Then Steve Heine pointed to it in Like Cats and Dogs: Contesting the Mu Koan in Zen Buddhism (review by yours truly here) and it sunk it’s teeth into my behind.
One place the story shows up in classical literature is in the Blue Cliff commentary on Case 96, “Zhaozhou’s Three Turning Words” in the section for “A gold Buddha does not pass through a furnace.” And there’s occasional reference to “Zihu’s dog” in the comments to various koans.
It goes like this:
“Zihu set up a sign on his outside gate; on the sign were words saying,
‘Zihu has a dog: above, he takes people’s heads; in the middle, he takes people’s loins; below, he takes people’s legs. If you stop to talk to him, you’ll lose your body and life.’
“Whenever Zihu saw a newcomer, he would immediately shout and say, ‘Watch out for the dog!’
As soon as the monk turned his head, Zihu would immediately return to the abbot’s room.”
There’s not only a lot of dogs, cats, foxes, and oxen in these old Zen stories but a lot of dismemberment (or threat thereof) too, pointing to our divided lives in the midst of wholeness. Like Uncle John’s Band sings, “I live in a silver mine but I call it beggar’s tomb.”
Still, I smile every time I think of wily Zihu calling “Dog!” and ditching the practitioner who looks off. And I tense with the practitioner who does the normal self-protective thing and winds up like the guy on the deserted island – a person alone in the universe.
Now Zihu was a dharma brother of Zhaozhou – that old guy who also had a dog who either had or didn’t have buddha nature. They seem to share a family style of putting dogs front and center.
The koan for which the above story is context asks, “Why could Zihu’s dog not bite Zhaozhou?”
If you know the meaning of “a gold Buddha does not pass through a furnace” in the activity of a fully engaged life, you’ll also know “Why could Zihu’s dog not bite Zhaozhou?”
Might seem rather strange and obscure at first so it is necessary to enter to body of the koan to taste this one. There’s something very important here for our path of practicing enlightenment, but if you stop to talk about it, you’ll lose your body and life.
Oh, hey, watch out for the dog!