The Gateless Gate

Watts explores Zen Buddhism’s unconventional approach to conveying enlightenment through seemingly mundane statements or actions instead of words or teachings. He delves into various Zen stories and their commentaries, revealing how direct pointing at reality can lead to a profound realization beyond the limits of language and conceptual thinking.

From the Way Beyond the West radio series.



When I originally planned this series of talks, I had not intended to include what to me is one of the most remarkable books in the world. And the reason I hadn’t originally intended to include it in this series is that, to the average person who is not acquainted with these matters, it’s a book of extraordinary difficulty—despite the fact that, from another point of view, it’s a very simple book. But, in any rate, I thought I’d have a shot at it.


This book is called in its Chinese title Wúménguān, and literally translated that means “no gate barrier,” or you might call it “the gateless gate,” or “the gate which is no gate.” The book is representative of an extremely important school of Buddhism known as Zen in Japanese and as Chán in Chinese. And this particular school of Buddhism has been one of the most potent influences in the history of Far Eastern culture in the shaping of its arts, and such a wide range of arts going from painting and calligraphy at one extreme to the art of jujitsu at the other, and including in between landscape architecture, ordinary house architecture, ceramics, archery, fencing, all kinds of things, as well as daily life itself. And because Zen has been of such great influence in forming the cultures of the Far East, it’s one of the most important types of Oriental philosophy for us to understand.


But when one comes to the literature of Zen, the beginner is faced with a very strange problem. And the problem is that the great majority of this literature consists of anecdotes—stories which are technically called mondō, or “question and answer.” And these stories are somewhat like jokes, because a joke strikes you as funny only if you get the punchline, see the point, and laugh at once. If somebody has to draw a diagram and explain the joke to you, and tell you just why it’s funny, well, it falls flat. And it’s the same with these stories. There is a meaning to them, but this meaning is not a symbolic meaning, as I will try and explain in a little while. You don’t really have to be in the know about a kind of, oh, subtle and obscure system of symbols in order to be able to interpret them.


The strange thing about these stories is that the point which they convey is so obvious that it’s difficult to see. And the problem about explaining a book of this kind is that, the more I might succeed in giving you what would seem to you like a convincing and satisfactory explanation, the more I should be fooling you. Why would that be? Well, for exactly the same reason as if I were explaining jokes. If I explain a joke and draw a diagram of it, I cheat you out of a laugh. You will never have a belly laugh over it, you’ll at most have a rather polite throaty laugh. But if I do not explain the point of a joke to you—even if you do not see the point immediately it is told—some time later, while you’re ruminating over it, the point may suddenly occur to you, and then you may get the benefit of laughter.


However, the point of these Zen stories is not so much to make you laugh, but to create a state of mind which in some respects is rather similar to laughter—in that it is a state of profound feeling, it’s not just a state of understanding words. And that profound feeling is called in the technical language of Zen Buddhism satori. And satori is more literally “sudden awakening.”


I think when I was talking about the Diamond Sutra, I tried to give some explanation of what is meant in Buddhism by “awakening.” I’m not going to try and give a further definition of what it means, except by agency of the stories themselves and some comments about them. But “awakening” is the goal of all Buddhist endeavor. It is a kind of psychotherapy, a kind of transformation of the consciousness of the everyday person, which is held to be asleep, into a state of awakening in which you might say he is so clearly conscious of reality that he is never fooled anymore by the illusions of life.


Before I turn to the actual stories contained in our book, the No-Gate Barrier, I think I should say something by way of introduction about Zen itself. Because Zen is really an extraordinary phenomenon in the history of philosophy and religion. The reason why Zen is so peculiar is that it has (to begin with) no doctrines that can be stated in words, nothing that it requires anybody to believe, it has no system of formulated philosophy. In fact, it doesn’t really have anything to say at all. What is remarkable about Zen is that it endeavors to convey its message—the realization which constitutes “awakening” in Buddhism—without the intermediary of words and ideas. There are four statements which sum up the character of Zen Buddhism, and they are as follows:


  • A direct transmission of awakening outside the scriptures.
  • No dependence on words and letters.
  • Direct pointing.
  • And finally, seeing into one’s own nature and becoming a Buddha—which is to say: an “awakened one.”


