July 15, 2013

Did Bodhidharma Invent the “Mu!” Koan?

Andy Ferguson

A monk asked Zen master Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have buddha-nature?”
Zhaozhou replied, “Mu!”

“Mu!” is one of a handful of Zen stories from ancient China that have become famous. This koan has served as the “Gateless Gate” into Zen for countless students in China, Japan, and elsewhere. Though it is often attributed to Zen master Zhaozhou (Japanese: “Joshu”), the story’s origins stretch further back into history. As I point out in my book Tracking Bodhidharma, there is some evidence that the story goes back to the nominal founder of Chinese Zen, the first ancestor Bodhidharma himself.

The connection between Bodhidharma and the "Mu!" koan can be found in an old Chinese ditty of unknown origin that goes

Bodhidharma came from the west with a single word, “Mu!,”
The nature of mind was his only kong fu,
Trying to grasp Dharma by using written words,
You’ll drain Poting Lake to make the ink, but it still will never do!

But does this old bit of doggerel come from an actual connection between Bodhidharma and the “Mu!” story, or was the verse composed after later teachers developed this koan?

In the year 2002 Red Pine and I set off to find Bodhidharma’s burial place. According to old texts he was buried at the foot of “Bear Ear Mountain,” a place we managed to locate and visit in China’s Shaanxi Province. One of several surprising things we discovered during our visit was an old stone monument dedicated to Bodhidharma that was allegedly composed by Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty.  After our visit, I researched the text on the old monument and was surprised to find that it contained a reference to a “Mu!” teaching. A line on the monument read, “[The idea that] mind exists belabors ordinary people with thoughts of existence and non-existence, emptiness and non-emptiness [literally “Mu and No-Mu” – A.F.]. The wise have penetrated the Mu obstruction.”

Fascinating! Of course, the key question is whether the old monument at Bear Ear Mountain is authentic. Although the stone monument itself was created two centuries or so after Bodhidharma lived, it is highly likely that at least part of the monument text was composed by a member of Emperor Wu’s court. The most likely candidate? I think it was the emperor’s son, the Crown Prince named Zhao Ming.

—Andy Ferguson

This post is part of author and scholar Andy Ferguson's new “Consider the Source” series. As an old Chinese saying goes, “When drinking water, consider the source.” In the coming weeks, Ferguson will ask and answer seemingly simple (but in the end, profound) questions about the “source” of East Asian Buddhism, weaving a tale of both spiritual inspiration and political intrigue.

This fall, Tricycle will be traveling to the source itself, China, in a special pilgrimage led by Ferguson and abbot of the Village Zendo Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Want to come with us? Click here for more information.

Ferguson is the author of Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and their Teachings, which is used widely by Western Zen teachers, and Tracking Bodhidharma, which offers a wealth of new information about the founder of Chinese Zen Buddhism.

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mauigal's picture

Dear Dueling Buddhists, seems like right speech is the dog's corner. Glad this ended.

dennis7x's picture


I also came to Buddhism, as was stated, "to collectively removing ignorance, coming to terms with truth, and becoming aware of the constructedness of ... our "deep conventions,"". Alas, I also found a tradition of a mystical brand of Buddhism that both concerned me and at first I also rejected.

But then I understood that not only did I not know everything that is useful, but also that what is useful to others may be of no use to me. What I do know is that some of these practices have worked for others over the long years and that as always, once again I could be wrong.

Blessings and understanding to all.....

Richard Fidler's picture

Though I am hardly fluent in modern Chinese--let alone Classical--I have always thought "mu" is equivalent to the modern "mei yu" literally, "there is none". Ni yu chien ma? Do you have money? "mei yu" I don't have any. So...about the dog's Buddha Nature: "Mu" means "There isn't any" The question could have been about our ordinary mind: "Mu" There isn't any. Or it could have been about the dog itself. "Mu" There isn't any. No matter what the question, the answer is always the same: "Mu" "Mu" cuts away observer from observed, leaving only THAT, cutting away dualism. That is the way I always looked at it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

'"Mu" cuts away observer from observed, leaving only THAT, cutting away dualism.' 'No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.' "Animal Farm", G. Orwell

mahakala's picture

So Joshu’s student wasn’t asking idly, as a way to pass the time; he was asking earnestly. The whole thing about the dog was weighing heavy on his mind. He really had to know: does Buddha-nature apply even to dogs?

