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Mu-nan, the Man Who Never Turned Back

October 29, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Gudo was the emperor’s teacher of his time. Nevertheless, he used to travel alone as a wandering mendicant. Once when he was on his way to Edo, the cultural and political center of the shogunate, he approached a little village named Takenaka. It was evening and a heavy rain was falling. Gudo was thoroughly wet. His straw sandals were in pieces. At a farmhouse near the village he noticed four or five pairs of sandals in the window and decided to buy some dry ones.

The woman who offered him the sandals, seeing how wet he was, invited him in to remain for the night at her home. Gudo accepted, thanking her. He entered and recited a sutra before the family shrine. He then was introduced to the woman’s mother, and to her children. Observing that the entire family was depressed, Gudo asked what was wrong.

“My husband is a gambler and a drunkard,” the housewife told him. “When he happens to win he drinks and becomes abusive. When he loses he borrows money from others. Sometimes when he becomes thoroughly drunk he does not come home at all. What can I do?”

I will help him,” said Gudo. “Here is some money. Get me a gallon of fine wine and something good to eat. Then you may retire. I will meditate before the shrine.”

When the man of the house returned about midnight, quite drunk, he bellowed: “Hey, wife, I am home. Have you something for me to eat?”

“I have something for you,” said Gudo. “I happened to get caught in the rain and your wife kindly asked me to remain here for the night. In return I have bought some wine and fish, so you might as well have them.”

The man was delighted. He drank the wine at once and laid himself down on the floor. Gudo sat in meditation beside him.

In the morning when the husband awoke he had forgotten about the previous night. “Who are you? Where do you come from?” he asked Gudo, who still was meditating.

“I am Gudo of Kyoto and I am going on to Edo,” replied the Zen master.

The man was utterly ashamed. He apologized profusely to the teacher of his emperor.

Gudo smiled. “Everything in this life is impermanent,” he explained. “Life is very brief. If you keep on gambling and drinking, you will have no time left to accomplish anything else, and you will cause your family to suffer too.”

The perception of the husband awoke as if from a dream. “You are right,” he declared. “How can I ever repay you for this wonderful teaching! Let me see you off and carry your things a little way.”

“If you wish,” assented Gudo.

The two started out. After they had gone three miles Gudo told him to return. “Just another five miles,” he begged Gudo. They continued on.

“You may return now,” suggested Gudo.

“After another ten miles,” the man replied.

“Return now,” said Gudo, when the ten miles had been passed.

“I am going to follow you all the rest of my life,” declared the man.

Modern Zen teachers in Japan spring from the lineage of a famous master who was the successor of Gudo. His name was Mu-nan, the man who never turned back.

This story illustrates several key points, but I’d like to focus on just one of them—Mu-nan’s shame when he heard that his wife’s guest was the teacher of the emperor.  This illustrates a major stage of any spiritual practice, sometimes referred to as “conscience,”in which a person feels, all at once, everything that he feels about himself—from the realization of his own nothingness to feelings of self-confidence and self-satisfaction.  Feeling all of one’s inner contradictions at the same time can be devastating but it can also lead to awakening.

In the state of awakened conscience, one becomes open not only to the falsity of one’s life but also to the truth of the teaching.  We can only guess how many times the drunkard had heard the Buddha’s teaching that everything in this life is impermanent without being affected.  Like many of us who have heard the teaching countless times, the poor man had not been able to let it into himself, deeply enough so that it could change him.  Something in us must change in order for us to hear an “old” truth with “new” ears.  As the prophet Ezekiel said, we live in a rebellious house, and “have ears to hear, but hear not.”

The teaching is always appearing in different ways—sometimes in the smile of a  loved one, or the haunted look of homeless man asking for money, or the sound of song sparrow in the morning, but we are too asleep to see it. In the deepest sense, the Dharma is constantly being revealed in every moment of our lives, waiting for us to turn around and shine the light within.  The ways of awakening are vast and limitless. In our story, Mu-nan is awakened when he feels how incompletely he has lived his life in the context of another kind of life symbolized by the teacher of the emperor.  So, the question for us is, “how can we see ourselves in the context of that other kind of life, symbolized by Gudo or the Buddha sitting on our altar?” Until we experience ourselves in this way, we may never have the wish to practice.

I’ve read this story over and over again and the image of the freshly sobered Mu-nan following his new teacher on the long path out of his old way of life has stayed with me.  I have even dreamed about it.  It is not surprising that his lineage continues to this day. The man who never turned back, is now patiently waiting for me to turn around and listen to what he has to say.




From → Zen Buddhism

  1. What happened to Mu-nan’s family?

  2. Reblogged this on RoysBlog.

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