Does a Dog Have Buddha Nature?

This exhibition is inspired by the well-known Zen kōan called Jōshū’s Dog:

A monk asked the priest Jōshū, “Does a dog have buddha nature, or not?” Jōshū replied, “Mu!”

This “Mu,” which means “nothingness”, lies at the heart of Buddhism. But why a dog?

In the Zen tradition, the dog was deemed a low creature. A dog was also used as a metaphor for a new student—one who would ingest anything without discrimination—just like a dog! When the monk asked Jōshū “Does a dog have buddha nature,” he was asking both whether an ignoble creature like a dog (or an unsure student like himself) was capable of enlightenment.

We have a different view of dogs. Highly sentient beings, dogs can develop some of the same neuroses as humans. But well-cared-for dogs always wag, do not hold grudges, and are happy to huddle with their two-legged pack. With their combination of down and dirty instinct (they still will eat anything, and eat it all now) and their loyalty, devotion, and warm bellies to scratch, the dog is as good a symbol as any you could find for both the higher and lower side of the human self, seeking physical and metaphysical satisfaction.

The character for MU 無 is a favorite of calligraphers. It can be written in any number of styles, ranging from straight and clear to cursive to abstract. MU is represented in this collection by other languages of the Buddhasphere besides Chinese/Japanese. There are versions of MU in Thai, Mongolian, Tibetan, Korean, and Tangut scripts as well as the Persian heech.

The MU Collaboration includes calligraphers and artist who have created images of MU, dogs, and a full moon—the Buddhist symbol of enlightenment. These images have been made into hanging scrolls by Liza Dalby, anthropologist, dog owner, and scroll mounter, in Berkeley, CA.

This exhibit is co-sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Center for Japanese Studies and the Phoebe Hearst Museum.