Sunday, August 17, 2014

Does a Dog Have Buddha-Nature?

“Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”

 Being a dog lover and having had three dogs over the years, one of which still lives, the above dialogue involving Zen master Zhaozhou* seems really important. Interacting with dogs, looking into their eyes, doesn’t it seem obvious that Zhouzhou’s answer must be wrong? After all, it’s a basic tenet of Buddhism that all sentient beings have the capacity to realize nirvana. In other words, they all possess buddha-nature. And then there’s that look in my dog’s eyes; a look of indicating a certain level of insight, an ability to understand what passes between us. It is a mutual, inherent knowingness.

 Of course, Zhaozhou’s ‘No’ is a kind of Zen riddle used to bypass logical thought processes and achieve satori, or awakening to buddha-nature. If we take him literally, not only does this ‘No’ deny a basic Buddhist teaching, but it also contradicts our own intuition when encountering other sentient creatures such as dogs. It could be, “Does a chimpanzee have buddha-nature?” or “Does a frog have buddha-nature?” Whatever the sentient being involved, however, surely the correct response should be a resounding, “Yes.”

 “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”

 A less well-known dialogue involving Zhaozhou revolved around the same question, but on this occasion the master responded positively. Now, this answer fits with both Buddhist teachings and that direct intuition referred to above. However, as a koan it probably wouldn’t work as well as there is nothing to get stuck into and work with. When Zhaozhou answers, “Yes,” the intellect isn’t challenged and neither is intuition. Everything’s as it should be and therefore the status quo is not overturned, making the likelihood of an experience of satori less possible.

 The ‘Yes’ and the ‘No’ taken together paint a fuller picture for us to peruse. Logically-speaking, dogs with all other sentient beings possess buddha-nature, so the ‘Yes’ covers this. The ‘No’ serves the purpose of going beyond mere intellectual understanding of doctrines however and calls us to experience buddha-nature for ourselves. ‘Yes-No’ acknowledges both that my dog has the potential for satori, whilst leading me to experience it for myself. I can rest in awakening knowing that my dog is already saved from suffering as he has buddha-nature too. Maybe he sees it, maybe not, but it lies at the core of who he is forever.

“Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”

 *Note: Zhaozhou Congshen (778–897) is one of China’s most famous and revered Zen masters. The dog koan, also known as the Mu koan, Mu being the Japanese version of ‘No’ in this context, is the most famous of all koans, often given to Zen students to inspire their initial awakening into the truth of Buddhism.


Simian Cyborg said...

I was under the impression that in the dialogue, the answer was not a proper negative?

G said...

It's the earnest investigation & penetration of this very point that has led so many to experience satori, Simion. But, it isn't rational thinking that leads to such an awakening, but rather its transcendence. We need to be careful of impressions & logic if we wish to know our true nature. It's through merging with this "No" & in a sense becoming it that it reveals what countless Buddhists have sought for millennia.