Buddhism

Does a Dog have Buddha Nature?

Dog Meets Buddha

There’s a well-known Zen koan that begins with this question. Reams of words and scholastic papers have been written about Joshu’s Dog. The koan sounds like the start of a bad Buddhist joke:

A monk asked Joshu, a Chinese Zen master:
‘Has a dog Buddha nature or not?’
Joshu answered: ‘Mu!’

‘Mu’ means No-thing, but this doesn’t mean what you think it means. As with all koans, the idea is to point towards a reality beyond thinking and dualistic ideas. Joshu was trying to get the monk to stop thinking in either/ors.

Dogs do have Buddha nature, along with all sentient beings, but a dog is unlikely to know he’s a potential Buddha. He’s too busy looking for the next juicy bone or a nice lady dog to make puppies with. You could argue that a rock has Buddha nature too, but a lump of granite is even less likely to realise its true nature, no matter how many sutras you read to it.

It makes me wonder if a dog can be happy? In Addled, Zoe Popper ponders on this as she follows a man walking with his dog:

“The middle-aged man sloped along the pavement, head bowed, shoulders up to his ears. In his left hand was a dog lead and beside him trotted a perky white and tan Jack Russell.

I walked along behind them marvelling at the differences between this odd couple. The man appeared defeated. He was trapped in his own world, eyes fixed on the ground in front of his feet as he ploughed unconsciously into his future. He had no idea where he was or what was going on around him. I could run naked and screaming right past him and he wouldn’t see me.

The dog would. The little terrier bounced along the pavement on tiny spring-loaded paws. His tail stood straight, his ears twitched, scanning and alert. The dog was undoubtedly alive: fully present and here in the world. Where was his owner? He was thinking, conjuring another world inside his head. Did he prefer his make-believe world? Did he think it was more real than this world, the dog’s world? He didn’t look like he preferred it; he looked positively miserable.

The dog was as happy as a dog ever was.”

Dogs certainly seem to enjoy themselves, but are you happy if you don’t know you’re happy? It’s the same problem with Joshu’s Dog: do you have Buddha nature if you’re not aware of it? You could apply this to a human being, as well as to a dog. Buddha nature is the essence of everything, but knowing that won’t do you any good unless you wake up and realise it for yourself.

Of course, saying “Buddha nature is the essence of everything” is problematic too. Mu makes much more sense.

My dog has no nose…

>Discover more about Addled: Adventures of a Reluctant Mystic

Image: Dog Meets Buddha

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30 thoughts on “Does a Dog have Buddha Nature?

  1. Hi again Cabrogal

    –“Well, I can’t really see why self-aware decision making or even non-sentient instinct would offer any evolutionary advantage over mechanistic ‘programmed’ decision making …”

    Really? Do you not wonder why Nature did not go down that route?

    – “so long as the program was sufficiently adaptable to the environment. In fact I think you’ll find precisely that assumption built into most theories about evolutionary biology and many of those of psychology and psychiatry (especially Skinner’s behaviourism)”

    Yes, it is. I’m not sure why this is relevant, however, since it is clearly a useless assumption, It seems obvious that these matters cannot be solved by making assumptions, especially those that most people would find incredible.

    “But is belief in anything necessary for evolutionary success?”

    Depends. It would be if you are professor of philosophy and want to feed your family. You would have to at least believe that they exist.

    –“And how could you possibly tell if someone is acting according to belief, compulsion or automism?

    If you believe there is a beer in the fridge then when you want a beer you will head for the fridge. It isn’t rocket science. Darwin and Popper had no difficulty seeing that beliefs and behaviour are inextricably linked. I don’t know why anyone would.

    —“There have been several well documented studies of people acting according to post-hypnotic suggestion or in accordance with brain-damage related anosognosia that show in some cases at least that action precedes belief and the latter is retrofitted to the former.”.

    Of course action can proceed belief. Have you never had a reflex test?

    —“A computer is perfectly capable of making complex decisions that are correct just as often as humans are without the need to believe in anything.

    Computers do not make decisions. They do what they are told.

    “I might ‘believe’ things (or at least believe I do) but I’m perfectly able to accept that, like Arthur Dent, my brain could be replaced by an insentient computer and no-one else would be able to tell the difference (especially if the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation fitted me with a Genuine People Personality (TM)).”

    Wow. So this new you would, unlike you, have no beliefs, and yet still be you? I would have thought that ‘replace’ would mean like for like, not a cut-down version with limited functionality.

    “Chalmers posits what he calls ‘philosophical zombies’ (p-zombies)…”

    …and ever since large numbers of people have misunderstood why he did it. Chalmers is not an idiot. He knows perfectly well that a zombie world is an absurd idea. He created ti to show that there is MORE to explain that mechanical computation. Hence the ‘hard’ problem. I suppose for you it would be an easy one.

