Zhaozhou’s Wu Gong-an

Today, we’re gonna talk about the first case from the Gateless Gate collection: the wu gong-an. 

Wu is one of the most popular gong-ans around. There have been whole books written about it, so I’m not gonna say much here. Besides, I think that making a big deal of it is the opposite of what Zhaozhou intended, since the gong-an is really about not making a big deal of things. 

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” Zhaozhou replied, “Wu.” 

It’s a short and sweet gong-an, and it’s tough to see why it became so popular. To grok that, we’ll have to dig a little deeper.

“Wu” means no or none in this context, so it really looks like a simple question and answer. “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” “Of course not, stupid.” But there’s clearly something more going on here, since Wumen left this gigantic comment behind: 

“In order to master Chan, you must pass the barrier of the patriarchs. To attain this subtle realization, you must completely cut off the way of thinking. If you do not pass the barrier, and do not cut off the way of thinking, then you will be like a ghost clinging to the bushes and weeds.

“Now, I want to ask you, what is the barrier of the patriarchs? Why, it is this single word ‘wu’ that is the front gate to Chan? Therefore it is called the ‘Mumonkan of Zen.’ If you pass through it, you will not only see Zhaozhou face to face, but you will also go hand in hand with the successive patriarchs, entangling your eyebrows with theirs, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears. Isn’t that a delightful prospect? Wouldn’t you like to pass this barrier? 

“Arouse your entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and joints and its eighty-four thousand pores of the skin; summon up a spirit of great doubt and concentrate on this word ‘Wu.’ Carry it continuously day and night. Do not form a nihilistic conception of vacancy, or a relative conception of ‘has’ or ‘has not.’

“It will be just as if you swallow a red-hot iron ball, which you cannot spit out even if you try. All the illusory ideas and delusive thoughts accumulated up to the present will be exterminated, and when the time comes, internal and external will be spontaneously united. 

“You will know this, but for yourself only, like a dumb man who has had a dream. Then all of a sudden an explosive conversion will occur, and you will astonish the heavens and shake the earth. It will be as if you snatch away the great sword of the valiant general Kan’u and hold it in your hand.

“When you meet the Buddha, you kill him; when you meet the patriarchs, you kill them. On the brink of life and death, you command perfect freedom; among the sixfold worlds and four modes of existence, you enjoy a merry and playful samadhi. 

“Now, I want to ask you again, ‘How will you carry it out?’ Employ every ounce of your energy to work on this ‘Wu.’ If you hold on without interruption, behold: a single spark, and the holy candle is lit!”

Then he ties it altogether with a verse: 

“The dog, the Buddha Nature, 
The pronouncement, perfect and final. 
Before you say it has or has not, 
You are a dead man on the spot.”

Apparently, Wumen was really into wu. The methods he suggested are the ones we still use today in huatou practice. So, what’s the big deal with wu? 

That all beings have Buddha-nature was a well-established doctrine at the time. Everybody knew it. Everybody knew that all beings were Buddhas beneath the bullshit—dogs included. Knowing that, why did the monk even bother to ask? I think he was testing Zhaozhou. Maybe he had some snarky reply on hand for when Zhaozhou said, “Yes, a dog has Buddha-nature.” 

Zhaozhou saw that, he saw that that monk was coming to him in a disingenuous way. He was bringing baggage into the interaction, and Zhaozhou’s job was to point that out. So he said, “No,” which cut off that monk’s entire train of thought, bringing him squarely into this moment. He might as well have poured a bucket of cold water on him.

The monk was taking things too seriously. He was making a big deal of Buddha-nature, of Chan, himself, and maybe Zhaozhou too. But Buddha-nature basically means that we don’t need to make everything into a big deal—including Buddhahood. You’re already complete, already Thus. What more could you get by asking stupid questions designed to give you some imaginary upper hand? 

That’s one way to look at it. Another way is to look at the phrasing itself. “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” No, nothing has Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature isn’t something we can own or acquire. It isn’t mine or yours. It’s just this Mind, it’s emptiness reflecting its own light. Having and not having don’t apply. In fact, they distract us from it. If that monk was free of thinking in terms of have and not have, good and bad, the question wouldn’t even have occurred to him to begin with. 

Or we can look at it as Zhaozhou turning the question around on the monk. “What does a dog’s Buddha-nature have to do with you?” The monk was diving into philosophy, he forgot that Chan is about this living experience.. He was letting his mind wander into imagination land. If Zhaozhou had said, “Yes,” that would’ve just encouraged the monk to keep wandering. 

All that said, I’m not truly on board with Wumen’s approach to the gong-an. The most I’ve ever managed to do by working with a gong-an in that way is trip balls and get leg cramps. That doesn’t mean his method won’t work for you, just that if it does, it’s none of my business. Just right now, on the spot, sword above of your head, “What is wu?” What’s another way to ask that question?

Feel free to let me know in the comments.

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