I particularly want to concentrate on what is meant (for the moment) by “direct pointing,” because this is the technique in which Zen excels. Zen feels that all that human beings are seeking, all that they really fundamentally desire—whether it be complete contentment of the heart, or understanding why this universe exists and what our place in it is—all this understanding is not something obscure and far off, but something completely obvious and lying open for us to anybody who cares to look at it in this immediate moment which we are living now. It is as if to say the whole secret of life, everything that you could possibly desire, is yours at this moment. And if you cannot lay hold on it now, you’ll never be able to.


The difficulty is that it’s very hard to convince people of this by talking about it, because all talk, all systems of ideas, are in relation to reality itself somewhat like a menu in relation to a dinner. And those who try to get comfort—to get wisdom out of books or by believing in various systems of ideas and philosophies—such people are really devouring the menu instead of eating the dinner. Now how, then, is one to divert people’s attention from the menu to the dinner itself? There is only one way, and that is to point directly at the dinner: to stop talking about it, to stop writing about it, and to point at it directly. And this is what Zen does, and most of these stories from the No-Gate Barrier, the Wúménguān, are examples of direct pointing.


According to legend, the Zen school of Buddhism was introduced into China in about the year 527 A.D. by a sage from India whose name was Bodhidharma. And Bodhidharma is always represented in the art of the Far East as a fierce gentleman with a bushy beard and staring bright eyes. In Japan at the present time, children’s toys are made to represent Bodhidharma. They are little fellows rather like the American Shmoo; same sort of shape. And they are weighted inside—you know, they are legless figures—and they are weighted inside so that you can’t knock them over. They’ll always come upright again. And always there is the fierce stare in the eyes and the bushy beard on the chin. And of course there is some reference to Bodhidharma’s secret, to the teaching which he brought, to the message of Zen, in the fact that you can’t knock this little fellow over. You can push him in this way, you can push him that, but he always bobs up again.


The first story I’m going to read from the Wúménguān, which incidentally was compiled by a teacher of the Zen school who lived in China between 1183 and 1260. The first story I’m going to read you is the story of the encounter between Bodhidharma and his first disciple, whose name was Eka.


Bodhidharma was sitting facing the wall. His future successor, Eka, stands in the snow and presents his severed arm to Bodhidharma. I should explain in parenthesis that Bodhidharma had very much discouraged Eka from becoming his disciple. And this is always the way with Oriental philosophical and spiritual teachers: they don’t look for disciples. And the reason why Bodhidharma wasn’t looking for disciples was his own fundamental feeling that he had nothing to teach. The truth of Buddhism was so completely obvious that anyone could see it if he looked. And to talk about it and try and teach it was, as they say in Zen, only to put legs on a snake. You know, a snake walks very well without legs, and if you stuck some on it would only embarrass him.


And so he had said repeatedly to Eka, “I have nothing to teach. Go away.” But Eka was so convinced that Bodhidharma had some secret which he could convey to him that, at last, as a token of sincerity, he cut off one of his arms while standing outside the teacher’s hut in the freezing snow, and presented it to the teacher, crying. “My mind is not pacified. Master, pacify my mind.” Bodhidharma says, “If you bring me that mind, I will pacify it for you.” Eka said, “When I search for my mind, I cannot hold it.” Bodhidharma said, “Then your mind is pacified already.” And it is said that at this moment Eka had a sudden insight into the whole mystery of life, the problem of peace of mind, and the essential meaning of Buddhism itself.


To each one of these stories the editor of the book has added a comment and a poem, and I’m going to read the comment which he’s put here.


That broken-toothed old Hindu, Bodhidharma, came thousands of miles over the sea from India to China as if he had something wonderful. He is like raising waves without wind. After he remained years in China, he had only one disciple, and that one lost his arm and was deformed. Alas, ever since he has had brainless disciples.


