The Gateless Checkpoint of the Zen Lineage
Chan Zong Wumen Guan (J. Zen Shu Mumonkan)
By Wumen Huikai (1183-1260, J. Zen Shu Mumon Ekai)
Translated by Gregory Wonderwheel © 2007-2008
This translation is based on the 1246 manuscript by Anwan Zhushi
[Bad news! The original manuscript of the Wumen Guan is no longer available online where it was on public display at the website of the Asian Art Museum. If anyone knows where it might be residing on the web please let me know.]
I have tried to be as faithful to the original text as I can while rendering it into English so that Wumen will speak directly by his own words. Basically, translators have to choose between, on the one hand, trying to make a work easily accessible to the reader by conveying the author's meaning and, on the other, keeping as close as possible to the author's original content to convey the writer's words. Sometimes this distinction is called translating "thought-for-thought" or translating "word-for-word."
Translating thought-for-thought emphasizes what is called "dynamic equivalence" in an attempt to translate the meaning, and it tends to focus on the "intent" or "idea" of the author while translating sentence by sentence, or paragraph by paragraph. The translation then expresses the translator's view of the author's meaning in the new language in a way that not only translates the words but attempts to find equivalent thoughts, meanings, metaphors, and images in the new language for unique features and images found in the original language. The idea is that the translator does the cultural and literary work for the reader making the reader's job easier.
This is a valid approach, but one that I find wanting. I don't like to read a translation that attempts to make the text familiar to English readers by using English idioms for Chinese ones, and then to discover that the Chinese idiom or metaphor is just as rich and not all that inaccessible as the translator believed. As a reader, I like to do the work of seeing the images in the original words rather than translated into English or Western imagery. To me a translated text should feel translated when I read it, and not read as if it were written by a contemporary English writer.
My translation is generally word-for-word, and I have attempted to have a translated English word or phrase for every Chinese word or phrase. When any special point of translation requires a decision, my bias is toward finding the "essentially literal" meaning of the original by translating by the word, however I hope that I don't follow this rule of thumb slavishly and that this translation has all the meaning as well as the color of the original.
The down side of the word-for-word approach is that the reader may be confronted with some unusual imagery or discussion that either doesn't seem intelligible at first or doesn't flow in the text, but to me, as a reader, the extra work of the reader is more than justified by the rewards of feeling that something has been learned and seen from the eyes of the author that would be missing if translated "by the idea" and not "by the word." Of course my goal is to avoid the extreme of this approach, one that would maintain much of the Chinese syntax as well as idioms. An extreme example could be called "Charlie Chan" English. (This is no criticism of the Charlie Chan films, which I enjoy, but simply an example of the way that some translations may go overboard in this direction.
Clearly every translation necessarily includes some elements of the "word-for-word" and "thought-for-thought" translation models, and the sincere translator is adjusting the balance based on his or her feeling of what will provide the best bridge to the author for the contemporary reader. This is the ongoing balancing act and dilemma has been called "the trade-off between literal precision and readability." Where he or she finds the balance points in that trade-off is what makes the individual translator have a unique style.
For readers unfamiliar with the peculiarities, from the English point of view, of Chinese, and older Chinese in particular, some additional notes may be helpful. The original manuscript has no numbering of the cases, so numbers in all translations are added for the ease of the reader. Also, though the three parts to a case, the main case text, the comment by Wumen and the verse by Wumen, are separated by breaks from each other, there are no internal breaks for paragraphs within the main cases or comments as is used in English, so all internal paragraph breaks are added by the translators. Also, most of the verses do not have line breaks and in those verses line breaks too are added.
Many English speakers are surprised to learn that the old Chinese did not have any punctuation marks, so all punctuation including periods, commas, quotation marks, etc. are added by the translator's reading of the text. Thus, the same long string of Chinese characters may be given different punctuation for commas, semicolons, and periods by different translators. By looking at the original manuscript one appreciates this by seeing how the Japanese owners or readers of the text inserted their own red ink interlinear notations.
"Notations in red ink to aid in the reading of the text-such as grammatical markers (J. okototen), pronunciation guides (J. shôten), and phonetic script (J. kana)-were added by latter Japanese readers, making the work a valuable source for studying the Japanese markings used to read Chinese and Chinese-style (J. kanbun) texts."