Joshu’s answer was “mu.” Many generations of Zen teachers have written about the implications of this answer. I won’t go too deeply into that here. Translators generally agree that “mu” suggests “negative,” but not exactly the kind of “no” you give when someone asks a yes-or-no question. I sometimes speculate about the possible paraphrases for it:

Monk: Does a dog have Buddha-nature?

Joshu: Don’t.

Or maybe:

Joshu: No kidding.

But the question always makes me wonder just what the student expected as an answer. He asked the question; what kind of answer would satisfy him? He might have imagined that Joshu was going to say, “Actually, dogs don’t have Buddha-nature. However, rats have almost half as much Buddha-nature as a human has. Birds have plenty of it; goats have a lot more Buddha-nature than you might think. Cows used to have it but they lost it, and rabbits—ugh! Don’t get me started on rabbits.”

In other words, he might have expected Joshu to talk about Buddha-nature as a condition. He might have thought of it as something you could get and spend, or something that makes one being better than another. Perhaps he was about to write a paper for his philosophy class at State U, explaining that it is not unethical to kill a dog, because dogs don’t have Buddha-nature like humans do. He wanted to judge, to categorize, to explain.

- from “Your Life as a Buddha: Zen Faith for the 21st Century” by Bija Andrew Wright

Dominic Gomez's picture

More accurately framed the question is, "Can non-humans become enlightened (become buddhas)?"

mahakala's picture

"more accurately" according to who?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Here's one source. The net abounds with them: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddha-nature

mahakala's picture

Buddhism is very hard to understand if we assume that our deepest nature is impure, flawed and unworthy. We hold on to this view for most of our lives. So many people work from this assumption, and it causes them to seek improvement through changing their own nature—from broken to fixed, from wretched to redeemed. To understand Buddha-nature, we have to accept an inherent goodness in ourselves and others. This is kind of a tricky proposal; we’re on a spiritual path to cultivate and improve ourselves, and we have to desire some kind of change—personal growth, spiritual maturity, whatever. But that change, in my experience, does not come from trying to be someone else. We don’t add layers to ourselves to become more impressive people than we were; we take away our limitations and unhelpful facades to become more honest people. It’s a kind of surrender. You stop struggling with the way you’re trying to be, and start being who you are.

It can be hard to wrap our brains around these three possibly contradictory propositions from the Lotus Sutra:

1. We must work to become Buddhas, and not miss our chance.

2. It’s certain that we will eventually become Buddhas.

3. We are already Buddhas.

These propositions are irreconcilable if we presume that our flawed human nature—the ego—is the base, and wisdom and compassion are something we add on top of that. Sometimes we look at wisdom and compassion as possessions, as things we can acquire and save, and then it’s confusing to say we inherently have them, and yet we must work hard to keep them.

The propositions make sense together only if we trust in our innate nature, knowing that underneath all of our stuff, there’s a pure sacred being. And we can be patient with the process of working through the stuff and baggage that obscures it—and diligent about it, as we learn to let that inner light shine.

- from “Your Life as a Buddha: Zen Faith for the 21st Century” by Bija Andrew Wright

Dominic Gomez's picture

To 'assume that our deepest nature is impure, flawed and unworthy' is Christianity (original sin) not Buddhism.

mahakala's picture

I think if you really look for it, you can find this type of mindset all over the place - not just in christianity. Its a psychological problem, not just a theological idea.

Dominic Gomez's picture

A psychological problem if hard-wired into human brains. But children don't seem to have such issues. Until they're acculturated with it in their tweens.

mahakala's picture

Psychological problems are not defined as being "hardwired" into the brain. I would say this is a common understanding for most people. Your insistence on being "right" has certainly forced you into an awkward position on this matter. But by all means - keep on dancing.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Speak with young children, mahakala. Most do not assume their deepest nature is impure, flawed and unworthy. Such notions are taught to them by grown-ups.

mahakala's picture

Nice sidestep! I especially like how you disregarded my comment and reiterated your previous point. Some may say your deflections are irrelevant, but not I. They are to be treasured.

