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Zhaozhou’s Dog (Mumonkan 1 / Shoyoroku 18)

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 09/21/2007
Location: Headlands Institute
In Topics: Zen Koans

Koan on Zhaozhou’s Dog as published in case 18 of the Book of Serenity and case 1 of the Gateless Barrier or Mumonkan. “Does the dog have Buddha Nature?” Yes and no. To take up Zhaozho’s way of practice is to feel and to live beyond our human need to define and understand — even as we go on defining and understanding.
Two versions of this story. The first, abbreviated version (found in Mumonkan, Gateless Barrier, whose stories tend to be more drastic and more stylized) is best known:

"Does the dog have Buddha Nature?" a monk asks.

Zhaozho says,"Mu!"

In the Book of Serenity the story goes like this:

A monk asks Zhaozho, "Does the dog have Buddha Nature?"

Zhaozho says, "Yes."

The monk says, "Since it has, why is it then in this skin bag?"

Zhaozho replies, "Although he knows better he deliberately transgresses."

Another monk comes along: "Does the dog have Buddha Nature?"

"No," Zhaozho says. (The Japanese word "Mu" means " no.")

The monk says, "All beings have Buddha Nature, why not this dog?"

"Because he still has a mind," Zhaozho answers.

The dog, of course, is not only a dog or a cat or a cow; it is also us. We not only have Buddha Nature, we are Buddha Nature through and through. We are fine the way we are, whatever we are. We are complete; nothing is missing, nothing is extra. We are already home in our lives, as and who we are, each of us a Somebody (the particular karmic bundle that we manifest in this lifetime) and a Nobody (the basic being-ness that we share with everything). Nevertheless, we have to leave home. And then we have to return. This, you can say, is the mythical journey we call practice: we are perfect, we are home. But we don't experience this and we don't believe it so we feel exiled from home. So we leave home. We then make the tough journey back — hard practice, suffering, sesshin, zazen, trial and error, life's bumps and bruises. Eventually we get there, we return home, back where we started from, back to where we've always been.

Why do we have to go through all this trouble? In our hearts we know better, we know who we really are, but we forgot. It seems to be part of our nature to forget. And, forgetting, we get into all sorts of trouble in the unique set of ever-shifting true and false stories we call our life. This trouble is discouraging. It makes us disappointed in life and in ourselves. We thought things were supposed to turn out well, and that we were supposed to be perfect, but it is not that way. Naturally we blame ourselves or we blame someone else or we blame life for all our failures. But there is no one to blame and no reason for blame. The trouble we get is the trouble we need so that we can have a good adventure as we find our way back home.

The dog has Buddha nature: our flaws and disasters are essential and beautiful. The dog has no Buddha Nature: our flaws are also terrible and consequential. We may be perfect in our being what we are, but as soon as we act, as soon as we speak, trouble ensues. Evil is not a mistake that needs to be purified or blotted out. Evil is inseparable from who and what we are and what the world is. "We have no Buddha Nature" expresses the tragic side of our lives. Terrible things happen, we cause them or we don't, and we suffer. Why do they happen? Because we have a mind, because we are sentient, expressing, desiring, creatures and we cannot escape this nature. If we were stones or trees no one could murder us or diminish us. Even a great hurricane would not harm us. But since we are human beings with human minds even a cross word can wound our souls. Knowing this is how we are, and through long reflection on our experience finding patience with it, through the suffering and bitterness we feel, we finally come to forgiveness. We forgive ourselves and each other. We forgive the world. We know there is a way to live, a way to make effort for the good, in this world as it really is. We see through our stories and the stories of others, hearing the music in them, without being much annoyed by the noise. We are more willing to be amazed, to listen, to be sympathetic, even to our enemies.

The Jewish theologian and social activist Abraham Joshua Heschel says:

"What we face in penetrating the self is the paradox of not knowing what we presume to know so well. Once we discover that the self in itself is a monstrous deceit, that the self is something transcendent in disguise, we begin to feel the pressure that keeps us down to a mere self. We begin to realize that our normal consciousness is in a state of trance, that which is higher in us is usually suspended. We begin to feel like strangers within our normal consciousness…" (p 62).

Let me back up to the Gateless Barrier version of the story. Does the dog have Buddha nature? Mu! Or No! But this no doesn't mean no. It's a no that is meant to convey a reality beyond discursive thought. It's a word, in other words, that is meant to function not as a word but as a meditation object. In his famous commentary to the case, Master Wumen (compiler of the Wumenguan) explains how to work with Mu. Just immerse yourself in this one word Mu, he says. Breathe into it day and night with all your might; repeat it to yourself until it disappears into a feeling in the guts; don't think about it, don't try to figure it out, don't worry about getting it right or getting it wrong: just give yourself to it without stint until everything in your life seems to be just a reflection of Mu. And then eventually, without your intention or skill, but as a kind of accidental by-product of your devoted effort, Mu will break through, and you will see reality as it is, empty and free. You will know who you really are, have always been, and will always be, and what the world is, was, and will be. Everything will be Mu and Mu will be joyous emptiness, free of all fear and limitation, nothing and everything at once, a big silly joke and also the deepest of all possible truths.

This method of focused concentration on a word or a syllable is common in mystical traditions. Such a technique focuses the whole energy of one's being on a meditation object with enough intensity to lead to a breakthrough moment, a moment of mystical union. Zen is famous for this, but you find it in Christian, Jewish, and other mysticisms as well. In his commentary, Master Wumen, who himself had a breakthrough experience after six years of practice with Mu, makes it clear that he considers work with Mu to be the essential practice of Zen, and Zen teachers who follow his school usually emphasize Mu as the primary practice.