Also surprising to most English speakers is that Chinese doesn't have many of the characteristics of English such as conjugation of verbs or different word endings for designating the singular or the plural. Also, while Chinese does have some pronouns, the language prefers to leave out pronouns in most situations, so that the reader must read into the text whether, for example, the pronoun "he", "you", or "one" is the pronoun intended to be implied by the author. Thus different translations of the Wumen Guan may read "you shouldn't look back", "he shouldn't look back" or "one shouldn't look back" depending on the translator's view of the implied meanings, because the translator feels compelled in most cases to insert a proper pronoun.
The use of conjunctions is another area that relies on implied context to a great extent. Two nouns or verbs may be used side by side but the character for "and" may not be used because the speaker expects that the reader will fill in the necessary implied conjunction.
This great amount of deliberately implied meanings in the Chinese language is what I feel is largely responsible for the stereotype of the inscrutable Chinese in Western cultural legend.
For proper names where the Chinese pronunciations are retained, I'm including the English translation in parentheses only the first time the name appears. A pronunciation guide for Chinese names in Pinyin is at the end. The manuscript's pages are also not numbered, but for comparing with the original manuscript, the page breaks in the manuscript are indicated in the translation by [MM #] in brackets with # indicating the number of the page that is beginning.
The Wumen Guan or Gateless Checkpoint is a truly unique text in the spiritual literature of the world in that it expresses the simplicity, humor, and profundity of Zen in such a concise record. While each case can legitimately be called a direct revelation of the Truth, the Gateless Checkpoint challenges readers to inquire within themselves to personally verify the living Truth of what each case reveals, rather than merely to accept the stories as a static “revelation” of truth to be enshrined and worshipped and set up as dogma. In Zen, revelation is not found in the past but is alive right here and now. Knowing how to distinguish "living words" from "dead words" is key to Zen, as the Chinese Zen master Baizhang said over three centuries earlier. This demand that the reader take up the responsibility to delve most intimately into the living presence of the text is why the words and events appear to be so puzzling to the uninitiated reader.
Zen master Wumen was also a master of literary suggestion, puns, and double entendre. It is my hope that by the new exposure of this original manuscript, resulting in fresh translations such as this, new generations will appreciate the joy and profundity with which Wumen presented Zen teaching.
This translation was completed September 08, 2007, but of course some editing is ongoing. I readily admit that I am new to translating Chinese and therefore I may have some quirky translations of certain words or phrases. In completing this translation I have consulted several prominent English translations, and in many instances I have found that they disagree with each other, so I feel confident that my translation is well within the center of the domain of legitimate translation. If the reader has questions about or suggestions for improving my translations I do appreciate well intentioned comments at Wonderwheel (at) pon.net]
[MM Cover Page]
The Gateless Checkpoint of the Zen Lineage
To say the Way is without a gate, in the end great numbers of people will be able to hold it and enter. To say the Way has a gate, does not flatter the master and divides the younger brothers' (i.e., monks) unity. Alas, the forced additions! Each appended note very much looks like a bamboo hat on top of a bamboo hat and hardly necessary. Old Man Xi (Learning) praises the willow. Furthermore, this is crushing bamboo and twisting it to get the juice; you do not need these gasps from going back and forth. Old Man Xi's one throw, one throw. Do not teach that one drop falls into rivers and lakes. The piebald horse cannot pursue a bird for a thousand li.
Xi Xaing (Lane of Learning) made public this harmful writing on the last day of the seventh month of the beginning of the Shaoding (Stable Connection) Era [1228 C.E.].
[Untitled Imperial Dedication]
On the fifth day of the first month of the second year of the Shaoding era,  may you respectfully win the confidence of Heaven on the occasion of your virtuous holiday. Your subject, monk Huikai, (Opening of Wisdom) on the fifth day of the twelfth month of last year  prepared and printed picked up and arouse [MM2] caused these 48 criteria of the pivotal points of the Buddhas and Ancestors.
I wish now for the prolonging of the supreme Emperor's sacred personage for eternal prosperity.
Your highness, I respectfully wish your virtue to be as brilliant as to equal the sun and moon.
May your profound importance, the same as Heaven and Earth, be sung in the eight directions, and may your majesty of speech be the joy of the four seas by effortless influence.
