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Chao-chou's Dog

A monk asked Chao-chou, "Has the dog Buddha nature or not?" Chao-chou said, "Mu."

Wu-men's Comment

For the practice of Zen it is imperative that you pass through the barrier set up by the Ancestral Teachers. For subtle realization it is of the utmost importance that you cut off the mind road. If you do not pass the barrier of the ancestors, if you do not cut off the mind road, then you area ghost clinging to bushes and grasses.

What is the barrier of the Ancestral Teachers? It is just this one word, "Mu" - the one barrier of our faith. We call it the Gateless Barrier of the Zen tradition.When you pass through this barrier, you will not only interview Chao-chou intimately. You willwalk hand in hand with the Ancestral Teachers in the successive generations of our lineage - the hair of your eyebrows entangled with theirs, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears, hearing with the same ears. Won't that be fulfilling? Is there anyone who would not want to pass this barrier?

So, then, make you whole body a mass of doubt, and with your three hundred sixty bones and joints and eighty-four thousand hair folliclesa concentrate on this one word, "Mu." Day and night, keep digging into it. Don't consider it to be nothingness. Don't think in terms of "has" or "has not." It is like swallowing a read hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you can't.

Gradually you purify yourself, eliminating mistaken knowledge and attitudes you have held from the past. Inside and outside become one. You are like a mute person who has had a dream - you know it for yourself alone.

Suddenly Mu breaks open. The heavens are astonished, the earth is shaken/ It is as though you have snatched the great sword of General Kuan. When you meet the Buddha, you kill the Buddha. When you meet Bodhidharma, you kill Bodhidharma. At the very cliff edge of birth-and-death, you find the Great Freedom. In the Six Worlds and the Four Modes of Birth, you enjoy a samadhi of frolic and play. How, then should you work with it? Exhaust all your life energy on this one word, "Mu." If you do not falter, then it is done! A single spark lights your Dharma candle.

Wu-men's Verse

Dog, Buddha nature -
the full presentation of the whole
with a bit of "has" or "has not"
body is lost, life is lost.

The first thing we should notice is how much of practice is contained just in the title, "The Gateless Barrier," (sometimes translated as "The Gateless Gate.") What is it saying? That life is wide open to us just as it is, that there really is no barrier anywhere. But we don't experience our lives this way at all, do we? We feel that there are barriers everywhere, inside and out - barriers that we don't want to face or cross, barriers of fear, anger, pain, old age, death... And our practice consists of nothing but learning to recognize these barriers one after another, and to face them. And when we are really willing to enter the territory they have shut off from us, we find ourselves in that wide open, barrierless life that Mumon wanted to help us discover. At the most basic level then, these old stories, and especially this first story about Joshu, are all about the problem of separation, about the artificial barriers we experience between ourselves and life as it is. And Mumon is offering a technique of concentrating on Joshu's one word answer, "Mu" as a way of breaking down these barriers. By trying to become completely absorbed in this "Mu" the student would bump up against his own barriers, and by filling his whole consciousness with "Mu," his whole world with "Mu, the barriers themselves would disappear along with everything else into this one word.


Mumon summarizes these barriers in the phrase "has or has not" and thinks of them as essentially consisting of our thoughts and concepts. Today, we are more prepared to see the emotional underpinnings of our barriers. When Mumon speaks of "great doubt," at one level we can feel the overwhelming confusion and perplexity of the monk trying to intellectually understand Joshu's truly un-understandable answer. The monk has had pointed out to him the deep, seemingly unbridgable sense of separation that thoughts (in this case the thought of "Buddha nature" which feels millions of miles away from the real world of dogs and ordinary monks) create all the time, and that we become acutely aware of as we begin to practice. The "red hot iron ball" that we can neither swallow nor spit up is a picture of how it feels to come to grips with that painful sense of separation we don't know how to escape. But paradoxically, Mumon also means "great doubt" to be the way we eliminate that gap, because in the midst of doubt and not-knowing, our habitual ways of thinking and separating ourselves from the world lose their grip.

Today, we practice by focusing on our own inner barriers, one by one, especially the emotional barriers of fear, pain, emptiness, and anger that we can feel manifesting as hard knots of bodily tension. These are truly the "red hot iron balls" we have to work with. These are the feelings we've doubting & thinking. So tried to stay separate from, and in doing so, have erected barriers between ourselves and life. In therapy, I often say that we must come to doubt our deepest feelings - to question all that we are so sure is at stake when we keep parts ourselves and our life at bay.

Mumon asks us to answer the question, "What is Mu?" This is precisely like asking "What is life?" And you can't answer by somehow standing outside of life, examining it, and offering your description. You yourself, just as you are, alive, are the answer. Mumonkan Case 1 - (continued) Last time, I spoke about "great doubt" and how we in the West are used to thinking of the opposite of "doubt" as "knowing" or "certainty," whereas in Zen, the opposite of "knowing" really is non-separation, and "doubt" or not-knowing can mean intimacy. Today I want to go explore these distinctions and connotations a little bit further.

The 17th century philosopher Descartes established how the West was going to look at doubt and certainty for hundreds of years. He began with a picture of the individual, separate from the world around him, receiving data about that world via the senses. But he argued, our senses can deceive us. We can never be absolutely sure we are not hallucinating, or seeing an optical illusion, or dreaming. So any knowledge we have about the world is always subject to doubt. The only thing Descartes thought we could be sure of was that we there Descartes' individual is an essentially a disembodied mind, tenuously attached to the world (including his own body) via fallible sense data. For hundreds of years, nobody could come up a way to refute this picture of things, even though it painted a pretty bleak picture that made it hard to understand how anybody ever managed to believe in the existence of other people, let alone ever hope to really understand what other people were thinking or feeling or saying.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, some philosophers started looking for ways out of Descartes dualism. G.E. Moore (now mostly remembered for his influence on his Bloomsbury friends) tried to offer a defense of "common sense." He would stand up in a lecture hall full of very serious, technically minded philosophers and logicians, hold up his hand, and say, "I KNOW this is my hand." His point was that this sort of knowledge was as clear and direct as Descartes' knowledge that he was thinking. But Ludwig Wittgenstein made a very interesting criticism of Moore. He said it was superfluous to add that "I know" to "This is my hand." Because if knowing is supposed to be the opposite of doubting, and Moore is claiming we can't really doubt "this is my hand," then there's no place for "knowing" either. And (believe it or not!) this actually brings us right back to Mumon's verse: "a bit of "has or has not body is lost, mind is lost."

For both Wittgenstein and Mumon, what we put between ourselves and the world were concepts, our ways of "knowing." As we gradually become aware of them and label them as just concepts, they lose their grip on us, leaving us in a kind of "doubt" that actually brings us closer to intimacy precisely because we no longer "know" anything with our previous rigid certainty. The way we practice here emphasizes becoming aware of the emotional components of our "knowing" as well. We all have deep resistances to "being just this moment" - resistances born out of our knowledge of past hurt and our attempts to figure out ways to protect ourselves from more hurt in the future. That defensive knowledge holds us back in a futile attempt to protect ourselves from life itself. To close the gap of separation, we first of all must be aware of it, physically and emotionally, and how we maintain it in our bodies and minds moment by moment. Only then will we be able to not doubt that we have a hand, not know we have a hand, but to just reach out and use our hand - which is compassion's way.