The Gateless Barrier (Ch., Wumenguan; Jp., Mumonkan) is a thirteenth-century work that offers forty-eight entryways to wake up to your life. These entryways are presented as a “barrier” or checkpoint at a gate. They are short cases of life scenarios that show where you are stuck. The truth is, there is no gate or barrier. Where you feel stuck is precisely where you realize awakening or freedom. In other words, all of life’s ups and downs are opportunities to realize your true nature. This is why these checkpoints or entryways are “gateless.” The main message of this work is clear: You are already free. But knowing this is not enough. You have to live it. Take everything you meet as an opportunity that can free you from bondage. 

If you allow the entryways or cases in The Gateless Barrier to stand as mere stories from the distant past, unrelated to your life, then even if you read this book a hundred times you will still meet barriers everywhere you go. But if you take these cases as insights to aspects of your life, then they will come alive and you will wake up from the slumber of delusion, vexations, and suffering. You will open up to wisdom.

Chan master Wumen Huikai (1183–1260), whose name actually means “open to wisdom [and realize] the gateless” is the compiler of The Gateless Barrier. In 1228, he compiled and edited forty-eight cases of past Chan masters’ interactions with their students, many of which involve awakening experiences. These short, insightful cases are called gong’ans (Jp., koans). Each case is followed by Wumen’s own comments and poetic verses as pointers. The pointers show you how to approach and investigate each gong’an. In [my] book, [Passing Through the Gateless Barrier], I comment on both the gong’ans and Wumen’s pointers to make them more accessible.

Below is an excerpt from Case 16: “The Sound of a Bell, the Seven-Piece Robe”:

Yunmen said [to his assembly of monk practitioners], “The world is so vast and wide—why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?”

Wumen’s Comment:

All who learn Chan and study the path must avoid following sound and pursuing form. Even so, awakening to the path by hearing sound or illuminating your mind by seeing form is quite ordinary. Little do you know, patch-robed monks ride on sound and hover over form and yet, with each circumstance, illuminating [this great matter] and taking up each and every wondrous opportunity. But even so, tell me, does the sound come to the ear, or does the ear reach out to the sound? Even if sound and silence are both forgotten, when you reach this point, how do you understand words? If you use your ears to hear, it will be difficult to understand. But if you listen to sound with your eyes, you will be on intimate terms with reality.

If you understand, all are one and the same; 
If you do not understand, there are thousands of differences and distinctions.
If you do not understand, all are one and the same;
If you understand, there are thousands of differences and distinctions.

***

Guo Gu’s Comment:

As with the previous case [in Passing Through the Gateless Barrier], Chan master Yunmen exercised his wisdom [in this case]. He ascended the dharma seat and basically said that the sky is so vast, so great, you have such freedom in your life, where nothing binds you; why, then, in hell did you put on your robe when you heard the bell ring? Why do you let signals and bells govern your life? Putting this in another way: You are so free. Why do you get up when you hear the alarm ring in the morning? Why do you go to work? Why is it that you do the things you do? Why do you engage in Chan practice?

The Veils of Conditioning

In Chan monasteries, the bell and other instruments govern the activities of the day. Before a dharma talk, a monk strikes the temple bell.

When monks hear it, they put on their robes. The five-piece robe is for novices or for fully-ordained monks or nuns on ordinary occasions. The twenty-five-piece robe is reserved for abbots to wear for special occasions. A seven-piece robe is what a fully ordained monk or nun wears for formal occasions such as attending a dharma talk. So here, the bell rings and the monks put on their robes.

If you reflect on why you get up in the morning when the alarm rings, you may think that if you don’t go to work you’ll get fired. Yunmen is not functioning at that level. Yunmen is not questioning your obligations or talking about the kind of freedom that allows you to do whatever you want.

In general, practice involves distinguishing between what are wholesome and unwholesome, beneficial and harmful, skillful and unskillful activities—especially with regard to others. You must not hurt people, you must not hurt yourself, and the most obvious way to avoid suffering for yourself and others is to be careful of your reactions to form and sound. Because of your attachment, you are easily affected by what you hear and see. Therefore, the text says that all who learn Chan and study the path must avoid following sound and pursuing form.

If you examine your life, you will see that when you are miserable, when you’re feeling frustrated, when you are anguished, it’s because you have heard something from someone, or you have seen something you didn’t want to see. You are conditioned to see things a certain way. In practice you have to see through the veils of your conditioning, the process through which you ritually and habitually relate to those around you based on your own standard of actions and words. For example, you may see someone walking down the street, and without much self-awareness you are already categorizing and judging that person as this or that just by the way he or she is dressed. Or if that person says something, your discriminating mind is already at work: Is what the person is saying beneficial or harmful to me?

“It’s All Good”

While seeing and hearing cause vexations, when vexations are absent, sound and form can also liberate. After getting a master’s degree from the University of Kansas, I wanted to take a year off to prepare my PhD applications. I went to Boston, as I wanted to attend Harvard to study with a certain professor. That was a very stressful time in my life. I had one friend in Boston with whom I moved in temporarily. I thought I would easily find a job within a week or two, then get my own place and go on with life according to my plans. I was greatly mistaken—there were no jobs in Boston for someone like me with an MA degree in religion. It took me a whole month to find work. As I didn’t want to take advantage of my friend, I finally took the first job I could find, that of a doorman, and moved out. It was a low-paying job. I had to wear the required blue polyester suit and stand on the ground floor of a large corporate building filled with new graduates with MBA degrees. My job was to check their identification cards, “Can I see your ID, please? Okay, you can go in.” “No, ID? Sorry, you can’t go in.”

