The Gateless Gate Opens Wide

The Gateless Gate Opens Wide November 5, 2021



The Gateless Barrier (sometimes Gateless Gate) (無門關 Wúménguān; Japanese: 無門関 Mumonkan) was first published on this day, the 5th of November, in 1228.

And with that seven hundred and ninety-three years of admonition, invitation, and general all around Zen hilarity ensues…

The Gateless Barrier is an anthology of forty-eight koans, those brief and seemingly enigmatic objects of meditation and conversation with a spiritual director that are unique to the Zen schools.

It was compiled by Wumen Huikai (1183-1260), a master of the Linji school. After many years of wandering when he was head monk at Longxiang monastery. He was forty-five at the time.

During his years wandering, he wore old and tattered robes, and let his beard and hair grow long. He was sometimes referred to as the old lay monk, although he was ordained.

In addition to the koans themselves, Wumen added appreciatory verses and brief sermons. The book also has a small handful of addenda and appendixes. It is often compared to the other great early koan anthology, the Blue Cliff Record (Chinese: 碧巖錄Bìyán Lù; Japanese: 碧巌録Hekiganroku). The modern Japanese master Zenkei Shibayama tells us “(W)hole the Hekigan-roku is poetic and spiritual with literary splendor, the Mumonkan is direct, straightforward, with a stimulating and disciplinary tone, and is apparently designed to encourage the actual training of monks.”

Its rough and ready style has proven particularly appealing to many Western Zen students. As the American Zen master Robert Aitken suggests, “The Gateless Barrier is a collection of stories and verses that present fundamental perspectives on life and no-life, the nature of the self, the relationship of the self to the earth – and how these interweave. Such stories and verses are called koans, and their study is the process of realizing their truths. What many be known abstractly becomes personal, a vital experience of one’s own.”

This was certainly true for me. This is one of the handful of spiritual books that I revisit over and over again. It speaks my heart.

There have been a number of translations into English. Here’s a link to an early version by the monk Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps.

I especially recommend four that include particularly insightful commentaries. I don’t provide links as excepting Guo Gu’s more recent book, the rest have been around for years and may be obtained both new and used. (I am a longtime fan of Abebooks, which I think is used by more professional used book dealers as their sales platform than any other site). I think there are good arguments for each of these if you were only to read one. If I were forced to choose, I would vacillate, but probably land on Aitken Roshi’s.

Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier (The Wu-Men Kuan – Mumonkan), North Point Press, 1991, New York
Guo Gu, Passing Through the Gateless Barrier: Koan Practice for Real Life, Shambhala, 2016, Boulder
Zenkei Shibayama, The Gateless Barrier: Zen Comments on the Mumonkan, Shambhala, 2000, Boston
Koun Yamada, The Gateless Gate, University of Arizona Press, 1979/1990, Tucson

Over the years I have commented on various cases in this anthology. Here are seventeen of them, addressing sixteen of the cases.

On the Ordinariness of Mu, Gateless Gate, Case 1
My Life as a Fox, Gateless Gate, Case 2
Where Is Paradise? Gateless Gate, Case 5

The Flower Sermon: Gateless Gate, Case 6
Creatures of Pain & Joy: Gateless Gate, Case 7
Go Wash Your Bowls: Gateless Gate, Case 7​
Ryuyan Calls To Himself, “Master”: Gateless Gate, Case 12
The Last Word. Gateless Gate, Case 13
​A Love Letter from the Deep: Gateless Gate, Case 15 
Ordinary Mind is the Way: Gateless Gate, Case 19

Yunmen’s Dried Shitstick, Gateless Gate, Case 21
The One Sermon: Gateless Gate, Case 25
Intimate Intimate: Gateless Gate, Case 26
The Buddha and the Non Believer, Gateless Gate, Case 32
Knowing. is not the way, Gateless. Gate, Case 34
One Continuous Mistake, Gateless Gate, Case 38
​​Doushuai’s Three Barriers: Gateless Gate, Case 47

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