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There is this famous zen koan about a dog having buddha nature. It is known as the “Mu” koan, but of course, I prefer to call it the “dog” koan because I’m a huge dog person. A koan is basically a short riddle which provokes great doubt. The process of “answering” the  “unanswerable” riddle (or at least in attempting to answer the riddle) measure a zen student’s “progress”. Notice how I use all of these words in quotes because, really, there are just so many descriptive words in that last sentence, it makes it challenging to identify any sense of “buddha nature”.  With that being said, koans are one more way for a zen student to get stuck in her head for hours at a time – or not – depending on her “progress”. In my particular case, I have been going back and forth on this koan since I first heard it five years ago. But not because it’s the koan that can supposedly lead one to enlightenment, but simply because it’s about a dog.

Often, when I am walking my dog, and I see how happy she is, I think of the Mu koan. Other times, particularly when I am at Pt. Isabel (the largest dog park in the U.S.) I think of the Mu koan. I think of the Mu koan at these times not necessarily because I’m thinking of how “happy” the dogs are, but rather how “happy” I feel when I see these dogs in their element. I think, “Wow, these creatures bring me such joy, they gotta have buddha-nature.”

There are several versions of this Mu koan because of the multiple translations (Ancient Chinese to Ancient Japanese to modern English, and other such variables etc.). Here is one version:

A monk asked the Master Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?”

The master Joshu, said, “Not (Mu)!”

The monk said, “Above to all the Buddhas, below to the crawling bugs, all have Buddha-nature. Why is it that the dog has not?

The master Joshu said, “Because he has the nature of karmic delusions.”

There are two important factors here in trying to “grasp” this koan. The first factor is the word “Mu”. There are several different translations of this word. While the more common definition that we laypeople tend to grasp is “no” or “not”, a more complex definition is “pure human awareness prior to experience or knowledge” or another definition, “The original nonbeing from which being is produced in the Daode jing.” The second factor to consider is the historical and social context of this koan. While we modern westerners are ridiculously (and I do mean ridiculously) in love with our dogs, ancient China viewed the dog as dirty little flea bags that were always begging for food. And that is why I have recently renewed my interest in this koan.

While five years ago, I naively thought that a dog does have buddha nature because of all of that lovey-dovey kumbaya feeling they give me, I now see that there is another level to this. Dogs just want to eat. They are ravenous, manipulative, self-serving creatures whose sole purpose is to eat. And my dog, Sadie, is the worse kind of food-obsessed canine, and she only seems to be getting worse.

Sadie had her annual exam several weeks ago. Sadly, she is in the very early stages of disc degeneration. Among other preventative treatments that I am taking to ensure her health, the vet said that Sadie will need to lose about five pounds.

“The less pressure on her discs, the healthier she will be.”

Projecting all of my own personal food issues onto Sadie, I said to the vet, somewhat anxiously, “How am I gonna do that? You don’t understand this dog. She’s so compulsive, she’ll eat anything.”

The vet looked at me, a bit awkwardly, (vets are trained to read the dog owner, not the dog), and then said, “Well, with dogs it can be pretty simple. You would just feed her eighty percent of what she eats now.”

I said to the vet, in a pathetic nonpleading-but-pleading way, “But how do I compensate for that twenty percent? I mean, surely there has to be something that she can eat.”

The vet assured me that adding raw fiber to Sadie’s diet is one way to supplement her diet.

“Will she eat broccoli or carrots? Some dogs are fussy.“

“She’ll eat anything.”

I was too embarrassed to disclose to the vet Sadie’s compulsive eating history. I immediately thought back to a few days before when my girlfriend said to me, “Sadie ate my daughter’s poop out of the toilet today”. I mean, what does a dog owner say to something like that?

There was one period in Sadie’s life when she would eat the paper napkin off of my lap at dinner time. At the time, I thought is was “cute” how she would subtly remove the napkin from my lap and sleek away with it, sometimes without my seeing her until it was too late. Or recently, just a few weeks ago, Sadie found an old piece of french bread on the sidewalk where my girlfriend managed to tear it out of Sadie’s mouth a few days before. Yet, she found it again, a week later, hidden under some ferns, and ate the rest of the hardened french bread, breaking it down with her teeth and jaws like a desperate wild animal. By the time I got to her seconds later (she was on a 10-foot retractable leash), there were nothing but crumbs left dangling from her jowls, which she quickly lapped up, wagging her tail in bliss.

But the piece de resistance occurred this past week. N, my girlfriend’s daughter, was excitedly posing for a picture that J, our awesome family friend, was taking. N and J had spent the entire morning working on a diorama of a 17th century Puritan village. It was time to take the picture. N posed while J took the picture, and I while I was a few feet away, I busted out my cell phone to get a picture. Important plot point here: moments before N posed for the picture, she took a Samoa Girl Scout cookie from the box, but hadn’t eaten it yet. She was holding it in her hand. We know where this is going, right? In the next few seconds, while N was posing for the picture, Sadie somehow managed to sneak up, and snatch the cookie from N’s small hand. N was shocked. We were all shocked – except me. I was not surprised. I turned to our friend J, and smiled.

“Sadie is on a diet. It’s not going very well.”

We all had a good laugh, especially when we realized a moment later that we had actually captured the crime on film. You can see Sadie in the first picture, inches away from N, eyeballing the cookie. N’s innocence and excitement to pose in front of her diorama is so sweet. While, inches away from her, Sadie has other motives. Her laser-focus is frightening. She is calculating in her canine mind when and how she can quickly, yet subtly (“can’t bite the kid’s hand”) she can remove the cookie from N’s hand. Then, in the next picture, N’s sweet, proud face transforms to one of shock and horror, and dare I say, even a tinge of joy. Which is ultimately what Sadie brings to all of us – most of the time – joy. Which is ultimately what creates that complexity of the human condition – to want, to crave, to joy, to bring joy.

We are adorable and lovable, and we are riddled with this thing called craving. Dog or human, we crave. We all want that cookie. Of course, that’s what makes us so complicated as humans, not only the craving, but the awareness of the craving, and that vicious thought process that circulates around the awareness. Dogs, on the other hand, they just crave without thought. Their base instincts lead them to food. They want what they want when they want it. Sure, we can ‘train’ them to be ‘obedient’, but they’re not stupid. They know at the end of the “sit” directive there will be a treat. Even if there isn’t a treat all the time, they know that there is the possibility of a treat maybe some time in the future. Of course, i’m not really sure if dogs think about the future. Apparently, they don’t spend too much time in the past, which is why you’re not supposed to punish them an hour after they have done something wrong. If they could talk, they would say, “I’m just lying down, what’s the big deal? I don’t understand anything you are saying. Oh, wait, are you playing that Guilty and Pathetic Look game? Is that what you want me to do, look guilty and pathetic? Okay,  I’ll do that…will there be a treat coming?”

Will there be a treat coming?