Dominic Gomez's picture

What do speaking with children and psychology not have anything to do with one another?

wtompepper's picture

Buddhism is impossible to understand if we assume we have a "deepest, innate nature."

mahakala's picture

That sounds interesting, would you expand on that statement?

wtompepper's picture

I'm referring to the concept of anatman. For many Buddhists (including myself), anatman means there is no "sacred being" that is "underneath all our stuff." That "stuff" is all that the "self" is--it is completely dependently arisen. So to discuss whether we are innately good or innately bad is pointless--we are the effect of structures, and as (conventional, but real) selves, are as "good" or "bad" as the structures (social/symbolic practices) that produce us. Some social systems (such as ours) produce conventional selves that are "inherently" selfish, ignorant, competitive, and aggressive.

Other Buddhists (clearly Wright, whom you cite, is one of these) believe in the existence of a pure eternal "being" underneath the defilements of this world. This is radical dualism, and at core is the same as Vedanta (the difference is in how we escape these defilements). They reject the "full-strength" understanding of anatman, and believe that the concept is meant only to teach that this fallen world is not part of our eternal "true" self.

It is my position that Buddhism is much less complex and confusing if we can simply understand, at "full-strength," the concept of anatman. If we want only a partial anatman, we need all kinds of complex ptolemaic systems to make sense of what seem to be contradictory concepts. I've expanded on this here: http://www.nonplusx.com/issue-8/

mahakala's picture

So you also reject the concept of "buddha nature"?

That is the whole point of the koan being discussed above, btw.

Does that mean that "full strength anatman" is inherently an anti-zen stance?

wtompepper's picture

No, I don't "reject" the idea of buddhanature. I do, however, understand it differently. I don't believe it is a soul-like core of the self. I understand "buddhanature" to refer to the symbolic capacity we have as a species, which gives us the capacity to become awakened. We all have this capacity, but having it does not mean we use it in such a way as to awaken. This is why the question of whether other living beings have "buddhanature" is so important.

And not, I don't think full-strength anatman is at all at odds with, say, what Dogen teaches. It IS at odds with all of the Western Zen teachers I am aware of--unlike Dogen, who does accept anatman in the "full-strength version (as does Nagarjuna), most Western Zen teachers believe there is a transcendent consciousness--they understand anatman to refer only to "this world", not to this transcendent consciousness.

So, if you believe in a transcendent soul/consciousness/mind/self, etc, then you have not choice but to engage in the byzantine arguments about true self and not-self, the contradiction between karma and non-self, the question of rebirth, etc. If you believe in full-strength anatman, it is much simpler. It is, of course, unsettling for most of us, as we are usually very attached to the delusion that we are immortal in some way.

mahakala's picture

So you are saying that you don't reject the idea of "buddha nature", but you do reject the idea of a "deepest innate nature"? That seems a bit strange to me, as if you are splitting hairs in your favor. It seems to be a purely conceptual argument from the beginning, with an insistence on an exclusionary rather than an inclusionary stance. What if Bija Andrew was referring to your idea of "buddha nature" when he used his words "deepest innate nature"? Is it possible he was trying to communicate the same idea from another angle?

Your comment about "transcendent consciousness" and "this world" vs "that world" refers to something I am not familiar with - especially in regards to Zen. I tend to prefer the Rinzai teachings, rather than Soto. Perhaps you could explain your point further without such sweeping generalizations like "western Zen".

Also, since you brought up the idea of "immortality", perhaps you could clarify your idea of "full strength" anatman in regards to the buddhist concept of the mindstream, and related ideas of rebirth, karma, etc.

Professor de la Vallee Poussin finds a very positive evolution of vijnana-theory in certain Sanskrit-Buddhist texts. The term samtana is joined to or substituted for it — a term which seems to approximate to our own neopsychological concept of mind as a 'continuum' or flux. And he infers from certain contexts that this vijnana-samtana was regarded, not as one permanent, unchanging, transmigrating entity, as the soul was in the atman-theory, but as an "essential series of individual and momentary consciousnesses," forming a "procession vivace et autonome." By autonomous he means independent of physical processes. According to this view the upspringing of a new vijnana at conception, as the effect of the preceding last vijnana of some expiring person, represents no change in kind, but only, to put it so, of degree. The vijnana is but a recurring series, not a transferred entity or principle. Hence it is more correct, if less convenient, to speak, not of vijnana, but of the samtana of pravrtti-vijnanani.