And the poem:

Why did Bodhidharma come to China?

For years, monks have discussed this.

All the troubles that have followed since

Came from that teacher and disciple.


It’s a characteristic convention of Zen literature that the masters of this school poke fun at one another. Because insofar as they seem to be masters, they all realize that calling themselves masters is kind of a joke, because a master is, after all, one who has something to teach. And in Zen there is nothing to teach. The more one teaches, the more one tries to explain it, the more obscure it becomes. Just like the more one explains the joke, the less funny it becomes.


Going back to the story about Bodhidharma and Eka: Eka is expressing a very ordinary, simple human problem. He says, “I have no peace of mind.” What does he mean by “mind?” We might say “soul,” we might say “ego,” or “self.” “I feel that I am unhappy. I need peace.” And so Bodhidharma says very naturally, “Bring out this soul, this mind, of yours, and I’ll pacify it.” But Eka says, “You know, when I try to find myself, I can’t. I look and look, but then I realize that I’m looking for the one who is looking, and I can never lay hold on it.” Bodhidharma said, “There, your mind is pacified already.”


I feel very diffident, really, about making any comment to a story of that kind. But just in the nature of a little bit of a hint, we’re all very convinced indeed that we exist as a kind of self or ego, and our selfishness is one of our major problems. It would, wouldn’t it, be rather fascinating to find that when we look for ourselves we’re not really there, as if where we expected to find ourselves in the center of all our experience we found only a hole, an empty space. And then the problem of myself, my happiness, my peace of mind, would’ve disappeared. There is no one whom one has to pacify, whom one has to make happy. You’re not actually there.


But of course one can’t discover that just by hearing about it, you have to look and see. That’s why one of the fundamental questions in all Oriental philosophy is the simple question, “Who are you?” Look and try to find out who it is that is trying to finding out who it is that is trying to find out. This is, after all, a parable of what everybody is doing who is engaged in what we in the West call self-seeking, and this is really as stupid as somebody sitting down solemnly in a chair and gnashing and gnashing away trying to bite his own teeth.


Well, then, here’s another story from the No-Gate Barrier.

There was once a teacher called Tōzan, and one day when he was weighing some flax a student came to him and said, “What is Buddha?”

This question can mean, “What is reality?” or “What is it to be awakened?”

Tōzan answered, “This flax weighs three pounds.”

Then I’ll read you the comment:

Old Tōzan’s Zen is like a clam. The minute the shell opens, you see the whole inside. However, I want to ask you: do you see the real Tōzan?

And then the poem:

Three pounds of flax in front of your nose.

Close enough, and the mind is still closer.

Whoever talks about affirmation and negation

Lives in the right and wrong region.


Now, you must not suppose that there is some symbolism in saying “this flax weighs three pounds.” Oh, I know some commentators have tried to explain that, in Buddhism, there are three precious jewels: the Buddha himself, the dharma (or his doctrine), and the sangha (or his ordained followers). But the three pounds of flax don’t refer to the three jewels. Tōzan answered “This flax weighs three pounds” just as you might answer a very simple question about “Where are you going?” and you say, “Well, I’m going in town to buy groceries,” or “What kind of a day was it yesterday where you live?” “Oh,” you say, “it was rainy a good deal of the time.” And “This flax weighs three pounds” is an answer just like that.


But it seems, doesn’t it, a strange answer to give to a question like “What is reality?” or “What is it to be fully awakened?” Well, Zen teachers say that they derived this tradition of answering questions in that direct, simple way from the Buddha himself. Because our book contains a story that this was the way in which the Buddha passed on the secret of his own teaching to his principal disciple, whose name was Mahākāśyapa. And this is the story.


When the Buddha was in the Gṛdhrakūṭa mountain, he turned a flower in his fingers and held it before his listeners. Everyone was silent. Only Mahākāśyapa smiled at this revelation, although he tried to control the lines of his face. The Buddha said, “I have the eye of the true teaching. The heart of nirvana [of awakening], the true aspect of the formless, the ineffable stride of the doctrine. It is not expressed by words, but especially transmitted beyond teaching. This teaching I now give to Mahākāśyapa.”


