Are All Dogs Buddhas?

by Rev. Jon Turner.

There is a very famous koan in Buddhism that asks the question “Does a dog have Buddha-Nature?” As an American who absolutely loves dogs I would answer certainly without hesitation.  I admire how my dog Madigan lives in the moment. She is a hybrid breed. She is a Schnoodle; she has the warmth of a Schnauzer and the intelligence of a Poodle.

She is also very comfortable being a dog. I have never seen her act ashamed or guilty for barking too much or chewing up a book. If we tell her that she was a bad dog in a deep voice it never has any effect on her. She never lowers her tail or droops her ears. Instead she smiles and wags her tail. It is a bit frustrating but she turns the tables on us humans. She seems to be sincerely curious as to why we would bring home a Schnoodle and then get upset with it for acting like a dog. Her attitude seems to be that she is just doing her job. This is what dogs do and she feels that she does it quite well. How can you discipline a dog who thinks they have already mastered what it means to be a dog? That is Maddie’s koan for me. She always wins the debate. I usually end up giving her a treat instead. After all she is right. I invited her into my home knowing she was a dog.

However, it is also important to also think about this koan as a Buddhist – which is a little bit different. It is hard to say for certain but this koan seems to have originated in China perhaps a thousand years ago. At this time, Chinese culture did not characterize the dog as we do today in America. Instead, dogs were thought of in ways similar to how Americans think of rats. Dogs as dirty, like a junk yard dog.

This is merely a cultural difference but it gives this koan a much different flavor. Rather than asking how much do you like dogs, it is asking if an animal as low and as dirty as a giant New York rat has Buddha-Nature. This is now a much more difficult question. I can no longer blurt out certainly as before. In my mind there are good animals and bad animals. Dogs are good and rats carry disease. Western culture has had a phobia about rats likely dating back to the Bubonic plague in the Middle Ages.

Another facet of this koan is the choice of the word “has”. Is Buddha-Nature really a trait that one can acquire? Is it an essence that some possess while others do not? The meaning of this koan actually hangs on the word “has”.

This is why the koan cannot be answered as simply yes or no. Buddha-Nature is not a “has” thing; instead it is an “is” thing. For example, we would never ask “Does a wave “have” ocean nature?” Instead, we would say that a wave “is” ocean nature. In fact, this is how Japanese Zen Master Dogen was able to resolve this koan. He reframed the question as an “is” thing. Dogen answered that a dog “is” Buddha-Nature.

Thus, Buddha-Nature is a very positive and encouraging statement about the nature of the Buddhist path. It is open and effective for all. But there is a caveat – it does not mean that we are all already awakened. If one does not realize one’s Buddha-Nature then it is merely an interesting doctrinal point. If this is the case then Buddha-Nature becomes merely a truth statement without any real impact on our everyday lives. It is only true as a technicality but not yet as a reality.

For Dogen, we are all Buddha-Nature but then so what? Awakening is not a possession or a statement about our essence or being. Instead, awakening is a transformation of one’s consciousness. It is solving a seeing problem not a being problem. It is not an identity that we acquire but instead a process that we must engage.

So no matter how much Americans love their dogs, this koan does not imply that all dogs are already awakened Buddhas. It pains me to say this but I don’t think all dogs have already realized their Buddha-Nature. It is true that dogs live in the moment and do not have any doggie worries about their future. But I have noticed something about dogs that is quite curious. They always want to be on the other side of the door. If they are outside then they want to be on the inside and if they are inside then they want to be on the outside. In this sense, they never seem to be quite settled. Only the dog who is happy where ever she is has realized her Buddha-Nature.

I believe that this idea of Buddha-Nature also helps explain some of the language found in our tradition. We often say that we are accepted just as we are. Or that we are embraced by True Reality, never to be abandoned. Perhaps most confusing is that we say Namuamidabutsu in gratitude; as a profound heartfelt thank you, rising up spontaneously from deep within our consciousness. This is an intuitive seeing of our Buddha-Nature as an immutable fact; realized in a profoundly experiential way. This is how practice becomes no practice; once we have abandoned “being” practices then we can adopt “seeing” practices – just as we are.

In gassho,

Rev. Jon Turner