We were sitting in the student center, each drinking a cup of coffee, saying our goodbyes. Over the past semester, Ludis and I had co-taught a course, we had talked about life and hopes and dreams, I guess you could say that we had become friends of a sort. Why the qualification? Well, we never went out to dinner, we didn’t do things off campus, we didn’t exactly hang out together. But we did talk before and after class, and we seemed to like each other well enough. So, friends of a sort. As we sat there talking, I asked Ludis if he was ready to head home to Lithuania.
“In many ways, more than ready. I very much miss my wife and son. It has been far too long since I have seen them. I want to hold them both, each of them, for a long time.” He said blushing a bit at the last admission.
“And, are you packed? Is there anything you want to do here that you haven’t gotten to yet?”
“Yes, one more thing.” He said. “I want to buy a sweatshirt from your book store.”
“A sweatshirt?” I asked a bit incredulous. Ludis just didn’t seem the kind of guy who would care very much about college logo clothing. Let’s just say, in the months that I had known him he did not strike me as a clothes horse. He did not dress badly, but he certainly was neither flashy nor cool. More, I saw him as guy who always wore neat, clean clothes but who had more important things on his mind than haute couture. So, his one last desire being the acquisition of a university logo garment seemed kind of odd.
“I don’t understand, Ludis, what’s so special about a sweatshirt from here?”
“Think about it, he laughed, the school’s initials are MU.”
“And you talk about Zen Buddhism?.” He said sounding a little disappointed.
“I do, some. But what’s that got to do with it?”
“MU” he said, “the school for you here, and the koan for Buddhists.”
And then, finally the light went on for me. Of course, the great Buddhist koan, also known as the first gate to enlightenment. For over ten years I had taught at the university. How many times each year had I written the school’s initials, and I never saw the connection! How many times had I read and reread and meditated on that Koan! At one point I even thought I was beginning to get it. Ugh. Clearly, I did not have it yet. But then, that too is the point of the koan, isn’t it?
In Japanese, Korean and traditional Mandarin, ‘mu’ means not, nothing, nothingness, without, non-existent or non-being. For Zen Buddhists, one of the first koans is known as MU. A koan is riddle like paradox used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning as the only mode of knowing; mediation on koans help to provoke openness to enlightenment. The ‘mu’ koan is put this way: a student asked the Great Master Zhaozhou, “does a dog have Buddha nature?” Zhaozhou replied, “Mu.”
So, the koan can be understood as asking about the meaning of life, the purpose of life, about attachments and possession, it asks about the vastness of life, and offers to teach about how to live and how to love. For an ultra short story, it holds great depths of potential if we are willing to plumb the depths that await us.
I thought I had been doing some plumbing of the ‘mu’ koan. I thought about it in connection with the adage: if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. That meaning that if you think you have found enlightenment outside yourself, you are quite mistaken, and so end that delusion. Does a dog have Buddha nature? No because it is not a thing to be had. Buddha nature is more about being than having. I thought all these things as I plumbed the ‘mu’ koan. I thought I was plumbing a bit. And then Ludis showed me that I had not even picked up the wrench!
When I finally saw the connection, we both sat and laughed for a good long while. Ludis bought the sweatshirt. I left without mu.