Oct 06, 2018

Is ‘Mu’ Beyond Yes & No?

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There’s this well-known Zen story that sometime in the eighth century or thenabouts, an unknown novitiate monk asked Master Joshu whether a dog had Buddha-nature. It’s reasonable to suppose that, at the least, Joshu might have been foxed, if not totally zapped. For, on the one hand it was canonical to believe that everything possessed Buddha-nature but,on the other, it was also axiomatically assumed — perhaps for the sake of convenience — that only human beings were the privileged ones.
Anyway, Joshu’s celebrated answer was “mu”, which through the centuries since has been debated and dissected till commentarians today are so totally divided that we really don’t know what to make of it.The closest scholars have come to any consensus among themselves is that ‘mu’ means neither yes nor no but a transcendental yes/no which only an enlightened being can comprehend.
It has been suggested too that the Master was using a copout in order to gently prod the pupil to un-ask the question of himself.
At the same time, religious history also records animism as an almost ageless system of faith.

It’s the belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. It perceives all things — animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handiwork and, perhaps, even words — as animated and alive. In fact, it’s the world’s oldest religion, predating any form of organised religion and is said to contain the most ancient spiritual and supernatural perspective in the world, dating back to the Palaeolithic Age, thousands of years before the Buddha came on the scene.
Actually from the days of the scientific renaissance to the industrial revolution, most rational scientists didn’t even consider that plants could have any sort of inner life. It was left to the Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose to demonstrate among other things the electrical nature of the conduction of various stimuli like wounds and insecticides in plants, which were earlier thought to be only of a chemical nature. These claims were later proven experimentally.
Not only that, Bose was even able to show similarities between animate and inanimate objects by subjecting a range of metals and living cells to similar stimuli — ultimately to the point of documenting identical fatigue responses in animate and inanimate matter. Probably his greatest achievement was when he showed how, similarly, electrical responses decreased and eventually disappeared in anaesthetised plants as they did in the element zinc which had been treated with acid.
And of course with the advent and advance of quantum theory in the late twentieth century and thereafter, ‘mu’ seems to have got a further fillip.The physicist Nick Herbert, for instance, has argued for ‘quantum animism’ in which mind permeates the world at every level. He writes:“The quantum consciousness assumption, which amounts to a kind of ‘quantum animism’, asserts that consciousness is an integral part of the physical world, not an emergent property of special biological systems.”
Meaning, since everything is on some level a quantum system, this assumption requires that everything be conscious on that level. If the world is truly quantum animated, then there is an immense amount of invisible inner experience going on all around us that’s presently inaccessible to humans, because our own inner lives are imprisoned inside a small quantum system, isolated deep in the meat of our animal brain.
Nowadays with the exponential progress being made in the field of robotics being ‘animated’ with artificial intelligence, people are already talking about an early impending decade to come when AI will equal us and we might have to realistically grant it with some sort of consciousness, more than our Buddhist novitiate’s dog at least and — who knows — perhaps even imbue it with a spiritual dimension.
One wonders what Joshu, if he were living now, would have answered in that case?
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