The Wu! Gate
- By Fa Liang, OHY
- Jul 15
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A monk asked Master Zhaozhou "Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?"
Zhaozhou replied, "Wu!"
This brief dialogue between master and monk, so odd to anyone uninitiated into Zen's strange ways, became one of Zen's most famous Gong-an's (Koans). It would inspire Dharma talks, essays, and books for centuries to come. What is this "Wu!"? And what does it have to do with Zen?
Wu, depending on how it's pronounced, "wu" can mean "nothing," "to hate," the number "fifteen" or a variety of other unrelated things. But the Wu! that master Zhaozhou verbalized was none of these - it was simply an expression of his insight into the question as it related to the monk who asked it.
Most of us Zen people encounter the Wu! story early in our Zen studies as we're trying to figure out what Zen is all about - we find it's intimately connected to the concepts of "no-self," "no ego," and "nothingness." But is Wu! nothing?
I think of Wu! as just the opposite -- as everything: as the freedom and awakening that comes when we let go of the black-and-white, dualistic, perceived nature of things that enable us to enter into the true spirit of Zen. Wu! happens when we let go of everything that we believe is real and go straight to the core of existence - when we relinquish the notion that we can have control over anything.
I also think of it as "the ocean of emptiness." It's not someplace far away; it isn't high up in the air; it isn't on some distant shore: it's right here, right now, and we can each experience it. We just have to pass through the gate.
Before we pass through though, the land of Wu! invariably seems like something beyond our reach - inexplicable yet fascinating. But once we do pass through and once we experience that "ocean of emptiness," it's such a relief to us. We look back on where we were and reflect, "Oh, if I'd only known all that time that I struggled with it that I just had to let go to experience it!"
Japanese Zen master Keido Fukushima said, "The experience of mu may at first glance seem purely negative or passive, but it is not so at all. Being mu, or empty of self, allows one to actively take in whatever comes. Our world today and all in it are separated into dualistic distinctions of good and evil, birth and death, gain and loss, self and other, and so on. By being mu, not only does one's self-centeredness disappear, the conflicts that arise with others dissolve as well. Here is a simple example: When we look at a mountain, we tend to observe it as an object. But if we are mu, we no longer see the mountain as an object; we identify with it; we are the mountain itself. This transcendence of duality may sound like some psychic ability or spiritual power someone possesses. But that is not true. Rather, it is simply and naturally a case of being free, creative and fresh. We become human beings full of boundless love and compassion." [emphasis mine]
So, how do we get there? Where can we find a ticket to enter through this gate?
There are different tools we can use: sitting meditation, zazen, is a good one - whatever amount of time we can devote. It helps us gain the calm and focused mind necessary to look inside ourselves deeply and begin to clear out the internal "garbage" that weighs us down and keeps us from becoming truly free. Amazingly, through practicing for even brief periods of silence and "just sitting," a lot of deep-seated pain seems to surface and we find that through our practice we are able to deal with, and let go of, the pain, taking another step closer to the Wu! Gate.
Wu! isn't something that we look forward to with a sigh and say, "someday maybe I'll experience it." In Chan, we actively strive toward it. We constantly challenge ourselves to let go of our ego-vision and to exist in harmony with everything in the world. We have to acknowledge to ourselves that our individual perceptions are inherently wrong. Nothing actually is as we perceive it to be - simply because we, as humans, tend to have a hard time looking at things without attaching to them our own personal opinions and experiences. We don't see just a tree - we see a beautiful tree or an ugly tree or a tree that's blocking our view of the mountains or a tree that needs to be trimmed. We don't see just a person - we see a screaming kid or an old person who's moving too slow or a co-worker who's threatening our job or an attractive person we'd like to date. We don't see just a pile of dishes to wash - we see an unpleasant task, or we see all the enjoyable things we could be doing instead of washing, or we feel anger or resentment toward the person who we think should have washed the dishes instead.
We can, each of us, experience Wu! -- that emptiness, that relief -- every time we give up our attachment. When we have a job to do, we simply do it - without grumbling, without daydreaming about all the other things we could be doing instead, without any sort of attachment whatsoever. When we meet a person, we simply meet a person - without any sort of judgment or "first impression." When we experience an emotion, we experience it and then let it pass. We don't hold on to it and we don't "add fuel to the fire."
It takes time and patience and perseverance, but it does happen. Each step in the journey is important.
So, what was the point of the question about a dog having Buddha-nature and Zhaozhou retort? In the Zen way, we each have to answer this for ourselves, but T. Griffith Foulk's commentary may bring us as close as words can get: Zhaozhou, he says, "wished to stress the point that although living beings have Buddha-nature, unless they realize that fact by 'seeing the nature,' they remain caught up in delusion and continue to suffer. . . "
Through the Wu! gate, may all our eyes be opened!
Historical note: Zhaozhou lived in China from 778 to 897 and was known for his strange, seemingly paradoxical, actions. But through those actions it is said he connected many people with themselves - with their Buddha Nature. Zhaozhou has been touted as the greatest Chan master of Tang dynasty and many of his anecdotes were recorded as Gong-an's (koans) in the Blue Cliff Record and The Gateless Gate.