Zen Buddhism: philosophy of Bewilderment

In my quest to understand Zen I thought like many people that there was a truth you had to understand or an answer to grasp. I learned just how wrong I was and in doing so learned what Zen and Buddhism offers us.

Zen does it’s thing by undermining peoples expectations, destroying their sense of clarity and certainty. It’s a bizarre journey and the truth, so to speak is not what we expect of truth.

Buddhism in general is the philosophy of bewilderment but Zen in particular works with paradox and confusion. Yanking the rug out from under you or pushing you off a cliff into the sea and seeing if you drown. 

We all have this need to feel safe, to feel as though we know where we are, and where we are going. To feel as though we have a good handle on things, in control. Bewilderment is not such a state, and we will avoid such a state as much as possible. The word means to be out in the wild, lost and confused.

But this anxiety and confusion have a lesson within, that you’re holding onto something. The desperate desire or attachment to safety and security.

To put it another way, we think of life as a series of knots. Some small, others big. We go around untying those knots, and as long as we do everything is okay. We have a feeling we’re in command of or lives. Similarly, we assume there is some great truth we have to discover. Find the truth of our existence and all the knots will be undone.

The Rinzai Schoo of Zen they give you knots to undo, called Koans. Odd little puzzles you are supposed to answer. Like ‘Has a dog the Buddha Nature or not?’ Other like it might be ‘Who were you before your parents were born?’

Here’s where it gets clever… there is no answer as such. It’s Mu.

Mu: 無; Korean: 무, Wu (Chinese 無). Its dictionary meaning is that of nothing, non-existence, non-being. But it can also be seen as the non-state, a null state, not-applicable if you will. It’s the answer to not having an answer. Or the question is worded or structured in such a way that it can’t be answered.

In Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he offered the example of a computer circuit. If you test the system and measure volts for example you will get a reading, positive or negative. But what would the reading be if you turned the system off?

The answer is neither, not-applicable N/A. “Mu” would be the only answer because the question itself is nonsense, absurd.

This is what makes Zen the Philosophy of bewilderment, it gets you to search for an answers where there are none. Your lost, confused by the question because you have carried with you the assumption it must make sense.

The Mu state when understood is the key to understanding Buddhism from a Zen/Rinzai perspective. The first Koan in a collection called the Gatelessgate, or Gateless Barrier is the Mu Koan.

Questions, answers, concepts are the tools of the intellect, the mind, it’s what we use to ‘chop up reality’ to make sense of it. In Buddhism, the lesson is intellect can’t be used to fully understand reality, our existence. Even though our ideas can be useful, the fragmented map is not the reality we face, which is a unified whole.

Using the tools of an illusory ego, a ‘self’ (a discursive, discriminating mind) to understand an egoless existence is never going to work. Or using an illusion to try and see through an illusion. Any answer given will always be as absurd as the question.

It’s the recognition you can’t explain reality using the limited faculties of abstract ideas and language. Our ideas about reality are not the reality of going about its business. The Map is not the Territory, is the way to put it. It’s also accepting that people chop up reality in different ways.

Mu in a way highlights how we as humans work. Our consciousness has ‘grooves’, it works in certain ways. It’s discursive, discriminating: A part wants to label things into categories. What I call ‘chopping up reality’ into pieces. But it’s our emotional neediness for clarity and safety that gets us to ask such questions, to categorise and label.

Koans are there to box people in into corner, a paradox, or a false dichotomy. Where it’s hoped they will see it. It a counter-intuitive method that requires some odd ways of teaching. Sort of like a Chinese finger puzzle. It’s through a paradox that I learned how to see Zen Buddhism myself. . Such paradoxes are part of what’s called Upaya, or skillful means. A little white lie can be useful to help others. 

Zen points out our tendency to over intellectualise by getting us to over intellectualise. If you make thoughts your aim you will become transfixed by them. I fell into this trap. Trying to find the answer to my suffering I got to the point where I had to stop, to let go of the answer and accept anxiety and fear as part of life. Doing that I became less anxious and afraid, because I had then found the ‘answer‘, There isn’t one.

Our desperation for answers is emotional neediness for clarity, yet we live in a world that doesn’t provide such certainty. Buddhism helps us face uncertainty by helping us realise there can’t be. It gets us to see our suffering is based our attachment to safety and security.

People want worldviews that make them feel safe, we build them for the purpose. (I call this the Grand Project of humanity). Feathering our nests with ideas to make ourselves feel safer, the intellectual version of hoarding.

Zen in one way is about making you feel unsafe. Sort of the psychological idea of exposure therapy where you face your fear. Buddhism (at least the Zen part I’ve looked at) is what you might call meaningful nonsense. We associate meaning with clarity and making sense. Here the lack of making sense highlights our desperation to find it. That desperation is what leading us around.

Accepting there is no answer can be the most liberating experience we can have. There is joy in mystery.

Zen offer paradoxes, it shows You can’t find the answer by striving for, but you can’t either by not striving for it. Buddhism shifts our attitude from finding answers to living questions

Instead of grasping towards an answer you see that you don’t need it, or in another way you already have it. It was right in front of you all along, your life, this reality, here and now. The problems you face remain the same, you haven’t really solved anything as such. But your attitude towards life changes. No longer the desperation for answers, or ultimate truth. Now its the living of life as it unfolds.


Zen is puzzling, ironic and amusing because the answer it helps us see is not the answer we expect.

The Way of Zen is paradox: to jam your head with nonsense questions until you can’t take it. To yank certainty away from you. To point out the things you grasp towards by giving you something to grasp towards. The carrot of certainty, the stick of uncertainty.

It’s oddly teasing, titillating of the mind. An exquisite morsel of an idea that is perfect in its tiny form, but all-encompassing in its scope. It shatters illusions, question conventions and educates at the same time, and because it’s so counter-intuitive it’s even entertaining too.

We all walk around with baggage, our preconceived ideas, values, assumptions, desires all of which inform our habits and behaviour without us even noticing. We think, more thinking will give us the answers, find the safety we seek.

We place great stock on answers and clarity. When we know the ‘why’s’, the ‘when’s’, the ‘what fors’ we feel more in control, more capable. This gives us a sense of meaning and instills a feeling safety we so desperately desire. 

Zen koans are riddles, paradoxes because it forces you into a corner, increasing your suffering in order to squeeze out of you a better question. Why am I so desperate for the answer?

It underscores just how desperate and needy we can be as we form attachments to truth just as we do towards possessions. Ideas are possessions of a sort.

My insights into Zen Buddhism, how it teaches, what it offers lead me into confusion. But in that confusion, you learn something of profound importance.

We’re so insecure, so afraid of uncertainty that we suffer. The lessons of Buddhism are there to help us see the illusions they’re based upon, and let them go. In so doing we can look upon existence uncoloured by such desperation. Liberated, we get to live a more satisfying, and fulfilling life.

The Zen Teaching of Mu – Buddhachannel

What is Mu in Zen Buddhist Practice?