With the possible exception of Bodhidharma himself, the greatest of all Zen masters is usually considered to have been 趙州從諗, or, as it is pronounced in Modern Mandarin, Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn. In Japan, he is known as Jōshū Jūshin. Most commonly, he is known merely as Zhaozhou or Joshu (henceforth I drop the diacritics). The tendency in writing about the Chinese Zen masters these days is to use the original Chinese forms of their names. Since Zen came to the English-speaking world mostly via Japan, older books typically use the Japanese forms of the name. Thus, for example the noted Zen scholar and popularizer D. T. Suzuki, in his seminal works on Zen, always refers to the worthy we are considering here as “Joshu”. For the rest of this post, I’ll follow his lead. Yes, it’s less accurate; but then again, the Chinese of the Tang dynasty, during which Joshu lived, was pronounced significantly differently from modern Mandarin; and Joshu probably didn’t pronounce his own name as “Zhaozhou”. Certainly, with Western religious figures, it doesn’t bother us that we don’t use the original forms of names–that we call the carpenter of Nazareth “Jesus” instead of Yēšūă‘ and his disciple “Peter” instead of Kêphā. I certainly first encountered and developed an admiration for Joshu under his Japanese name; so Joshu it will be for the rest of this post.
Joshu lived from 778 to 897 AD during the Tang Dynasty. The Tang Dynasty was the great golden age of Chinese culture, during which literature, art, architecture, and science flourished, and Buddhism, particularly Zen (Chán, in Chinese) spread. It was in this milieu that Joshu entered monastic life at a young age, coming to study under the Zen master Nansen (Nánquán, in Mandarin), under whom he attained enlightenment, and by whom he was given Dharma transmission. He remained with Nansen until the latter’s death. Now some forty years of age, Joshu embarked on a period of wandering across China, meeting Zen masters across the country and traveling from monastery to monastery. He is said to have remarked, before starting his journeys, “If I find an eighty-year-old man who can learn from me, I’ll gladly teach him; and if I find an eight-year-old child who can teach me, I’ll gladly learn from him.”
Eventually, at the age of eighty, Joshu settled down at the Guānyīnyuàn Temple in Northern China, where taught until his death, said to be at the age of one hundred and twenty years. Though he gave Dharma transmission to a few monks, his lineage died out in antiquity. His words and deeds, however, have passed down to the present, with many of the most famous and archetypal Zen stories and Koans coming from him. This is so much so that one might consider Joshu the distilled essence of the Zen master.
I could post any number of stories and anecdotes about Joshu here, but I’ll limit myself to his most famous koan. For those unfamiliar with Zen, a koan (公案, in Chinese gōng’àn), literally a “public case”, is a saying or anecdote of a Zen master that seems to violate conventional logic. It is used as an object of mediation, as a way of forcing the mind to let go of ordinary discursive though patterns, and to eventually have a “breakthrough” to non-conceptual awareness. This is the first stage in cultivating an enlightened state of mind, in Zen thought. Two koans that are somewhat familiar in the West are, “What was your original face before your ancestors were born,” and “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
The case at hand is the first koan in the famous collection of koans known as The Gateless Barrier (Wúménguān in Mandarin, Mumonkan in Japanese). A monk asks Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” Joshu answers with a single word, “無!” This is pronounce “wú” in contemporary Mandarin, and “mu” in Japanese. Generally it’s translated as “No!”
So: time for explanations and unpacking. Buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha or buddhadhātu in Sanskrit) is said to be the basic substrate of all sentient beings. As I discussed in a very different context back here,
[T]he Mahayana view is that we’re “already” enlightened, the pure Buddha-nature at the core of our being. This Buddha-nature is perfect as it is; but we can’t realize it’s there or access it because of the layers of delusion, emotion, and neuroses that cover it. Spirituality is gradually cleaning all this psychological and spiritual “dust” off of the “mirror bright” of our Buddha-nature. Once that’s done, we experience enlightenment. Rather than being self-centered, our mind reflects back the cosmos. Rather than a lover being a mirror to us, we are a mirror to him or her, and in fact to the whole world. It’s no longer about us.