    Thanks for the chat. I feel maybe we should leave it here or after your next comment, since I didn’t mean to start a proper argument but was just exploring. Until the next time…

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    1. …and ever since large numbers of people have misunderstood why he did it. Chalmers is not an idiot. He knows perfectly well that a zombie world is an absurd idea. He created ti to show that there is MORE to explain that mechanical computation. Hence the ‘hard’ problem. I suppose for you it would be an easy one.

      I agree there is little point to continuing this discussion but I feel compelled to respond to the way you characterise Chalmers’ beliefs. He is someone I know personally and used to socialise with. We’ve extensively discussed his theory of mind and p-zombies, however I have had no contact with him for almost fifteen years now and it’s possible some of his beliefs have subsequently changed (though I still follow his work and have seen no sign they have).

      Chalmers’ p-zombies are definitely not meant as reductio ad absurdum. He and I differ in that he believes that all aspects of mind other than consciousness – including all decisions – are fully explained by deterministic neurological phenomena. He specifically believes it would be theoretically possible to replace every neuron in the nervous system with a microchip without changing any aspect of a person’s behaviour or personality. He believes consciousness has no direct objective effect on other aspects of mind and that it is not an emergent phenomena of the brain. Hence his tentative adoption of mind-body dualism (tentative because he is an ontological anti-realist and, like me, doesn’t believe accurate descriptions of the nature of being are possible).

      But I’m sure you don’t need to go to restaurants, pubs and rock concerts with him to learn what he thinks. Try reading some of his books and papers.

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      1. Hi Cabrogal

        I am a confused by the order of posts here bu I hope this arrives in some sort of order.

        I hope Jessica won’t mind if we thrash this out. It seems a very relevant discussion. If you are right about Chalmers, and he is right about consciousness, then mysticism is a lot of tosh.

        I believe that you are right about Chalmers. I see now where I went wrong. I was a subscriber to JCS in the early days and felt that he was the only person talking any sense. He seemed to see the extent of the problem and be making an attempt to face up to it.

        When he made the zombie argument, however, I was lost. I have no idea what it proves or fails to prove. It seems to have been made as an argument against physicalism, so I naturally assumed that he was against it. But the situation is confusing. His argument as it stands appears to me to be an argument FOR physicalism. I therefore cannot make sense of the whole hypothesis and take no notice of it. I did, however, when it appeared, take away from it the idea that Chalmers believed that zombies are a daft idea, for otherwise the argument FOR physicalism seems to be made. If zombies are possible then consciousness is an optional extra.

        I stand corrected. I now see the reason why I have been so confused for so long about why Chalmers cannot see the parallels between his ‘naturalistic dualism’, an information theory, and the Noble Nagarjuna’s ‘theory of emptiness’. I never could understand how he could miss the obvious correlations. At last I do understand, thanks to your patient response to my overbearing remarks.

        But here’s the thing. You suggested, I think, and thus got me going, that his zombie-world hypothesis works as an argument for epiphenomenalism or something similar, such that consciousness would be an evolutionary spandrel. This is the idea I find so extraordinary. We cannot prove the conclusion of an argument by making it the founding assumption for the argument.

        I may have just lost most of my respect for Chalmers. I remain unshakeably convinced that anyone who believes that a zombie world is possible is not an ideal reasoner. To me the hypothesis looks like this.

        Imagine a world far away that is just like this one in almost every respect. If we could visit it, we would be unable to tell that we were on a different planet. Except for one thing. Human beings would be unable to function.

        I must apologise for making this mistake, or, rather, for so arrogantly assuming that I was not making one. It annoys the hell out of me for I am a pedant. I feel that it was made with some justification and that it worked in Chalmers’ favour, but that’s no excuse. I must be more careful when straying onto consciousness studies, for it could not be made more complicated by an expert sophist.

        I’m fascinated that you knew Chalmers well. I imagine he is sharp as a razor. He is top of my list for philosophers of mind with whom I’d like to have a long discussion, and may be the only one.on it. I feel that he is, or used to be, very close to a solution for his hard problem, but that he misses it because he is weighed down by a axiom-set of foundational assumptions that he steadfastly refuses to question, the very assumptions that create the hard problem. I keep hoping he’ll read my page on philpapers. . . .

        I’m grateful for your patience, not my strongest suit, and for the chat, which has cleared up a long-standing mystery about exactly what Chalmers does believe about consciousness.

        I’d be happy to continue and find arguing useful, as you may have noticed, but would rather stay away from zombies. They would never be happy to continue. We’d better get back somehow to Zen koans.

