A monk asked Chao-chou:
“Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?”
Chao-chou replied: “He does not.”
— A Zen koan
When a scholar of Zen Buddhism has a dog called Mu, as I do, people think they know why. But things are not always what they seem, and my black Lab’s name does not come from the famous koan “Mu.” It derives, rather, from Mustafa–the name given him at the humane society when he was picked up as a stray puppy. Mustafa soon became Musty and then just Mu…his Buddha-nature was never in question.
The koan “Mu,” aka “Chao-Chou’s Dog” [in Japanese Zen, it is known as “Joshu’s Dog”], also has a pedigree that is rather different from what one might imagine. Today this koan is regarded as an ideal device for cutting off discursive, conceptual thought and for leading Zen trainees to an initial experience of enlightenment: yet it is actually derived from a highly intellectual scholastic debate over the presence of Buddha-nature in sentient and insentient beings that continued for centuries in medieval Chinese Buddhism. Readers who want a taste of the arcane details of that debate, and a lucid interpretation of the koan in its original philosophical context, are advised to check out an article by Buddhist scholar Robert Sharf entitled
“On the Buddha-nature of Insentient Things
,” on the internet.
As Sharf points out, the discourse records of the Ch’an [Chinese for “Zen”] master Chao-chou Ts’ung-shen (778-897) contain three in which the master responds to questions about Buddha-nature. The first such exchange reads as follows:
[A student] asked: “Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?” The master said: “It does not.” [The student] said: “Everything has Buddha-nature, from the Buddhas above to the ants below. Why does a dog not have it?” The master said, “Because it has the nature of karmically conditioned consciousness.”
Master Chao-chou affirms that all sentient beings do in fact have Buddha-nature, dogs included, but they need to wake up to the fact if it is to do them any good.
Here the student expressed what all Chinese Buddhists from about the 7th century on took for granted: that all sentient beings are innately possessed of Buddha-nature (or Buddha-mind). Chao-chou’s “wu” was thus unexpected and perhaps intended to shock, but it was not necessarily enigmatic. He may simply have wished to stress the point that although living beings have Buddha-nature, unless they realize that fact by “seeing the nature,” they remain caught up in delusion and continue to suffer in the karmically conditioned round of rebirth.
The second relevant exchange in Chao-chou’s record reads:
[A student] asked: “Does an oak tree also have Buddha-nature or not?” The master said: “It has.” [The student] said: “Then when will it become a Buddha?” The master said: “When the sky falls to the earth.” [The student] said: “When will the sky fall to the earth?” The master said: “When the oak tree becomes a Buddha.”
Here the question concerns the presence of Buddha-nature in an insentient thing, a tree. Chao-chou is willing to concede that, in a certain sense, all of existence is coexistence with Buddha-nature or Buddha-mind (for nothing could exist “outside” of it). He wants to argue, however, that only sentient beings can “become” Buddhas by waking up to or seeing the Buddha-nature within them; such an epistemological transformation is impossible for insentient beings, at least until the end of the world.