With virtuous goodness to the merit of
Empress Ciyi (Example of Compassion)
To propagate the Dharma,
Respectful words by
Your Subject Monk Huikai,
Former Abbot of Zen Temple Bao-Yin-You-Ci (Proclaiming the Cause of Blessed Compassion)
The Gateless Checkpoint of the Zen Lineage
The Heart-mind governs the Buddha’s words; the gateless governs the lineage. Since the gate of the Dharma is gateless, just how do you pass through alive? How do you not see the Way? Things that enter through the gate are not the family treasures. Things that are obtained in the beginning through conditions become destroyed in the end. Doesn’t a big speech like this seem to raise waves without a wind, to gouge a wound in good flesh? Trying to solve the problem by such cold-water stagnant words is comparable to shaking a stick to hit the moon. The boot stands between an itch and a scratch. To be happy mix with and ford the stream.
I, Huikai, in the summer of the year of the first Earthly Branch of the fifth Heavenly Stem in the era of Shaoding [1228 C.E.], was head of the assembly at Longxiang (Dragon-soaring) in Dongjia (Praise of the East). Because I received requests to benefit others, I proceeded to go to the ancients’ public cases to make tiles to knock on their gates and, by following the opportunities, to guide these learned persons. This was concluded and the record was transcribed. It became assembled unconsciously; the first is not according to any express front to back order. The forty-eight standards became a collection to pass through called "The Gateless Checkpoint."
Indeed, it is a man not minding danger or dying who goes straight to the point, and is not delayed by eight-armed Nezha.* Even if the Western Heaven’s “four sevens” and the Eastern [MM 4] Earth’s “two threes”** come to visit on the wind they are only able to beg for their lives. If perhaps you vacillate, you might as well be looking at a veiled window as someone rides a horse by, when you are able to move away the obstruction and your eye returns, the horse has passed by long ago.
The Ode says:
Yet it has a thousand differing paths;
[* Eigth-armed Nezha is a character from Chinese mythology who was originally a monster but in a later human form became a loyal subject of the Jade Emperor, the ruler of Heaven. His appearance is usually in the disarming form of a charming youth, but like an unruly teenager he is known as a trickster type who does not always perform his duties as expected. When needed for battle, Nezha can instantly sprout his eight arms, and as he holds a weapon in each, he is known for his ferocious fighting skills.
**The Western Heaven’s “four sevens” are the 28 Zen ancestral founders of India, and the Eastern Earth’s “two threes” are the six Zen ancestral founders of China.]
The opportune cause of Buddhas and ancestors in forty eight criteria.
1. Zhaozhou's Puppy 2. Baizhang's Wild Fox
3. Juzhi’s Firm Finger 4. Mr. Barbarian Without a Beard
5. Xiangyan Up a Tree 6. The World Honored One Picks a Flower
7. Zhaozhou Washes a Bowl 8. Zizhong Makes a Cart
9. Great Penetration Wins Wisdom 10. Qingshui is Orphaned and Poor
11. Zhou Investigates the Hermitage Masters 12. Yan Calls “Master”
13. Deshan Holds Up His Bowl 14 Nanquan Beheads the Cat
15. Dongshan's Three Beatings 16. Bell Sound, Seven-Strips
17. The National Teacher’s Three Calls 18. Dongshan 's Three Pounds
19. Ordinary Is the Way 20. A Person of Great Power
21. Yunmen's Shit Scraper 22. Kashyapa's Temple Pole
23. Don’t Think Good and Evil 24. Abandon Language
25. The Third Seat Speaking the Dharma 26. Two Monks Roll Up the Blinds
27. Not This Heart-Mind or Buddha 28. A Long Time Led to Longtan
29. Not the Wind, Not the Flag 30. As It Is Heart-Mind, As It Is Buddha
31. Zhaozhou Investigates an Old Woman 32. One Outside the Way Asks the Buddha
33. Not Heart-Mind, Not Buddha 34. Wisdom Is Not the Way
35. Quinnu Parted From Her Higher-Soul 36. On the Path Meeting One Who Has Realized the Way
37. The Cypress Tree In Front of the Hall 38. An Ox Passing Through the Window Lattice
39. Yunmen’s Idle Speech 40. Leap and Tip Over the Clean-Bottle
41. Dharma Pacifies Heart-mind 42. The Woman Comes Out of Samadhi
43. Shoushan's “Bamboo Comb” 44. Bajiao's Crutch
45. Who Is the Other? 46. Progress from the Top of the Pole
47. Doushuai's Three Checkpoints 48. Qianfeng's One Path
The End of the Table of Contents
The Gateless Checkpoint
[For the individual Cases 1-48 in the body of the text click on the table of contents above.]
