Monday, April 01, 2013


I would like to talk about dogs.

The Chinese Rinzai Zen master Chao-chou (778-897) was known for his baffling statements and puzzling words. One hot summer afternoon the master was sitting with several novices. Temple doors had been opened to catch stray breezes when one novice noticed an unfamiliar dog moseying in the garden. The monk wondered if the animal was lost or if it was scrounging for something to eat. The monk had a brilliant idea.

“Master,” the monk spoke up, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”

Chao-chou said, “Mu.”

          If you have done much reading on Zen you are probably familiar with this classic story. For most people it’s a baffling tale that raises an entire catalog of questions.

          Translation of the word “Mu” is tricky. It can signify “Not,” or “Mindless,” or “It doesn’t matter.” Maybe that last was what Chao-chou tried to convey to the monk.

What does a dog have to do with Zen? What is Mu? What is Buddha-nature? What does it matter whether a dog has Buddha-nature or not?

Does a dog have Buddha-nature?

The question along with Chao-chou’s response has no rational answer. It’s a riddle in the form of a paradox used especially in the Rinzai School to train a student in intuitive awareness. The question itself is illogical, and any sort of answer is foolish.

Well, some people think Zen itself is silly.

I’ll let you in on a deeply guarded secret: There is no answer to the dog question or to Chao-chou’s answer.

If you try to use words you are already way off.

The use of koans developed during the Chinese Tang Dynasty, around the late six hundreds. They evolved from stories of Zen master’s encounters with novices. Those stories and accompanying comments were used to broaden student insights into Buddhist teachings.

Such a story initially came to be known as a “public case.” When it was commented on by an awakened master it was recorded as a koan.

Zen can be perplexing.

One reason is that the style of writing Zen texts is influenced by a variety of Asian literary practices. They include:

1.       Allusion or vague pointers, which may create a feeling of disconnection with the main theme.
2.     Indirect references, such as titling a poem or story with one topic and composing what follows with what seems to be totally unrelated.
3.     Inventive wordplay that’s based on the fact that Chinese characters, called kanji, have multiple meanings.
4.     Linking terms in strings based on connections such as seasonal images or references to myths and legends.
5.     Cultural or historical references that, in the present day, may be pointless.
6.     Flowery language that is loaded with long-winded expressions.

During the Song Dynasty, around the late nine hundreds, the Chinese Zen master Dahui Zonggao announced that students were not to get lost in a story but were to concentrate on a single word or phrase in the context. Such as “Mu” in the dog koan.

Does a dog have Buddha-nature?

The Buddha is alleged to have said all things have Buddha-nature. He didn’t say all humans, or all humans named Maude or Clyde. He said all things have Buddha-nature. “Things” includes dogs, cats, tree, rocks, clouds.

Soto Master Yasutani Haku’un maintained that the koan is not about whether a dog does or does not have a Buddha-nature because everything is Buddha-nature Furthermore, either a positive or negative answer is absurd because there is no particular thing called Buddha-nature.

The response to the dog-Mu question doesn’t lie in just in the word “Mu” but in one’s grasp of the concept of Mu or their inward perception of “nothing.”

In the Western world a koan is thought of as a meaningless question without an answer. Zen teachers expect students to present a response when asked about a koan.

It is interesting that Japanese Soto Zen seldom uses koans because the Soto School thinks of koans as crutches that get in the way of realizing one’s true awareness.

Does a dog have Buddha-nature?


To change the subject slightly, human beings are accustomed to looking outside themselves. Rather than working out their own destiny, they shrug off personal responsibility. They need to be told what to do. Zen Master Ikkyu addressed this need when he wrote the following lines.

I’d like to offer something
To help you.
But in the Zen School
We don’t have a single thing.

Getting back to dogs, does Mu have dog nature?