In Zen, mujo is the concept of impermanence, a philosophical idea but perhaps expressed best in poetry and art. But impermanence is not philosophical nothingness, as perceived in the West, or even the emptiness of Buddhist thought, because mujoit refers to a sense of life, not a thought or fixed summation. “The tragic” comes closer in Western thinking, for nothingness is hard steel and jaw, merciless and unbending.
Mujo suggests an aesthetic (for lack of a better word) applied to the present object before us, to the ambiance and sentiment experienced by the presence of something before us now. This aesthetics enables one to comprehend the vitality of the moment, distinct from a philosophical insistence on abstraction. This vitality is the strength of Zen, incorporating a profound concept simply and imperceptibly within a poem, painting, calligraphy, photograph, etc.
Adherents of Eastern and Western religions can easily lapse into an air of triumphalism, what Buddhist writer Chögyam Trungpa calls spiritual materialism. Certainty of one’s path can be lack of gratitude to predecessors, but also self-deceiving in assuming that paths are blazed open by brute force or sheer will, namely one’s own.
Nothing is so original. Effects are the results of causes, but causes are the results of effects. This tumbling forth of nature, this permaculture of ideas, does not reveal absolutes but rather sentiments confirmed by experience and the human heart. We learn from a variety of sources, even contrary ones. The solitary is so solitary because of this debt, this sense of continuity and the inadequacy of others surrounding him or her, and not because of their own individuality or originality.
Mystics and masters seldom refer to enlightenment. Those who practice simplicity seldom refer to their simplicity. Those who speak do not know, and those who do not speak know better, to paraphrase the Buddhist adage. The world of ideas and concepts is not linear, not progressive, not even cyclical. It is not simply revealed, but leaks out of time, balances delicately in a moment’s revelation, captured by intuition.
Above all, insight comes with work. The Christian desert hermits emphasized physical labor — or, rather, physical engagement with the world about us — because it engaged the whole self, not just that cerebral faculty of mind. The Zen monk regularly weeded a dry garden so that not one green shoot showed among the white rocks. To be engaged thoroughly in physical labor had its domestic counterparts. Every moment meant full attention, “burning down to an ash.” As the body, so the mind.
Zen master Dogen only required two notions, as John Stevens, the translator of Japanese poetry, points out: 1) shikantaza and 2) shusho ichigyo.
Shikantaza means zazen, sitting in meditation without anything happening — no mantra, no focus, no following of breath, only emptiness and attention to the moment. Meditation styles vary widely. None is to be disparaged. Zen is the most rigorous, perhaps, in not bothering to build up to mental control of self or circumstances. The idea of shikantaza is that we do not sit with intention or expectation. We are not practicing in order to control thoughts, reduce stress, become a better person, or less to achieve enlightenment. One is just sitting. Things will happen if everything works out. Why just sitting? Well, why thinking, standing, rushing about? We have time for all these things. There is a theory behind all this, of course, but it is better not to elicit theory if we can simply get into zazen.
And that is because of shusho ichigyo, which means pithily: “Practice and enlightenment are one.” Nothing spectacular is necessarily going to happen in our lives. We are as much a part of everything as anything else. What spectacular happens to a tree, a rock, a bird? What seems to be spectacular in someone’s life is not much, really, in the long run. Aiming for sudden enlightenment, as the Rinzai Zen school sought to achieve — by using koans and expecting insights from moments or experiences — can sound hollow and contrived. Yes, sunsets and flowers and quirky juxtapositions of things and synchronicity can inspire a mood of enlightenment or insight, but after that — as Jack Kornfield’s popular book puts it — “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.”
Yet the spiritual path does not eschew beauty or aesthetics, only that it finds it in everyday natural objects, which contain an enormous mystery of being. Those sunsets and flowers dominate aesthetics for most people, but the favored experiences have always been unique to the self. The historical hermits deliberately (or perhaps unconsciously) sought out those aspects of nature that best reflected these unique feelings and sentiments. As a boy, Ramakrishna fell into a swoon when he saw great white birds flying up from a field against a pitch black sky preceding a storm. The unique and unexpected experiences, not the conventional sunset and flowers that everyone knows, are the open windows to mystery. There aren’t many. And they are reserved for special people, which we are not. We must lurk around the mundane to realize the mystery of everything else. Only the self knows what touches the inner chord.
Mujo is the panoply of objects played against sentiment, of nature laid out before us to the point of clarity, a clarity so momentary and unexpected that we suddenly realize that, despite our intrusive consciousness, despite our selfish monkey mind, we are nothing but a part of all this.
And that this “all” is rich and complex — and poor and simple. But our frail human consciousness strives on for more, more insight, more meaning, more satisfaction. We are doomed (some would say wired or blessed or destined) to plumb the sources of sentiment and feeling, of love and sorrow.
Mujo is at once contentment and melancholy, unity with nature and sadness at the folly of our humanness and separation. A representative expression of mujo is to be found in the poetry of Ryokan, the Zen monk and hermit, for one. Here is an example:
Sometimes I sit quietly.
Listening to the sound of falling leaves.
Peaceful indeed is the life of a monk.
Cut off from all worldly matters.
Then why do I shed these tears?
I am quite aware
That it is all unreal:
One by one, the things
Of this world pass on.
But why do I still grieve?