Chinese Philosophy – The Gateless Gate

The Gateless Gate (Chinese: Wumen Kuan, Japanese: Mumonkan, 1228) is the most popular collection of koans cases in the Zen tradition, followed by the Blue Cliff Record.  It contains many of the central moments of Zen in its 48 cases, including many we have already covered in the last few lectures.  Zhaozhou’s dog is the first case.  The Buddha holding up a flower and Mahakasyapa smiling is the sixth.  Nanquan killing the cat and Zhaozhou walking out with a sandal on his head, two cases in the Blue Cliff Record, are together the 14th case of the Gateless Gate.  Dungshan’s three pounds of flax is case 18.  Huineng asking Huiming about his original face after being chased down on a mountain is case 23.  Huineng saying it is neither wind nor flag but mind that is moving is case 29.  Mazu saying this mind is Buddha is case 30, and Mazu saying no mind, no Buddha is case 33.

The 48 cases were compiled by master Wumen (1183 – 1260) for teaching at a monastic retreat, who claims in his introduction to the text that the collection, including the title, was thrown together without much thought and the koans are in no particular order.  Wumen contemplated the koan about the dog and Zhaozhou’s “nothing” for six years until he experienced great enlightenment.  Like a crazed Daoist sage, he was known for letting his hair and beard grow out, wearing dirty robes and working in the fields by his temple.

The traditional title of the work, “Gateless Gate”, is somewhat of a mistranslation, but the title has become fossilized in English-speaking references to the classic Zen text.  Wumen’s own name (Wu-men) is the first word in the title (Wumenguan, Japanese: Mumonkan), and it refers to lacking a door, entry point or way of practice (wu – no, men – door/way), not to lacking a fence or a boundary that includes a gate.  The second word in the title (guan) means wall, barrier or checkpoint, a boundary set up to block or allow passage, so the entire title of the work is somewhat a gateless gate, but also a doorless wall or a checkpoint without point of entry.

Wumen wrote in the preface to the text that the “doorless wall” is the door into the Buddha’s teaching.  How do you pass through a doorless wall?  Wumen says that anything that passes through cannot be the treasure without beginning or end, independent of causation and time.  It seems that we are not supposed to think of passing through the door by going from one side, through the door, and out the other, but rather passing through the wall by simultaneously finding ourselves on both sides of it.  Wumen says that fools who depend on words and concepts are trying to hit the moon with a stick, scratching their shoes when their feet itch, glimpsing a fine horse running past a window, but those who unflinchingly cut straight through the barrier cannot be stopped by the the eight-armed demon king and will cause all the Indian and Chinese patriarchs to fear and beg for their lives.

In the third case of the text, whenever master Juzhi (Japanese: Gutei) was asked about the Buddha’s teachings or the meaning of Zen he would simply raise one finger.  Long before, he had been enlightened when a traveling monk had raised a finger and told him, “All truths are here.  This finger is now the smiling nun and her hat, and now it’s the cries of humanity, now its a babbling brook, and now it’s a lofty mountain peak towering above everything.”  Unfortunately, many young monks began imitating Juzhi by raising a finger every time they were asked a question, including one boy who would watch Juzhi all day and imitate him in every way.  Juzhi asked the boy about the meaning of Zen, and when the boy raised his finger Juzhi sliced off the top of it with a knife.  As the boy ran away screaming, clutching his bleeding finger, Juzhi called out him.  When the boy turned, Juzhi held up one finger.  He asked the confused and frightened boy what the meaning of Zen is, the boy raised what remained of his severed finger, and was greatly enlightened, in a way that hopefully compensated him for his rather severe and traumatizing work-related injury.

In the fifth case, Xiangyan (Japanese: Kyogen) told his students, “It is as though you are up in a tree, hanging from a branch with your teeth.  Your hands and feet can’t touch any branch.  Someone appears beneath the tree and asks, ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the west?’  If you do not answer, you are impolite and irresponsible, and if you do answer, you fall and lose your life.  How can you escape?”  In a longer version of the case, one of the monks asked him, “What was the one in the tree like before he climbed up there?” and Xiangyan laughed heartily.  Perhaps if we reassuringly hear that, like a true-to-life obedient water buffalo, we are each as rude as Linji, Pahua and Zhaozhou, perhaps we can learn to keep our fool mouths shut.  However, let us say you can’t help but speak.  When you open your mouth in an imaginary thought experiment where you are hanging from a tree by your teeth, which way do you fall, down?  Why down?  Assuming there is gravity in your imagination, and you do fall down, how long does it take for you to fall and die?  When you die in your mind, if you do, does everything vanish?  How many ways can you be brought back to life in an imaginary universe?

In the 12th case, Shiyan (Japanese: Zuigan) talked to himself constantly.  Every morning when he woke, he would say to himself, “Master!” and answer himself, “Yes, sir!” – “Become sober!” – “Yes Sir!” – “And do not be deceived by others!” – “Yes, sir!  Yes sir!”  Clearly there is no fooling him.

In the 20th case, Sungyuan asked the assembly, “Why can’t someone with incredible strength lift up a single leg?  It is not with the tongue that you speak.”  When we lift a leg we lift a part of ourselves, and thus haven’t lifted anything above ourselves at all.  How high can we lift a leg above itself and ourselves?  We do not speak with a tongue alone, but with lips, lungs, air and countless other things involved.  If we only have a leg in mind when Sungyuan asks us about it, we think about lifting the leg and not ourselves.  If we think about speaking with something other than a tongue, we do not think about speaking with a tongue and other things together.  With the leg, we think about it and not ourselves.  With the tongue, we think about something other than it, and not ourselves, it and everything together with us.

In the 38th case, Wuzu (Japanese: Goso) told the assembled monks, “It is like a water buffalo passing through a window.  It’s head, horns and four legs all pass through.  Why can’t its tail pass through along with the rest of it?”  If we think in the widest terms possible, existence is like a window, our senses and thoughts and living existence looking out onto to the world, and the beginning of things seems past and the middle of things present, currently passing through the window, but the end of things, the interwoven ways that things cause other things, doesn’t come through, leaving the beast suspended in mid-air.  Existence is a wonderful and strange unexplainable beast that absurdly remains in process, without end or graspable conclusion, unable to be tamed, weeded or singled out according to Linji and Zhaozhou.

In the 44th case, Bazhiao told the assembly, “If you have a staff, I will give you a staff.  If you don’t have a staff, I will take a staff away from you.”  Jesus similarly said he takes from those who don’t have and gives to those who already do.  What does it feel like to have a staff?  What does it feel like to not have one?  When Bazhiao says we have a staff or not, what does he give or take?

In the 45th case, Wuzu of the windowed water buffalo said, “Shakyamuni and Maitreya,” the original Buddha who came at the apex of our era and the future buddha who will come at our era’s end, “are servants of another.  Tell me, who is their master?”  Perhaps their common master is somewhere near Linji’s true sage of no rank, and just down the road from Huineng’s original face.

In the final 48th case, a monk asked Ganfeng, “All Buddhas of the universe enter nirvana by one road.  Where is it?”  Ganfeng drew the number one in the air (a horizontal line in Chinese rather than a vertical one, like a flat road) and replied, “Here it is.”  The monk went to Yunmen and asked the same question.  Yunmen held up a fan and said, “This fan will reach to the thirty third heaven and hit the nose of the presiding deity there,”  striking the mind of the monk in front of him in an unexplainable way, pulling his nose much like Mazu.

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