On dogs as teachers
An ode to my friend, my dog
Last November, a border collie was born in Mexico. Five months later, he flew to Chicago, his new home. When I picked him up from the airport, he was in a gray crate that was sealed tight with zip ties and tape. Through the crate’s small openings, we made eye contact — his eyes weary. Long before a family member brought him here, I was receiving videos and photos of him through Whatsapp. At just five months, he was now in a new country, leaving behind his siblings and parents.
On the drive home, I was dialed into a work meeting and had to constantly go on mute to hide his barks. When we arrived home, he trembled out of the crate, shaking, afraid, and laid in the corner of the room, looking at me like, who are you?
In just a few hours, Mu, which is what I named him, was settled in and exploring my house — smelling just about everything.
Fast forward to today, and Mu is now my friend. No longer a stranger — he trusts me and goes places with me, and we talk and hang out. In only a few weeks, I understood his rhythm, body language, and sounds. I know when he’s hungry, bored, tired, happy, and excited but still, he surprises me daily.
Mu is curious, enjoys leading our walks, is playful around other dogs, and gets excited when he sees somebody on a bike or a skateboard.
I named him Mu, after the Zen koan where a monk asks his master if a dog is enlightened (or has Buddha-nature), and the master replies mu.
Koans are designed to crack open your mind and move you past the rational intellect that we get carried away with. When we are obsessed with a desire for intelligence and knowledge, we miss out on so much. We look at life through a pinhole, caved in, unsatisfied with the here and now. Intelligence is not wisdom.
So when the monk asks his teacher Joshu, if a dog is enlightened, the response mu, is equivalent to, yes, no, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, what? Shut up. Mind your own business! The response mu counters the question.
Latching to questions about the future, relationships, career, the world, and so forth, leads to uncertainty and anxiety. Sometimes the answers we seek are truly none of our business, just as in the case of somebody wanting to know if dogs are enlightened. What? Who cares! What kind of stupid question is that? There’s a novelty in knowing trivial facts, but that’s about it.
Koans challenge us. When you sit long enough with a koan, you slowly strip yourself of the self and come to a direct realization that is beyond words.
So, the word mu puts our intellect on its head. Mu is a paradox, a contradiction, it means everything and nothing all at once. This mu koan is the first one that students work on with their teachers, and in the beginning, just about every answer they give their teacher is wrong. So the students get frustrated. What? I am an intellectual! How is it that I am wrong? I can’t be wrong! And this is exactly where many of us fail — our strong sense of self shatters to pieces when told it is wrong.
Eventually, the frustrated student gives up, and at last, the answer to mu shows itself. They’re ready to move to the next koan.
These past two weeks, in the mornings, we’ve been going to the woods for a walk. As the two of us make our way through the forest, we often go off the trail and find ourselves surrounded by giant trees. The previous night’s rain offers us a rich petrichor the morning after. The forest is the arena in which the two of us engage in a wordless foray. Together we listen to the sound of birds and pay attention to the deer and squirrels that we come in contact with.
And as we walk, and I follow his lead, I contemplate his dogness. Often, man is considered to be the dog’s master, we domesticate dogs so they can behave and obey but during our morning expedition, he is my master — I follow his lead until his body says okay, I am tired, let’s go. So our relationship fluctuates, there’s a dynamic exchange of power that takes place between the two of us.
As I get to know him more, I develop more respect for him — I admire his patience, obedience, determination, and unapologetic nature. Because he’s a puppy, sometimes when he’s tired, he lays down in the middle of our walk and I have to nudge him to continue but he’s stubborn and allows himself a few moments to listen to his body, rest, and then move on. He also likes certain people, the ones he likes, he brings me towards, and through his dogness, he introduces me to new dogs and dog owners. The people he doesn’t like, he lets me know of, so we detour.
People say that dogs are a reflection of their owners, but I also think people can be a reflection of their dogs. Mu develops a new sense of awareness in me that encourages me to mimic his curiosity and playfulness. His sense of wonder for the mundane is inspiring. His beginner’s mind, brings awe to branches, passing objects, smells, and sounds. His ability to see things for the first time over and over and over again is something I admire.
As our relationship grows, I realize that dogs can be great teachers, but they can also be difficult as teachers can be. Mu and I, don’t always see eye to eye on everything, but in his dogness, there’s an abundance of wisdom waiting for me. Mu like mu, requires surrendering and letting go, in order to see what unfolds when looking close.
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Beginner’s Mind | A Playlist
If you follow the Beginner’s Mind playlist below on Spotify, every issue, it’ll be updated with new music. I’ve also added the titles of the songs below. This issue’s playlist is best when played from beginning to end.
andata Ryuichi Sakamoto
Morning After (Loneliness) Michael Rother
Postponed Mindfulness Olan Mill
Drift Andrew Wasylik
Oxygene, Pt. 4 Jean-Michel Jarre
Tangerine II Michael Brook
Heat Miser Massive Attack
Eyes Closed And Traveling Peter Broderick
Solitary Man Neil Diamond
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