Thursday, January 19, 2012

Does a dog have Buddha nature?

A monk asked Joshu, a Chinese Zen master: “Has a dog Buddha-nature?”
Joshu answered:
“Mu.” [Mu is the negative symbol in Chinese, meaning “No thing” or “Nay.”] (from The Gateless Gate, by Ekai, transcribed and translated by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps).

On one of our walks, the dog and I pass a house with the warning “Beware of Dog” in loud red letters on the fence. There is a dog, an apricot poodle, that’s sometimes in the yard. When it’s there and we are passing, it rushes the gate with ferocity. It’s hard to say whether the dog is menacing or simply playing. Dogs can be fierce. But they also can play at being fierce.

In either case, given the sign, my dog and I keep to the opposite side of the street.

The owners also have a Buddha figure sitting on the porch. I can only suppose they know of the famous koan of dogs and Buddha nature. Every time we pass I think of that koan and translate thus: “Beware of the Buddha.” And I smile to myself, and I think that’s an absurd warning. Then I think, perhaps it’s not so absurd.

There’s another Zen saying that’s gone cliché (and Buddhist wisdom ought not be clichéd): “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” I’ve always supposed, to put a word on something best left unsaid, that the point is not to get attached to representations, but simply to practice, to be, without iconic distractions.

Representations aside, there’s nothing necessarily safe or peaceful about Buddha-nature. Nature itself isn’t good or bad, kind or mean, it just is. Sometimes it cradles, sometimes it crushes. So we might well be advised to beware of Buddha. The point of the icon on the porch, or the zendo or wherever, is to remind us to wake up, and thus be-ware, be mindful.

Now as I pass the house with the warning about the dog and the Buddha figure on the porch, the irony I thought was there has disappeared, killed by the reminder that to be warned is to be wakened, and if a dog can do that, surely that dog has Buddha-nature.

Still, we continue to walk on the opposite side of the street.


Sam said...

Goedel, Escher, Bach? Next to Bateson's works: this amazing book

Sam said...

That's all I had to say He plays with MU throughout the book,
with the Buddhist sense, but as one of his recursive "games."
The book can be read coherently from back to front, from
middle to both ways. You know it? Next to Bateson, the
work that most provoked--