Zen Koans: Mumonkan

Jun. 7, 2022
Tags: zen psy mumonkan hekiganroku

The Gateless Barrier (in Chinese Wu-men kuan 無門關, later in Japanese Mu-monkan 無門関) is a collection of koans (sorties as exercises of the mind), accompagnied by commentary and poetic verse for each of them.

What is Mumonkan?

The title refers to a passage which has no physical restrictions, much like the practice of zen can be done by anyone at any time, yet many people remain as if behind a gate for the time being.
The text was first compiled in China in 1228, by Wu-men Hui-k’ai (in Japanese Mumon Ekai), who was a head monk at the Lung-hsiang monastery. It was then published in Japan over the decades afterwards (1246 and later), and subsequently included in the buddhist corpus of the Taisho era, with later on new editions compiling various additions of commentaries.

In more recent days (20th century), various translations have come out - with multiple in English, some more opinionated than others. A much longer history and detailed list of publications can be found on this page of the Terebess center.

The version I read was translated by Katsuki Sekida and is a popular one in English (Two Zen Classics: The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Records), which benefits from the addition of parts of a similar text coming from Japan nearly a hundred years before that, called Hekiganroku (The Blue Cliff Records) - which unravels in a somewhat similar structure and a condensed or terse expression scheme.

Hekiganroku: PDF
Mumonkan cases: here, there, PDF

What are koans?

Koans are short stories and exercises of the mind. They act as checkpoints of sorts, which are better approached with emotion and spontaneity than logic and pragmatism. Each koan tells a (short) story, sometimes echoing a practice that goes on between monks, sometimes with nature, always weaving a broader concept underneath the surface of the story. To an extent, the understanding of the underlying way of thinking and living relates to the enlightenment of some of the characters.

The added commentaries and verses in various editions of the Mumonkan & Hekiganroku can help the reader re-contextualize the story told, and sometimes be nudged towards the meaning of the koan. To a modern reader they might sometimes feel like an enigma on top of another one, but relaxing your grasp on the story to get to the core of it can be seen as a fun exercise and a sort of “stretching” of the mind.

Many of the stories can feel disconnected from a western mindset in 2022, which is why it’s even more important to have a mental flexibility to overcome the friction of cultural differences and find the core of the statements to observe it, question it, and maybe live it too.
I have come to understand that there are interesting parallels with the ability to process koans and proficiency with the tools of modern-day therapies like the Dialectical-Behavior and Cognitive-Behavioral therapies (DBT and CBT) - for which I will soon put up some articles when time allows.

Example 1: Sozan and Zeizei (case 10)

A monk named Seizei asked Sozan: "Seizei is alone and poor. Will you give him support?"
Sozan asked: "[You are] Seizei?"
Seizei responded: "Yes, sir."
Sozan said: "You have Zen, the best wine in China, and already have finished three cups, and still you are saying that they did not even wet your lips."

Mumon’s comment:

Seizei overplayed his hand. Why was it so?
Because Sozan had eyes and knew with whom to deal.
Even so, I want to ask: At what point did Seizei drink wine?

Example 2: The Barbarian with no beard (case 4)

Wakuan said, "Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?"

Mumon’s comment:

Study should be real study, enlightenment should be real enlightenment.
You should once meet this barbarian directly to be really intimate with him.
But saying you are really intimate with him already divides you into two.

More content later