Lately, quite a few zen practitioners have asked me about breakthrough. Is it real? Is it possible? Does anyone really break through? What does it mean? I am writing this post to inspire those who have heard about breakthrough and find it mysterious and seemingly impossible. I am here to put my two cents in. To state that it is possible. It happens. I went through it, and If I could do it, then anyone with enough drive and honesty can do it too.
I broke through the mu in the September Osesshin, 2004. It was a textbook Osesshin, but I knew something special was going to happen when on day 4 (of 7) I went into samadhi while playing the mokugyo.
Having been at Sogenji for almost three years, I had been doing the mu Koan for a year. I would like to explain a bit about the mu koan first. It is the breakthrough Koan, and it is such a beautiful sublime process.
CASE 1. JOSHU’S DOG
A monk asked Joshu, “Has the dog the Buddha nature?”
Joshu replied, “Mu (nothing)!”
Mumon’s Comment: For the pursuit of Zen, you must pass through the barriers (gates) set up by the Zen masters. To attain his mysterious awareness one must completely uproot all the normal workings of one’s mind. If you do not pass through the barriers, nor uproot the normal workings of your mind, whatever you do and whatever you think is a tangle of ghost. Now what are the barriers? This one word “Mu” is the sole barrier. This is why it is called the Gateless Gate of Zen. The one who passes through this barrier shall meet with Joshu face to face and also see with the same eyes, hear with the same ears and walk together in the long train of the patriarchs. Wouldn’t that be pleasant?
Would you like to pass through this barrier? Then concentrate your whole body, with its 360 bones and joints, and 84,000 hair follicles, into this question of what “Mu” is; day and night, without ceasing, hold it before you. It is neither nothingness, nor its relative “not” of “is” and “is not.” It must be like gulping a hot iron ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out.
Then, all the useless knowledge you have diligently learned till now is thrown away. As a fruit ripening in season, your internality and externality spontaneously become one. As with a mute man who had had a dream, you know it for sure and yet cannot say it. Indeed your ego-shell suddenly is crushed, you can shake heaven and earth. Just as with getting ahold of a great sword of a general, when you meet Buddha you will kill Buddha. A master of Zen? You will kill him, too. As you stand on the brink of life and death, you are absolutely free. You can enter any world as if it were your own playground. How do you concentrate on this Mu? Pour every ounce of your entire energy into it and do not give up, then a torch of truth will illuminate the entire universe.
Has a dog the Buddha nature?
This is a matter of life and death.
If you wonder whether a dog has it or not,
You certainly lose your body and life! THE GATELESS GATE© 1998 Translated by Eiichi Shimomissé
Mu, at first it is strange, foreign. It feels unnatural to repeat mu all day long. It feels impossible. But little by little, like a little fetus in your belly, your tanden energy will begin to grow. When it begins to grow, it gains momentum. It grows and grows. With more tanden energy, our focus naturally deepens. After some time, we find ourselves naturally saying mu in our heads without effort throughout the day. Later, at night we dream of mu. Working in the garden, the birds are all calling mu, why are the birds calling mu? In the kitchen, the pots are singing mu. We begin to say something to someone over tea and it comes out “Mu”. We are possessed by mu. It is everywhere. Mu becomes a guide to open up more to mu, sitting is just a surrender to this mu. The mu grows, we begin to be able to see the mu visually around us, growing and growing. In zazen, through mu comes the vibration of the universe inhabiting everything, we hear mu in the cicadas, we see mu all around us, everything is mu, mu, mu.
So lost in this mu, we have no idea what is going on, we can’t even find our bodies. This is the point of monastic training, to be able to have no idea what is going on for a time and be safe to explore within that, to let go into that huge energy which we cannot fathom. Like a blade of grass blown by this melodic universe. We become lost, like zombies, out of control, responding to the bells, lost in mu. So obsessed! So in love with this process! Wonderful process! Not torture! Wonderful! Scary! Wonderful!
The Mu becomes a great emerging, climbing through the mesh of reality into another world, which is still the same world, but we have used the mu as a kind of rudder to guide us to an open vista, a new unbound relationship with reality, a new birth.
We dive into this mu, over and over, deeper and deeper. Our consciousness unifies in it. When we see something or hear something, our consciousness becomes that through this unification. So instead of being separated from reality, we are completely in it.
One day the mu koan obliterated me. That’s what this post is about. Back to my story and back to the osesshin.
As I said, it seemed like a normal osesshin until day 4 while playing the mokugyo I merged with the rhythm while playing the mokugyo. I felt like I did not have arms while playing. I lost consciousness. It was a good choka (Early morning ceremony)!
On the fourth night, after the kentan (when the Roshi walks by to check on everyone for yaza) at 10pm-ish, I went back to my room and felt different. I could have gone to sleep, but feeling compelled to keep going, I instead stood by the pond for my late night yaza. After a thirty minutes, I went back to my room and decided to stand there for a while. This decision was intuitive and based on how the energy was flowing through me. I then made a decision to stand until something happened. This was a very important moment for me in my training. I had made a decision. And in that certainty, the universe seemed to respond. I don’t know how long I stood, but I was standing with all of my weight on one leg, really rooting, like never before, letting go into it more and more. After a long time, maybe an hour, I felt the root energy rise up my body, like warm honey, through my genitals burning hot, up to my chest, only to meet with a bit of fear, and stop at my tight throat. I stood late until the evening, maybe until 1:30. The next day, sleepy, but energetic and light. Very bright. Up late on the next two nights, again deciding to stand or sit until something happened. Each night something new opened.
