A monk asked Joshu, “Does the dog have Buddha-nature?”
Joshu said, “No. (Mu)”
Later, a monk asked Joshu, “Does the dog have Buddha-nature?”
Joshu said, “Yes. (U)”
Joshu is one of the most highly revered masters in the history of Zen Buddhism, and few within the tradition would say that he missed the mark in either of these responses. “No” is right, and “Yes” is right. Each response points directly to the indivisible truth of reality. To honor one of these responses as true and the other as false is to set up an idol; or as Dogen says, to be “fettered by a view.” This applies to all the Zen teachings, including Dogen’s exhortation not to become “fettered.”
Dogen, arguably one of the most ingenious koan masters ever, comments many times on Joshu’s koan about the Buddha-nature of a dog. In one such instance Dogen points out the fallacy of a one-sided view:
The teacher Dogen said: Zhaozhou (Joshu) said it like this for the sake of this person, and was most kind. However, if someone asked me, “Does the dog have Buddha nature or not?” I would say to him: Whether you say yes or no, either one is slander.
If the person were to ask “What?” at the very moment of his speaking he would be hit with my stick.
Dogen, Eihei Koroku, 4:330, Leighton & Okumura
If we read Zen texts with an attitude toward gaining knowledge or some formulaic statement of truth, we are heading for confusion. When we contemplate Zen expressions, the attitude to embody is not, “what does this say” but “what truth or experience is this intended to indicate or provoke?” Failing to do this, we will quickly find ourselves entangled in all sorts of contradictions and complications.
Dogen's writings contain many statements that are literally contradictory. If we take the position that Dogen is speaking literally, we are forced to conclude that some of these statements are true, and some of them are false. Alternatively, we can simply conclude that Dogen is concerned with something other than historical facts or ordinary knowledge.
Dogen, like Joshu when he answers “no” and “yes” to the same question, is using language, as opposed to being used by language. To understand Dogen’s expressions, we need to avoid clinging to the literal, elementary meaning. The true wisdom of Zen expression, like scripture, poetry, and folklore is symbolic, metaphorical, and ultimately transcendent of ordinary narrow-minded literalism.
Sacred literature is like an etching of reality; serving to outline, provoke, or otherwise indicate the reality beyond the words themselves. If we are to grasp the significance of these expressions they need to become, in the words of the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, “transparent to transcendence” (The Power of Myth).