"Zhaozhou's Dog" from the Wumenguan

by Mark Bykoski

The Chinese text is given in the top row. Below that is the modern Mandarin pronunciation spelled in the Pinyin system, and then the English meaning of each word.

name of an ancient state in China
state, region

[suffix for nouns]
趙州- name of a Zen ancestor; Japanese pronunciation: Joshu 狗子 - dog

Zhaozhou's Dog

趙州 和尚、 問、
Zhào Zhōu héshang
master, monk
because, reason
monk (from sangha)

As for Master Zhaozhou, because a monk asked,

狗子 無。
even, also

yě [word separating clauses], also
not have, (Japanese pronunciation: mu)

"Does even a dog have Buddha nature, or not?"

云、 無。
Zhōu yún

not have

Zhaozhou said, "It does not."

"Zhaozhou's Dog" is the first koan in the Wumenguan (Japanese: Mumonkan; often translated as the Gateless Gate or Gateless Barrier; or to put it more architecturally, the Gateless Gatehouse), a collection of koans with commentaries written in China in the thirteenth century of the Common Era by Wumen Huikai (Japanese: Mumon Ekai). A koan (Chinese: gong'an, "public case") is a story that is used in the Zen Buddhist tradition to teach insights not readily conveyed in discursive language. Often they involve a dialogue between student and teacher, as in this example. The teacher featured in this koan is Zhaozhou Congshen (Japanese: Joshu Jushin), who lived in China in the ninth century.

A rather literal translation of the koan is offered above, even though it may be awkward English, in order to point out a few features of the Chinese text not reflected in most translations. The following comments are concerned mostly with the surface meaning of the language, rather than the deeper significance of the koan. The surface meaning is only a starting point for the study of a text such as this, but it may be helpful to devote some attention to the starting point.

After the title, the koan begins with Zhaozhou Heshang (Japanese pronunciation: Joshu Osho), "Master Zhaozhou." The grammatical construction here would appear to be topic-comment, with "Master Zhaozhou" as the topic ("As for Master Zhaozhou…"), and the rest of the koan as the comment.

The next word, yin ("because") is usually not translated in English versions of this koan. It may serve the purpose of pointing out that Zhaozhou's statement concerning the dog and Buddha nature are made in the context of the monk asking the question. Zhaozhou did not go before the assembly of monks at his temple and suddenly announce to everyone that dogs do not have Buddha nature. Rather, he responded to a monk's question on a specific occasion. The "because" may be there lest we misinterpret Zhaozhou's answer as a general statement about dogs and Buddha nature.

The version of this koan that appears in another koan collection, the Book of Serenity, does not include the "because." Also, it does not use the topic-comment construction, but rather subject-verb-object ("A monk asked Master Zhaozhou...."). In that version, Zhaozhou is asked the same question by two different monks, and he gives each monk a different answer. His answers are apparently contradictory, so that author did not need to emphasize that his statements are to be taken within their contexts.

The monk's question includes two important Chinese words, you ("to have," "there is") and wu ("not to have," "there is not"). When used as verbs in conjunction with an explicit subject (in this instance, "dog"), you and wu mean "have" and "not have." When used as verbs without a subject, they can mean "there is" and "there is not." However, when used without an explicit subject in a context where a previously mentioned subject is implied, they can still mean "have" and "not have." Zhaozhou's answer is an example of that last scenario, because it is an answer to a question, echoing the verb from the question. In that context, the subject from the question is implied.

Sometimes, in ancient philosophical contexts, you and wu are construed as nouns meaning "being" and "nonbeing" (or, as the scholar A.C. Graham prefers to translate them, "that which is, something" and "that which is not, nothing"). This koan does not present such a grammatical context.

While most Chinese verbs are negated by placing the word bu (不, "not") before the verb, you is a special case in that it is negated in ancient Chinese by replacing it with wu (rather than "buyou").

Wu can also function as a prefix meaning "without" in compound words.

The monk's question is formed by a positive statement ("Even a dog has Buddha nature") followed by a negation of the verb ("not have"). This is a common grammatical construction for forming questions in Chinese. The question tag does not really need to be translated, but it is rendered here as "or not" to convey the literal sense.

Chinese does not have a single word for "yes" or for "no." The most common and concise way to answer in the positive is to state the verb from the question (in the version of the koan in the Book of Serenity, Zhaozhou's answer to the first monk is "You," meaning "[It] has," which is equivalent to "Yes" in this context). The most common and concise way to answer in the negative is to state the negation of the verb from the question, which is what Zhaozhou does here. His answer, "Wu" (literally "[It] does not have") is equivalent to "No."

Zhaozhou's answer appears to contradict the standard Buddhist doctrine that all sentient beings have Buddha nature. There are many ways this could be interpreted. Some point out that it is misleading to speak of beings as "having" Buddha nature, as if beings and Buddha nature are separate things. Some infer that Zhaozhou is shaking the monk out of his attachment to the literal words of doctrine. It is said that this "no" is intended to disrupt the monk's (and our) habit of conceptual thinking and point to reality beyond.

Some English translations of this koan do not translate Zhaozhou's answer, but render it as "Mu," which is the Japanese pronunciation of wu. This may create the impression that his answer is not translatable, but that is misleading. Zhaozhou was asked a question, and his reply is the most ordinary, straightforward and concise way that one could answer in the negative in that language. In the context of this dialogue, the most straightforward English translation of wu/mu would be "No." For this translation, however, I chose "It does not," to try to reflect that the answer echoed the wording of the question.

Translations that render the answer as "Mu," generally do not include "mu" in the translation of the question, even though it is there in the Chinese text. That may create the impression that the monk asks his question in ordinary language, and then Zhaozhou replies with this strange word mu from out of the blue. Actually, the monk says mu first (in the question tag, "or not"), and Zhaozhou's answer echoes it.

Many people seem to have the impression that mu is a special word whose meaning is to unask a question, or that it means "neither yes nor no." Zhaozhou's intention may perhaps have been to unask the monk's question, but this unasking is not a general meaning of the word wu/mu in the Chinese language in which the koan was written. It is from the koan as a whole and from its context within the history of Chan/Zen and the wider history of Buddhism that one might infer that the question was unasked. When Zhaozhou says, "No," it raises the question, "Why did he say, 'No'?" While Zhaozhou's answer may point beyond the surface sense of his words, nevertheless the surface sense is a negative answer to a specific question, expressed with a very ordinary word.

It may be fair to say, however, that the subsequent use of this particular koan has given rise to the use of mu to unask questions or to convey "neither yes nor no" among some Japanese and English speakers who practice or are interested in Zen.

Some English versions of the koan have Zhaozhou shout "Mu!" but the Chinese text does not indicate the manner of his speech.

Having learned that at least on the surface, wu/mu means "does not have," we might next consider this warning from Wumen's verse on the koan:

As soon as you concern yourself with "have" (you) or "not have" (wu),

You lose your body and lose your life.

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