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Like Cats and Dogs: Contesting the Mu Koan in Zen Buddhism


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by Steven Heine

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 266 pp. US$31.95 (pb). ISBN 9780199837304
reviewed by Christoph Anderl, Ghent University

This is another book dealing with kōan literature in the rapid succession of monograph publications by Steven Heine. It is a study on probably the most famous kōan in the history of Chan/Zen Buddhism, the so-called “Mu kōan.” The author structures his study around the hypothesis that the tension between what he refers to as “Ur Version” and other main versions of the kōan was among the most important driving forces in the historical development of this kōan in China and Japan. The Ur Version consists of a short dialogue in which the famous Chan master Zhaozhou 趙州(778-897) is asked by a monk whether a dog had Buddha nature. Zhaozhou’s answer was simply “wu” (無, Jap. “mu”: “does not have”). By contrast, the so-called “Expansive Mu” or “Dual Version” (as termed by the author, pp. 29–30) narratives contain both negative and positive responses to the question. Heine traces many versions and commentaries that emerged over time in China and Japan, with an emphasis on the Song period and Dōgen’s 道元(1200-1253) interpretation of the kōan.

The book is divided into six main chapters, each dealing with different aspects of the development of the kōan. The first chapter provides the background of the study, including a more general discussion of the evolution of kōan literature. Chapter 2consists of an attempt to reconstruct the formation of the Ur Version, followed by two chapters concerned with the “deconstruction” of this very version and its dominant position in kōan collections and exegetical literature. Chapter 5 provides are evaluation of the Dual Version, followed by a chapter mainly dealing with Dōgen’s interpretations, and a section with conclusions concerning the development of the kōan. Throughout the publication the author demonstrates his close familiarity with the various source materials, and introduces the reader to a great number of interpretations of this key kōan. In general, chapter titles of the book are somewhat enigmatic (for example, chapter 1 is entitled “More Cats Than Dogs? A Tale of Two Versions”; chapter 6, “When Is a Dog Not Really a Dog? Or, Yes! We Have No Buddha-Nature”).

Chapter 1 (in addition to chapter 3) also includes passages dealing with methodological questions, e.g., on page 17 a description of the approach to the topic is provided: “The approach taken here, which will be defined in chapter 3 as ‘multilateral historical hermeneutics,’ represents a holistic and neutral rather than sectarian and, therefore, one-sided research method. […] This methodological approach attempts to put in context and frame the circumstances and motivations behind contemporary articulations that may conflate, superimpose, or substitute polemics for a clea rand impartial view of variegated historical developments.” These references to a unique methodological approach by the author are spread throughout the publication, in addition to criticism of previous Zen scholarship (e.g., the criticism of “Orientalist skeptics” on p. 7, or of Western scholarship on p. 27). Pages 20ff.focus on the so-called “four myths” with respect to the study of the Mu kōan, e.g., the attribution to Zhaozhou. The section also provides a useful overview of early sources on the kōan. “Myth Three” (pp. 25-27) tries to explain why the Ur Version achieved hegemony and analyzes historical reasons of this development(e.g., disputes between factions during the 12th century, as well as Hakuin’s 白隠 [1686-1768] interpretation of Chan history and practice, p. 26).

The highlighting of methodological innovations seems to be one of the main concerns of the author. Among the many terms used are “multilateralism” (e.g., p. 93) and “multilateral historical hermeneutics” (e.g., p. 92), which—roughly speaking—suggests a “hybrid” multi-methodological approach to the study of kōan texts. However, the sections on methodological approaches are often too diffuse. References to analytical terms—often coined by the author himself, as it seems—are spread throughout the book, overloading it with a set of “analytical categories.” I also could not quite figure out how—in terms of the concrete application of these “methodologies”—they really differ from a thoroughly applied discourse analysis, i.e., the analysis of internal (such as rhetorical structure, language, etc.) and external/contextual (e.g., historical, sectarian, intertextual, etc.) features of texts.
Although the treatment of a wealth of kōan and commentary literature constitutes a great value of the publication, one of the shortcomings lies in the interpretation of some passages in the kōan texts. The Chan literature of the Song period is full of vernacular expressions and grammatical constructions and one of the major problems is Heine’s interpretation of adverb hai 還(appearing in numerous kōans) as expressing some kind of modality, translating the key phrase of the Mu kōan with “Does even a dog have Buddha nature or not?” (狗子還有佛性也無). Heine fails to contextualize the function of hai in a broader linguistic context (there are numerous publications on this adverb by Chinese linguists) and bases the interpretation merely onthe example sentences on the Mu kōan. However, the interpretation of adverbial haiin interrogative sentences appearing in early semi-vernacular literature has to be done in a broader linguistic context. The pattern ADV hai 還+VP + ye-wu 也無 is indeed one of the most frequent patterns to mark interrogative sentences expecting a yes/no answer, and appears thousands of times in semi-vernacular texts of the Five Dynasties and Song periods. Hai is a structural adverb in these sentences (comparable to the function of ke 可in certain modern Chinese dialects) and does not have the semantics of “even.” For example, Zutang ji祖堂集9 4-074-06:師曰:汝還死也無?對云:死也。should be translated as “The master asked: ‘Are you dead (or:Have you died)?’ (not: *Are you even dead or not). [The disciple] answered: ‘I am dead.’” And another example from Zutang ji 4-110-12: 某甲隨和尚去,還許也無? should be translated as “I will follow along with you, Master, do you permit [that]?” (not: * Do you even permit that or not). As such, 狗子還有佛性也無 should be simply translated as “Does a dog possess Buddha nature?” (the addition of “…or not” is certainly an “over translation” when rendered in English). Unfortunately, Heine consistently adds “even” to numerous sentences (e.g., pp. 157-159), as such distorting the semantics of a majority of important examples.

