vashtii: (DN :: Light :: BITCH YOU DID NOT JUST.)
Vashti ([personal profile] vashtii) wrote2010-08-29 09:22 am
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"the place they go is mu"

So last night me, [ profile] honoumiko and [ profile] nardaviel had a huge (and very fun) Twitter argument about the nature of Mu. Which I then wrote up for the DN Wiki, largely based on Libby's summary of Mu.

I figured (a) it might interest some of you gaiz, and (b) you're all smart enough to point out where I've got it wrong—so, haz.

Death Note readers think of Mu as a place, but it turns out to be more of a mental short-circuit, the same sort of result you'd get from dividing by zero. The idea of Mu as a place turns out to be based on a simplistic translation:

English: After they die, the place they go is MU (Nothingness).
Japanese: 死んだ後にいくところ、無である。

The Japanese reads more like "after death, the place they go—it's mu". And in Zen Buddhism, mu is an answer to a question that depends on invalid axioms[1]. If you're asked "have you stopped beating your wife?", you might answer mu, either because you've never beaten your wife, or because you don't have one.

So when the rule states "the place they go—it's mu", it means the question relies on an invalid assumption. They don't go anywhere, because there is nowhere for them to go to. This is why it gets anglicised as "Nothingness", because all that exposition is way too much detail for a notebook rule.

We know Tsugumi Ohba, the author of Death Note, was influenced by Buddhism; this is why the series has 108 chapters. This matches up with various things Ohba says about life after death in HtR13:

For me, one of the premises of the series is that once a person died, they could never come back to life. I really wanted to set a rule that bringing characters back to life is cheating. That's why death equals "nothingness" ... If I had to choose [a theme to express throughout the series], I'd say "Humans will all eventually die and never come back to life, so let's give it our all while we're alive".

death equals "nothingness"—だから、”無”なんです--"so, it's mu"

The number represents the 108 earthly desires in Buddhism.

[identity profile] 2010-08-29 03:11 pm (UTC)(link)
I always liked how, although Death Note uses some obvious Christian imagery (though mostly for aesthetic and ironic purposes, imo) its conclusion is distinctly Buddhist.

My first introduction to Mu was in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (if you haven't read it, lovely book) - it also discusses the paradox of Mu. I don't mind the English translation of Nothingness, because technically you can't "go" to Nothingness and in that text I think it's equally paradoxical. But I feel like Western audiences, with Judeo-Christian background, have trouble comprehending or just plain feeling comfortable with that concept, so many prefer to think of "Nothingness" as a place where you just sit being bored out of your mind. Which, to me, destroys the beauty of the MU concept. The place you go is nowhere. You don't go anywhere. You just die.

It doesn't have to be depressing, I don't think. Actually I think it's distinctly meant as "there is no afterlife" - which corresponds with the abundant Christian imagery of "judging" the good from the bad, thus, Heaven and Hell. There is nowhere to go, you just cease to be - depending on how poetic you are, in some schools of Buddhism such a state is the highest enlightenment.

[identity profile] 2010-08-29 03:31 pm (UTC)(link)
*Yes*. The way Light's philosophy is so Western, all along, but the very end - the death of the story and his own eventual fate - is Buddhist. The same patchwork syncretist way Japan generally treats religion.

The Nothingness translation makes perfect sense; it's not a bad translation at all. It's just that also calling it Mu confuses people; it makes it sound like a place. I need to read that book.

Interesting that that "there is no afterlife, let's do what we can while we're alive" is certainly something the characters live by...

[identity profile] 2010-08-29 07:17 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh. Mu is like dividing by zero. I... kind of love that answer.

Which is weird because a) think of all the people who died in that series b) the thought of dying and no longer being "the me observing things from behind this pair of eyes" freaks me out, but somehow it's got a beauty to it. Maybe it's the introduction of maths and logic.

[identity profile] 2010-08-29 07:47 pm (UTC)(link)
And yet everyone in the show throws themself into what they believe. They aren't putting life off against something they might get in the future, they're living it, even if they do it badly, or for evil.

That ... really is kind of beautiful, IMO.

[identity profile] 2010-08-30 08:22 pm (UTC)(link)
It really is.

Wow, Death Note, you're making me feel uplifted. This is a turn-up for the books.

[identity profile] 2010-08-30 08:24 pm (UTC)(link)

[identity profile] 2010-09-02 12:07 pm (UTC)(link)
Great explanation! I'm absolutely not an expert on Buddhism at all, but somehow this... makes a lot of sense, and yes, it's oddly beautiful.

[identity profile] 2010-09-02 12:18 pm (UTC)(link)
Hah, I don't want to come off as one either! It does make sense, though. Thank you. :)

[identity profile] 2011-04-30 04:56 pm (UTC)(link)
All of that is true.

