The Gateless Gate

The Gateless Gate

The Gateless Gate (無門關, Mandarin. Wúménguān, Japanese. 無門関, Mumonkan) is a collection of 48 Chan (Zen) koans compiled in the early 13th century by the Chinese Zen master Wumen Hui-k'ai (無門慧開)(1183–1260) (Japanese: Mumon Ekai). Wumen's preface indicates that the volume was published in 1228. Each koan is accompanied by a commentary and verse by Wumen. A classic edition includes a 49th case composed by Anwan (pen name for Cheng Ch'ing-Chih) in 1246. Wu-liang Tsung-shou also supplemented the volume with a verse of four stanzas composed in 1230 about the three checkpoints of Zen master Huanglong. These three checkpoints of Huanglong should not be confused with Doushuai's Three Checkpoints found in Case 47.

Along with the Blue Cliff Record and the oral tradition of Hakuin Ekaku, The Gateless Gate is a central work much used in Rinzai School practice. Five of the koans in the work concern the sayings and doings of Zhaozhou; four concern Ummon.

The common theme of the koans of the Wumen Guan and of Wumen's comments is the inquiry and introspection of dualistic conceptualization. Each koan epitomizes one or more of the polarities of consciousness that act like an obstacle or wall to the insight. The student is challenged to transcend the polarity that the koan represents and demonstrate or show that transcendence to the Zen teacher.


Nomenclature and etymology

The full title of the work is Chan Zong Wumen Guan 禅宗無門關, and can be translated as The Zen Sect's Gateless Barrier or The Gateless Checkpoint of the Zen Lineage, etc. Chán 禅 is the Chinese source of the word Zen. Zong 宗 means lineage, school, or sect. As the Zen Lineage comes first in the title it is appropriately translated by using the possessive at the beginning or transposing it to the end of the title and using the preposition "of the".

Although the short title The Gateless Gate has become fairly common in English, this translation must be rejected upon closer scrutiny. A particular source of criticism is the fact that in the rendering, "Gateless Gate", the word "gate" occurs twice. However, the two Chinese characters being translated here are 門 (mén) and 關 (guān), which are different words and usually have distinct meanings. In order to more accurately reflect this, the translations The Gateless Passage, The Gateless Barrier or The Gateless Checkpoint are used.

The character 無 () has a fairly straightforward meaning: no, not, or without. However, within Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, the term 無 () is often a synonym for 空 (sunyata). This implies that the 無 () rather than negating the gate (as in "gateless") is specifying it, and hence refers to the "Gate of Emptiness". This is consistent with the Chinese Buddhist notion that the "Gate of Emptiness" 空門 is basically a synonym for Buddhism, or Buddhist practice.

門 (mén) is a very common character meaning door or gate. However, in the Buddhist sense, the term is often used to refer to a particular "aspect" or "method" of the Dharma teachings. For example, 法門 ("fămén") refers to a "Dharma method"; 禪門 ("chánmén") means the "method of meditation". Reading 無門 ("wúmén") in this sense of "the method of not / emptiness" is also in conformity with the text itself, where the first passage describes how to practice the "method of wú", "What is the checkpoint of the Patriarchs? It is just this character "wú", that is the single checkpoint of the (Chán) school" (如何是祖師關。只者一箇無字。乃宗門一關也). This is also the meaning given by Mazu of Hongzhou (洪州馬祖) (according to Zongmi's Records of the Mirror of the School 宗鏡錄), "No method is the Dharma method, is also said to be the emptiness method (無門為法門。亦名空門)..." (T48, no. 2016, p. 418, b13-21).

In modern Chinese, 關 (guān) is most often a verb meaning to close, but it also functions as a noun with the meaning of checkpoint, such as a customs house or a fortress guarding a mountain pass. This implies the literal translation checkpoint without a gate. As a checkpoint is something that can be either closed, functioning as a barrier, or open, functioning as an entry point, this title may be taken to have a double meaning: does "without a gate" mean that the barrier has no gateway through which to pass, or does it mean that the passage has no gate to block it?

