Sunday, July 8, 2012

Gateless Dao

Scott Bradley

Gateless is the Great Dao,
There are thousands of ways to it,
If you pass through this barrier,
You may walk freely in the universe.
I have stumbled on another translation of and commentary on the Mumonkan, the compilation of 48 koans by Mumon in the 13th century. It consists of the actual koans and responsive poems and commentaries (Teisho) by Mumon (Ekai). In addition, there is in this volume commentary by the contemporary Zen Master, Zenkei Shibayama. (Zen Comments on the Mumonkan) All three provide fertile ground for reflection. The poem above is Mumon's introductory poem.

I propose to spend time here once again, but before I do it might be helpful to explain how I see it as relevant to philosophical Daoism; it is Zen, after all. The short answer is that I believe Zen and Daoism have essentially the same goal, though expressed and sought in different ways. Zen is a synthesis of Buddhist and Daoist thought and, like Raymond Smullyan, it is primarily the Daoist element which most appeals to me. Despite some dissenting opinion, Zen is essentially zazen (sitting mediation) and for this reason I am in no way a Zennist. Yet there are other methods, and koans represent one such, even when not part of zazen practice.

Mumonkan means "Gateless Barrier", and the understanding that Dao is gateless is in itself a gate. Yet Suan Chin Ken, who reluctantly wrote a preface to the first publication of the Mumonkan, tells us to "throw it away" and "let not one drop of it fall into the world." This cautionary trepidation expresses the danger in thinking that 'understanding' can mean anything but transformative experience which cannot be 'understood'. We must remember that all these words are not that experience, and can, in fact, hinder us in its realization.

I would suggest that Dao is "gateless" precisely because there is no wall separating anything from it; there is nothing which is not Dao. Experiencing this is satori. Yet, because we fail of this awareness, we speak of gates and gatelessness; we must become aware of what is already the case, and thus it is but a psychological rather than an ontological barrier which must be breached.

Dao is gateless because it is all-embracing; how then could there not be infinite gates through which to realize it? It is everywhere and everything. This present perception and the world it imagines, however benighted, is Dao. This is Dao. Dao has no parts. Zenkei comments: "The fact that it is gateless means everything as it is is 'it'. Also it means there are infinitely different ways to it."

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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