- Like Cats and Dogs: Contesting the Mu Kōan in Zen Buddhism by Steven Heine
Steven Heine’s latest book on the history of kōans, Like Cats and Dogs: Contesting the Mu Kōan in Zen Buddhism, is his second monograph dedicated to a single kōan case record. The author’s first such offering, Shifting Shape, Shaping Text: Philosophy and Folklore in the Fox Kōan (1999), focused on the second case record of the thirteenth-century Gateless Gate collection (Jpn. Mumonkan; Chin. Wumenguan). Published at the end of the 1990s the text was a response, in many ways, to the two authors who dominated the field of Zen studies during that decade, Bernard Faure and William Bodiford, particularly in regard to the historical relation between monastic Chan/Zen and popular forms of supernatural belief and practice. By allowing the fox into the academy, Heine challenged the prevalent discourse of historical criticism, demonstrating the complexity of meaning evident within this single kōan case, where supernatural shapeshifting serves both to confound and to illuminate karmic causation.
In Like Cats and Dogs Heine again raises relevant questions about predominant assumptions with regard to a kōan well known to both practitioners and scholars. On one level, Heine’s central concern is to examine critically the assumption that case one in the Mumonkan, commonly known as “Zhaozhou’s Mu” (Jpn. “Jōshū’s Mu”), represents the preeminent response to the question “Does a dog have the Buddha-nature?” In contemporary kōan practice, Zhaozhou’s Mu is the preferred case to assign practitioners in both the West and the East. Because it is assigned as a student’s first kōan, it is commonly understood as having greater power and significance than any other case. Solving Zhaozhou’s Mu prepares the student to face all other subsequent kōans, each being, on a certain level, a further response and deepening of one’s realization of Mu. Scholars have tended to fixate on this case as well, with numerous references to the text in academic essays from around the world. Questioning the authority of Zhaozhou’s Mu is in fact, rarely considered.
Heine, however, is able to raise a number of valuable questions about the history of this text, but there are two primary questions. First, why is this particular response to the question about a dog’s Buddha-nature so predominant (what Heine calls the “Ur Version”), when there are a number of alternative responses to this question in the textual history of Chan Buddhism? In other examples there are affirmative answers to the question, or both affirmative and negative answers, or additional questions and statements concerning the initial question. [End Page 671]
Second, why has Dahui’s insistence on the authority of Zhaozhou’s Mu come to displace the rich literary heritage of other renowned patriarchs devoted to alternative versions? Dahui’s most notable contribution to kōan practice is his use of the key-phrase or “head-word” method, epitomized in Zhaozhou’s Mu, where the student is told to forget all concerns about the particulars of question-and-answer in the case, and instead simply focus on Mu alone. In this approach, what Heine calls “Emphatic Mu,” the primary power of Zhaozhou’s Mu is in its capacity to block any linguistic entry to realization, so that the student must demonstrate their insight in a direct, nonverbal fashion. Heine contrasts the Emphatic Mu approach to an “Expansive Mu” method where “words perpetuate words” (p. 29). The latter is exemplified in “Dual Version” cases where one finds both affirmative and negative answers to the initial question, thus encouraging original literary responses to reveal and expand the practitioner’s insights. Heine traces the Expansive Mu approach to Hongzhi in the twelfth-century Southern Song, and finds this approach most prominently displayed in the works of the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master, Eihei Dōgen.
While Heine’s critical historical study uncovers important...