Two Words You Need to Learn!

Mu{sing} About Mu

One of the first steps in critical thinking and reading is in the transition from concrete to abstract, from black & white to grayscale. In order to make this transition, students must start to develop habits of mind in order to see more than two options. An important step in this process is recognizing one’s own biases, prejudices, expectations and viewpoints.

One of the concrete thinking tools that works well in Socratic Seminar is the Japanese word Mu. Like some foreign words, it does not have an easy translation, but according to Howard Rheingold, author of They Have a Word For It, Mu translates to “no-thing” or “no-mind.” For starters, Mu is an alternative response to the standard yes/no (or even maybe) duality.

A classic story about Mu may help clarify what this means. Joshu, a Zen teacher, was once asked by a student, “Does a dog have the Buddha nature?” In Zen simplicity Joshu only replied, “Mu!” Rheingold explains the significance by writing, “…in this context, if it can be explained at all in words, the meaning is not that dogs lack the Buddha nature, but that the very question itself indicates that the student is wrongfully thinking in terms of distinctions.” 

The idea here is that the question itself shows that the student is coming from a place of non-understanding. In other words, someone with enough wisdom about the Buddha nature wouldn’t have asked such a question—or would have phrased it very differently. In classroom practice a useful translation of Mu is “unask the question” or “the question is unanswerable.” Mu is a response when a student’s question is laden with presumption or bias, or when the question itself frames a stifled or limited response. I have often used the The Blind Men and the Elephant to introduce the concept of Mu as a response. Is an elephant like a fan? Is it like a snake? MU!

Using Mu in a culture of inquiry helps this process because it causes students to step back and analyze their questions. They become more reflective about the questions they ask because they’ll get Mu as an answer when their questions are biased, presumptive, or limiting. They’ll become more aware of the types of questions they are asking and how they are received. In short, they will begin thinking about their thinking.

A typical example of using Mu is with a trapping question: “Do you still cheat on tests?” Here both yes and no responses are problematic because of the question itself. Not answering at all might even be worse. Answering “Mu” tells the questioner to step back and rephrase. In this case Mu can mean “unask the question” or “unable to be answered.”

Mu is a wonderful tool. It’s easy to use; just teach your students the word and watch the magic unfurl. Perhaps you’d even like to shake things up a bit more and try Rheingold’s suggestion:

“This word can come in handy in those rare but important times when somebody is asking you a question that cannot be answered because the person is barking up the wrong tree, thinking in the wrong terms, looking in the wrong place. Just make your eyes very wide, compose your features into an authoritative expression, and shout “Mu!” Perhaps, like Joshu, you will startle them into an entirely different state of mind!” 

The Po{wer} of Po

Just as Mu is an alternative to the yes/no polarity of answering, Po offers another choice, or more precisely, a field of choices. Whereas Mu is more of a language tool for critical thinking, Po is a word tool for creative thinking, or Lateral Thinking, as Edward de Bono coined. Both can help students, teachers and groups get past blocking points in thinking or working together.

Edward de Bono writes: “Po is to lateral thinking what No is to logical thinking. No is a rejection tool. Po is an insight restructuring tool…Although both No and Po function as language tools the operations they carry out are totally different. No is a judgment device. Po is an antijudgment device. No works within the framework of reason. Po works outside that framework. Po may be used to produce arrangements of information that are unreasonable but they are not really unreasonable because lateral thinking functions in a different way from vertical thinking. Lateral thinking is not irrational but arational. Lateral thinking deals with the patterning of information not with the judgment of those patterns. Lateral thinking is prereason. Po is never a judgment device. Po is a construction device.”

There are numerous applications for using Po in a Socratic Seminar or discussion. The most important is to create an open-minded atmosphere in the group by using Po early and often. Simply add to your teacher repertoire: “Po, why not?” as a means to create a safe space. No idea is too outlandish for a Po process. In a truly open ecology, there shouldn’t be “weird ideas” or even thoughts like, “Where did that come from?” Outlier ideas can instead be thought of as “As yet unconnected,” or “Not able to be relevant at this time,” instead of anything that closes down a thinking process with any level of criticism. Po is a key to a hallway full of doors.

As an example, imagine a teacher asking a question in class like, “What were the causes of the Civil War?” And somewhere in the discussion, a students answers, “Planetary alignments like Mercury in retrograde.” Rather than shutting that thought down with something like, “Let’s stick to the textbook,” or “Historians don’t really believe in astrology,” a teacher could instead answer, “Po, why not? Let’s explore the possibility.” From there, a series of critical thinking questions will help explore the potential validity of such an idea. Of course, this would require a great deal of class time that a teacher may or may not have. The idea, though, is that Po is the word to associate with the idea of “Let’s try it anyway and find out.”

Whenever students share ideas, Po is a response that should encourage more. Teach students that Po means more than Yes; it actually invites possibilities and potential (notice they both start with Po). Lateral thinking and creativity works best in environments where nearly anything can be said or created. Two ideas can seem entirely unrelated, but it is the creative thinking that will actually link them together … assuming there is enough time to think long enough to make connections.

Po is a little difficult to define and fully appreciate, but these may help to create the territory:

  • “Yes, and…”
  • “Po, and what are all the other possibilities?”
  • “Yes, and keep the ideas coming…”
  • “Po, and let’s keep this line of thinking going…”
  • “Yes! What a wonderfully creative idea!”
  • “Po, that’s beautifully creative and now let’s think about what to do with it…”

There are numerous reasons why we might want to use such a specialized word associated with the creative thinking process. The first has been mentioned, which is that Po is an invitation, a welcome mat in front of an open door. So Po creates a safety in the classroom where there is no such thing as a “dumb question,” a “stupid idea,” or an “irrelevant thought.” There may not be time in the day or in the curriculum to explore some ideas, but Po invites ALL of the possibilities.

The reason why is that we want to encourage creative thinking in order to find multiple (and unexpected) solutions. This is clear in The Honey Pot: A Lesson in Creativity & Diversity. Teach students about Po and start using it! Replace “Whoa!” with “Po!”

de Bono, E. (1970). Lateral thinking: creativity step by step. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Rheingold, H. (2000). They have a word for it: lighthearted lexicon of untranslatable words & phrases. Louisville, KY: Sarabande Books


creative thinking, learning, Listening, Socratic Seminar, teaching

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