[Wumen’s Untitled Afterword]
From on high, the Buddhas and ancestors let it hang out to reveal their function according to the knocking, They tied together the cases from the beginning without any leftover words being set up. They flipped over their brain lids and revealed their eyeballs. All people must agree to directly bend down to shoulder the responsibility; not depending on another’s seeking. If you correctly pass through the principle, you are a superior person finished with learning; you lift up and manifest ordinary knowledge in the village place. Knowing the gateless you can enter the door; also, without steps and ranks, you can rise. Shaking your arms, you pass through the checkpoint, not asking the checkpoint official.
How can it be that you do not see Xuansha’s (Black Sand) saying: “Gateless is the gate of liberation; meaningless is the meaning of the person of the Way”?
Also Baiyun (White Cloud) said, “Clearly, those who only know the saying, what can they do? [MM 62] Their penetration is not completely passing through.”
Even speaking in this way is red dirt cow’s milk. If you are able to penetrate the gateless checkpoint, you early establish Wumen is dull. If you are not able to penetrate the gateless checkpoint, also after all you fail to live up to yourself. So it is said, the heart-mind of Nirvana is easy to know; the wisdom of differentiation is difficult to understand. When your understanding gains the wisdom of differentiation your home, nation, and yourself are quiet and peaceful.
The intitial change of the Shaoding era [1228 C.E.], five days before the untying of the regulations.
The end of the volume the Gateless Checkpoint.
Following the rules and protecting the regulations is binding oneself without rope.
Moving freely vertically and horizontally without obstruction is the way of outsiders and the nightmare army.
To preserve the heart mind and to purify it by letting impurities settle to the bottom in quiescence is the perverted Zen of silent illumination.
Neglecting the written records with unrestrained ideas is falling into a deep pit.
To be awake and not ignorant is to wear chains and shoulder a cangue.
Thinking good and thinking evil are the halls of heaven and hell.
A view of Buddha and a view of Dharma are the two enclosing mountains of iron.
A person who perceives thoughts as they immediately arise is fiddling with spectral consciousness.
However, being on a high plateau practicing samadhi is the stratagem of living in the house of ghosts.
To advance results in ignoring truth; to retreat results in contradicting the lineage.
Neither to advance nor to retreat is being a breathing corpse.
Just say, how will you walk? You must work hard to live in the present and, to finish, all the more. I do not advise the unfortunate excess of continual suffering.
Huanglong’s Three Checkpoints
"How is my hand like the hand of Buddha?"
Able to touch the pillow at the back of my head,
I unconsciously laughed a great laugh. [MM 64]
From the first, the hand is throughout the body.
"How is my leg like the leg of a donkey?"
Not yet lifting a step, stepping along in time has manifested.
A single assignment and the four seas are circumnavigated.
Straddle backwards on the three legs of Yangqi.
"Everyone exists by a particular cause of birth."
Each and every one has the innate function of penetrating in-depth.
Nazha broke his bones to return them to his father.
Can it be that the Fifth Ancestor relied on the cause of his father?
The hand of the Buddha, the leg of the donkey, and the cause of birth
Are not Buddha, not the Way, not Zen.
It is not strange that the narrow pass of the gateless checkpoint
Ties up and exhausts the monks' deep animosity
Wumen recently was present at Ruiyan (Lucky Cliff) mending the opposite parts of the rope-bench, judging past and present, and cutting off everything at the trailhead of the worldly and the sacred. Only a few who are curled up and hibernating will arouse the sound of thunder. [MM65] Wumen was asked to be in the head-seat to set up a mountain of monks.* To thank him I respectfully offer these gathas. Written by Wulaing Zongshou (Measureless Longevity of the Lineage) in the late spring of the 3rd terrestrial branch of the 7th celestial stem of the Shaoding era [1230 C.E.].
