Through the Gateless Barrier

Q: Roshi, I wonder if you could guide me to an understanding of Zen, or at least an experience of Zen. Can you do it? I've heard it said that making an effort is contrary to Zen, that one should never practice because practice is an artificial idea, where Zen is natural and pure -- just being yourself in all situations.

A: You should certainly be yourself in all situations, so tell me now -- Who are you?

Q: [Laughs nervously.]

A: Once you find out who you are, you won't have any trouble being yourself in all situations. Until you do, you will have every possible kind of trouble, starting with the trouble of not knowing yourself in the least little bit.

Q: That's what I'm afraid of. So how do I find out who I am?"

A: The Zen way, which is also the Buddha's way, is to attain "Sudden Enlightenment." There are various approaches to this. For example, "Cut off thinking" was Master Huang-Po's suggestion to his students. It is best done in a mountain monastery or hermitage. The goal of this difficult practice is to attain a state of, "No-mind, No-thought."Then all your troubles disappear in a great light. You laugh at the white clouds, the blue sky.

Q: Can you show me how?

A: As you go about your everyday activities you do not raise any thoughts about what you are doing. This is the "absorption in one mind, absorption in one practice" the Sixth Patriarch Hui-Neng spoke about.

Q: Sounds hard! Thinking comes easily to me. When I try not to think, I'm still flooded with thoughts, then I just feel worthless & stupid.

A: It is difficult at first but take heart -- it becomes easier. As you practice in this way, you save and amass energy. It may take 20 or 30 years but if you practice Huang-Po's method you will one day break through and attain "Sudden Enlightenment."

Q: Are there any short cuts?

A: I am thrilled that you asked this question. There are! Let me take you back to Zen Master Yunmen's style of teaching. Yunmen was renowned for his "one word barriers." A student would ask him, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?" and he'd shout something absurd like, "Sesame cake!"

The Zen student inevitably trusts in his own intellect and believes he can penetrate the Mystery by using the activity of his own mind. But in Zen, the intellect is known to be captivating and the individual self "mind" seen to be full of delusions. So, Zen teachers like Yunmen would embody the "Great Function" of Zen by cutting off the mental activity of students all at once with a shout, the blow of a stick, or an impenetrable "one word barrier." Or by slamming a door on your foot.

Sometimes the student then suddenly experiences a first person realization -- that is, he or she transcends name and form, "smashing the black lacquer barrel and shattering the empty sky to dust." Mental activity stops short. The bottom falls out of the cosmic slop bucket.

This is a technique that only works, however, if the Zen student has access to a masterful Master & happens to already be in a highly charged state of "Great Doubt." The "Great Doubt" has nothing to do with skeptical thinking -- it is sometimes called "the doubt sensation," in that it involves your whole body.

Q: It sounds terrifying!

A: It is! Terrifying & electrifying. But the Great Doubt vanishes all at once in the mysterious instant of Sudden Awakening. Wumen Huikai describes all of this very well in the first case of the Wumenkuan.

Q: Can you give me an example of how to arouse this Great Doubt?

A: Sure. Ask yourself: "What was your original face before your parents conceived you?"

Q: But the answer to that is easy. I didn't exist. I didn't have a face.

A: What was your original mind, then?

Q: I didn't have a mind, either.

A: So how did you get one?

Q:  Probably from the meeting of my father's sperm and my mother's egg, plus the food I've eaten?

A: Is that just what somebody once told you, or is that what you found out for certain by looking inward and investigating the matter for yourself? Because I must tell you that you will find nothing in any Zen book or Meditation Hall that will help you even remotely, if you really believe that your mind is made up of your father's sperm, your mother's egg, and the various foods you've eaten. None of the ancient Zen teachers saw it in this way.

Q: That's the only answer I've got.

A: Where does your mind go in deep sleep?

Q: I guess it's just dormant. My brain isn't active, so I don't have a mind then.

A: You seem to know everything. Your knowledge exceeds that of all the ancient Zen teachers. So you clearly have no need for Zen!

Q: Now wait. I apologize. I like the idea of, what's that quote from Wumen Huikai, "living out my life in a merry & playful samadhi." How can I get there? Can you point me to it or not?

A: Let's turn to Wumen himself, then, who trained his students rigorously according to the "Great Doubt" method. Here is what he wrote at the end of his famous book of koans:

The vital sayings and doings of the Buddha and the Patriarchs, bare like the confessions of a criminal, have now all been set down without any additions on the part of the author. All of you should receive this immediately, and not seek for it from others. If you are a person of fundamental ability, when you hear a small part you will know the essence and it is not necessary for you to enter the Gate, or go up the stairs -- but, squaring your elbows, you may pass the barrier without asking the permission of the barrier keeper:

Squaring your elbows,
blinking the eyes,
holding up a flower -- 
The whole universe is in it
if you know what "it" is.

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