Their dates is not going well. At one point he mocks the tattoo, including the tautophrase in a stonewallish reply to one of her questions. Both the tattoo and the phrase itself is the perfect piece of armour for dating, a “verbal shrugging off” as William Safire notes in his New York Times Language column, “an example of the use of repetition not for emphasis, but for evasion.” Other examples of this: facts are facts, let’s call a spade a spade, que sera sera, and the classic fob off cum acceptance mantra “what’s done is done”.
But it can also be seen, at least in this case, as an acknowledgement of one’s own marmite-like quiddity, a recognition that the person seated in front of you might find however you present yourself as attractive or not based on a series of largely unconscious resonances and olfactory cues denoting complementary immune systems targeted for the purposes of producing healthy offspring.
In language we express who we are and what we’re offering the world using words like is, am, will, and be. This is how we get to God’s response to Moses, who is looking for some definitive attribution for that burning bush: “I am that I am”. Or in subsequent translations: I am who I am, I am what I am, I shall be as I shall be (echoed by St Paul in his epistles and ironised by Popeye’s I yam what I yam).
Mu is a two letter tautophrase, or in my case, puppy called Max, who unabashedly is what he is, at any given moment. My anger and frustration at this lies with an inability to accept Max’s (and often, by extrapolation, the world’s) essential isness. Maybe this is what the koan, and the dog, again and again, are nudging me towards facing and trying to deal better with?
Mu takes the Pilgrim back to whoever or whatever he was before he and the dog had set out to have their colloquy with Master Z. Back to the here-and-now substratum of man and dog, just the two of them: skin, viscera, bones, shot through with desires and aversions. And out of that, their relationship, whatever soul or lack of soul, they saw and felt resided in each other, before acquitting that reckoning to Zhaozhou and his existential processes.
Mu also throws you back to the page or screen or meditation cushion, as in: you looked out there for an answer, you clicked and clicked, and emailed, and talked, and travelled, all to get to a gate, a gate of the heart or body or mind of another which you thought might yield a yes, and instead you got me, Mu.
Say hello to the Chicken, Pilgrim. The suggestion being, just look at the details around him, that a certain lifestyle leads one to Ned, and maybe even to Mu. No wonder we clean our houses with such fervour, attend gyms as if they were churches.
All to keep the Mu at bay.