One should also note that, as the author of the collection was named Wumen (which could mean either the literal gateless or the figurative gate of emptiness), Wumenguan could also be read as simply, the Checkpoint of Wumen. This corresponds to the passage in the opening of the text, "Just as the General seizes the checkpoint, with a great sword in hand" (如奪得關將軍大刀入手).

Structure and contents

The text was originally prepared by Wumen as a record of his teaching during a monastic training period held at Longxiang (Soaring Dragon) monastery in the summer of 1228. Wumen selected the 48 koans and commented on and added a verse for each koan. His teachings were transcribed and after the training period were compiled into the collection called the Wumen Guan.

As was customary in China at the time, an edition might have additions of text inserted by a subsequent owner or publisher. The most well known version of the text is from the Japanese wood block edition made from the 1246 manuscript edition that contains the following sections.

  • An untitled introduction by Xi Xaing (習巷), publisher of the 1228 edition, written in the self-deprecating style of Zen humor.
  • An untitled dedication by Wumen to the Emperor and Empress. Works without such dedications were subject to Imperial censorship as being seditious.
  • An untitled foreword by Wumen followed by a verse on the title.
  • A table of contents with the title of each koan. However, the koans are unnumbered in both the table of contents and the body of the text and there are no page numbers in the text, so the table of contents is just the list of the koan's titles in order of appearance.
  • The 48 koans presented in four parts consisting of (1) a title composed of four characters, (2) the body of the koan beginning with the name of the protagonist of the case, (3) a comment beginning with the words "Wuman says" (無門曰), and a verse beginning with the words "The ode says" (頌曰).
  • An untitled afterword by Wumen that ends with the words "The end of the volume the Gateless Checkpoint."
  • An appendix believed to be written by Wumen titled "Zen Caveats" or "Zen Warnings"" consisting of twelve one-line aphorisms about Zen practice written in the style of Zen contrariness that points to not falling for either side of dualistic thinking. For example, Zen is known as the school of Buddhism that does not stand on written words and one caveat says, "Neglecting the written records with unrestrained ideas is falling into a deep pit."
  • An appendix titled "Huanglong's Three Checkpoints" (黄龍三關) written by Wulaing Zongshou (無量宗壽) in the late spring of 1230 C.E.. Huanglong Huinan (J. Oryo Enan), 1002-1069. was a Zen master who promulgated three questions as one-line koans: "Everyone exists by a particular cause of birth. What is your cause of birth?" "How is my hand like the hand of Buddha?" "How is my leg like the leg of a donkey?" Wulaing wrote four four-line stanzas (Sanskrit gathas). Each of the first three stanzas comments on one of Huanglong's three questions and the fourth stanza is a summation. Wulaing writes that he penned the four verses to thank and commemorate Wumen's recent stay at Ruiyan (瑞巖)(Lucky Cliff) monastery where Wumen was the visiting head teacher for the training period.
  • A short untitled addendum by Wuan written on the republishing of the work in the summer of 1245 C.E. Wuan called his brief addition the 49th case. It referred to Bodhidharma's famous Zen motto: "Not maintaining written words, but pointing directly to the human heart-mind to see one's own nature to become Buddha".
  • An undated postscript by Menggong (孟拱) consisting of a very brief story of a military ambassador who used his army as farmers to reclaim a wasteland and thus pacify the region. This appears to be a metaphor for the practice of Zen.
  • An appendix by Anwan dated the beginning of summer 1246, presented in the same format as one of the 48 main koans and consisting of (1) an untitled introduction, (2) a title, "Younger Brother's 49th Standard Talk", (3) the body of the case, (4) a comment beginning with "Anwan says", and (5) a verse beginning with "The ode says", followed by Anwan's signature with the place and date of the writing.

