Wu!

Chinese food, Buddhist monks and the music of Martin Sexton: finding answers in the unlikeliest of combinations.

I was sitting in Wu’s Chinese restaurant, reading an article on my iPhone as I waited for my food to arrive so I could keep on running, running, running through my day. The writer was going on about commonplace books, the notebooks - idea incubators - that many luminaries and artists kept in the days preceding electronic devices. Within the pages of commonplace books, they stored information and observations about the world around them and created connections between seemingly disparate entries. The commonplace book was a place to create order out of the disorder of our daily lives.

As I read the words, I was thinking about how there was too little organization in my life, thinking about my efforts to reduce it, life, Thoreau-style, to the essentials.

Essential. There’s a lot of talk about it right now. I was falling behind as usual; life was outpacing me and the outcome of the race in doubt.

Of course, the outcome is never truly in doubt. It’s simply a matter of where you are when you cross that dubious finish line.

But at the moment, my mind took up its own course.

The Monk

“Someone asked Zhaozhou, ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?’"

“Zhaozhou said, ‘Wu!'"

Wu is Chinese; Mu is the Japanese equivalent. Either way it means “no thing.” It is often translated as “neither yes or no.” 

Think about that translation as an answer to the question: does a dog have Buddha nature? The question demands a yes or no answer, but the monk’s response is neither a confirmation nor a denial. The answer is puzzling because the question can’t be understood on that level. It’s binary. Wu removes the binary.

Martin Sexton sings…
“It was you, made my mind woo.
It’s a crazy kind of clarity when my mind is on you.
Now I see through. My mind is woo.
It’s a semi-sane insanity when my mind is on you.”

In an interview with the blog PopMatters, Sexton says, “There’s a brief magic time between day and night. Our minds have a similar twilight, that dusk and dawn, where intuition - not intellect - kicks in. I find this is where our true voices live…"

It’s hard to think of Sexton as a Zen master, but how could you not. He’s been in the business of making music over 20 years, his roots inauspicious, following an unworn path, from busking on the streets of Harvard Square to selling 20,000 copies of his self-produced demo directly out of his guitar case. In the process, he’s created a huge following, an unexpected undertaking for someone without the backing of big-shot producers, labels, lawyers, and money.

It takes a certain kind of deluded optimism to find success on this path, an unwillingness to accept conventionality as the right path. I bet if you asked young Martin Sexton if he was going to be a successful musician, his answer would have been “Woo,” that interstitial space where anything’s possible. Being and non-being. The open hand that contains everything and nothing. A state of perfect equanimity.

Wu. Zhaozhou’s answer; Sexton’s twilight of the mind.

The Awakening

“Your food is ready,” the hostess says, stirring me from my reverie. I accept the brown paper bag from her hand and thank her for her help.

“You’re welcome. You’re welcome,” she says, bowing each time.

That second “welcome” feels gratuitous, but it makes the moment, a true expression of gratitude for the opportunity, the symbolic passage of some greater sustenance beyond food.

Refreshed, I head out into the afternoon sun, the first day in many weeks.