Red Cedar Zen Community, 1021 N Forest, Bellingham Washington

Nomon Tim Burnett : Gateless Barrier 1 - Zhaozhou's Mu

Wednesday, December 19, 2018 8:30 PM | Talus Latona (Administrator)

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Case 1 "Zhaozhou's Mu" of the Gateless Gate Koan Collection (Mumonkan) features the teacher Zhaozhou:

Pinyin Chinese Zhaozhou
Wade-Giles Chinese Chao-chou
Japanse Joshu
Lived 778 – 897

A key biographical point: (on leaving on pilgrimage at age 80) “If I meet an old man of 90 who has something to learn from me I will teach him, if I meet a young girl of 9 who has something to teach me, I will learn from her”

Tim highly recommends this scholarly chapter on what koans are and where they came from: Form and Function of Koan LIterature - T Griffith Faulk - The Koan - Heine Wright 2000.pdf

Tim's talk notes are below - he often departs from the notes but the notes themselves can be helpful.


The great holy book of Japanese Zen - studied very heavily in the Rinzai school especially and also deeply honored by our Soto school is called in Japanese Mu-mon-kan - in English the Gateless Barrier or the Gateless Gate. Mu means negation, mon is gate like in my name No-mon - responding gate - and kan means barrier. So literally it's no gate barrier.

A barrier that has no gate that you have to get through would be the reading in the break through to enlightenment style. But a set of Chinese characters it pretty flexible so we can also read it as no gate, no barrier would fits the idea that we are inherently okay already. This is a step beyond the idea of gradual progress towards enlightenment into the deep idea that we are deeply okay already - just as we are - we are Buddha nature - we are Buddha. It's just our nutty minds get a little side tracked. No gate, No barrier. There is no gate needed here as there was no barrier to begin with.

The book is a collection of 48 Zen stories - koans. The form that it has now was created in the late 13th century by a Chinese Chan master - the character we call "Zen" is pronounced "Chan" in China - his name was Wumen Huikai. Confusingly you see at least three different spellings of every Chinese Zen master. There are two common ways they are written in Roman characters - the older scholarly system called Wade-Giles and the newer Chinese government sponsored system of Pinyin. So this teacher is wumen in as one word in Pinyin and as a hyphenated word in Wade-Giles wu-men. And the Japanese when they see the Chinese characters used pronounce them in their own manner so they say momun. To make things even more confusing the Japanese when they are using borrowed Chinese characters in Japanese words - when they become kanji - have yet another way of pronouncing the exact same character.

The first character in this teacher who compiled the book is relevant to our first story. It means no or negatation in general like "un" in English. In Chinese it's pronounced "wu" and in the Chinese-facing Japanese pronounciation they call onyomi it's "mu" but when the Japanese say no to each other they don't say "mu" they say "īe" (eee-yeh).

Fun with language. You don't need to understand Asian language to study Zen - and I've barely scratched the surface of that vast topic myself - but it's helpful to have a sense of where the sayings and teachings of Zen have come from. And they've definitely bubbled up through many layers of language and culture and translation. Of course Zen tells the story that it's beyond language - we can't introduce formal Zen without sharing the great summary of all Zen teachings that's attributed to Bodhidharma:

A special transmission outside the scriptures,

Not depending on words and letters;

Directly pointing to the mind

Seeing into one’s true nature and attaining Buddhahood.

This from a Buddhist tradition that has produced tons of written literature but it's not wrong to say this either. There is a central feeling - a kind of essence - to these teachings that is indeed beyond words and letters and concepts.

Back to our book. What emerged in the 9th and 10th centuries was a custom of studying witty little exchanges between Zen adepts - usually between masters and students - some of which were codified as "koans" the word actually means public case, like a legal precedent for enlightenment. And these extra juices exchanges once they become koans are kinds of units of story that get passed around and commented on. Sometimes a koan collection will have one set of comments from a master in one century and another master commenting on the first comments a century later so these are layered kinds of texts.

The Mumonkan is on the simpler side with the stories collected by Wumen. He wrote a title to each one - which are all in 4 Chinese characters - the story as it was passed down to him, then a verse commentary and then a poem.

And of course later commentators then comment on his choices of title, his comments, and his verse. Comments on comments.

Here's case 1 as translated by Robert Aitken.

A monk asked master Zhaozhou, "does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?"

Zhaozhou said, "mu."

The same mu we discussed earlier in the very name of the compiler of the collect. This is of course literally untrue. It's axiomatic that everything has Buddha nature - dogs, rocks, people, the air. It's all an expression of Buddha. So why does the teacher say "no"? It's possible that our venacular use of the word "not" would be better here.

You think you know the teachings students? You're just parroting the old teachers.You say a dog has Buddha nature? I say "not"!

So this use of negation in Zen is quite wonderful and quite confusing. And i think quite important. You can't really have a sense of the way the tradition understands itself without a sense of this "no" of Zen.

It's not no in opposition to yes. It's no in opposition to being so sure there is a yes and no to everything. It's the no of emptiness, it's the no of endless possibility. If it's not this is could be anything.

Zhaozhou's no is the no of "not so sure" - this is a wonderful way to practice. Not to be so sure. In English being too sure is a sure sign of arrogance. Our way is the way of humility.

The sound "mu" is taken up as a kind of tone poem to study in zazen. This is a common starting place in Rinzai style koan introspection. You breath "mu" - and remember this is weird to a modern Japanese person sho says "ie" for no, not "mu" - so it's not becoming Japanese. It's a Zen thing.

I've played with this but without the structure of the full Zen koan curriculum and a culture around everyone practing with "mu" I havent' found it that helpful myself. You could try it though As you sit in zazen breathe in "mu" - breathe out "mu" - offer up "mu" to everything you see. Wonderful way to practice.

What I have found very helpful is to invoke the not-knowing and curiosity of "mu" with the phrase "what is it?"

It's simple and powerful. Breathe in feeling the body energizing and lightening and opening and then offer with the exhalation these three powerful words: "what is it?" And repeat.

Don't worry about an answer int he conventional sense.It's not about knowing what it is. Rather let the breathing and offering of a question open you up to not knowing. As another famous Zen koan says, "not knowing is most intimate." This not knowing isn't a passive state or a lack of knowledge, it's an active state of engagement with the world. Not knowing engagment. Curious engagement. Aliveness. Active curiosity.

What is it?

What is it?

As those words get internalized you might not need the actual sounds -what is it - but just breathe out the feeling of the question. Or just the first word as more of an aspired sound "whaaaat".

it gets interesting when you really commit to this for a while. When ou establish it in zazen and then invite it out into your everyday life. As you walk: what is it? As you wait definitely a great time for: what is it? But gradually this spirit of wondering and questioning and curiosity infuses more and more of your life and you start to see how much suffering there is from being too sure and losing your wonder, losing your curiosity. What is it?

It's most powerful, and most traditionally appropriate, if you come to see me or one fo the other teachers in dokusan and get formally assigned this practice so I encourage you do that. It's best to be pretty stable on the breath first so it might be too soon to really get into "what is it?" but I've also become a fan of the power and appropriateness of doing a little noodling around at times. Even as deep commitment to one practice assigned by your teacher is the deeper way. Both are fine really.

So play with this a bit and if it feels interesting come see me and we'll discuss if it feels like the right time to take this practice deep and far.

Let's close with a bit of Master Wumen's enthusiastic commentary on this case - he was a big fan of practicing with "mu" (although he would have said "wu").


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