him, he was very alive. He set up a purr, and the koan came to my mind. I thought about it. Does even that difficult person have Buddhanature? . . . have worth? Does that person deserve my compassion? The answer seemed obvious.

Mu walked along beside me on the curb, and then doubled. I laughed in surprise. The other cat had come out of the dark to join the procession. I pulled out my cellphone and tried to take a flash picture of them, but all I got was a black screen.

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