book coverThe consistent addition of a seemingly innocent adverb actually leads to a second major problem of the publication: the modal “even” implies that the questioner does not presuppose that an animal has Buddha Nature. However, doctrinally, Buddha Nature theories based on numerous translated Indian texts and Chinese commentaries had become one of doctrinal foundations of Chinese Buddhism at the latest by the beginning of the Tang Dynasty and probably much earlier. Since animals are part of the realm of sentient beings, they possess Buddha Nature by default. As such, the expected answer to the question in a broader doctrinal context of Song Buddhism is definitely “yes” (only based on this background does the “surprising ”wu “does not have/no” as means of Chan rhetoric and “pedagogics” make sense). Since the background of the Mu kōan is intimately linked to the question of Buddha Nature it would have been of great importance to contextualize the discourse on this doctrinal matter. In the publication, there is only a fragmentary attempt to provide this crucial background (e.g., pp. 110–111, p. 114 with a short mention of the Nirvāṇa  sūtra, one of the major sources of the Chinese understanding of the concept of Buddha Nature; and pp. 121-126). For example, there is little mention that one of the key discourses concerning Buddha Nature in Chan circles of the Tang and Song centered around the questions whether trees and grasses had Buddha Nature, or even (!) inanimate objects such as tiles and rubble. There is also no mention of the recent monograph of Schmithausen (2009) who traces the evolution and development of Buddha Nature theories in India andEast Asia (including key discourses during the Tang Dynasty; the topic of the Buddha Nature of sentient beings and insentient objects is also dealt with in my work on qing 情in Chan discourse).10

Occasionally, the author seems to be carried away by his topic of impenetrable and enigmatic kōans, resulting in section titles such “Not-so-Final Conclusion, Or No! We have Buddha Nature.” In addition, there are cross-references between the historical material of kōan texts and contemporaryWestern literature and poetry (e.g.: “The significance of the Mu Kōan might also be examined in light of other instances of Western cultural expressions of nothingness or the de-centeredness of the universe in the schools of thought of American Transcendentalism, Dadaism, and Existentialism,” p. 71), and ranging to “Whitehead’s holistic metaphysics ”and “Einstein’s quantum physics.” Whereas cross-references to more contemporary discourses might be useful for addressing a Western readership, these references remain too fragmentary and blurry, and do not really add anything substantial to the understanding of the topic discussed. As a consequence, when reading the book, at times it was difficult for me to figure out for what audience the book was written: although providing a wealth of interesting material, the treatment of it is often too unfocused and “jumpy” for a specialized reader. On the other hand, a more general audience might have difficulties in dealing with the overload of methodological reflections and—occasionally—very detailed discussions of kōan features. As such, I regard the publication as a brave attempt of “performative scholarship” by a very accomplished scholar who got a bit too much carried away by the subject he was dealing with (sometimes even adopting the rhetorical features of the kōan texts discussed), and occasionally overloading it with too ambitious methodological endeavors. Based on my subjective reading of the publication, this approach was not quite convincing for me.

8 Alain Arrault, “ La société locale vue à travers la statuaire domestique du Hunan,” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 19 (2010): 122 (my translation).

9 Based on the facsimile edition Yanagida Seizan 柳田聖山, ed., Sōdōshū 祖堂集, Zengakusōsho 禪學叢書4 [mimeographic edition] (Kyoto: Chūmon shuppansha 中文出版社, 1974).

10 See Christoph Anderl, “The Semantics of Qing in Chan Buddhist Chinese,” in Love andEmotions in Traditional Chinese Literature, ed. Halvor Eifring (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 149-224;and Lambert Schmithausen, Plants in Early Buddhism and the Eastern Idea of the Buddha-Natureof Grasses and Trees (Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2009).