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Sunday, April 14, 2013
Personal Reflections ... Zen ...

In Zen practice, one of the most well known koans is the Dog-Mu story. At least that’s what I call it. In a nutshell, a Zen monk asks a master, “do dogs have Buddha nature?” Can they become enlightened, like the Buddha? (Or as the Buddhists on a deeper level might say, are they already enlightened as all humans are, but mostly don’t realize it yet, as most humans don’t?) The master’s answer was “mu”, which is sometimes taken to mean “no”. But “mu” is also taken to mean . . . all sorts of things. For serious Zen students who go thru a multi-year study of koans with a master teacher, the Mu koan is a big milestone. Supposedly, most students spend 3 to 6 months pondering it and offering various explications to their teachers, before the teacher will give a “pass” and let the student go on to a different koan.

I myself am not in a formal koan study at my zendo. I’m considered something of a rebel, someone not in the inner circles, albeit someone who is still valuable enough to be part of the mix. Our high command has no thought of sponsoring me as a future “sensei”, though. That bothered me for a few weeks, but I’ve learned to somehow get on with my life, along with my Zen practice (actually, the formula for my practice is that Zen = life and real life = real Zen). Nonetheless, I occasionally get out a random koan to ponder on my own, and I listen to our sensei discuss the meaning of various koans in his talks. Not too long ago he reflected on his own experiences studying the dog-mu koan under his own master. That got me to thinking on my own about the dog-mu koan.

I’ve heard that many students get hung up on the “mu” part of it; i.e., what the heck does the master mean when he answers the question with a “mu”? Is he really saying that dogs, our closest friends from the animal kingdom, don’t have anything in common with the Buddha? Or is he just trying to mess up his student’s mind by using a word that can be a big ambiguous? (Zen teachers are wont to do that).

I myself am not focusing on the “mu” part. I’m just going to put a “whatever” on that side of the equation. I want to zoom in on the basic question — what about dogs and awareness, enlightenment, true wisdom, kensho, that sort of thing. The first thing I would ask (answer a question with another question — a good legal tactic!) is, how can someone like me know if a dog is enlightened or not, or has Buddha nature or not, when I myself am not enlightened and do not have the Buddha’s nature. But then again, sometimes with humans we encounter someone who seems “together” and who really is a wonderful and genuine person. We can take a pretty good guess that this person has enlightenment and Buddha nature, whether she or he knows it or not (the ones who truly have it almost never know that they have it; being able to say “hey, I’m enlightened” pretty much spoils the enlightenment).

So, can we also do this with dogs? Well, I have heard of people talking about dogs that were saints on four legs, that had a wonderful disposition and were caring and sweet all their lives. And you hear the occasional dog hero story, of a dog risking its life and sometimes dying in order to save its master. So maybe there are some “enlightened” dogs out there, mu or no mu. But for the most part, dogs are a mixed bag. They can be caring and sharing and playful, wonderful to be around. But they are also sometimes stupid and short-tempered. They can be rather crude, especially with regard to sex. They are still animals, after all. So, with most dogs, their lives are a mixed bag. Some signs of Buddhahood, but much animal nature remaining.

The next question is . . . are humans really any different? Sure, we are much more intellectually sophisticated, we make use of complex languages that allow us to handle very abstract thought. We control the world much more than any dog ever will be able to do. And yet, when it comes to the things that count the most, i.e. our ability to share and care . . . we are not really much different from dogs. Maybe we aren’t any different at all!!!

So, if dogs get a “mu”, then we humans get one too. Most of us aren’t any closer to Buddahood (or sainthood, from a Christian perspective). That’s rather humbling. But if nothing else, this koan points out that we humans have a long way to go in how we live our lives, before we ourselves could start challenging the big “mu”.

There’s another interesting point to be made about dogs, Buddha natured or not. Dogs evolved from wolves. Scientific American recently ran a short article about some genetic research regarding what dogs and wolves ate and when; this is relevant to the two competing theories of how modern dogs developed from feral wolves. One theory is that humans raided wolf packs and stole puppies to train them to fulfill human purposes (protection, work, and maybe later companionship). The second theory says that wolves themselves chose to approach human camps, first to scavenge food . . . but later allowed themselves to become more and more at home with humans.

