Illuminating with Grit and Ease: Gateless Barrier’s Mu Kōan


Wúmén Huikai (1183-1260, literally, “No-Gate Bright-Opening”), the compiler and author of the Gateless Barrier (無門關 Wúménguān), is one of the most important ancestors of our Zen tradition. Aitken Roshi notes:

“An unconventional Zen master in many respects,Wúmén let his hair and beard grow and wore old soiled robes. He worked in the fields and carried his own slops. Called ‘Hui-k’ai the Lay Monk,’ he is a wonderful archetype for us monkish lay people in the West.”

Wúmén was a contemporary of Dōgen, the first Sōtō teacher in Japan. The first edition of his Gateless Barrier was published in 1228, a few years after Dōgen returned home to Japan following his training in China with Rujing. I wonder how the world, and specifically the Zen world, would have been altered had these two dharma geniuses met.

Indeed, sometime in the 1240’s, a monk who had been ordained by Dōgen, Shinchi Kakushin, went to China, trained with Wúmén and received transmission from him, returning to Japan in 1254, shortly after Dōgen had died, probably bringing with the first copy of the Gateless Barrier. The text quickly became important in both Rinzai and Sōtō circles – Keizan Jokin (1268–1325), Dogen’s third generation successor, knew the Gateless Barrier well enough to quote from it freely.

As a novice monk, Wúmén had worked on the mu kōan for six years, throwing himself into it night and day – a wonderful archetype for people these days who report after a few months of working with mu, “I still haven’t gotten it.” One day when Wúmén heard the drum announcing the midday meal, he realized mu and wrote this verse (Aitken translation):

A thunderclap under the clear blue sky;
all beings on earth open their eyes;
everything under heaven bows together;
Mount Sumeru leaps up and dances.

Wúmén prefaces the Gateless Barrier with this verse (Wild Fox Zen translation):

The great Way has no gate
Among a thousand mistakes – a road.
Pass through this barrier
And you walk alone in the universe.

The Gateless Barrier now

Early in Harada-Yasutani kōan curriculum we meet Wúmén through his work in the Gateless Barrier, knotting our eyebrows together. And in translating the Gateless Barrier, I’ve met him in another way – through the characters he chose to express this great matter. Working with the characters opens up the kōan in multiple directions.

I’ve found Wúmén to be an incredibly penetrating and illuminated teacher, someone who could really stand shoulder to shoulder with Dōgen and all the great teachers. With Wúmén each character is BAM! – so carefully chosen and piercing. One can feel his deeply settled heart through his words and his intention to serve us in our awakening process.

For Wúmén there is no fuzz about what to do in our practice. Kensho (awakening) must be thorough kensho: “Only one word – mu. Thus, the school’s one barrier! … But don’t celebrate prematurely, without essential barrier passing.”

How do we do it? Wúmén lays that out too:

  1. Become mu through the body
  2. Arouse the great doubt – what is mu?
  3. Continuously and wholeheartedly do it
  4. Don’t make a nest in “yes” or “no,” “got it” or “don’t got it”

Wúmén’s is also striking in his confidence and clarity, true to his “bright opening” name, about the experience of barrier crossing, expressed again in a compact sentence  – “Naturally, you’ll succeed breaking inside and outside.”

One caution. It’s inadvisable to work with any kōan, and the mu koan especially, without a teacher. Even with the fine guidance that Wúmén provides, without a living teacher’s guidance, you are likely to just be spinning your dharma wheels. So if you are moved by Wúmén’s comments on mu, and you don’t have a qualified koan teacher, my advice is to find one.

Why another translation?

You’ll find below the whole of the Wild Fox Zen translation of Gateless Barrier, “CASE 1: Zhàozhōu’s Dog.” There are numerous other good translations out there (Aitken, Guo Gu, Yamada, Shimayama, Sekida, Cleary, etc.) – what does this one offer?

A few points. First, Wúmén encourages a more embodied practice with mu than I generally grok when looking at other translations. Especially if you just read about kōan introspection, you might think that it’s about a private mental experience, perhaps a misconception encouraged by translations rather than from the source texts. “Go through the body,” wrote Wúmén. 

Second, Wúmén, like Dahui before him, emphasized the importance of the great doubt or doubt block. Here it’s translated as “…raise a single doubt sphere” as the character allows for that rendering as well. A small difference, but I’ve found that “doubt sphere” can open this up for practitioners by pointing to the all-inclusive, 360 degree questioning that the great doubt is all about. For more on this, see Jeff Shore’s Great Doubt: Practicing Zen in the World, a translation of Caodong/Soto master, Boshan, commentary on the sicknesses and possibilities of great doubt.  

Finally, although Wúmén did emphasize wholeheartedness, in line with his reputation, and said things like, “Rip through all your strength,” he also presented the importance of ease, “The dharma point is illuminated with ease,” and “just allow self-knowledge.” So, we’ve included that aspect as clearly as we can.

Gateless Barrier, “Case 1: Zhaozhou’s Little Dog”

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Even a little dog has the Buddha Nature, no?”

Zhou said, “No.

Wumen’s Comment:

To practice Zen meditation, you must penetrate the ancestral teacher’s barrier. For mysterious, subtle comprehension, cut short your destitute scheming or you will not pass through the ancestral teachers’ barrier, [and instead will] completely depending on grasses, attaching to tree spirits.

And yet what is the ancestral teacher’s barrier? Only one word – mu. Thus, the school’s one barrier! Pass through, actualize crossing over and you’ll not only meet Zhaozhou intimately, with ease you’ll participate in the successive generations of ancestral teachers. Hand in hand you’ll walk together, eyebrows knotted together, seeing the same, hearing the same.

But don’t celebrate prematurely, without essential barrier passing. Use three-hundred and sixty joints and eighty-four thousand hair follicles. Go through the body, raise a single doubt sphere, participate in the single word mu. Continuously tear into upholding it. Do not do it as nothingness. Do not do it as “yes” and “no.”  As if you’ve swallowed a hot iron ball – vomit and vomit but it won’t go out.

Wash away your former harmful knowledge and harmful feelings. Be skillful for a long, long time. Naturally, you’ll succeed breaking inside and outside. One flake as a mute person dreaming – just allow self-knowledge.

Suddenly present world shaking, as if seizing the barrier general’s broadsword – meeting Buddha, killing Buddha; meeting the Ancestor, killing the Ancestor. At the shore of life and death you obtain great freedom. Yet how? Rip through all your strength. Uphold the single word mu. If continuous – good. The dharma point is illuminated with ease.


Dog! Buddha Nature!
The whole put forward, the exact imperative.
Only enter yes and no –
lose self, lose life.


IMG_1047Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach. Dōshō also teaches with the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, an internet-based Zen community. Dōshō received dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Roshi and inka shomei from James Myo-un Ford Roshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He is the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

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