The general Mahayana understanding is that all beings, even those in the various Buddhist hells, have Buddha-nature. Therefore, all creatures–dogs included–are ultimately capable of enlightenment in a future life (or sometimes in the current life). Joshu’s answer seems odd, then. Why doesn’t a dog have Buddha-nature?
First, it’s worth pointing out that “mu” (from this point on, I’m using the Japanese form) is not quite exactly “no”. “No” would be more likely translated by 不 (“bù“). “Mu” is more like “not” or the prefix “un-“. It has also been pointed out that the Chinese pronunciation, wú, sounds not unlike the sound a dog makes–so Joshu may have been cleverly punning, by answering the question as a dog would! More seriously, it’s worth pointing out that on another occasion, asked the same question, Joshu answered, “Yes.” What’s going on? To take the indulgence of quoting myself again from the same post linked above,
To speak of the “mirror bright” of our minds vs. all the rest of the world is to make a separation between “us” in “here” and “everything else” out “there”. However, the Buddhist concept of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) says that everything is interconnected, with one thing arising because something else arises. You can’t take something and separate it from all the rest of the cosmos. Moreover, nothing has an intrinsic, self-contained, separate existence, anyway. This is the doctrine of śūnyatā, “emptiness”, encapsulated in the famous dictum of the Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Thus, full realization allows us to see that there’s no real dualism, no separation of subject and object. There “is no mirror bright”, and nothing for it to reflect, and nowhere for “dust to alight”. From this perspective, there’s no room for self-centeredness, as there is no self and no center in the first place. Thus, not only is it not about us–there’s not even an “us” for it to be about!
So Joshu isn’t saying that dogs lack Buddha-nature or are incapable of future enlightenment (dog owners may now heave a sigh of relief!). Rather, he is trying to jar loose the notion of Buddha-nature as intrinsically different from ordinary life. Dualistic thinking divides the world into sacred and profane, nirvana and samsara, heaven and earth. Joshu is trying to do away with that and to get his disciple out of such either-or thinking. If we look at Buddha-nature and our ordinary selves as radically different–rather than as different ways of understanding the same thing–we’re missing the point. Thus, rather than making a dogmatic statement about the status of canines, Joshu is in essence saying that the whole question is misplaced and irrelevant to begin with. Hence, “mu” as “not” or “un-” rather than “no”. You could say his answer is, “Not in the way you understand it,” or, to be perhaps a bit less formal (a very typical Zen trait), “It ain’t necessarily so!”
Of course, this is a discursive exegesis of the koan. In actual Zen practice, the student is warned not to intellectualize, and simply meditates on the koan as is, until she (hopefully) experiences her first breakthrough. Mu, in fact, is typically the first koan given to a Zen student, as it is considered particularly effective for beginners. Other koans are later used to deepen the student’s insight.
As to the personal angle, I read a lot of Zen in my twenties, and have returned to it at times ever since. I’ve never actually done formal koan practice; but I have always found koans one of the most fascinating aspects of Zen practice. They have even penetrated pop culture a bit–though the term “koan” isn’t often used, there’s the common notion, derived from Zen, of the spiritual master who speaks in arcane, cryptic, and seemingly paradoxical ways (Look at Yoda in the Star Wars franchise, for example). In any case, I was always struck more by Joshu than by any other classical Zen masters. He always seemed to me to embody the best of the Zen tradition–dedicated, diligent, open-minded, willing to think outside the box, and a great teacher. It’s worth noting that unlike other Zen teachers, who often “acted out” koans, sometimes even beating their disciples, Joshu’s koans were always spoken–his is often called the “Zen of the lips”. Partly this was because of his advanced age and frailty; but I like to think that he was also kind and unwilling to do humiliating things to his disciples, as some masters seem to have done.
Thus, whenever I have an image in my mind of a Zen master (or wise spiritual teacher in general), I often have the image of Joshu. I don’t meditate consistently, and when I do, I don’t always use Zen methods; and as I said, I’ve not ever done formal koan practice. Still, when I do try to meditate, it’s inspiring to think that in my small, feeble way, I’m following the pattern set by the great Joshu. I’m not sure I have as much Buddha-nature as even a dog–but it’s worth trying!
Part of the series “Your Own Personal Altar“