The recent genetic studies tend to support the later view, that wolves initiated contact with humans and kept up such contacts over time. You could look at all this in the following sense: wolves had the smarts to know that humans could provide food security, security that they could never attain. Humans could provide shelter and other amenities that would allow their numbers to be multiplied. So they took the deal — be nice to humans, don’t try to eat them, try to be their friends, watch their back, do their work for them. In return, they did indeed become fruitful and thrived very well. But at a significant cost: they were changed quite a lot.

Again, it’s hard to find much wolf in a Bassett hound or a Pekingese. In a sense, wolves had to be willing to give up something about their original nature, and trust that whatever evolved from life around humans would still be respectable. (Tigers, by comparison, never took that deal, stayed what they were . . . and now, humans have driven them to the brink of extinction.) Despite their very great inter-dependence with humans, I’d say that dogs are still respectable animals. I would not call them simple lackeys of their masters (some dog-owners say that their dog is the true boss of the house!).

So, if Buddhahood involves taking risks and being willing to evolve into something different and maybe better, if it means letting go of what you currently know and taking a risk on what may evolve over time . . . then maybe the wolf and dog indeed HAVE some “Buddha nature”, and set an example that we humans need to ponder in our own lives.

I’m sure that most Zen teachers would not accept these thoughts and would not “pass” me on the infamous dog-mu koan. I gather that they would want something deeper, more wresting with the meaning of “MU”. Well, sorry . . . it’s the best I can do. And I’m going to just keep on doing it, as any other old dog would do, with or without Buddha nature!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:07 pm      

  1. Jim, I think you’ve got an excellent point about evolving and change, taking risks. I don’t know about the Zen Masters but it seems like a good contemplation to me.

    But I’ve also got a couple of other comments, very different from yours.

    First, as I read your post, I tho’t that perhaps the Buddhist “Mu” is similar to the Chinese word “no” (bu), which can have several meanings. (I’m hardly good at Chinese, so this is the best I can do.) I checked it the word. Some of the meanings, all used in a different way with different combinations of words, are (briefly): the simple word “no”; the meaning to “not have” the ability to do or have something; to be unable to (do something) as in “you may not enter a building, etc.; to lack the intention to (as in an accident-—one lacked the intention to inflict hurt); to not be allowed (to do something or to deny something. So while Buddhism has root in India, perhaps “Mu” has similar meanings to the Chinese negative. Contemplation of these various approaches to the negative in response to whether or not the dog has a Buddhist nature might be an interesting exercise.

    Second, and on a much different note, I suppose: I have had dogs in my life for almost 50 years, for quite a few years I had two dogs at the same time; so I feel that I’ve done some observing of dogs. At present I have a dog.

    Dogs are very interesting beings. Each one has its own personality and approach to people. But one thing that’s intrigued me about dogs is that they can move from one instant to another, especially when the “instances” are extremely different from each other, with great ease. For instance, they can move from perfect (and here I actually mean “perfect”—or so it seems to me as an observer) relaxation to instant alertness (as when a person the dog loves greatly comes home) or when something greatly interests the dog as when another dog will “mark” territory that “belongs” to my dog (That can raise great and intense upset in my dogs I’ve noticed over the years.)

    Then too, dogs can definitely indicate when they want to “say no” to something: Some walk away, some will bark, some will simply stand in front of a person and turn his/her head, as if to say “I don’t even *see* that; why show it to me!” (as when the treat given to the dog is not the one he/she wants) – to mention only three of the various “no’s” a dog can indicate.
    So I think there are several approaches to the “Dog-Mu” story. One approach would be to contemplate the various ways to indicate the negative. Another might be to contemplate the ability of the animal to live in “Zen”, as in to be able to relax completely. Another might be to think in terms of how even an animal may indicate the negative.

    But then I find myself wondering why contemplate the negative? But that’s another story—or contemplation, I guess.

    Lastly: Have you seen the “spinning seal”? Here’s there site: What is the seal doing? “Saying no to” something? Or seemingly so easily excluding the world and contemplating its life or even perhaps Nirvana? Can animals get to the point where they want to remain in the “now”? Or do they always live in the now? I guess this spinning would be called the “Seal-Mu”. Maybe *all* animals can more easily than people enter contemplation easily and quickly.

    My husband used to say: “I wish I could relax the way the dog can.” I’ve often tho’t how right he was. MCS

    Comment by MCS — April 15, 2013 @ 10:55 am

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