[* The "head-seat to set up a monk's mountain" means to be the head monk establishing the teaching period of the assembly of monks at a temple, which in Zen is metaphorically called the mountain. The "mountain name" is the commonly used name of a Zen master who gets known by the name of the temple where he was Abbot for a substantial time.]
[Menggong’s untitled epilogue.]
Damo* came from the West, not maintaining written words, but pointing directly to the human heart-mind to see one's own nature to become Buddha. Speaking, in particular, about "pointing directly" is already a twisted detour. Further, by saying "to become Buddha," the gentleman doesn't stop flunking. Because it is already gateless, how can there be a checkpoint? Like the friendly feelings of an old woman, he announces and spreads hateful gossip. Wuan (Hermitage of Nothing) wants to add one superfluous talk to become the forty-ninth criterion. In this space, there are some imprudent errors, so scrape the meat from the bones. Raise your eyebrows (to open your eyes widely) and take hold of the offerings.
Republished in the summer of the 6th Earthly Branch of the 2nd Heavenly Stem of the Chunyou Era [1245 C.E.].
[Menggong’s untitled 49th case.]
little of a general's inspection protects the peace. The army of Wu ferried across the great lake
to pacify and establish governance. The
Ambassador-general** used militia labor to farm reclaimed wasteland. The path taken by the Ambassador-general
agreed with his strategy. The
Ambassador-general was familiar with
Epilogue by Menggong (Great Bow)
[* Damo is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit dharma used as a nickname for Bodhidharma.
** Literally, Double-posted Ambassador or Double-duty Ambassador meaning he had two official assignments such as Ambassador and General. Menggong was a warrior who rose in the ranks to become just such an Ambassador-General or prefect, so it is likely he was speaking of himself.]
[Untitled introduction by Anwan to his 49th case.]
Zen's old Mumon set up 48 standard talks to judge the koans of the virtuous ones of old. It greatly seems as if he is a man who sells deep-fried cakes and orders the family of customers to open their mouths and accept all of them. Furthermore, like that, they are unable either to swallow or spit them up. Even if it is like that, it is Anwan's (Tranquil Sunset) desire to follow along with his hot stove, again to boil up and fetch one more to be sufficient to become a great overflow of quantity, yet before I deliver it, it appears I do not know [MM67] at what place the old teacher (J. roshi) will sink his teeth. If he is able to eat it in one mouthful then he will release light rays and arouse the earth. If he's not yet that like, then he will see the 48, each and all, become burning sand. Go on, say it quickly; say it quickly.
Younger Brother's 49th Standard Talk:
The Sutra said, "Stop, stop, one shouldn't explain. My Dharma is subtle and difficult to conceive."
Anwan says: Whereof does Dharma come? Whereof does subtlety exist? And now, what is produced by setting up explanations? But how can it be that Fenggan's (Vessel of Abundance) tongue overflowed, when from the beginning Shakya (i.e., Shakyamuni Buddha) had much more mouth? That old boy created demons, and because of his decrees hundreds of thousands of generations of children and grandchildren are entwined in kudzu and canes and not even able to stick out their heads. It seems like this kind of peculiar talk is a target; but stirring with the spoon doesn't lift it and steaming in the rice pot doesn't cook it. How many are there who err in realizing the foundation?
A person approached and asked, "Ultimately, when regarded thus, what knots are severed?"
Anwan joined his ten fingernails and said, "Stop, stop, one shouldn't explain. My [MM68] Dharma is subtle and difficult to conceive." Still, above the two characters, "difficult" and "to conceive," he quickly went and made the image of a small circle and instructed the assembly, "The five thousand scrolls of the Great Canon (Pitaka) and Vimalakirti's gate of non-duality are all summed up within it so."
The Ode says:
At the words "The fire is the lamplight,"
Turning your head to walk away is not an answer.
Only a thief recognizes a thief,
And attains a confession with one question.
Layman Anwan wrote this at the fishing villa on West Lake in the fortunate beginning of the summer of the 7th Earthly Branch of the 3rd Heavenly Stem of the Chunyou (Genuine Protection) Era [1246 C.E.].