wtompepper's picture

Again, I would be happy to continue this discussion, but not in this format. I have explained my position at some length elsewhere--I think I gave the link before. I do think it is "conceivable" that Wright means "deepest innate nature" to express "contingent and impermanent abillity" and that we are saying the same thing. It doesn't seem likely, though. He seems to mean something like an eternal and unconditioned essence or atman-that-is-not-one. So, if saying the opposite of what he is saying is "splitting hairs," then I'm your barber!

mahakala's picture

I would say that your initial comment itself seemed a bit reflexive - as if you are predisposed to anticipate a lack of understanding regarding anatta, and then seize on any opportunity to promote your own understanding. Perhaps you just tend to assume that your specifically nuanced view about the "truth" of buddhism is not prevalent. This in itself is the most telling thing of all, so I think we can go ahead and end the discussion on that note.

wtompepper's picture

Yeah, another triumph of attachment to ignorance over effort at thought!

It seems my "predisposition" was correct, huh? You can't understand what I'm saying, won't make a little effort to figure it out, so insult me and end the discussion. You have learned well from you Western Buddhist teachers: anyone who thinks must be insulted and dismissed. Ignorance is enlightenment!

This site is too funny to be believed.

mahakala's picture

Hi, "Tom Pepper"! Nice to see you.

And a warm thanks to everyone on my side, but to those who are not on my side - GO FUCK YOURSELF.

Danny's picture

mahakala: I'm confused with what you say here, is it some sort of koan? GO **** YOUR "SELF"-- Are you suggesting to start with one's conventional and contingent self, then turn that self inward and "F***" some ineffable, eternal and unconditioned essence, Buddha nature, or atman-that-is-not-one"? Right?
with metta

wtompepper's picture

Uh-oh, you decoded my screen name and discovered my secret identity!! I thought nobody would ever see through that ruse!

At least now you're being honest, mahakala (if that IS your name). Your particular brand of Buddhism leads you to angrily shout obsenities at anyone who doesn't think in exactly the same naive and narrow way you do! Very appealing. I can see why it is much better than my approach.

Rob_'s picture

You're pretty good at flinging the insults yourself, let alone generalizations from who knows where.

celticpassage's picture

And what would be a 'symbolic capacity' which gives us a capacity?
Sounds like it's a capacity sort of but not actually a very real one which can bestow other capacities.

wtompepper's picture

Yes, this is hard to explain in a comment on a discussion board. Good to see you have the "capacity" to jump on a poor construction in a hastily written comment and use it as a means of personal insult and a way to cling to ignorance. You have a rare "capacity" for stupidity, celticpassage! You must be so proud. You are all set to become a Buddhist teacher now.

celticpassage's picture

My statement wasn't a personal insult, I was merely pointing out that your "symbolic capacity" is simply poor thinking, and that this "capacity" isn't hard to explain, it's impossible to explain because you are simply wrong.

I find it interesting that you interpret challenges to what you say as a personal insult, and then you label the person with clearly derogatory responses.
I think it's a sad comment from someone who has spent considerable time within Buddhism to have such an attitude. I think in terms of awakening, you're ego needn't worry.

wtompepper's picture

Thanks for staying clear of the personal insult there, celticpassage. I'm just an ignorant egomaniac--but that doesn't refer ot me personally, just to, well, to me personally, right?

I'm sorry to hear you have no cacapity for symbolci communication Most of us humans do. Of course, you asserted that I'm simply wrong about that--and empty asssertion is surely the most convincing argument here. I'm sure you have completely convinced all Tricylce readers that the ingorant egomaniac is just wrong, and human don't really use language!

celticpassage's picture

Being wrong doesn't mean you're an "ignorant egomaniac" it just means your wrong.
Your put-downs such as "I'm sorry to hear you have no cacapity for symbolci communication" don't bother me, you're over-reactions are just puzzling.

wtompepper's picture

Well, at least I can be honest. You say "in terms of awakening, you're ego needn't worry," but then deny having said it--or, no, certainly it wasn't meant at all as an insult, or intended to say I'm an egomaniac, no, you certainly meant, to imply the opposite. Oh, please. Get honest for once in your life. You insulted me, you meant to insult me, you have not argument against what I'm saying and are resorting to personal insults to avoid facing the truth--just have the nerve to be honest, for once.

