Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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Mu Symbol Icon
Mu is a Japanese word that the narrator explains as meaning “no thing.” It is used when a question cannot be adequately answered with a yes/no response. Mu represents a refusal to conceptualize issues in terms of dualistic logic, and thus offers a glimpse into the world of Quality that the narrator describes. The narrator emphasizes that mu responses can be much more useful than yes/no responses, because they force an individual to step back and broaden his preconceived systems of logic to accommodate different interpretations of reality.

Mu Quotes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance quotes below all refer to the symbol of Mu. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Quality Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the HarperTorch edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance published in 1974.
Chapter 26 Quotes

A very strong case can be made for the statement that science grows by its mu answers more than by its yes or no answer. Yes or no confirms or denies a hypothesis. Mu says the answer is beyond the hypothesis. Mu is the "phenomenon" that inspires scientific enquiry in the first place! There’s nothing mysterious or esoteric about it. It’s just that our culture has warped us to make a low value judgment of it.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Mu
Page Number: 413
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator is continuing to discuss possible "gumption" traps. He has introduced the truth trap, which is concerned with "yes" or "no" questions. The narrator introduces a third option: the Japanese Mu, which means "no thing." It is a kind of "no" answer; it means that the question is too small, or the answer is neither yes nor no. Our natural inclination is to resist "mu," but it is even present in the sciences.

What's more, the narrator asserts that mu answers actually contribute more to science than yes or no answers. The reason he gives is that yes or no simply tells you that a certain hypothesis is correct or incorrect. But "mu says the answer is beyond the hypothesis." Mu, he says, is the very "phenomenon" that inspires scientists to study and explore in the first place. The narrator says that we should place more value on mu, and that it is an error that "our culture has warped us to make a low value judgment of it." Like embracing "stuckness," the narrator says that we should embrace mu as part of his Zen solution.

Note also that much of his (and Phaedrus') project has been to unify or break the duality of classic and romantic. Mu is the same type of answer and gesture—a rejection of duality. It refutes what seems like should only be "yes" or "no," and provides a third option.

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Mu Symbol Timeline in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The timeline below shows where the symbol Mu appears in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 26
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Rationality and Irrationality Theme Icon
Duality Theme Icon
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...for some scenarios, the proper answer is neither yes nor no but the Japanese term “mu,” which means “no thing.” The nature of the Buddha, for example, cannot be encompassed by... (full context)