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Wumen Guan 無門關 Qi, Guanxiong


Wumen Guan 無門關 (the Gateless Barrier) is a gong’an (公案; Jp. koan) collection by Wumen Huikai 無門慧開 (1183–1260), a Song dynasty Linji 臨濟 monk. Originally, for pedagogical purposes, Wumen Huikai selected 48 cases from two anterior gong’an compilations, Biyan lu 碧巖錄 (The Record of Blue Cliff) by Yuanwu Keqin 圜悟克勤 (1063-1135) and Congrong lu 從容錄 (The Record of Equanimity) by Hongzhi Zhengjue 宏智正覺 (1091-1157). Huikai commentated and gave a gāthā to each case. After Huikai’s meditation instruction at the Longxiang Monastery in 1228, these 48 gong’an cases were complied together and named the Wumen Guan. The title, Wumen Guan, is a pun that serves two meanings. “Wumen" is the name of the compiler, which literally means "no gate" or "gateless." In this context, “no gate” implies “impossibility” or “no way.” “Guan,” a rhetorical term in Chinese religions, refers to the barrier of enlightenment as well as the breakthrough point toward awakening. Thus, from a literal perspective, the title refers to “the Barrier of Wumen” or the "Checkpoint of Wumen.” If we take “Wumen” as “gateless,” the collection is named “the Gateless Barrier,” “the Barrier that Has No Gate,” or “the Passage that Has No Way.” From an emic perspective, the Linjin Chan tradition uses gong’an as expedient means to realize enlightenment. A gong’an is a short story, question, statement, or encounter dialogue of past Chan patriarchs, from the Sakyamuni Buddha to various Song lineage masters. These thematic stories are usually enigmatic and self-paradoxical. From a conventional perspective, many gong’an cases are absurd and non-sense. There are no standard answers to these gong’an cases, and giving official interpretations is regarded as taboo. Since the Song times, Chan Buddhists claimed Chan as a tradition of the secret mind-to-mind transmission that is devoid of verbal expression. The gong’an cases cannot be understood literally and straightforwardly, but need to be observed and comprehended by one’s mind. Although this image of Chan tradition, according to modern scholars, is deviated from the historical facts, the tropes of mind-to-mind, master-to-disciple transmission are deeply embedded in the Song dynasty Chan texts, including the Wumen Guan. Accredit to Dahui Zonggao 大慧宗杲 (1089-1163), this method is referred to as Huatou Chan (話頭禪; Jp. Wato Zen). Facing the paradox, the practitioners need to raise and accumulate great doubt in the mind. As one pushes oneself to the brink of intellectual breakdown, one realizes great insights and enlightenment. Since its appearance, Wumen Guan received a great degree of popularity. However, there is no evidence that the text was massively promulgated and studied in China after Wumen Huikai’s death, as its extent in Japan. After its transmission to Japan, the text became one of the quintessential texts of the Rinzai Zen tradition. There are dozens of extant editions with different degrees of variations. Many prescripts and postscripts are added continuously by famous Buddhist masters and scholar-officials. Some editions contain a 49th case added by Wu’an 無庵. In modern times, Wumen Guan is one of the most significant and popular Buddhist texts. It has been repetitively translated into multiple European languages.

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