October 22, 2014

Passing Through the Gateless Barrier

ensoThe Great Way is gateless, approached by a thousand paths. Pass trough this barrier, you walk freely in the universe.

One of the principal Zen texts from thirteenth century China is a collection of koans entitled Wu-wen kuan (Mumonkan). This translates into English as The Gateless Gate, or what we Westerners would think of as an open gateway. Originally envisioned as a hidden, but open passage through otherwise impenetrable mountains, the Gateless Gate once found presents us with unrestricted passage. Written as a collection of precedential cases, the Wu-wen kuan gives us forty-eight examples of how we can pass through the gateless barrier that may have hitherto been barring our progress.

The introduction of this text makes it clear that the mind is both the barrier and the gateway to enlightenment. In order to pass freely through, one need only to abandon all cherished possessions. To those who see possessions as being corporeal this seems obvious and is akin to the Christian concept of a rich man trying to enter heaven with his riches as being like a camel passing through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24). From the Zen perspective, the possessions that cannot pass through the Gateless Gate are much less tangible. These are the possessions of the mind; conceptions, assumptions, opinions, understandings, facts and conclusions that make up the excess baggage that prevents our free passage.

Like the security gates at the airport, the alarm sounds when we attempt to carry our unchecked baggage through the gate and we are immediately stopped by Fudo-myo, the fearsome gate keeper, unable to proceed. Thinking that the bags we carry with us are necessities for our comfort and survival, we refuse to leave them behind. Understanding our desire, the indomitable yet compassionate gate keeper gives us the option of passing freely without the baggage, but stuck as we are in our own limited knowledge, we cannot imagine continuing on. How can we let go of what we believe when it is the foundation of our understanding? Surely, we cannot be expected to pass through this checkpoint unarmed and unprotected by our theories and reason. There must be some other way! We have learned so much and practiced for so long. Are we to abandon everything? Our education? Our understanding? Our teachers? Our traditions? What of all our training and years spent sitting on the cushion?

Wu-wen makes this clear from the very beginning: Those who try to understand through other people's words are striking at the moon with a stick. What is gained from external circumstances will only perish in the end. To even raise these questions is to raise waves when there is no wind. How can they see reality as it actually is? The notions of education, understanding, traditions, are the very mental mountains we are attempting to penetrate. Nothing we know or believe will set us free, freedom is only obtained by letting go of our conceptual baggage.

Until we let go, it is impossible to go any further and no amount of "saying" we know will avail. No matter how many times have we read or chanted the Heart Sutra, saying No suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition, also no attainment with nothing to attain...and so forth until no realm of mind consciousness..., we still try to take it all with us. We may "believe" that we understand what we are reading or saying but these beliefs are our barriers, the very baggage that will not go through the gate, much less to the other shore.

This is not to say that we must know nothing, but rather that we should not remain attached to anything we know. In the end, it is our attachment to our so-called knowing that stops us dead in our tracks. Case thirty eight of the Wu-wen kuan illustrates quite clearly the fate of the unenlightened Zen Ox who has practiced and meditated faithfully for many years, studied the sutras, and believed whole-heartedly in the words of the masters:

It is like an ox that passes through a latticed window.
Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through.
Why can't its tail pass through as well?


What is the meaning of this? Head, wide horns and broad shoulders all pass through freely, but what of the rope-thin tail? Clearly, we think, there must be some mistake! But the answer is the last thing we suspect, our knowing becomes the trap. It isn't that we have not practiced enough, studied enough, or listened enough to our teachers (the horns, body and legs), it is precisely that we "believe" these things will somehow enlighten us that has trapped us in the first place.

There is a popular story about a Zen master taking on an erudite pundit regarding the burdens of attachment to one's cherished knowledge:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. While the professor proudly expounded his understanding of Zen, Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself.

"It is overfull. No more will go in!"

"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I teach you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"


Suddenly the professor finds himself in a predicament; his cup is full and there is no room for the understanding he seeks. Full of judgments, diagnoses, opinions, attributions and conclusions, he has made it impossible for the revelation of truth to enter. What he knows keeps him from knowing.

To "empty one's cup" is the single most difficult aspect of our Zen training. In order to pass through the barrier we must be willing to disregard everything we have learned. What we think we "understand" or "believe" becomes the definitive obstruction to our becoming awakened. It is said that "knowledge is power" and this may be true in a worldly way, but in this case the power of our knowledge is the power that is stopping us. We have been seduced by the power and security of our conditioned knowing and we will refuse to let it go.

Assumptions, opinions, understandings and so called facts are all intrinsically limited and lead us directly to conclusions, which by definition are endings. To conclude something is to bring it to an end. Built one on another, our ever-mounting assumptions and opinions become fixed conclusions that are stacked and interlocked with previous conclusions. Unwittingly, by believing our conclusions, we progressively build the very barrier of knowledge that keeps us from passing freely through the wisdom gate. In cultivating the field of boundless consciousness we must clear it of all obstructions. Everything we believe as "the truth" must be forgotten and replaced with the understanding that "the truth" is a conclusion as well. To be awakened we must break away from our opinions and free ourselves from our delusions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the determined mind of the Zen practitioner who has yet to experienced awakening. The essential mind is open and limitless, yet due to our conclusions, the same mind becomes the impenetrable barrier. Chapter twelve of the Tao Te Ching points directly to the limits of our knowledge and perceptions, as well as, the extra troublesome baggage of desire, and illustrates this concisely:

The five colors blind the eye.
The five sounds deafen the ear.
The five flavors numb the taste.
Concepts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.

How is it that our perceptions can make us senseless? (lit. sense-less) To see colors is not to be blind, to hear sounds is not to be deaf, yet if we make conclusions from perceptions this is exactly what happens. We know that there are more than five colors (the number five is just a product of Chinese numerology), but would five hundred colors be any better? It doesn't matter if we believe that there is only one blue or ten thousand blues. By giving blue a finite dimension we have effectively limited our understanding of blue.

Colors, sounds, flavors, smells and feelings are all mentioned in the Heart Sutra as being non-existent or empty. This does not so much mean that they do not exist, but rather it means that they are unfathomable and our knowledge of them is both limited and self-limiting. We are forced to limit our minds when we abide by what we think we know. We all know there are more than five colors (or even five thousand colors) but we limit what we see by what we believe. Everything we experience that limits our consciousness is a product of our so-called "knowledge." What we think we know is not only an expression of our knowledge, but an admission of our ignorance. No matter how much we know, what we do not know exceeds that knowledge ten thousand times.

Through abandoning our conceptions and conclusions we open our mind to the process of illumination. Awakening begins with casting off the chains of our limited knowledge and resting our attention in the limitlessness of the boundless mind. Unencumbered by perceptions and assumed knowledge, the mind has unlimited potential and it is only our limited beliefs that keep us from realizing this. Every precious concept must be left totally open and allowed to be freely transformed. A truly open mind is open in every direction and totally without conclusions. Wisdom is the process of allowing our awareness to rise above our knowledge. Rigid knowledge is allowed to be replaced by fluid awareness, as our innate wisdom displaces our deep-seated insecurities. As we approach the Gateless Gate we must check our baggage with the intention of never getting it back. To want to hold on to a single claim check is to spring the trap on the Ox's tail.

To awaken is to walk fearlessly naked through the open gate, without reservation, free of expectations and without anything in mind. To simply return to the state of the un-carved block, walk right through the barrier and spontaneously begin again.

The five colors blind the eye.
The five sounds deafen the ear.
The five flavors numb the taste.
Concepts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.

The Master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is open as the sky.


Tao te Ching, Ch. 12