The Barrier Gate

July 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Has a dog Buddha nature?

This is the most serious question of all.

If you say yes, if you say no,

Dead your body, lost your soul.


Mumon’s verse on the koan MU may seem remote and far removed from our everyday life. To some, it may not even be a serious question at all. Yet are there not times when we couldn’t decide what to do? Should I take this job? Should I accept this proposal? Should I teach my children Buddhism or let them choose their own spiritual path when they are older?

When we don’t know whether to say yes or whether to say no we have encountered a barrier. Our world has become divided into a choice of “this or that” and “either/or” that leaves us wondering how to move forward. There is often a fundamental conflict over the question of who and what we truly are where we have the most difficulty. Outwardly it may not matter what we do but inwardly these barriers leave us in turmoil. Any choice, it seems, will lead to the situation reflected in Mumon’s words, “Dead your body, lost your soul.”

Zen koans purposely arouse our barriers. As it is thought that created the barriers any further thinking would only strengthen them, so the koan is designed to have no thinkable solution. They work instead by forcing us to give up thinking so we may open to a new way of being.

To be sure, thought does have its place and we should not conclude that we can get through life without it. But thought is just a handy tool for exploring the world. It begins with certain assumptions that necessarily divide the world into parts. These parts eventually come into conflict and when we try to integrate them back into a working whole we find we cannot. The initial assumptions we made and the subsequent line of thought that followed, makes reintegration via further thought impossible.

Believing that thought could resolve the very problems thinking creates is a fundamental error of thought. Yet as long as we believe that there is a thinkable solution we will look for it. Koans are a means to completely exhaust all thinkable solutions so we may finally realize that, in the Great Matter, thinking is useless. Then, divorced from thought and no longer looking for a solution or any change in ourselves, our true nature dawns. To quote Zen Master Dogen:

“The very ‘nowness’ of this is beyond anything I know of, beyond anyone’s ability to comprehend intellectually, beyond all your expectations, even beyond a Buddha’s Eye to catch a glimpse of.”


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