Majesty | Song as a Kōan

Who are you? No, really: who are you? I don’t mean a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker. As soon as we use those labels, we’re stuck with the Sartrean point that you’re one of those things (such as a waiter) insofar as you perform the action implied with it, but that clearly doesn’t exhaust who you are. It doesn’t take much pondering to realize that no label does. We are always more than the sum of any set of categories we use to nail down an identity — a living, breathing presence that is both bound by the actions of its past (they literally change our brainwiring) but yet open to new potentials, bound by determination yet open to change.

These philosophical points regarding identity and agency are not only big in existentialism. They’re also huge in strands of Buddhism. In thinking through my feelings and thoughts regarding one of the most epic songs by a post-rock great, I continually came back to these issues as an interpretation.

I chose the category “Majesty” for the title here because I recall Chögyam Trungpa in a documentary about his life claiming that modern Western music such as rock and pop has none. It has no grandeur that pulls your mind out of itself to see vastness and wonder. I am likely misremembering the precise quote, but that was the gist of the idea, and for the most part, he’s not wrong. He preferred classical, finding it to express majesty. I think he’d have to reconsider with songs from post-rock, especially from the band Mono, whom we are discussing today. I think “Majesty” captures these elements well, the grandiose, mind-blowing aspects of post-rock that show a commonality with classical music.

Now, another connection here — Trungpa was a Tibetan Buddhist, and I’m going into a Buddhist interpretation of a song by Mono. I feel fully comfortable with this, as they are from Japan, and they at least seem to have some idea of Buddhism, as their first album is titled Under the Pipal Tree which is a reference to Buddha sitting under the bodhi tree and achieving enlightenment. However, we’re going to focus on an altogether different album: One Step More and You Die.

The album title displays the flip side of majesty. I had almost gone with “Sublime” instead of “Majesty” because in German, particularly Kantian, philosophy, “the sublime” represents majesty’s greatness to the fullest extent: one which we are tiny and vulnerable in front of. Think of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. It’s huge, epic, breathtaking, but also something that could readily end your life with one more step. One step more, and you die. That epic vastness and intensity is precisely what Mono brings to this album. This music could destroy you (nod to the fitting band of that name who will surely come up in a future post), and the rough power of “Com(?)” is likely the most destructive.

But if this is destruction, then why am I tying this post to identity? This is precisely the deeper spiritual point which I’ll try to delineate now. Whenever I hear this song, I think of something a friend once said about music: “Metal doesn’t destroy. It cleanses.” In listening to this song, your sense of self is cleansed. That’s precisely how I felt when I heard it for the first time: live in a small Seattle club. The reverb washed over me, pulsating through every aspect of me, and long-held notions about music and myself just kind of washed away. I feel that that’s the precise intention of this song. It’s titled “Com(?)” cryptically. This could mean Come: that final step to destruction, and the command gets lost as we fall over the ledge, or maybe Coma, a deep sleep that ends in awakening when this song is heard (note: another transition through a bardo, just like death). The cryptic, nonsensical word reminds me again of another Buddhist way to take this: it’s much like a kōan, actually much like the most famous Chan/Zen kōan.

The Wumenguan (Chinese) or Mumonkan (Japanese) is one of the most famous collections of kōans. It’s usually translated as The Gateless Gate or something similar. The most notorious kōan is the very first, having to do with the key aspect of identity in Mahayana Buddhism, “buddha-nature”, an original aspect that all creatures are said to have. It’s a crucial cosmological/ontological/salvetic position in these strands of Buddhism: the potential for enlightenment is always already within us. Put another way, nirvana isn’t some sort of transcending to a different place. “The other shore” is always already right here. Our samsaric perspectives keep us from seeing we’re already in it.

I’ll present one translation I have of this kōan and then give two other translations for the key at the end that we’re left to ponder.

A man asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have buddha-nature or not?” Zhaozhou said, “Wu!”

Passing Through the Gateless Barrier: Kōan Practice for Real Life, Gao Gu

You’re probably left asking, “Wu? What in the hell does that mean?” If you think that such obscurity is the point of Chan (this is the Chinese version), it speaks to the sad transference of Buddhism to the West with its overtones of Orientalist mystique. Wu isn’t some gobbledygook word. It is merely an untranslated one. It means no or a negation. My translation of the Japanese version by Yamada plays the same trick:

A monk asked Jōshū in all earnestness, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”

Jōshū said, “Mu!”

The Gateless Gate, trans: Kōun Yamada

Again, “Mu? What is that?!” We can’t grasp that the monk is saying no to the question which represents a ground-shattering paradox for Buddhist teachings, but the problem can go deeper than that. It’s no to “having” Buddha nature. There is no dog separate from Buddha nature that has it, as though it were some sort of attribute such as a shiny coat. The dog “is” Buddha nature, but even that traps us in words in a way that’s problematic. Let’s look at one more take:

A monk asked Master Visitation-Land: “A dog too has Buddha-nature, no?”

“Absence,” Land replied.

No Gate Gateway, trans: David Hinton

This “Absence” is found as more annoying by some I’ve read in book rating comments who were smacked over the head repeatedly with the kōan practice lesson of “Wu” or “Mu”, but it’s more productive in being a translation that presents us a tangible answer in our everyday language, as those words would have been for students in those times/cultures. It’s not supposed to be incomprehensible due to a language barrier. It’s supposed to stop your logical comprehension in its tracks and force you to sit and experience the answer. You’re supposed to feel it with your whole body: “Absence”.

Sadly, I can’t go on at the length that describing this kind of practice and that that first kōan requires. Another brief way we could think of it from this same larger Buddhist tradition is that of the prajnaparamita teachings such as The Heart Sutra, where “emptiness” is explored fully by telling us that: “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.” This iconic statement is followed by a set of negations: no senses, no suffering, no attainment of nirvana, etc. In other words, absence. This emptiness, this absence, recognizing it in its relationship with presence, form, is wisdom. It is buddha-nature inside all the things that come and pass.

Back to the song and the issue of identity. Reading the song’s title leaves us with the confusion of the kōan: “Wu?” “Mu?” “Absence?” “Com(?)” We’re left scratching our head, pondering. If we transfer that openness to pondering to listening to the song itself, we are pressed onward to that one step farther where “we die”. Our concepts of ourselves are negated, they are crushed under an overpowering, cleansing halt of our understanding (which is precisely the point of kōan practice that I couldn’t fully delve into). We experience the chaotic potential of emptiness to burst forth from absence to presence: form is emptiness, emptiness is form. If we experience that deeply enough, we can not only understand but also deeply feel that we too are instantiations of emptiness, ever changing and not set as an essence. This song is truly one that “kills the Buddha” by destroying your concepts of your “self”, if you open up and let it.

I’m linking the original version of the song and the more recent anniversary recording, which I feel more deeply captures everything I just described. May this cleanse your concepts.

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