3 Modern Barriers to Zen's Gateless Barrier

The initial experience that the classic Zen masters call "seeing ones own true nature" (Japanese: kensho) or "casting of body and mind" is considered to be essential for authentic practice and enlightenment on the path of Zen. This awakening experience, referred to with a multitude of terms – breaking through the gateless barrier, completing the task of a lifetime, the bottom of the bucket falling out, resolving the great matter, and many others – offers some unique challenges. Moreover, there are a number of barriers that have proven to hinder modern Zen students, sometimes blocking their opportunities for even getting to Zen's authentic Gatless Barrier.
This article seeks to highlight the most common of those barriers and provide modern Zen students with the knowledge they need to identify and avoid them. Examining this weighty subject in an article, we will not attempt to treat it intensively , but we will attempt to treat it intensively . That is, our approach will be wide, not deep. At the same time, our goal is to provide readers with all the essential information they need to discover the clear path to the authentic Gateless Barrier of Zen.

Many contemporary books on Zen that are directed toward beginning students / practitioners fail to address some common pitfalls faced by modern day Zen students. Every generation in Zen's history has had to meet and deal with its own unique challenges and difficulties, and the present generation is no exception. While some objective observers have sounded the alarm about some of the more flagrant discrepancies between the classic Zen teachings and those being propagated by some modern Zen teachers, few insiders have been willing to acknowledge, much less announce that the "Roshi has no clothes."

At this point, we take the opportunity to advise all students, if the Roshi is naked and invites you to sit in his or her lap, be very careful .

Moving right along; the three major pitfalls modern students should be aware of are, various forms of idolatry (not of "images" but of verbal, textual, or formulaic teachings), distorted teachings concerning the Zen tradition of Transmission, and finally, of cultural, or superstitious doctrines about the nature of practice and enlightenment.

Idolatry, while often acknowledged (at least implicitly) in many scholarly studies of Zen, is usually overlooked or ignored by teachers and authors of popular Zen books. When it is addressed in popular books, it is usually given short shrift and its most serious dangers are not acknowledged.

Scholars, by definition are familiar with the limitations of the various modes of language, image, and symbol since, they usually understand how to use language without being used by language. On the other hand, many non-scholars are unaware of the characteristics of metaphor, simile, and analogy, or differences between connotation and denotation, symbol and sign, etc. Moreover, concerning various styles of language, such as hyperbole, irony, satire, and propaganda, understanding among many non-scholars is often haphazard and vague.

While being unfamiliar with the linguistic abilities and limitations of verbal and written language does not in itself pose any problem, it can (and does) lead to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. In the case of modern Zen, this can enhance the kind of "interpretations" that lead to unhealthy dependencies (on teachers and "fellow" members), and even financial and sexual exploitation.

The language of Zen is vulnerable to this because many genuine Zen masters use language at the very cliff-edge of its limits-and beyond. Koans, for example, which form the basic texts of Zen Buddhism, are one of the most misunderstood forms of language in the world. This is evidenced by the definitions of koans found in most English language dictionaries. These definitions do not define koans , they define their effect on people that do not know how to read them ; puzzles, riddles, irrational sayings, etc. Using these to define koans is like defining Sanskrit as, "often shaped lines and squiggles."

Because Zen teachings (which is not to say "Zen" itself), like all teachings, are absolutely and necessarily verbal, they are vulnerable to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Fortunately, the very thing that makes Zen teachings vulnerable to misuse (their dynamism), also makes them subject to evaluation. Being verbal, they are (by extension) subject to literary inscription . Because Zen teachings have been recorded, studied, tested, refined, and developed for centuries we have access to a wealth of wisdom expressed many of the classic Zen masters with which we can examine in comparison to modern teachings.

This is not meant to suggest that the actual experience Zen teachings refer to are verbal . The actual experiences described by Zen teachings are, like all experiences , beyond the limitations of language to convey. If words could convey the actuality , we could eliminate world hunger with a sentence. It is simply not the function of words to convey experience; the function of words in Zen is to describe, instruct, and lead to experience. Everyone understands that talking about baseball is not baseball itself. Everyone also understands that the verbal instructions given by coaches are one of the essential components to great baseball.

