A student once asked a teacher, “Does a dog have Buddha Nature, or not?”
The teacher replied: ”No.”
The student added, “But all sentient beings have buddha nature. Why would a dog not have it?”
“Because she is aware of karma.”
This week we return to the great koan No, which for our school, is a gateway koan. When I first began working on it some years ago, in the Zen world there seemed to be a kind of cultural consensus that difficult and extreme measures were necessary to pass through No’s gate. I certainly bought into that; I struggled with the koan for a long time. But as a teacher, I have found if we set the bar low ~ basically at ground level ~ and don’t build a big story around it, students come to embody the koan naturally. In my field notes, I have found some contrarian surprises:
Resistance is good. When a student comes in and admits they are resistant to picking up this koan, I have come to take that as a good sign. There is juice there. If one, for no good reason, can whole-heartedly embrace their resistance with No, it is a dynamic move. A month ago, I took up the koan No with a new friend. She had previously worked on the koan, but it wasn’t working for her and she dropped it: “I just wanted to tell you I have some resistance to this koan.” I responded “great!” The next time we met, she described a new sense of working on it, which was like a “vast field of waving grass” or a “stark, featureless Artic winter landscape.” Hmm, I like that resistance stuff.
Special circumstances not required. A favorite barrier we like to throw up for ourselves is a list of conditions: I must be a monk, I must live in a temple, and I must be in retreat to get some grasp of No. All these ingredients (especially the retreat) are good and fine, but not required for this recipe. I have a friend, who lives far from any Zen community, does not often attend retreats, and works as a craftsman. Recently, while traveling to India, she wrote a postcard: “Every flower in deer park smells like a flower and every turd on the road smells like a turd on the road! What else could it smell like? Everything is no and every upturned and reaching palm shines with light. The concrete can be a warm bed (for a beggar) and the sounds of the thronging people can be a lullaby. Everything is no. There are dogs everywhere and not a single one of them has Buddha nature. 🙂 They are all too busy howling noooooooo!!!!”
Once passed, revisit. In the day, once a student passed No, they moved on to other koans, including a miscellaneous collection, and classic texts like The Gateless Barrier and The Blue Cliff Record. They would not revisit No, perhaps for years, or ever. I actually like to return to No with students occasionally, both for those who recently passed it and with mature students. Recently, one friend returned to No on his own. A couple of weeks ago, his dearest friend lost her mother in a passing that was very difficult both physically and emotionally. In his early 70s now, this made him reflect on the years remaining in his life, and what he might want from them. “I scanned the texts for a koan which was appropriate to my situation,” he recently said, “And I found the koan No was the only one that could really respond to my concerns.” Of course, he admitted, the answer to his fears is always the same: No. Yet that No is now deeply satisfying, and alive. He is, indeed, aware of his karma.