05 November 2010

Master Joshu’s Dog

By Gudo Wafu Nishijima (translated by Brad Warner)

I was asked to contribute something to a collection of articles about the famous Zen koan "Mu" or "No." One of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism is that everything has the Buddha Nature. But in this story a famous Zen master seems to deny this idea. In order to begin writing my own commentary about this story, I decided to translate my own teacher's comments about it. The koan "Mu" is famous as the traditional beginner's koan in the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. The Soto sect also teaches about the koan "Mu," but in an altogether different way. In this short piece Nishijima explains the fundamental difference in approach. This is the first part of a very short book Nishijima put together last year (2004) commenting upon twelve of the koans in the Rinzai koan collection Mumonkan or "The Gateless Gate." Take it away Nishijima Sensei...

At one time a monk asked Master Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha Nature or not?” Master Joshu answered, “No.”

In the chapter of Shobogenzo titled Bussho or “Buddha Nature” Master Dogen talks about the meaning of this word “no” as it relates to a conversation between the fifth and sixth patriarchs. He says, “This ‘no’ is not the ‘no’ of ‘have’ or ‘have not.’ It is the no of no no.”

no of no no is a way of expression that we do not often hear. The no of no no means that even no is denied.

In other words, this is not the kind of no which we conceive in our brains as the conclusion to the question of whether something exists or not. The meaning of no as it is used here does not require any kind of thinking at all.

In regards to this koan there is no shortage of explanations that this “no” represents the no of no in other words the absolute no, or that it represents the absolute void, or that it’s something that cannot possibly be understood, or other similar nonsense which even those who spout it don’t seem to understand.

But by slandering the Buddha’s truth with such nonsense, people who put out these kinds of explanations are really just floundering in the darkness, not knowing what is what and tasting the miseries of Hell.

In the chapter of Shobogenzo titled “Sutra of Mountains and Water” Master Dogen says that any koan has a superb theoretical meaning. The purpose of the koan stories is to make difficult points of Buddhist philosophy clear by using a concrete example. The tendency among many Chinese monks to view the koans as some kind of riddle whose original meaning was impenetrable was something Master Dogen scoffed at.

A dog which exists before your eyes is most certainly a dog. There is nothing extra added to that dog. And there is nothing lacking in the dog either, nothing apart from itself that it needs in order to be what it is — a dog. A dog is a dog. Joshu understood that to theorize about whether a dog has Buddha nature or not is just adding something extra. When dealing with any koan it is necessary to read it in this way on the basis of Buddhist philosophy.

I am an old monk of over 70 years who has spent the past fifty or more years studying Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Therefore I am an amateur when it comes to the koans included in Mumonkan and I have some misgivings. But on the basis of the Buddhist philosophy which I have absorbed through long years of studying Shobogenzo, there is no room for doubt about the meaning of this koan. With such meaning in mind, I would like to proceed with the reading of some of the other koans in the collection.

Here are Master Dogen's comments on this koan as presented in the Bussho chapter of Sobogenzo referred to in the text above. The following translation is by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross. This part can be found on page 29 of volume two.

A monk asks Great Master Shinsai  of Joshu, “Does even a dog have the Buddha-nature or not?”

We should clarify the meaning of this question. “A dog” is a dog.  The question does not ask whether the Buddha-nature can or cannot exist in the dog; it asks whether even an iron man learns the truth.  To happen upon such a poison hand  may be a matter for deep regret, and at the same time the scene recalls the meeting, after thirty years, with half a sacred person.

Joshu says, “It is without.”  When we hear this expression, there are concrete paths by which to learn it: the “being without” with which the Buddha-nature describes itself may be expressed like this; the “not having” which describes the dog itself may be expressed like this; and “there is nothing,” as exclaimed by an onlooker, may be expressed like this.  There may come a day when this “being without” becomes merely the grinding away of a stone. 

The monk says, “All living beings totally have the Buddha-nature. Why is the dog without?” The intention here is as follows: “If all living beings did not exist, then the Buddha-nature would not exist and the dog would not exist. How about this point? Why should the dog’s Buddha-nature depend on ‘non-existence.’?”

Joshu says, “Because it has karmic consciousness.”  The intention of this expression is that even though the reason it exists is karmic consciousness and to have karmic consciousness is the reason it exists,  the dog is without anything, and the Buddha-nature is without anything. Karmic consciousness never understands intellectually what the dog is, so how could the dog meet the Buddha-nature? Whether we cast away duality or take up both sides, the state is just the constant working of karmic consciousness.

A monk asks Joshu, “Does the Buddha-nature exist even in a dog or not?”

This question may be the fact that this monk is able to stand up to Joshu. Thus, assertions and questions about the Buddha-nature are the everyday tea and meals of Buddhist patriarchs. Joshu says, “It exists.”  The situation of this “It exists” is beyond the “existence” of scholastic commentary teachers and the like, and beyond the dogmatic “existence” of the Existence School.  We should move ahead and learn the Buddha’s Existence. The Buddha’s Existence is Joshu’s “It exists.” Joshu’s “it exists” is “the dog exists,” and “the dog exists” is “the Buddha-nature exists.”

The monk says, “It exists already—then why does it forcibly enter this concrete bag of skin?” This monk’s expression of the truth poses the question of whether it is present existence, whether it is past existence, or whether it is Existence already;  and although Existence already resembles the other “existences,” Existence already clearly stands alone. Does Existence already need to force its way in? Or does Existence already not need to force its way in?  The action of forcibly entering this concrete bag of skin does not accommodate idle heedless consideration.

Joshu says, “Because it knowingly commits a deliberate violation!” As a secular saying these words have long since spread through the streets, but now they are Joshu’s expression of the truth. What they discuss is deliberate violation. Those who do not doubt this expression of the truth may be few. The present word “enter” is difficult to understand; at the same time, the word “enter” is itself unnecessary.  Moreover, If we want to know the immortal person in the hut, How could we depart from this concrete skin-bag here and now?  Even if the immortal person is anyone, at what moment is it [necessary to say] “Do not depart from your skin-bag!”? A deliberate violation is not always entry into a skin bag, and to have forcibly entered a concrete skin bag is not always to knowingly commit a deliberate violation. Because of knowing, there can be deliberate violation. Remember, this deliberate violation may contain the action of getting free of the body—this is expressed as “forcibly entering.” The action of getting free of the body, at just the moment of containment, contains self and contains other people. At the same time, never complain that it is impossible to avoid being a person before a donkey and behind a horse.  Still more, the founding Patriarch Ungo  says, “Even to have learned matters on the periphery of the Buddha-Dharma is to have adopted a mistaken approach already.”  That being so, although we have been making the mistake for a long time—which has deepened into days and deepened into months—of half-learning matters on the periphery of the Buddha-Dharma, this may be the state of the dog that has forcibly entered a concrete skin bag. Though it knowingly commits a deliberate violation, it has the Buddha-nature. 

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