Translator's Appendix Materials:
Pronunciation Guide for Pinyin Writing System Used for Names:
1) Some words ending in "i" have an unwritten "r" added. Example: shi = "sure," zhi = "jer"
2) Words containing "ao" are pronounced "ow". Example: hao = "how"
3) Words which contain "ou" are pronounced "oe". Example: dou = "doe" (as in female deer)
4) "a" is pronounced like "o". Example: hang = "hong"(rhymes w/ English, sing a "song")
5) "o" is pronounced like "oo." Example: song = "soong"
6) "ui" is pronounced like "uay." Example: hui = "huay"
7) "e" is pronounced like
"uh." Example: neng = "nung" (rhymes with
8) "i" is pronounced like "ee." Example: yi = "yee," qi = "chee," li = "lee"
1) "x" is pronounced like "s." Example: xuan = "swan," xi = "see," xin = "sin"
2) "q" is pronounced like "ch." Example: qi = "chee," qian = "chian"
3) "zh" is pronounced like "j." Example: Zhi = "jer," zhang = "jong," zhen = "jen"
4) "c" is pronounced like "ts." Example: cui = "tsway"
Adapted from Andy Ferguson's chart of Chinese Zen Ancestors in a PDF formatted file at
Wikipedia Entry on Chinese_Grammar
Additional External Links:
Chinese Heritage The Masters & Their Teachings - Andy Ferguson, Author
Andy Ferguson leads China tours including special tours of Chan (Zen) Temples and related locations.
The Wu-men kuan The Formation, Propagation, and Characetistics of a Classic Zen Koan Text I hesitate to provide this link because I both disagree with some of the translations in this essay and I think the interpretations it provides of koans is rather silly, but it does offer an interesting look at how academics approach the history of the Gateless Checkpoint, mixing important historical data and biography of Wumen along side the mistaken or superfluous speculative interpretations about koans.
of the academic gone astray is the discussion of flowers in reference to Wumen's verse to Case 19 "Ordinary is the
Way." The first two lines are
"Spring has a hundred flowers; autumn has the moon; Summer has cool winds;
winter has the snow." Dogen wrote a similar
verse: "In the spring, cherry blossoms: in the summer, the cuckoo. In the autumn, the moon; in the winter, snow, clear, cold."
Since the Gateless Checkpoint was written after Dogen
The academic however, makes a great deal out of the difference between what kind of flower is conjured up in the mind of the Japanese compared to the Chinese. He says that when the image of a flower is presented the Japanese think of cherry blossoms and the Chinese think of peach blossoms, so he concludes saying, "It is more likely that Wumen would have been thinking of peach blossoms." Completely forgotten by this kind of stale academic approach is the fact that Wumen's verse says "a hundred flowers" not just "flowers." The academic ignores the relevance of the term "a hundred" as if it is superfluous.
As a concrete image, "a hundred flowers" refers to the variety of the types of flowers, not to the number of flower blossoms on a tree or of a single species of flower. The phrase "a hundred flowers" was a well-known image to the Chinese. For instance, the phrase a "hundred flowers" is also found in Case 24 "Abandon Language," another of the koans in the Gateless Checkpoint but one that the academic seems to overlook.
Venerable Fengxue: Because a monk asked, "Talking and silence wade across brightness and subtlety. How should one be like to flow unobstructed and not offend?"
Xue said, "I long remember Jiangnan in the 3rd month,
The place mountain quail cry,
The fragrance of a hundred flowers."
Fengxue Yanzhao (Feng-hsueh Yen-chao, Fuketsu Ensho), (896-973) -- who lived roughly 300 years before Wumen and Dogen --obviously knew the phrase. Here, the fragrance of a hundred flowers in the place where the mountain quail cry portrays an image of a wild meadow with a hundred different kinds of flowers blooming with its bouquet of perfumes, not a peach tree or orchard.
The "hundred flowers" is also found in a koan of the Zen master Deshan Yuanming (known as "Yuanmi")(908-987) a contemporary of Fengxue:
A monk asked, "What is it before the hundred flowers bloom?"
Yuanmi said, "The Yellow River's turbid flow."
The monk asked, "What about after they bloom?"
Yuanmi said, "The top of the flag pole points toward the sky."
[Translation from Zen's Chinese Heritage, page 298.]
So from this we can see that 300 years before Wumen and Dogen used the phrase,
the image of "the hundred flowers" was well known in
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The first translation of all characters completed on September 08, 2007.
This web-page was last updated January 24, 2009.