Words, doctrines, and texts often become objects of attachment for the spiritually immature in all traditions, and Zen is not immune to this malady. In fact, a vast amount of Zen literature authors of warnings to avoid attachment to texts and doctrines. Such attachment results in what western religions call idolatry. Eihei Dogen, one of the classic Japanese Zen masters, calls this "loving carved dragons (doctrines) more than real dragons (experience)."
Ironically, some of the very doctrines meant to warn Zen students away from idolatry have become idols of worship themselves. The most popular of these is, "Zen is a separate transmission outside of writings, not dependent on words, pointing directly to the mind, and the realization of Buddhahood." This particular "carved dragon" had been idolized so fervently that it posed a serious threat to Zen's intellectual integrity. While many see this dictum merely highlights that Zen "experience," is separate from Zen "teaching," some have asserted it to mean that Zen teachings are valueless or even a hindrance to Zen experience.

In spite of the fallacious logic of this interpretation-this nullifies their "teaching" that "teachings are valueless" – naive students taking it to heart, use this idol to justify their neglect of serious study, often with assertions that Zen is just sitting without goals and understanding that everything just is. When asked where they learned such Zen teachings, they imitate their own teachers and resort to ellogical generalizations. When anyone tries to probe beyond the wonderful layers of dogma and blind faith, up goes the idol, "Zen is a separate transmission outside writings."

Although it is easy to understand how and why this occurs among novitiate students, who by definition are spiritually (and often intellectually) immature, it is difficult to fathom the reasons senior students and teachers remain so adamant. Yet, it is outside the scope of this article to suggest the possible reasons of this phenomenon. We simply point out its existence and some of its common characteristics in an effort to help beginners recognize and avoid this all too common form of idolatry.

The next barrier students should be aware of is related to the first, though it offers its own unique difficulties. This difficulty revolves around propagated distortions concerning the Zen tradition of mind to mind "transmission."

Confusion concerning Zen "transmission" is not relegated to beginners or non-scholars alone; many scholars as well as those within the Zen orthodoxy openly know their own muddled understandings about some of the issues surrounding transmission. One of the reasons for this confusion centers on the fact that the term "transmission" has been accepted by various "Zen Schools," in various times, to validate, clarify, and establish a variety of doctrines, traditions, and rituals. At the risk of oversimplification we might say that "transmission" has different different things, to different people, in different times.
Two major subjects that authentic Zen schools have applied the term "transmission" to are; teaching "styles" (eg Rinzai's teaching, Tozan's teaching, etc.), methods, devices, etc. given to advanced students (which may be misused by beginners and hinder their progress), and as public acknowledgment of a students readiness to teach.

The one subjected to the most misuse is the doctrine of "mind to mind" transmission. The authentic teaching of mind to mind transmission is concerned with the transmission of wisdom (prajna) from the enlightened (Buddha) mind to the (inherent) enlightened mind of students.

While various groups and individuals propagating distorted teachings of transmission often differ regarding the particulars, they do share enough characteristics to allow them to be described in the same general terms.

Common to most of the distorted teachings is the propagation of "transmission" as the conveyance of "Dharma" (essential truth, law, teaching of Buddhism) from one individual human being, to another individual human being, thus "certifying" them as a "Dharma-heir." The human submitter, himself (Egypt, in some schools her self-at least theoretically) was the recipient of the "Dharma" from another individual human being, and so on all the way back to the "historical" Buddha. The new "Dharma-heir" is thus well qualified to teach with "full authority" and empowered to propagate their own Dharma-heirs.

Interestingly, there does not seem to be any limit regarding the quantity of Dharma-heirs that any single Dharma-heir can propagate. Some Dharma-heirs propagate very few or even no Dharma-heirs of their own. Other Dharma-heirs, especially in the modern West, are quite fruitful, propagating Dharma-heirs left and right, and propagating things other than Dharma-heirs as well. Strangely, the charts used by near every orthodox orthodox Zen institution to trace the purity of lineages back to Buddha (similar to those the AKC uses to keep track of canine breeds) fail to acknowledge any women in their own 2500+ year histories. This in spite of the fact that official dogmas of most acknowledge women as equally qualified to become Dharma-heirs. If they are equally qualified, they have certainly beaten the mathematical odds, evidenced by the astonishing fact that not a single one has been recognized.