However, the definition of "Mu" is tricky enough that it isn't as if those fanfic writers who choose to present some kind of afterlife are necessarily wrong, depending on exactly how it is done. I get a lot of my info from MrsJeevas's DeviantArt Essay "All Humans Go to Mu" for the following.

Translating "Mu" as "nothingness" is close but kind of wrong, since "Mu" as an answer means "the question you asked is the wrong question" or "for the question you asked no answer will make sense".

Also, "Mu" as a place apparently exists in other Japanese comics and corresponds to the shinigami realm in those comics.

So, along with literal nothingness, other interpretations are possible (either compatible with canon, or not stretching it too radically):

1) If we take the "Mu" answer as humans ceasing to exist, then there is technically the possibility that the person could start existing again at some future point. If all humans cease to exist at death but then later (possibly even hundreds of years later) pop into existence, it would technically slip through a loophole in the rule.

2) If people don't go anywhere, technically they could stay here. A universe where everyone becomes a ghost upon death and nobody ever goes anywhere else is compatible with the "Mu" answer. A universe where everyone reincarnates without ever going to an afterlife would also technically be compatible with the "Mu" answer (and would be rather Buddhist).

3) A universe where there is an afterlife but people completely lose their identity would be compatible with the "Mu" answer, and also fit well with many sects of Buddhism. For example, many sects of Buddhism say that you lose everything that you think of as yourself when you die. Your identity and most or all of your "self" dies. Something does go on to an afterlife and/or reincarnation, but that thing which survives (often called a "soul" in translations but that is inaccurate since it is conceived of as being much less of the person than the Western conception of a soul is) is ungendered, does not share the person's likes or dislikes, has lost the person's personality, has no memories, and has little or no capacity for thought. Furthermore, it isn't human. If it does think, it thinks in ways that are inhuman and utterly alien.

4) Similar to the above answer, if we consider dead humans to no longer count as "human" then they could indeed go to some afterlife (even to Heaven or Hell, if you assume Ryuk lied about Heaven and Hell not existing, and since Ryuk was both a liar and poorly informed, that's not such a stretch to make). If humans don't go anywhere, but the dead aren't human, then we can technically get past the rule.

5) If an afterlife exists, but is not a place (for example, if it is an afterlife with no spatial qualities, and there is no such thing as a location, any distance, or any directionality in that afterlife) then it could technically get past the rule, because in that case humans don't "go" anywhere. It also might not count as a place if, for example, all humans go into a dream-landscape which only exists in their own minds. You could argue it is not a place, even if it might appear to be one, since it's just mental exercises.

[identity profile] 2011-04-30 04:56 pm (UTC)(link)
6) The term "Mu" as an answer can be roughly translated to mean "that question is unanswerable" or "nobody has the answer to that question" (i.e. "Mu" can be a fancy way of saying "I don't know"). If you take that interpretation then you can postulate an afterlife, as long as there is no way of either shinigami or living humans knowing that such an afterlife exists. In this case, you'd have to have it set up so that there is no contact between the afterlife and the realm of the living or between the afterlife and the shinigami realm, or alternatively you set it up so that there is little contact and the contact which exists is slight and unprovable. This involves a bit more mental gymnastics than ways #1 through #5, but it still probably stretches the rule rather than breaking it.

7) You can technically get past the rule if what happens to humans after death doesn't make sense in terms of the question. For example, if an afterlife exists but is highly nonsensical. For another example, if the self splits into multiple entities after death and those entities then go on to different afterlives. Some sects of Buddhism and some Pagan religions have something like this happen. In this case you couldn't answer the question because you'd first have to re-define the question.

8) If humans go to multiple sequential afterlives, then the answer could be "Mu" because they don't go to one place. For example, if you first go to a holding-cell-like place while the "paperwork" gets completed, and then move on to a purgatory-like place to learn lessons or purify yourself from wrongdoings, and then go on to a better or worser afterlife from there, and then maybe get reincarnated, the answer to "Where do all humans go after death?" might be conditional and complex enough to justify "Mu" as an answer. This is somewhat of a stretch but I think I've seen it used more frequently in fanfic because it is more attractive than most of the above answers.

9) The interpretation of "Mu" also depends greatly on whether you consider the rule "All humans go to Mu" to be an in-universe compilation of shinigami knowledge or an unshakable statement on how the Death Note universe works from the writer. If it is shinigami knowledge only, then there is always the possibility that whatever shinigami who wrote the rules didn't know everything. This is a particularly plausible stance because of repeated assertions in canon of just how little shinigami know, even about themselves and about their own powers, plus some minor retconning of the rules in the 2nd half.