And then the very amusing commentary of Wúmén:

Golden-faced Buddha thought he could cheat anyone. He made the goodlessness as bad, and sold dogmeat under the sign of mutton. And he himself thought it was wonderful. What if all the audience had laughed together? How could he have transmitted the teaching? And again, if Mahākāśyapa had not smiled, how could he have transmitted the teaching? If he says that realization can be transmitted, he is like the city slicker that cheats the country dub. And if he says it cannot be transmitted, why does he approve of Mahākāśyapa?


And then the poem:

At the turning of a flower

His disguise was exposed.

No one in heaven and earth

Can surpass Mahākāśyapa’s wrinkled face.


There were all those disciples gathered around the Buddha, expecting from him the usual daily words of wisdom. And instead of that he said nothing. He just picked up a flower and held it in his hand. And this is the same sort of answer that Tōzan gave when he was asked, “What is reality?” He just said, “This flax weighs three pounds.” An ordinary statement, just as holding up a flower is an ordinary action.


When Zen teachers began to answer questions about reality in this way, they had their imitators—those who thought that they had got hold of something that was, you know, a sort of new, cultish fad in the way of religion, and they went around imitating these kinds of antics in order to seem wise and to collect followers. But this is what happened to a person who tried that sort of thing. It’s the story called Gutei’s Finger.


Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy would raise his finger. Gutei heard about the boy’s mischief. He seized him and asked him the question, “What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?” The boy raised his finger, and at once Gutei cut it off. The boy cried out and ran away. But Gutei called out and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant, the boy was enlightened.

When Gutei was about to pass from this world, he gathered his monks around him. “I attained my finger Zen,” he said, “from my teacher, Tenryū. And in my whole life I could not exhaust it.” Then he passed away.


So the secret of the thing is not just in being able to do some strange antics in answer to questions. And the fellow who didn’t really understand, but imitated his understanding, got into very serious trouble. But despite of his getting into trouble, he realized the thing in the end.


Here is a story in which perhaps the point of this kind of thing begins to come a little clearer, and it’s called the Story of Tipping over the Pitcher.


Hyakujo wished to send a monk to open a new monastery. He told his pupils that whoever answered a question most ably would be appointed. Placing a water pitcher on the ground, he asked, “Who can say what this is without calling its name?” The chief monk said, “No one can call it a wooden shoe.” But Isan, the cooking monk, tipped over the pitcher with his foot and went out. Hyakujo smiled and said, “The chief monk loses,” and Isan became the master of the new monastery.


Wúmén comments:

Isan was brave enough, but he could not escape Hyakujo’s trick. After all, he gave up a light job and took a heavy one. Why, can’t you see: he took off his comfortable hat and placed himself in iron stocks.


If I talk all the time and never listen to what others have to say, I shall lose touch with my fellow man. In the same way, if I think all the time—which is, in a way, talking to myself inwardly—I shall lose touch with the reality with which words are about, which they’re intended to symbolize. It is the fundamental insight of Zen that, by an excess of thinking, men have lost touch with the real world in which they live.


The solution to this problem is to be silent in one’s mind and to look again at the real world—not thinking, but seeing it directly. This can’t be talked about. If I want you to listen t music, any advice to do so will drown out the music. The directest way is to play the music itself.


In other words, he had seen that the reality of the pitcher was not the word or the idea “pitcher,” but was something nonverbal, and by this action demonstrated that this was his understanding. You cannot put what it is into words. And this indeed is a central point of Zen and of Buddhist understanding in general: that reality is beyond words, and that one must not confuse the world of things—as we think about them and talk about them and name them—with the world as it actually is. The first story I read was a case in point, because in the world of ideas and words and conceptions and inherited social notions every one of us is perfectly convinced that he is a self, an ego. But when we step out of that world of conventional ideas into the clear daylight of reality, and with wide-open eyes look for ourself, what do we find?

Alan Watts

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