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  2. Great piece. I’ve often pondered this subject but never gotten around to writing about it. Different spiritual traditions have different takes on it but yeah I believe, as you mentioned that everything manifest is the product of unconditioned conciousness and that includes dogs. I don’t believe they could realize it in the same way a human could though. What use would they have for it anyway, come to think of it? The development of a human level of sentinence requires very specialized adaptations in the brain and nervous systems, but who knows, maybe one day we may find that we are wrong about animal conciousness and we have been operating from the wrong perspective.
    Good stuff. Always gets the mental juices flowing. Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s a pretty huge ontological assumption that consciousness emerges from the brain and nervous system anyway. The Australian philosopher of consciousness, David Chalmers has spent much of his career arguing it doesn’t.

      But even if it did it’s probably no more fruitful to try to understand the nature of human or animal consciousness from the functioning of their neurons than to try to understand their biology from the functioning of their molecules or the beauty of a painting from the composition and location of its dyes. They’re completely different orders of phenomena.

      What use do humans have for consciousness?
      As Chalmers points out, there’s no reason to believe we would behave any differently if we were non-sentient meat machines.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Cabrogal

        “As Chalmers points out, there’s no reason to believe we would behave any differently if we were non-sentient meat machines.”

        This is odd. I would see this view as being utterly insane and clearly false, and believe it to be the exact opposite of what Chalmers pointed out.

        is it not obvious that sentience is required for our day to day survival? Darwin was of the opinion that animals have wants and needs that govern their behaviour, and a desire to survive and prosper, and this seems to be the entire basis of the evolutionary process. .

        I’m fascinated that you could imagine an insentient being behaving just like you. Is this really what you believe? Really? I struggle to imagine how anyone could believe this when it seems obvious that an insentient meat-machine would be unable to believe anything at all, meaning that by believing it you prove that it is false.

        Is this reasoning flawed? I don’t mean to be argumentative, honest, but I’m wondering how it would be possible for anyone to hold this view of sentience.

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        1. Well, I can’t really see why self-aware decision making or even non-sentient instinct would offer any evolutionary advantage over mechanistic ‘programmed’ decision making – so long as the program was sufficiently adaptable to the environment. In fact I think you’ll find precisely that assumption built into most theories about evolutionary biology and many of those of psychology and psychiatry (especially Skinner’s behaviourism).

          it seems obvious that an insentient meat-machine would be unable to believe anything at all, meaning that by believing it you prove that it is false.

          But is belief in anything necessary for evolutionary success?

          And how could you possibly tell if someone is acting according to belief, compulsion or automism? There have been several well documented studies of people acting according to post-hypnotic suggestion or in accordance with brain-damage related anosognosia that show in some cases at least that action precedes belief and the latter is retrofitted to the former.

          A computer is perfectly capable of making complex decisions that are correct just as often as humans are without the need to believe in anything. I might ‘believe’ things (or at least believe I do) but I’m perfectly able to accept that, like Arthur Dent, my brain could be replaced by an insentient computer and no-one else would be able to tell the difference (especially if the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation fitted me with a Genuine People Personality (TM)).

          Chalmers posits what he calls ‘philosophical zombies’ (p-zombies) which act objectively according to all the deterministic precursors that drive human activities but have no subjective/internal life. The lights are on but no-one’s home. He suggests it would be impossible to devise an objective means of differentiating p-zombies from sentient humans (which gives me a bit of a chill when I contemplate some people I’ve met). A lot of other leading philosophical theorists of consciousness and AI have been mounting attacks on Chalmers’ p-zombies for over twenty years now but they still lurch onward, maintaining considerable respect in the field. I sure can’t see any obvious weakness in them. Unlike movie zombies, shooting at their brains just makes them stronger – at least if you’re firing from the widely held assumption that the brain is a deterministic wetware computer that provides a complete physicalist explanation for the emergence of mind.

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      2. Very good points you have made here. I agree very much. Especially with the idea that consciousness does not reside in the nervous system or the physical brain. I’m a big fan of the work of Rupert Sheldrake with his theories that the brain acts more like an antenna for receiving signals from a quantum field. I believe there is a lot that we can do to improve the clarity of the reception on our antennas. I actually believe that this is the central goal of many spiritual practices like yoga and meditation. Thank you kindly for your thoughtful response. Much appreciated. Hope you have a great weekend. Warmest regards!

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        1. I’ve gotta admit that quantum consciousness is no more appealing to me than the deterministic physicalist kind.

          Sheldrake (and Roger Penrose even more so) suggest that the apparent randomness we see in quantum events such as electron tunneling and the decay of radioactive atoms might provide a ‘scientific’ escape hatch to the apparent determinism that neuroscientists such as Sam Harris claim preclude the possibility of free will. But frankly I’m no happier with the thought that my decisions are random than with the notion they’re causally predetermined.

          I think both sides of the argument are begging the question, due to their unwarranted belief in the ontological completeness of ‘science’.

