Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Does a Buddhist have dog-nature?

with 3 comments


Last week the new puppy in our household graduated from her first course in basic doghood. Although it was billed as a class in training dogs, it was actually a class in training humans how to think like dogs. More accurately, it was a class for training people to act as if they think the way the instructor thinks that dogs think. A principle of which we were reminded again and again is that dogs are pack animals. Pack animals require a pack leader. The human being must therefore learn how to be the dog’s pack leader.

A pack leader, we were told repeatedly, calls all the shots. The pack leader says when it is time to play, which toys will be played with, when play time is over, when it is time for a walk, where the walk goes, when the walk is over, when it is time to eat, and when it is time to sleep. The pack leader must have completer domination over the pack. The pack leader must dominate both space and time. All this, we were told, is for the dog’s safety and happiness. A dominated dog is a happy dog. Being a pack leader is enormously stressful and leads to deep unhappiness. If you want a happy puppy, dominate her.

As puppy training progressed through each lesson of canine domination, my sense of uneasy déjà vu steadily increased. It was all too familiar. It was bringing back all kinds of unpleasant memories of various Buddhist gangs (sanghas) I have belonged to. It became increasingly obvious to me that Buddhist teachers, or at least all the ones I have ever caught in the act of playing the role of Buddhist master, operate on the principle that Buddhists all have dog-nature. Buddhist social training is all about domination. There is very little else involved.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I love the core Buddhist practice (by which I mean the ethical precepts). I can tolerate the theoretical dogmas on which the core practice is based (by which I mean the dogma of conditioned origination). I enjoy the meditative exercises that support the core practice (by which I mean the so-called foundations of mindfulness, smṛtyupasthāna). What I do not like, and have never liked, and have never believed promotes any kind of wisdom or compassion, is the social culture that almost always attends this practice and its attendant dogmas and contemplative exercises. I have never believed that a happy disciple is a dominated disciple.

The social culture of Buddhism is hierarchical from (if you’ll forgive the expression) top to bottom. The Buddha is described in the literature as the best of all bipeds. He is routinely described as the unsurpassed teacher of gods and men. He is never shown as being in the position of having anything whatsoever to learn from anyone else; everyone else has everything to learn from him. He makes all the rules. He decides which rules to discard. He decides who can bend the rules and to what extent and in what circumstances. He decides what happens to those who bend or break the rules without his permission. The Buddha decides. Period. (Don’t take my word for it. Read the sūtras.)

The Buddha is the top dog. This is no doubt why the Zen tradition typically gives a disciple the kōan “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Until the Zen disciple realizes that he is a dog and that the Zen master is the pack leader, there can be no kenshō (seeing one’s true nature). The only route to satori (understanding) is to sit when told to sit, stand when told to stand, walk when told to walk, eat when told to eat, lie down when told to lie down, and to learn not to pee on the carpet. Failure to submit completely to the domination of the top dog is known in Buddhist circles as delusion. It is marginally better to be a criminal than to be found guilty of delusion.

The Buddhist masters I have seen in action all draw upon the standard techniques of dominating their disciples. One favorite tool is to have complete control of everyone’s time. The Dharma talk begins when the master begins to speak, and it is finished when the master stops speaking. The master, unlike everyone else, is completely liberated from the timetable. The timetable is, for the master, a mere conventional truth; it is only for the dominated disciple that it is an absolute truth. The timetable may say that a talk is half an hour long, but if the Buddhist master speaks for an hour of for ninety minutes (ideally pausing a few times to observe that everyone in the audience is showing signs of being tired, uncomfortable and bored), then the talk is an hour or ninety minutes long. If the disciple is not completely dominated, he will suffer the tremendous unhappiness that invariably attends the stress of having to think for himself. A dominated disciple is a happy disciple.

The control of time is attended by the control of space. There are certain places where only the master can sit or stand. The master never yields space to anyone, never has to walk around anyone or move for anyone; everyone in the pack yields space to the master. Only the master is allowed on the furniture. Everyone else must sit or lie on the floor. If it were not thus, the disciples would become anxiety-ridden and unhappy, perhaps even deluded. It is an act of supreme compassion on the part of the pack leader to make sure that no one in the pack forms the misery-producing delusion of thinking that he or she might be the pack leader, even for a moment.

There are numerous other ways that a Buddhist pack leader dominates the pack, most of which are obvious enough to need no mention. One method that has been brought to the awareness of the general public and mentioned and discussed often enough is sexual domination.  Sexuelle Hörigkeit (sexual bondage) is an important tool for liberating a disciple from the anxiety that attends the delusion of personal autonomy. Having conjugal rights with a disciple is a vital part of discipline, as is telling disciples whom they can and cannot be happy pairing up with. Buddhist masters, like dogs, dominate potential threats to the harmony of the pack by humping them.

Not being the cynical type—bear in mind that the word “cynic” derives from the Greek word for dog and is cognate with the Latin word from whcih we get the English word “canine”—I have never fared very well in a Buddhist pack. It has never felt to me as if I derived much benefit from being dominated, and watching others being dominated has always made me feel so sick that I have had to go outside and eat some grass until I threw up.  For most of my life I have entertained a fantasy of finding a Buddhist organization designed for human beings instead of for dogs. So far I have been disappointed. But then I have been equally disapponted in the search for a human society of any sort, whether religious or secular, that is made for human beings instead of for dogs.

I would say more, but my puppy is telling me it is now time to go play with her.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011 at 12:27

Posted in Buddhism

3 Responses

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  1. In my own explorations, I have found that much of guruistic Hinduism is similarly structured, as too is much of Sufism. The standard U.S. reaction is to talk about the evils of such “cult leadership” and the importance of personal freedom. This is an easy criticism, but I think it is also facile. I suspect it owes a lot to the example set by that early refugee from Quaker discipline, Tom Paine.

    The reality, at least in my personal view, is not so simple.

    Successful graduates of all three traditions (Buddhism, guruistic Hinduism, and Sufism) will testify that there is a great “spiritual” opening-up that can happen when our own self-esteem and will are successfully defeated, even if the defeat is only momentary, and a rightly prepared student can grow tremendously at that time. All the crushing burdens of Buddhist monastic discipline and guruistic and Sufi disciplines seem aimed at bringing the student to that point.

    To describe this moment of openness as simply a happy-puppy syndrome seems to me to be a bit unfair.

    But if we reject the idea that it is merely a happy-puppey syndrome, then we have to accept that there is an important potential spiritual benefit to be gained from tough monastic discipline, alongside the undeniable abuses of the system and the undeniable psychological and social costs. And the question then becomes: is there a better alternative? Is there some other path to the same benefit, that doesn’t come at so high a price?

    A lot of people — at least here in the West — say, yes, there is: we can defeat our own pride and will without entering a cult. And we point to some examples of success on that alternate path, including Gautama himself, Francis of Assisi, and to a lesser degree, a few of the Quaker giants. But the rarity of such successes is not encouraging. Perhaps this is in part because using the will to defeat the will is a contradiction in terms.

    To me, this is an important issue, and one which still lacks a satisfying resolution. I’d be interested in your further thoughts on the matter.

    Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C])

    Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 10:10

  2. […] a comment left on a previous post, Marshall Massey made the following observation: Successful graduates of all three traditions […]

  3. […] a comment left on a previous post, Marshall Massey made the following […]


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