It was interesting how people treated me there. Not one of my doorman coworkers ever went to college; I’m not even sure if they all had high school degrees. They were minorities, either Black or Hispanic. As the only Asian person at the place, I stood out like a sore thumb. It was especially odd to me when Asians with MBA degrees were obviously trying very hard to avoid acknowledging me as one of their own as they went in and out of the corporate building. During this time I was preparing for my GRE test (Graduate Record Examination) for the PhD application. In one pocket I had a list of GRE words, and in the other, math equations. So between one “May I see your ID please” and the next, I was memorizing words or math formulas to prepare for my test. Most people ignored me. Some looked down on me. It felt rather strange to be looked down upon and alienated by people who were seemingly categorizing me into a certain stereotype. What I saw and what I heard were wearing me down.

I learned a lot of slang during that time. One particular phrase I heard a lot from my doorman colleagues was, “Yo man, it’s all good; it’s all good.” I call it “IAG.” One time, several young professional men and women were walking by me as I said my routine, “May I see your ID, please?” They stopped chatting, showed me their IDs, then broke into laughter and walked away. In that moment, I overheard two fellow doormen talking and one saying, “It’s all good!” Suddenly, everything dropped away. I said out loud, “IAG! It’s all good!” How wonderful!

The humiliation was good practice.

What is form? What is sound? When you encounter a difficulty in your life, an impasse, solve it. If you can solve it, it’s good. If you can’t solve it, it’s still good, as it’s no longer your problem if you can’t solve it. It’s only a problem when you solve it. So when you encounter challenges in life, when you are obstructed by form and sound—it’s all good!

In your own dream of vexations and obstacles, you are already so busy. Why are you busying yourself living in somebody else’s projected dream of you? People looked down on me in my silly polyester suit, repeating the same words over and over. They formulated an image of me.

But that image was their image. What did it have to do with me? If you feel sad or humiliated, you are affected. If you ignore it, pretend it’s not there, you are also affected. Reacting to a dream is an illusion. Yet the sky is so vast and wide, why aren’t you free?

Riding on Sound, Hovering Over Form

In the beginning of your practice you have to figure out, examine within yourself, just how much you live in dreams in all the projections that you have on the world through your interaction of sound and form. Avoid fabricating form and sound. This doesn’t mean that you move into the mountains and isolate yourself from the world. No! You live amid form and sound, and through them you see freedom. True practice is to “ride on sound and hover over form, and yet with each circumstance, illuminating [this great matter] and taking up each and every wondrous opportunity”—it’s all good! And if you discover that somehow it’s not all good, then you need to examine form and sound a little closer because they are a mirror reflecting your true nature. The greater the obstacle, the clearer the reflection. Wumen provides a hint: “Does the sound come to the ear, or does the ear reach out to the sound? Even if sound and silence are both forgotten, when you reach this point, how do you understand words?” Some seasoned practitioners say that “sound and form are okay; they don’t bother me.” Wumen says that when you have reached this point, you must still manifest form and sound. Tell me, what is this realization?

In the beginning of your practice you have to figure out, examine within yourself, just how much you live in dreams in all the projections that you have on the world through your interaction of sound and form.

I got an e-mail recently from someone who has been practicing for many years. She’d had the opportunity that summer to do a long retreat, a couple of months by herself somewhere in the mountains. She wrote me a very beautiful e-mail describing her experiences as “utter tranquillity.” What was there but the sound of the birds in that cabin, the Amish people rolling by in their horse cart, and her meditation? It was a very beautiful, peaceful time, she said, with no vexations, no projections or categorization, no compartmentalization. I wrote to her briefly, “What did you realize?”

She wrote back: Silence. Then she included a short poem by Zen master Ryokan (1758–1831) from a book she was probably reading. I guess, in her mind, the poem expressed her realization. So, “Here, read this!” was how she presented her realization to me. I didn’t respond. At that point, I knew she was not ready for any teaching because she was quite satisfied with what she had found. Anything I might have said either would have offended her or might not have been very useful. Had she said, “I’d like to come see you,” then things would have been different.

When Wumen suggests, “If you have found silence and peace, are you free in noise and chaos?” he is not saying, “When you reach silence then there’s just silence.” No! When you reach true peace you should be free, at ease, in sound and form. True practitioners ride the wave of sound and freely intermingle with form.

Freedom from Form and Sound

Wumen says, “If you use your ears to hear, it will be difficult to understand. But if you listen to sound with your eyes, you will be on intimate terms with reality.” Some of you may be wondering, “I don’t think we covered this topic in biology; how can one hear with eyes and see with ears?” There are insects, animals, and different types of fish that don’t have eyeballs yet know when a big hungry predator is coming their way. There are blind people who “see” people better than those who can see. The passage is not talking about supernatural powers. It is questioning you, asking if you are bound by your senses.

Are you bound by the categories you create?

This verse from Wumen is even more puzzling:

If you understand, all are one and the same;
If you do not understand, there are thousands of differences and distinctions.
If you do not understand, all are one and the same;
If you understand, there are thousands of differences and distinctions.

Usually, if one does not understand the form or sound one perceives, one is probably stuck in the distinctions, discriminations, or differences in ideas and notions. If one does understand, then the form and sound probably conform to one’s own preconceived ideas. However, Wumen, being a compassionate teacher, says that whether you understand or not, there are different forms and sounds everywhere; whether you understand or not, everything is also just the same. What is “the same?” What is “different?” Do these words define what you see and what you hear? Are you bound by the categories you create? Forms and sounds are not the issue. Being bound by them is. It cannot get any simpler than that.

Adapted from Passing Through the Gateless Barrier by Guo Gu © 2016 by Guo Gu. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com.

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