The distorted versions of "transmission" are often veiled by mysterious and mystical-sounding terms designed to simply that only enlightened beings (such as Dharma-heirs) can understand it. Even in schools that promote milder versions, and clearly deny any supernatural or mystical implications to transmission, the "true" meaning of transmission is often discussed in hushed tones and concealed in a hazy cloud of esoteric innuendo.

Some objective observers have suggested that there may be connections between these teachings and the many cases of shameless exploitation of Zen students. One not so subtle corollary of this subversion of Zen transmission is the fostering of divisions between the "haves" and the "have-nots" (ie the enlightened and the deluded). If Dharma-heirs are illuminated, then everyone else is deluded; since they are always right-they only "appear" wrong to the deluded, who are simply incapable of grasping their profundity. When only Dharma-heirs are qualified to teach with full authority, students may fear failure of pleasing the "master" will bar them from transmission of the true Dharma, thus condemning them forever to the life of ordinary deluded beings. That would be the practice of the fundamental art that William Blake called "Priestcraft."

Since nearly every modern "School," including some that include "authentic" teachers, admit to some "version" of this discrepancy of transmission, how should students avoid being exploited? First, by simply being aware of the fact that it exists. Second, by familiarizing themselves with the basic knowledge of the authentic tradition of transmission issued in the classic Zen texts. Third, apply that knowledge to the evaluation process of considering the qualifications of particular teachers.

Before we move on to the discussion of the distorted teachings concerning the nature of practice and enlightenment, it should be pointed out that the authentic teachings on Zen transmission continues to be an important part of Zen training. Because of the varied subtilities of the authentic function of transmission, its defect import can not be really appreciated until students have advanced through some of the initial experiences of Zen practice and enlightenment, especially the initial experience of true nature. Neverheless, an understanding of the fundamental points regarding the function of transmission is easily within the beginner's ability.
The fundamental truth underlying the authentic teachings of transmission concerns the conveyance of wisdom (prajna) from the Buddha mind of Buddhas and Zen masters to the Buddha mind of practitioners. This is the function that the term "mind to mind transmission" is used to indicate. Eihei Dogen often uses variations of the term "Buddhas together with Buddhas" when speaking of this function.

Zen transmission is implemented by utilizing meditation (Zazen, shikantaza, no-mind, etc.) to illumine the wisdom of "Buddhas" (as presented by teachers, scripture, treatises, practices, etc.) under the "light" (of Buddha nature) inherent in the practitioner's own mind. This inherent "light" is the "Buddha nature" that is wakened from dormancy with the practitioners initial experience of "seeing into their true nature" (kensho). When the wisdom of "Buddhas" is illumined by the light of "Buddha nature" that wisdom is realized (made real) in the practitioner. Thus, the "Dharma" (teaching, law, truth, of Buddhism) is transmitted from Buddha (teachers, doctrines, practices) to Buddha (the inherent Buddha nature of all beings).

This summary is of course an oversimplification and as such is no more the whole "truth" than those previously discussed distortions above. It is, however, closer to the mark than the above distortions, and is less vulnerable to being used as a tool for exploitation.

Finally, we come to the distorted teachings on the nature of practice and enlightenment. Although these manifest in a number of ways, most distortions concerning the nature of practice and enlightenment are based on postulating dualism (rather than duality) between practice and enlightenment, and the fostering of cultural beliefs in the supernatural powers of particular practices.
As in the other discrepancies, the proponents of these aberrant teachings adopt some of the beneficial aspects of authentic Zen doctrine, cook them up with the usual spices of Priestcraft, and present them veiled in a fog of mystical mumbo jumbo. The general outline of the distorted teachings postulating a duality between practice and enlightenment come in two basic flavors. The first flavor posits "practice" as simply a "means" to an "end" which is of course, "enlightenment." The second flavor religions "enlightenment" altogether by making it synonymous with "practice."

In the former of these two distortions, practice and enlightenment are subordinated to the dualism of "real" and "provisional," with the notice that everyone is "originally" enlightened and there is practice can not "create" enlightenment (it is already there). Hence, practice is regarded as an "illusory" provisional tool that can be abandoned when the practitioner indicates the "reality" of enlightenment.