On the 6th night, I remember there was a typhoon (crazy energy!) so we all did yaza (night sitting) in the zendo. I sat in seiza (on the knees) and I experienced the ki really open and move through my tight neck, and entered Hakuin’s famous ice cave. Imagine focusing every cell in my body on allowing the ki to flow, but with no force. Everything went black, I was lost in this ice cold dark tunnel of nothingness. At the same time it was like a great hot iron ball was in my throat. Up, Down, inside, outside, nowhere to turn, no idea which was was up. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breath. I was like a portal for energy. I was neither here nor there. Just sitting and allowing the process to unfold. Afterward, I went back to my room to sleep, never having laid down for a whole year to keep that mu tanden energy going.
For a while, I had been going to sanzen with the Roshi, my energy and his meeting in this soupy, thick, beautiful state. I would yell my mu, like some great overflowing cup, then the Roshi and I would burst into blissful laughter and look at each other in this energetic conversational silent soup dialogue. There was nothing to say, the process was sharpening and ripening of itself.
On the morning of the seventh day, Chisan (The Roshi’s translator) in her great insight suggested, because my mu was getting sharper and sharper, to wait for translation with her at the end, and so I waited on the side of the kohojo until everyone else had gone to sanzen. I was sitting in seiza on the right side of the room with the beautiful garden beside me (I so love the morning sitting in the kohojo!) just getting into it, trying to open up my neck for the chi to flow. Continually finding the barrier of “me” and the environment and watching it melt away. I was very relaxed, very happy, not a care. So sincere. I stood up to go to wait at the sanzen bell and as I sat down in seiza at the bell, I felt a great energy begin to flow through me with incredible velocity. I was relaxed, open, completely vulnerable, I had become so completely vulnerable and sincere, where the barrier of inside and outside had finally dissolved completely. In this moment of true sincerity, like finally feeling reality down to the atoms, this great life energy surged through me, the main line of the energy of the universe, and I began to cry. It was like the whole energy of the earth was surging up through me, extending my body to the heavens. I was rung into sanzen and as I got up, the sublime humility of the whole thing was overwhelming. My heart began to burst open with energy. Every channel was being blasted open. I was sobbing as I did my prostrations to the Roshi, could barely say my koan, yelled my Mu with all I could, and the Roshi, of course knowing, peered into me and asked “Do Da?” “How is it?” I could barely speak, but I uttered “It just keeps coming.” To which he replied, “That’s right, you have become that deep. You just walked it that honestly. Now we will move on with your training.” That was it.
He said a few more things about what we would have to do now with this real experience. I walked out of sanzen, about to head back to the zendo, and I saw the moon. It completely penetrated me. No separation. No separation. I could not tell where the moon ended and I began. I looked at the flowers and I was the flowers. My perception was completely wide open, as if everything which had been stuck had been opened. That day in teisho (dharma lecture) the Roshi spoke of kensho, and reading my mind like he always did, he spoke about that feeling of our state of mind of no separation with the moon as I again wept sitting there listening, in mutual appreciation.
After that day, my vision changed, all I saw was light. The orientation of my individual self had fundamentally changed. The teaching kept coming, all the time. I had had intense experiences before in zen, but this was very different. This was permanent. This was not a memory. This is a present tense state of mind. This is breakthrough. The earth really had shaken. We really do walk hand in hand with the patriarchs. And this breakthrough continues to ripen every day. It becomes clearer and clearer. And in this experience we become more and more normal, not more and more special.
After that, I also ordained. I did that as a statement to the world that if someone like me could really transform through the training then I should have my life be a statement that this is possible.
After passing Mu, I went on to koans. I loved the koans. I loved the capping phrases. I loved the life there. The whole life suited me very well. It has to be that way. You have to find a way to love your training. To fall in love with it. It is not about forcing anything. Staying up all night doing yaza will happen when the zazen becomes ripe. It is a wonderful sublime process. Training, for me, was incredibly difficult at first. I was on sussokan (concentrated breathing) for about two years. But I loved going through the process of the Mu koan, and little by little, staying up later and later, never laying down. I began to sense the universe guiding me at every moment. When we see that the universe is guiding us, training becomes much more enjoyable. This may sound really intense, but it all felt completely normal and exciting while doing it!
I hope I have inspired a few people out there to go for it in their own beautiful unique way. Not in my way. Everyone does it differently. Probably no one else in the history of zen was out standing one one leg after yaza late into the early morning! Ha!! And breaking through does not make one special. It really just gives us great faith in the universe and puts us smack dab in the middle of reality. It gives us an internal guide which never goes away. We feel the truth of this moment energetically in our bones. It begins a new life. It is real. You can do it. And once you have done it, then your great doubt in life will be gone. Afterwards, each individual has to choose how to continue that process of beautiful ripening. Maybe you will be a Dragon Roshi ringing shugyoshas into sanzen. Or maybe, like me, your karma will shift, and you will be an almost normal artist guy with a family, completely in love with this silly, messy, beautiful life.
Thanks for reading. Questions welcome.