Thomas Cleary's translation of Wumen's commentary reads in part, " for ineffable enlightenment you need to interrupt your mental circuit. If you do not interrupt your mental circuit then your mind will be attached to objects everywhere."

What happens when you focus your mind intensely on a single object for a long time is precisely that: your mental circuit, your usual identity-based flow of thought and feeling, is forcefully interrupted. You suddenly enter a mode of cognition that is firmer and more direct than thinking or feeling. In the original Chinese, Cleary's "interrupt your mental circuit" is "cut off the mind road." And," If you don't cut off the mind road you will be a ghost, clinging to bushes and grasses." In Chinese as in Western folklore, ghosts don't have feet to plant themselves on the earth, so they are blown around all the time like bed sheets. They have to cling to bushes and grasses to stay put. When we are "attached to objects everywhere" inside and out, we are like ghosts — clinging to whatever unsatisfactory shred of identity or possession or emotion or belief we can find because we have no way of being deeply rooted in our lives. When we cut off the mind road, interrupt the mental circuit, glimpse life beyond thinking and feeling to the root of thinking and feeling, we grow feet; we are firmer, stronger; we can plant ourselves on the ground.

In Soto Zen too we recognize the necessity of cutting off the mind road, although generally for us this is accomplished more gradually and gently, through focused zazen over a long period of time. And most Soto Zen traditions place the need to cut off the mind road in a wider context of other equally important spiritual values and experiences. There's even a tendency in Soto to underemphasize this practice because it is so seductive and can so easily lead to excess.

If you study the sayings and doings of Master Zhaozho, you find that he was a rather mild mannered and quiet person, quite unspectacular in his presentation. He is considered one of the all time Zen greats not because of the crackling brilliance of his responses or the strength of his deeds but for the simplicity of his expression. He has the capacity to express life's profound truths in plain yet apt language that does not startle or shock, but gently points to the ineffability of the ordinary. In this sense, Zhaozho was the least "Zen" of the old Zen masters, which is why he was such a favorite of Dogen and Suzuki Roshi. This is the Zhaozho we see in the longer version of the story.

It has always seemed to me that the Zhaozho of Wumen's Mu koan reflects more the personality of Wumen than that of Zhaozho. I don't know whether it was Master Wuman or another teacher who truncated the story of Zhaozho and the dog to make it seem more "Zen."

A monk asked Zhaozho, "Does the dog have a buddha nature or not?"

Zhazho said, "Yes."

The monk said, "Since it has, why it is then in this skin bag?"

Zhaozho said, "Because he knows yet deliberately transgresses."

Another monk asked Zhaozho, "Does a dog have a buddha nature or not?

Zhaozho said, "No." ("Mu"— in Chinese, "Wu")

The monk said, "All sentient beings have buddha nature, why does a dog have none then?"

Zhaozho, "Because he still has a mind."

This dialog is neither a scholastic analysis of buddha nature nor a Zen imperative to interrupt mental circuits. It is a simple yet elegant statement of the paradoxical nature of human life.

Do we have Buddha nature, are we essentially holy and perfect and beyond all limitation? Of course we are. Then why we are we such a mess spiritually, and why must we bear the indignity of embodiment, shitting, pissing, growing old and dying? We know better but we do it on purpose, Zhaozho says. Why do we do it? Because it's the only way we can express our gratitude for the immensity of what we are.

Do we have Buddha nature, are we essentially holy and perfect and beyond all limitation? Of course not: to think so would be immense arrogance. If we asserted and believed in our Buddha nature we would be missing the reality of our pathetic human vulnerability. Anyway, there's no such thing as Buddha nature; it is simply a designation, a phrase in the English language. Whatever we might mean by "Buddha nature" is empty of any idea of Buddha nature just as whatever "I" really am is empty of all ideas of I.

Yet the sutras teach that all beings have Buddha nature. How is it that we have none? Because we have minds that distinguish one thing from another, and so propel us into desire and action. Because minds have an idea of "Buddha nature" they have no Buddha nature. Because minds are beyond all ideas of Buddha nature they are Buddha nature. The intelligence, the emotion, the will, want this question of Buddha nature resolved. But it's not a question to be resolved. Every moment is new and calls for a fresh response.

The introduction to this story in the Book of Serenity reads:

"A gourd floating on the water — push it down and it turns; a jewel in the sunlight — it has no definite shape. It cannot be attained by mindlessness, nor known by mindfulness. Immeasurably great people are turned around in the stream of words — is there anyone who can escape?"

Although Master Wumen wants us to experience reality beyond our word logic (and we must do this), in the end we are stuck with words — with discrimination, desire, action — for this is our human life. The wisdom Zhaozho is showing us in this story is a wisdom that operates both beyond and in the ordinary world, the world of language and desire. Our human condition is paradoxical because our minds operate through separation and reification, through definition and objectification; but our life is larger than our mind. To take up Zhaozho's way of practice is to feel and to live beyond our human need to define and understand — even as we go on defining and understanding. There's no way to do this without contemplative practice of some sort — whether our practice is to immerse ourselves in Mu, just do zazen patiently for many years, or some other way to allow our fundamental nature to grab hold of us by the scruff of the neck so that we can experience our lives as the really are. But there is also no way to do this without some ability to hold our minds and emotions in a new way, a lighter and more open and willing way, so that our everyday words, thoughts, and deeds are reflective of a larger life than the one we can name and think about.

® 2006, Norman Fischer