Totem 182

It was a comment from Jos that brought this piece into clear view. 

Jos said, “What is the totem? The 2CV or the load on the top?”

His question was not a question, but a realization, a proclamation. In some way a trap as well. 

I responded, “Thanks Jos, neither … but I think the dog is picking up on it somehow.”

This exchange brought me back to my days of penetrating Zen mind. Zen Buddhism involves the introspection of dualistic conceptualization. Jos’ polarity of choice (car or load) drove this point home perfectly. It was a test. Car or Load represents the polarity of consciousness, two products found between subjectivity and objectivity. The polarity inside human experience. And thankfully, the dog reminded me of everything I needed at that point.

In the summer of 1228, at the Soaring Dragon monastery, Wumen, a zen master, compiled his teachings into a collection called Wumen Guan. It consisted of 48 koans, where the first was called Joshu’s Dog.

The koan goes:

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”
Zhaozhou said, “Mu!”

To a Zen Buddhist, every living being has Buddha nature, so the Monk’s question was meant to test the Master. Surprisingly, the master responded ‘No’, which is wrong, but this was meant to throw off the monk, drawing attention to his meddlesome question.

What is at play here is the monk was trying to trick the Master into saying yes, which would have been a dualistic response, a logical response, which is not the spirit of Zen. 

Zen is not about have and not have. If the dog ‘has’ Buddha nature, it alludes to the possibility that it may also not have it. Which is not possible. Buddha nature is not something separate from the dog; the dog ‘is’ Buddha nature. ‘Have’ and ‘not have’ are not options. 

The test was to keep true to the spirit of Zen by moving beyond affirmation and negation and avoid conceptualizing Buddha Nature as a product.

And here, with this art piece, the same situation. Is the totem the car or the load? Neither, because any affirmation or negation of the choices would surely not have been the totem. Joshu’s Dog came running nearly 800 years into the future to my rescue. Good boy.