Kōans included in The Gateless Gate

1. Joshu's Dog
2. Hyakujo's Fox
3. Gutei's Finger
4. A Beardless Foreigner
5. Kyogen Mounts the Tree
6. Buddha Twirls a Flower
7. Joshu Washes the Bowl
8. Keichu's Wheel
9. A Buddha before History
10. Seizei Alone and Poor
11. Joshu Examines a Monk in Meditation
12. Zuigan Calls His Own Master
13. Tokusan Holds His Bowl
14. Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two
15. Tozan's Three Blows
16. Bells And Robes

17. The Three Calls Of The Emperor's Teacher
18. Tozan's Three Pounds
19. Everyday Life Is The Path
20. The Enlightened Man
21. Dried Dung
22. Kashapa's Preaching Sign
23. Do Not Think Good, Do Not Think Not-Good
24. Without Words, Without Silence
25. Preaching From The Third Seat
26. Two Monks Roll Up The Screen
27. It Is Not Mind, It Is Not Buddha, It Is Not Things
28. Blow Out The Candle
29. Not The Wind, Not The Flag
30. This Mind Is Buddha
31. Joshu Investigates
32. A Philosopher Asks Buddha

33. This Mind Is Not Buddha
34. Learning Is Not The Path
35. Two Souls
36. Meeting A Zen Master On The Road
37. A Buffalo Passes Through The Enclosure
38. An Oak Tree In The Garden
39. Ummon's Sidetrack
40. Tipping Over A Water Vase
41. Bodhidharma Pacifies The Mind
42. The Girl Comes Out From Meditation
43. Shuzan's Short Staff
44. Basho's Staff
45. Who Is He?
46. Proceed From The Top Of The Pole
47. Three Gates Of Tosotsu
48. One Road Of Kembo

(Some versions include a 49th koan, "Amban's Addition").

Case 1: Joshu's Dog

A monk asked Zhaozhou, "Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?"
Zhaozhou replied, "Wú."
Translators often render Zhaozhou's answer as mu from Japanese retellings. Normally, wu and mu mean no, not, without, "nothing", or nonexistence. It is the single most common character in the entire Chinese Buddhist canon. It serves to translate a number of terms which are standard in Indian Buddhism. Centuries earlier, the same Chinese character appeared at the end of verse 40 of Lao Zi's Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) in a line sometimes translated as "existence emerges from nonexistence". Mahayana Buddhist doctrine codified in the Nirvana Sutra held that all sentient beings, including animals, possess the capacity for enlightenment. However, the commentary of teachers in the Linji (Rinzai in Japanese) tradition tends to emphasize that this kōan dialog consists of a challenge the monk posed to Zhaozhou to demonstrate Buddha-nature without becoming entangled in doctrine; and that this interpretation only has meaning to a meditator who contemplates the kōan.

A related kōan in the Book of Serenity reinforces the teaching that Zhaozhou's response does not refer to affirmation or negation:

One time a monk asked Zhaozhou, "Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?"
Zhaozhou answered, "No."
Another time, a monk asked Zhaozhou, "Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?"
Zhaozhou answered, "Yes."

Case 2: Hyakujo's Fox

See the wild fox kōan.

Case 6: Buddha Twirls a Flower

Based on the Flower Sermon:

When Shakyamuni Buddha was at Vulture Peak, he held out a flower to his listeners.
Everyone was silent.
Only Mahakashyapa broke into a broad smile.
The Buddha said, "I have the True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, and the Subtle Dharma Gate, independent of words and transmitted beyond doctrine. This I have entrusted to Mahakashyapa."
From Wu-Men's comment about this kōan: "Gautama insolently insults noble people. He sells dog meat labeled as mutton and thinks it commendable." Wu-Men actually intends his scathing insult as a form of high praise, thwarting any student's attempt to rationally explain the kōan as feeble.