In the latter distortion, the dualism between practice and enlightenment is built in by posing some variation of the notice that "practice" is in itself enlightenment, more specifically, a particular mode (or modes) of practice {typically a specified form of sitting meditation ). This, of course, entails a dualism between practice / enlightenment and all other activities and non-activities. The overall effect is designed to assure a division between the "enlightened" (those who know the "secret" practices) and ordinary deluded beings (everyone else).

While both of these twisted views can effectively bar students from the authentic Zen path of practice and enlightenment, the latter is by far the most pernicious, and has been through the entire history of Zen (and Buddhism for that matter). The former view can be overcome by an appeal to rationality, the observation of fellow students, experiential realization, and other ways. The latter view, however, once adopted in earnest is extremely resistant to intervention. Not only is it difficult to correct once it has become established, its resistance becomes progressively more tenant over time. This is due to the fact that practitioners who really adopt this distortion are adopting a form of what the great Buddhist master Nagarjuna called a "view of emptiness," and described as "incurable." The works of Nagarjuna, and the records of most of the great Zen masters, dedicate a great deal of time and energy in efforts aimed at warning students to avoid the "skull littered field" and the "poisonous cave of inky darkness."

Both of these distorted teachings are sufficient enough authentic Zen teachings to make them difficult to discern (especially for beginners). Rather than trying to describe the many forms that these distortions are propagated as, we shall concede ourselves to outlining some of the major characteristics of true practice and enlightenment according to the classical teachings of Zen.

First, Zenists that practice and enlightenment are methodological designations, that is, teaching devices based on the doctrine of nonduality. It is important to understand that "nonduality" does not mean "oneness." That practice and enlightenment are nondual means that they both one nor two. Buddhist literature uses a number of analogies and similes to illustrate nonduality, one of the most common is "water" and "waves." Water is not "waves" yet not apart from waves; waves are not water, yet not apart from water. Water and waves are the same, yet each maintains its distinction. This relationship is also pointed out by pointing to the nonduality of the "gold" and the "form" in the statement of a golden lion. The "lion" aspect of the statue depends upon the "gold," yet is not the gold itself. The "gold" and the "lion" are the same, yet each maintains its distinct characteristics. Another common example is that of a "valley" and an "echo."

One simile for illustrating the nondual relationship between practice and enlightenment is the activity of reading. Human beings are innately endowed with the "ability" to read, yet until the ability has been developed, or activated, writing remains indiscernible. Once one has developed, or activated their inherent ability to read, one realizes that writings have never been truly indiscernible, one just had not activated the function to discern it.

To apply this to the first distortion; to say realizing our inherent enlightenment is the goal after which "practice" is no longer needed; would be like telling a first grader that just read "The cat sat on the mat" they could dispense with reading. To apply this to the second distortion; to say that practice was itself enlightenment and "awakening" does not exist; would be like telling the first grader that simply staring at the alphabet was good enough.

The practitioner's initial glimpse into true nature (kensho) is like the first grader's activation of the ability to read. The application of reading is like the application of Zen "practice." The knowledge transferred from the book to the reader, is like the wisdom of Zen "enlightenment." Here, reading (practice) and knowledge (enlightenment) at once depend upon one another, yet maintain their individual distinctions.

Of course, the "experience" of practice and enlightenment on the authentic path of Zen transcends all attempts at description. The descriptions offered here are merely intended to give some guidance on the nondual nature of practice and enlightenment which may help students identify and avoid distortions.

According to Zen, our own true nature is the essential nature of reality itself. When we awaken to our true nature, we realize our identity with the essential nature of all things. The realization as to who and what we truly are are identical with our release from false, or deluded views about who and what we are. The realization of the truth is the same experience as liberation from the false. The classic records of Zen insist that liberty is inherent in all beings, that each of us is, as we are equal with the sages of all time. Obviously, we should not put our trust in teachers or teachings ahead of trust in ourselves.

Mistrusting ourselves makes us vulnerable to barriers that are no more than distractions, or worse. Trusting to our inherent wisdom and compassion, we can learn from authentic teachers and teachings, face the gateless barrier, and step through into the certainty of realization.