          They assume that because science only deals with either causality or randomness that the whole universe must be determined via the interplay of those two factors. I prefer to believe there are things inherently opaque to the scientific method and therefore there are aspects of reality that simply fall outside the domain of science. Including quantum mechanics. I think it more than likely free will is one of those things and consciousness another.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Thank you kindly for your long and thoughful reply. It’s not an either or kind of determinism. We are embedded within the field and it is shaped by the decisions that we make and that is what accounts for the events which occur in our reality. The quantum field does not exists outside of us, merely outside of our linear, rational mechanistic perceptual values. In order to understand quantum physics better you need to understand the idea of holism. Cartesian atomism is too limited. I highly recommend the work of Swiss physicist Fritjof Capra.

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        3. I highly recommend the work of Swiss physicist Fritjof Capra.

          My dusty old paper bookshelf currently incorporates Uncommon Wisdom and The Turning Point as well as Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters and Robert Anton Wilson’s Quantum Psychology. My copy of The Tao of Physics failed to return from a loan about twenty five years ago.

          I can’t say their sort of rhetoric has impressed me very much since I was in my teens. The fact that people have historically reached for similar metaphors when attempting to describe phenomena beyond the realm of natural language doesn’t make the phenomena they’re dealing with the same.

          My understanding is that Capra himself has retreated from many of the observations he made in The Tao of Physics after extensive discussions with people who work in quantum theory and after the abandonment of bootstrap theory by serious scientists.

          Where I can agree with Capra (apart from with much of his politics) is that many things aren’t explicable or even describable with the objective, reductionist, linear-logic methods employed by science. However I don’t think it makes sense to try to force science to abandon such methods simply because they can’t do everything. That would be like throwing away your microwave oven because it doesn’t wash your socks.

          I’ve done several blogposts touching on the topic. Here’s one of them (the relevant passages are below the picture of Adam and The Flying Spaghetti Monster).

          Liked by 1 person

        4. Cool. Thanks for such a huge reply. Yes, I agree linear, logic, reductionist methods cannot even begin to describe the reality. Indeed language can only ever create a conceptual abstraction. That’s the point where ancient spititual concepts come in handy. They work with understandings of the quantum at the experiential level, through the use altered states of conciousness and symbolism. Thanks for heads up on your blog posts, I will definitely check them out. Once again thank you kindly for your time and very well considered responses they are very much appreciated. Warmest regards!

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  3. It is rather confusing that comments come out in reverse order. Is this some setting? It makes for a seemingly odd discussion.

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  4. BTW, you can’t get around the paradox by being happy to observe yourself being happy because that just leads to another remove. You’d then have to observe yourself being happy to observe yourself being happy …

    In Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid Douglas Hofstadter posits that such infinite self-referential regressions are fundamental to the concept of self. He calls such recursive mental functions MU, after μ-recursive functions in computer programming.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Maybe dogs don’t have Buddha nature. Maybe they are Buddha nature.

    Maybe they don’t have concepts of a self that mediates and separates them from their experiences. When happy, just happy. When sad, just sad. No dog being happy or sad.

    You can never know you’re happy because by observing yourself being happy you’ve separated yourself from the experience of happiness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Quite so, cabrogal. Apparently there’s an app you can get that monitors your level of happiness – you basically have to keep answering on a scale of 1 – 10 how happy you feel, or something. Completely bonkers!

      Great post, BTW

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  6. Yes! It seems to me that that the simplicity of the Buddhist view is what makes any explanation of it have to be damn complicated.

    As one mathematician comments, the world may be more simple than we can think. Spot on I’d say.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Jessica! Cute post!

    First, go look up an image of a dog brain on Google. They have brains almost as crinkly as ours. The more crinkly the brain, the smarter the creature, in general and on average. So yes, not only can dogs be happy, but they know when they are. You can see this in dogs because they are capable of acting guilty. They know when they’ve done wrong and act accordingly. For this and many other reasons, that is why these creatures have been “Man’s best friend” since probably before human history started.

    As to Buddha nature, I am convinced all domestic cats and dogs living in nice, loving homes are Buddha. I mean, come on. You have someone to pet and love you, feed you, let you in and out, and clean your poop for you. I kind of think this is the very definition of good karma! These were Gandhi-level adepts from a past life that now get to live in sheer comfort for a time for their previous good deeds.

    🙂

    Don
    The simple-minded Hindu

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Hi Jessica.

    Not disagreeing, but I think maybe the koan is more challenging than this would indicate. Does the dog exist or just the Buddha-nature? Do either exist? Does the dog have Buddha-nature or does Buddha-nature have the dog? Does anyone ‘have’ Buddha nature in the sense of ownership or attribute, and so on and so forth. Hence the reams of words. Just a thought.
    .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, thanks for that Peter. I could’ve gone on for ages asking those questions! I wasn’t implying it was simple… or maybe it is, and we just like to make it complicated by thinking. It’d be so much easier if I were a dog 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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