Case 7: Joshu Washes the Bowl

A monk asked Zhaozhou to teach him.
Zhaozhou asked, "Have you eaten your meal?"
The monk replied, "Yes, I have."
"Then go wash your bowl", said Zhaozhou.
At that moment, the monk was enlightened.
This kōan is beloved of students, perhaps because it seems to negate the need to understand obscure doctrines. Wu-Men comments in verse "Because it's so clear / it takes long to realize", and straightforward it may seem, but this kōan is an idiom and the student is assumed to be aware of its cultural context. If one does not know this context, the kōan cannot be understood from the traditional reference point.
The meal of consideration is a traditional meal of rice. It was customary for monks to maintain samadhi (the practice which produces complete meditation) while eating this meal, and so Zhaozhou is not asking whether the monk has eaten: he asks instead whether the monk was able to remain in samadhi throughout the meal. The monk affirms, and then realizes he has already received the teaching. This kōan is one of the 12 Gates taught in the Kwan Um School of Zen.
The first principle of Zen is that there is no Zen. The monk was enlightened before he asked.

Case 8: Keichu's Wheel

Getsuan said to his students, "Keichu, the first wheel-maker in China, made two wheels having fifty spokes each. Suppose you took a wheel and removed the nave uniting the spokes. What would become of the wheel? If Keichu had done so, could he be called the master wheel-maker?"
This kōan alludes to the Tao Te Ching, one of the main texts of Taoism:
We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.

Case 29: Not The Wind, Not The Flag

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, "The flag is moving."
The other replied, "The wind is moving."
Huineng overheard this. He said, "Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving."
Of the two monks, Wumen says they were trying to buy iron; Huineng, out of compassion, gave them gold instead. This kōan demonstrates the realization that in naming an object one may cloud one's understanding of the true nature of mind by falling into externalization and believing that the true nature of the flag, the wind, and the mind are different. Hui Neng always taught the One Vehicle Buddhism of One Mind which teaches that wisdom (Sanskrit: prajna) comes from the Essence of Mind and not from an exterior source.

Case 38: An Oak Tree In The Garden

A monk asked Zhaozhou, "Why did the ancestral founder (i.e., Bodhidharma) come from the west?"
Zhaozhou replied, "The cypress tree in front of the hall."
After Zhaozhou's death, a monk asked Huijiao (a disciple of Zhaozhou's) about the cypress kōan. Huijiao denied that Zhaozhou ever said it. The disciple did indeed know Zhaozhou's kōan (it was very famous already), but felt it would be better to retire the kōan for this particular monk. This denial has become a kōan itself.
Reportedly, Chinese translators have tended to render the type of tree in the kōan as "cypress" while Japanese translators have rendered it as "the oak tree in the courtyard".[1]

Zen Caveats

The Wumen Guan has an appendix titled "Zen Caveats" (禪箴) with one-line aphorisms dealing with Zen practice The word zhēn (箴) means "caveat", "warning", or "admonition", but it also has the meaning of "needle" or "probe" (as in acupuncture needles) and is sometimes translated as "Zen Needles". As with the main koans, each caveat challenges the Zen student's attachment to dualistic concepts, here those especially related to Zen practice.

Following the rules and protecting the regulations is binding oneself without rope.
Moving freely vertically and horizontally without obstruction is the way of outsiders and the nightmare army.
To preserve the heart mind and to purify it by letting impurities settle to the bottom in quiescence is the perverted Zen of silent illumination.
Neglecting the written records with unrestrained ideas is falling into a deep pit.
To be awake and not ignorant is to wear chains and shoulder a cangue.
Thinking good and thinking evil are the halls of heaven and hell.
A view of Buddha and a view of Dharma are the two enclosing mountains of iron.
A person who perceives thoughts as they immediately arise is fiddling with spectral consciousness.
However, being on a high plateau practicing samadhi is the stratagem of living in the house of ghosts.
To advance results in ignoring truth; to retreat results in contradicting the lineage.
Neither to advance nor to retreat is being a breathing corpse.
Just say, how will you walk?
You must work hard to live in the present and, to finish, all the more. I do not advise the unfortunate excess of continual suffering.

See also


  1. ^ The Gateless Barrier (subtitle) The Wu-Men Kuan (Mumonkan), Robert Aitken, North Point Press/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1991, incorporates Wu-Men Kuan (J. Mumonkan), Wu-Men, 1228); see p306, footnote 1 for Case #37.

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