Idle Thoughts While Walking Joshu’s Dog.

November 25, 2017 § Leave a comment

A monk asked Joshu, “Has a dog Buddha nature?”

Joshu replied, “Mu!”

Writings and talks on the koan “Joshu’s Dog” often invite us to place ourselves in the sandals of the monk who asked the question, “Has a dog Buddha nature or not?” Some go on to suggest that the monk is really asking if he, himself, has Buddha nature.

A core belief of Buddhism is that every sentient being has Buddha nature. In the previous post I suggested that core beliefs form the cornerstone of the self. If you take one away, the self begins to fall apart. If the monk is questioning his core belief we may suppose that he is at a crossroads or even in crisis. Perhaps he has failed to realize his own essence, so is now wondering if he has any Buddha nature at all. Instead of assuring him on this matter Joshu unhesitatingly says, “Mu!” which means “no” or “no thing” in Chinese.

Putting ourselves in the monk’s position might be easier if we consider that he’s really asking about his own worth or value. This is a question that we can all identify with because we have all asked it on multiple occasions. Yet when it is asked of Joshu he does not say we are good, he does not say we are bad. Following the Zen statement that “One should not discuss a dream,” he says ‘no thing’ and in doing so invites us to go beyond good and bad.

How we view our selves, as worthy or unworthy, is a core value of a self that is, after all, just a collection of thought that we have falsely identified as our true nature. Of this Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku wrote,

“Although it is nothing but dreamlike, illusory fancied thoughts, it can block the Great Matter of seeing into one’s own nature more effectively than an army of a hundred thousand demons. Sometimes it is called illusory thoughts, sometimes the root of birth and death, sometimes the passions, sometimes a demon. It is one thing with many names, but if you examine it closely you will find that what it comes down to is one concept: that the self is real.”

When we believe the self is real we get caught up in whether a dog has Buddha nature or not, which is the Zen equivalent of asking, “Why do I feel so bad?” The question is meaningless because it is arises out of a false identification of the “I” with the feeling state called “bad.” It’s dung on a stick. The answer, however, isn’t meaningless because mu asserts that you are neither good nor bad. You are ‘no thing’. Not as in nothingness, the opposite of existence, but as That which comprehends all thought but is never itself thinkable.

In koan introspection, realizing that you are mu, no thing or no self requires the development of great doubt. Doubt that your concept of self is what you truly are, not doubt in your ability to realize this. So each time you find yourself believing that you are good or not good, worthy or unworthy, you cut through this belief with the sword of mu. If you don’t believe you can because you are too weak, cut through that belief with the sword of mu. When you drop the sword, pick it up again. Keep cutting until you have cut your way through the forest of thought. “Then,” as Mumon said in his comment on the koan, “your previous lesser knowledge disappears.” The self you believed was you is no longer seen to be real.

When you’ve reached the point where the self is seen as just a collection of thought, you automatically ask, “What am I?” You are but you are not thought or feeling. You cannot think or feel your way to an answer so the mind pauses. At this point  the light of awareness may now turn back upon itself to know itself as mu. But if you say instead that you are this or that, “If you say yes or no, you lose your own Buddha-nature.”


Idle thoughts in Autumn.

November 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

I’ve previously described the self as a steady state system, that is, as a collection of thought and feeling organized into a system that tends to remain steady over time.

This steady state self is similar to the ego as described by Carl Jung in that it anchors identity to a specific set of thought and feeling extracted from the sea of constantly changing perceptions and concepts in which the mind is immersed everyday. These anchors are created when awareness favors some thoughts over others as me or mine, while others are seen as not me or just treated with indifference. The result is an ego-consciousness that is dualistic in nature.

Ego-consciousness is perhaps a poor description as it implies the ego is conscious. In fact, ego is just a name given a collection of thought held within consciousness. To the Buddhist, ego reflects consciousness. It is the undiscriminating mind that believes ego to be conscious.

I’ve read in some Buddhist literature of the need to extinguish consciousness. For instance, Bodhidharma said, “If mind and consciousness are quiescent and extinct (italics mine), without a single thought stirring, this is called right enlightenment.” For my part, I interpret this as a directive to extinguish the dualistic ego-consciousness, not consciousness, itself.

If interpreted as a call to extinguish consciousness altogether, a practitioner may conclude that all thought must be extinguished as well. This, however, would only lead to repression and a blank state of mind. A better phrasing is to cease the false identification of consciousness with all classes of thought and object that lead to the erroneous belief that there is an independently existing self. There then arises the state Lin-chi Ch’an (? – 866 CE) described, “Like autumn waters, clear and still, pure and undisturbed, unmoving, quiet and deep, unhindered, such a person is called a person of the Tao, a person without trouble.”

To end false identification, awareness needs to step back and examine itself carefully. In the previous post, “The Parable of the Raft,” I described this in specific terms as the need to uncover the self’s core beliefs. To be clear, this is a narrow interpretation but one that I think will appeal to Westerners who come to meditation to resolve personal problems. The broader interpretation of stepping back is to look for any defilement of consciousness that mars its clarity and purity, but core beliefs are a good place to start.

As an organized system, the steady state self is built upon core beliefs that act as its support walls. When support walls are removed in a house, the house will fall. The same happens when the self’s supports are removed. Buddhist practice, however, does not ask that we tear down our support walls but merely that we cease to identify them as me or mine. A difficulty arises here in that one core belief is this false identification of our true nature with thought. This results in the ego resisting any attempt to end this false identification.

In his essay, “The Nature of the Rinzai (Linji) Koan Practice,” Victor Sogen Hori wrote, “…no matter how strong, wily, and resourceful one is in facing the opponent, that opponent (oneself) is always just as strong, wily, and resourceful in resisting.” As a steady state system, in other words, the self will always seek to maintain itself as it is. Yet, through sustained effort “… the student’s consummate dynamism,” as Gaofeng Yuanmiao (1238-1295) said, “carries him beyond the point where he explodes, annihilating the student’s identification with body and mind.”

“If you want to transcend birth and death,” said Ta-hui Tsung-kao (1089-1163), “and cross the sea of suffering, you must raise straight the banner of effort. Directly beneath it, faith will become sufficient. Only where this faith has become sufficient will the event take place of transcending birth and death and crossing the sea of suffering.”

Where Am I?

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