The first koan most beginning students are given is Joshu’s Dog: two monks were arguing about whether or not the dog has Buddha-nature. Unable to reach an agreement, they decided to ask their Roshi, Joshu. Joshu looked at them and grunted “Mu!”
A koan is not so much to be understood as it is to be grasped, and that is a matter strictly between the student and the Roshi or Sensei. And so while an intellectual analysis can be helpful it is not the same thing as grasping the koan. This, for what it is worth, is my understanding.
To begin with, this “Mu” is untranslatable into English, because it is not really a word since it has no independent meaning. Rather it is what linguists call a negating particle, because it turns a positive statement into a negative. Some Indo-European languages have such a thing. Russian is a good example. But, alas, English does not. At least formal English does not. Perhaps the very informal version of English that allows double negatives has something similar, as in “He don’t know nuthin’.” So how are we to understand Joshu?
At one level, he appears to be agreeing with one of the monks that the dog has no Buddha-nature. But how could that be? A basic Buddhist teaching is that the only thing that is real is Buddha-nature. So either the dog is not real, or it must have (or is nothing but) Buddha-nature. Surely Joshu knew that perfectly well. So what is he saying to his monks?
I ask myself what it is that Joshu is Mu-ing. Is it that basic Buddhist doctrine? Seems unlikely to me. What then is it? Let’s go back to those hapless monks. Seems to me they are falling into an unfortunate dualism on at least two levels. First they are assuming that one of them must be right and the other wrong. Dualism. But suppose right and wrong are both equally beside the point. Suppose being right is irrelevant. What then? Mu!
Now, consider the two monks separately. The one who claims that the dog does not have Buddha-nature clearly thinks that there is Buddha-nature and there is the dog, two different things. Dualism. What about the other, the one who says that the dog has Buddha-nature? This monk also assumes that there is a distinction. Why? Because to have something that thing must be different whatever it is that has it. I have an eye; I have a nose; I have a house; I even have a lovely little dog. They are all different from me. But I do not have myself; I am myself. So both monks are assuming there is a distinction between the dog and Buddha-nature. Dualism. But suppose there is no such distinction. Suppose the dog and Buddha-nature are the same thing. What then? Mu!
I suggest that Joshu is mu-ing the whole argument as pointless, not an effective means of achieving Enlightenment. Forget about right and wrong. Forget about the dog. Forget about the monks. Forget everything but Mu. And learn to Mu whatever appears to be this and that. In fact, Mu even Mu.
Into my own pond,
Old Bashō’s frog—