Mu on the Mountain

Daizan recalls some of the intense Zen training Shinzan Roshi put him through when he first arrived at Gyokuryuji in Japan.


Gyokuryuji nestled in the mountains surrounded by bamboo forests

“This is not your training place.” Shinzan Roshi points towards the forested mountain behind the temple. “That is your training place.”

Since I arrived at this Rinzai Zen temple in central Japan, he’s repeatedly told me to find, “Only one mu in the whole universe.” He’s talked about how in his own training, he’d spent fourteen months plunging himself into mu, trying to find the meaning of it, the reality behind the classic interchange from a thousand years ago:

A monk asked Master Joshu, “Does a dog have the Buddha Nature?” Joshu responded “Mu.” Not yes, not no, but “Mu.”

One day the young monk, Shinzan shouted “MU!!!” put all his life into it, everything; just gave it all away, and immediately experienced kensho, a taste of enlightenment. Now, again, he’s sending me back up the mountain to do the same work, to throw everything away, shouting into the night. As he speaks he’s totally focused, completely present. It’s clear he believes I can do it. The first time I came to sanzen with an answer, my mu was a bleat, a little, feeble nothing, “It’s not so easy to find mu,” he said, “Kufu, kufu.” So now, after fourteen years of Soto Zen monastery training; zazen, zazen, zazen, descending deeper and deeper into stillness, all of that work has to go on one side. This master has little time for endless hours of sitting. Zen is action or it is nothing. We spend much of the day working, “Kufu, kufu:” grinding away on our koans. And then comes the night.

Darkness comes quickly at this little temple surrounded by small, steep mountains. Bamboos and dense tree cover wrap around the timbered buildings and gravel gardens. About four hundred years ago this piece of land was levelled in an earthquake. The early days are connected with the great Zen Master Bankei Yotaku. After each of his great realizations he retired to a little hermitage here to mature his experience. Later he developed the buildings, giving them the name Gyokuryuji, Dragon Jewel Temple, and later held a practice period here teaching five thousand people. Once Zen Master Bankei wrote:

Die then live
Day and night with the world
Once you have done this, then you can
Hold the world right in your hand.

As the light falls, his life-size wooden statue, glowering behind its peeling paint in the Founder’s Hall, will be almost invisible. Even out here on the mountainside, it’s getting hard to see. The path faded to nothing well below me. As I pull my way up though the trees, monkeys crash above in the canopy. I’m starting to pant and leaf mould odours fill my nose. Suddenly I hit the top. There’s no view, the tree cover’s too dense, but up above the stars are breaking through.

I climb down a little onto the reverse side of the mountain, so my noise won’t disturb the temple. I begin to shout. “MU, MU, MU,” throwing my life energy into each call, extending the, “u-u-u-u-u.” At first my voice is weedy and thin but, breath by breath, it gathers strength. One by one, then in crowds, come the resistances, “You can’t do this. You’ll wreck your voice. Your living is based on your voice.­ You’ll get reported for disturbing the peace and deported from Japan! You’ll fall and break a leg up here and no one will find you, and anyway you’ve got no health insurance. And then deeper stuff, fear, fear, fear. Terror of complete destitution on every level. Ancient memories from our collective past of others who found something real and got persecuted for it. Anger over teachers who held out false promises and led me up blind alleys. My body begins to tremble and then convulse. As I shout I feel like a chimney belching toxic smoke into the night.

As the smoke releases breath by breath, I feel my voice open and deepen, I suck in huge lungfuls of the night and catapult it back. The process builds its own momentum, taking on a whole new realm of urgency. So “MU-U-U-U, M-U-U-U-U-U,”

Every morning after sutra-chanting, Shinzan Roshi fills the Dharma Hall with incandescent vigour as he teaches the Rinzai Roku, the ninth-century founding document of this school.

Followers of the way, you must throw away everything. Kill the Buddha, kill the ancestors.

In the hall, the master took the high seat. He said: “On your red flesh body there is a true man of no rank who is always going in and out of the face of each one of you. Those who have not yet confirmed him, look, look!”

Shinzan Roshi focused his teaching differently. Rather than preparing priests to go out and continue the family business (as would happen in most temples), he emphasises the importance of developing a true understanding. I throw myself into it. “MU-U-U-U,­ MU-U-U-U-U,”

As my voice fails, I sit in silence, going deeper and deeper into mu. After a while, tiredness takes over and my concentration fades. I begin to lose body heat and come back to awareness. So I sit on this mountain-top suspended between exhaustion and cold.

After a bit my voice comes back and I stand up and begin to bellow again, waking echoes from the opposite slopes. And on it goes all night, alternating sitting and shouting, sitting and shouting. I’m numb with tiredness. A memory that someone once told me you can last longer without food than you can without sleep crawls across my brain. But anyway, as the sky turns to grey, I’m still here. There’s no way I’d have found my way down the trackless slopes without a little light to see my way. So now I stumble and slide down through the trees, down to morning sutra chanting, sprinting through the texts in an accelerating drone. Roshi lectures again on the Rinzai Roku:

Cast away all idle thinking.

His voice and energy keep my spine from sagging. Then it’s time for zazen, more mu, mu mu. As I go into sanzen [private interview] and bow, I’m just too tired for anything.

“Well?” he looks at me appraisingly. “Show me only one mu in the whole universe.”

A roar erupts out of me, through me, through everything. I blink in surprise. He laughs. “Ninety percent.”