. You say I am "simply wrong" to claim that humans have the capacity for symbolic communication, well, I will ridicule anyone who makes such a stupid argument, and I do mean it, and I am calling you stupid for saying it. Just like everyone else in Buddhist discussions, you insult people and then claim you weren't being insulting, that they are imagining it or are oversensitive. Now, I suppose it is possible that you are completely self-deluded or just have the worlds worst communications skills, but I am assuming it is much more likely that, like all those Buddhists who say "with Metta" and make it sound like "I hope you die," you are just being disingenuous. So, be dishonest if you want to, and stay ignorant and deluded if you want to. I prefer mahakala's honest "*** yourself" to your dishonest passive insults any day.

celticpassage's picture

Perhaps you need to be reminded that it was you who was insulting and derogatory to my challenge of your nonsensical statements about capacities.
In addition I think your continued over-reaction, peculiar views and assumptions about others and your apparent disdain for Buddhists strains the imagination.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Anatman (aka non-dualism) is first presented by Shakyamuni in the Lotus Sutra. In it is the teaching that all human beings equally have (and have always had) buddha nature, as well as the capacity to actualize it.

zumacraig's picture


zumacraig's picture

Anatman is not simply non-dualism. The idea predates the Lotus Sutra. Shakyamuni is a mythological character and the LS is a myth. To assume it contains some ultimate truth is anathema to full strength anatman. If all is dependently arisen then there is no ultimate, unchangeable truth. However, to claim anatman and then claim an eternal buddha is contradictory and unclear thinking. If this is the base of all of your understanding, then you are in error. In essence, you don't know what you are talking about. Ignoring historical context and taking clear mythological material as 'true' is pure delusion and suffering.

I don't think you have any clear understanding of anything. All you do is make random, condescending comments.

wtompepper's picture

Well, again, this is a different brand of Buddhism. The teaching of anatta certainly long predates the Lotus Sutra, which was written about 600 years after the death of the historical Buddha. The writer of the Lotus Sutra do seem to understand Buddhism to have the same core belief as Vedanta, and to accept the idea of a transcendent soul. They also do not say anything about "dualism" in the Western (Cartesian) sense--the sense in which there are two different "worlds" which have limited or no interaction. The idea that subject and object are "dualistic" is as absurd as saying that there is a "dualism between my chair and my table"--that is just not what "dualism" means, and this misuse of the term causes a lot of confusion for Western Buddhists. The Lotus Sutra, and many other mystical atman-Buddhist sutra, do claim to "collapse" the gap between subject and object, but only with divine, revealed "truth" (eg, the Lotus Sutra itself.) I also am not a follower of these kinds of Buddhism, and do not accept the magical reappearance of Buddha in the world to deliver the Lotus Sutra, nor do I accept any Buddhist teaching as "divinely revealed" in any sense.

But, I'm getting long winded here, and I'm sure there is a "warning" soon to come from the editors for engaging in intellectual discussion on these boards, so I'm going to bow out of this discussion.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

As your idea of "intellectual discussion" is, ostensively, attacking others, it won't be tolerated here or on any other page. Please limit comments to intellectual discussion.

—Alex Caring-Lobel, Associate Editor

marginal person's picture

Thank you, wtompepper, for your thoughtful comments on the lotus sutra, definitely a breath of fresh air. I find it tiresome to hear people pontificate about the sutra.
Do you have any ideas on what early Buddhist thought was reborn into another life.
. I think I was originally attracted to Buddhist teachings because they seemed pragmatic and agnostic but I was mistaken.

Danny's picture

"I think I was originally attracted to Buddhist teachings because they seemed pragmatic and agnostic but I was mistaken."

Me too, marginal person. I nearly gave up on it all, until I realized there was something more to Buddhist thought(thanks to Tom Pepper) than the typical obscurantist and reactionary brands that we almost always see...

marginal person's picture

Thanks Danny. In terms of "mu" it seems some people who comment have grasped some "Buddhist" concept and hold on like a dog with a bone.
Seriously, I'm concerned with the question of suffering and the possibility of ending suffering . Metaphysical discussions can be clever but aren't useful to me.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thanks for your response, WTomPepper! All the best and fear not Trike editors. You are, after all, a Buddha. That is the core of anatman, non-dualism and Shakyamuni's revolutionary teaching in the Lotus Sutra.