The Stonewater Zen Centre is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are currently meeting regularly online, please see our Online Zendo page for further details.

‘The Gateless Gate – The Tales of the Human Heart’ by Woo Young Tetsugen Yang

Which book on Zen (or Buddhism generally) has had the most impact on your life and practice and why did it particularly resonate with you?

The Gateless Gate – The Tales of the Human Heart

As Sensei often muses, for a tradition that prides itself in ‘without relying on letters and words, transmission outside scriptures, pointing directly at the mind*’, there are an awful lot of books on Zen. Surely the true spirit of Zen lies in actually practising it instead of reading about it? However, I feel that Gateless Gate resolves this paradox, because rather than a book of theories to be studied, I think it is more a manual or a map that makes suggestions for the reader to try them out and see what happens.

South North East West
Some people in the Sangha feel that koans are ‘just games’, or ‘Chinese word-play’. In fact, an ancient Chan master** also had this acerbic comment to offer – “These days the monks think they have reached high levels of attainment if they can come up with some clever-sounding verses, or if they have the last words in a Dharma exchange on koans.” To him, clearly koans were never intended to be the object of academic study or sophistry, but a real vehicle of genuine practice. In this way, Gateless Gate whacks the back of my head if I become complacent and start stinking of Zen, as if it is saying, “You are faking it again, aren’t you?”

In his verse to a case in the book, Master Mumon sings,

“Where the wheel revolves,
Even a master fails to keep up.
It moves in four directions: above and below,
South and north, east and west”

While I might think that I am better than that, I can quite easily but also rather subtly delude myself into thinking that I have found something REALLY important in Zen and also in my life, and end up getting attached to it. Of course, it is equally unhelpful if I think, in the spirit of ‘not knowing’, I know nothing about Zen and get attached to that. In either case, knowing or not knowing, if I get attached to the idea that THE Essence of Zen is the ‘South’ in one case, by the next case (or sometimes even within the very same case!) it is actually the ‘North’. Or East. Or West. Above or below. It is as if Gateless Gate is saying, ‘If you think you found the Essence of Zen there, it is not there. It is over here! Come along, chop-chop!” Of course, by the time I get there, it is not there either, as it has already moved on while I am too busy getting stuck.

And the Mysteries of the Human Heart
Although I thought that the purpose of koans was entirely for obtaining insight and clarity when I started Zen practice, in due course I discovered that they have much more to offer. Another ancient master*** wrote, “The ultimate truth cannot be reached without the relative truth.” True to his assertion, the koans in Gateless Gate turned out not to just consist of po-faced stiff solemnity, but very often to be full of very raw human emotions, without manipulation or packaging.

To cite just a few examples: there are tears of frustration as a trainee feels that he is an utter failure and is absolutely worthless after a harsh admonition from a master; an unfathomable depth of pain and despair that leads to self-mutilation; heart-wrenching sorrow of being separated from loved ones; greed, jealousy and political machination; fear of having to face a certain death; temptation to escape from the boredom of everyday life; feeling of isolation and loneliness. Of course, Gateless Gate does not only deal in tragedies: there are also the levity of playing with masks; the wonder that makes us stare at trees, winds, cows, cats and carts as we have never done before; reminiscing a beautiful spring time full of flowers and birdsongs. There are times when I wept because of the strength of emotion in some of these cases.

Interestingly, in the Zen maxim of ‘directly pointing at the mind’ mentioned above, the Chinese letter for mind, 心, also means the heart. Another interesting point in the same maxim is the letter 人 that comes immediately before 心 as its adjective, and it means ‘human’. Therefore, clearly, not only does Zen directly point to not just any ‘mind’ the HUMAN mind, but it also points directly to no other than the HUMAN heart. I understand that Citta, the Sanskrit word in the scriptures that is often translated into English as ‘mind’, in fact also means ‘heart-mind’ and not just ‘mind’. Perhaps to the ancient people they were never meant to be separate, so it may not be surprising that Gateless Gate is so full of human emotions. In this emotional perspective, rather than some homework assignments that we have to get through for which we get chided if we cannot ‘solve them’, the book almost reads like a stage play with 48 different acts, where different ancient masters make appearances in each case! Instead of leaving me in the audience seat, however, they then do their very best to invite me to come up to the stage and actually join the play at every turn. Of course, often there is resistance. (And why not? It is often uncomfortable to go through that process, and sometimes it simply sucks.) Apprehension. Hesitation. Feeling of silliness. Lack of faith. But in the end, it is only by answering their invitations and thus thoroughly experiencing all these emotions on the stage that I can learn more about myself. As Master Dogen suggests, learning about myself is of great importance in my practice, especially more so because I am all too good at ignoring a great many of my own emotions. While for a long time I had believed that I didn’t do much emotions, on looking back it turned out that all the emotions that are on display in Gateless Gate are, in one way or another, to a greater or lesser extent, my own emotions as well. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, I am human.

* 不立文字 敎外別傳 直指人心
** [Collection of Letters 書狀] by Daie Soko (1089-1163), the Chinese Rinzai master who popularised the practice of koan introspection as a form of zazen. He even went so far as burning every single copy of the Blue Cliff Record, another famous koan collection compiled by none other than his own master Engo Kokugen, when he discovered that the trainee monks at his monastery were not sincerely meditating with koans but instead memorising their written comments in Blue Cliff Record to present them as their own understanding in Dharma interviews.
*** [Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way)] by Nagarjuna (c. 150- c. 250), widely regarded as the most important Mahayana philosopher. He is in fact in the ‘blood line’ transmission tree of our lineage as the 14th generation successor of the Shakyamuni Buddha, and he is an ancestor to Bodhidharma by another 14 generations.