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