In one of the most famous Zen koans, a monk asks Zen master Joshu whether a dog has buddha nature. According to Buddhist teachings, all beings have – or are – awakened nature. This may be interpreted as saying all beings have the potential to awaken to reality and liberate themselves and others from self-imposed suffering, or that all life wakes up to the truth eventually, so all beings will inevitably become buddhas. It’s a lovely vision in any case.
Joshu answers the monk, “Mu.” This can be translated as “no,” or “nothing,” or just as a negation. The koan asks, “Why did Joshu say mu?”
Now I think I understand why, at least in part. It essentially comes down to this: Zen is not about having faith in ideas, even nice ones.
Over many years of practice, I was overjoyed to develop the deep conviction that all being has, or is, buddha nature. It was deeply healing to become personally convinced that compassion is built into the structure of the physical and moral universe. That we cannnot gain advantage at the expense of others without paying a price, whether we acknowledge it or not. That life, when viewed without the filter of any expectations or views whatsoever is inherently luminous and precious.
How wonderful! After many years of cynicism and despair, I had found a firm foundation of faith from which to operate. I could greet the world with optimism and joy.
Or so I thought. Recently, I have been consciously opening myself back up to grave troubles of the world. I have deliberately expanded my sphere of awareness beyond my personal everyday life – which is more or less peaceful and fortunate – to include climate crisis, environmental devastation, species extinctions, social injustice, senseless violence, and rampant greed.
As I contemplated the unimaginable suffering in the world, I found myself reaching for the faith that has developed through my Zen practice. Somehow, despite everything, everything is ultimately okay. Right? But the specter of doubt began sneaking around the periphery of my mind and heart. Did the sociopathic murderer have buddha nature? Will all beings awaken before all life on earth is destroyed? It began to feel as if I was clinging desperately to my faith in ultimate goodness, and that faith was starting to feel – as much as I hated to admit it – shallow, fragile, and trite.
But then I remembered what it was I really had faith in, which is the practice of dropping all views. With some trepidation I embraced what Zen calls “don’t-know mind.” This mind would perhaps be better called “view-free mind” because it is an interested, curious, open, caring mind (not a mind that shrugs and accepts a limited understanding). As soon as I had let go of my favorite ideas about ultimate goodness, I was liberated and refreshed.
Any conclusions I draw outside of my own experience are views I have developed. Those views may be useful, at times, for making decisions, or for communicating with other people. And they can be inspiring and motivating – I certainly enjoy it when I have a sense that awakening, connection, or compassion runs through all life like a blood vessel. And yet Zen practice is not about hanging on to even the most noble of views.
You see, it doesn’t matter whether all beings have or are buddha nature, or whether the inherent preciousness of the universe is any more “real” than the pervasive delusion of the universe. We can’t actually know these things, and we don’t have to. The only question before each of us is, “What will I do?” To choose the path of compassion and awakening based on our own direct experience of life is the ultimate act of generosity and courage.
As I awaken my own buddha nature and act in the world, I am repeatedly met by buddha nature. It is a lovely and encouraging occurrence. Will I always be met thus? Contemplating that question involves indulging in abstraction, focusing on the future, and, in a subtle way, getting caught in self-concern. After all, isn’t the question actually about whether I am right about buddha nature, or whether I’m wrong and will end up being taken for a fool?
Moving forward with don’t-know, or view-free, mind is to move without defenses. As another Zen master said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
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