Churches are big on mind roads. That’s what they want you to travel on. In the church’s theological car, of course. Propelled by faith that you’re eventually going to get to God. Driven by the savior, mediator, master, guru, or prophet who supposedly knows the territory.
Problem is, nothing travel-worthy is apparent apart from the belief that there is. That’s why it is a mind road, not a real road. The pavement is cobbled together from passages found in holy books, words heard from the mouths of holy teachers, images seen by eyes that have gazed upon holy places and icons.
Which are all in the mind of the believer. When the belief is gone, so is the mind road. Real roads aren’t so ephemeral. When I’m driving on I-5 from Salem to Portland, if I take my eyes off the road or allow my mind to daydream about a more pleasant activity, the road is still there.
Not so with a mind road. So the advice of the sincerest spiritual sages throughout the ages is to get off it, if you’re on one. As most people are. If you belong to an organized religion, you’re on a mind road. If you consider that you’re on a defined spiritual path, you’re on a mind road.
And it could be said that if you’re occupied with thinking about how to get off the dead end of an imaginary way to God, you too are on a mind road. “You” likely includes me as I write this, and you as you read this.
But there’s a big difference between some short ruts that lead straight into the wilderness of divine Mystery, and a four-lane freeway of theological speculation that goes on, and on, and on, leading nowhere but to Blind Faith.
Zen Buddhism is small on mind roads. Zen says that they don’t lead past the Gateless Barrier. I don’t know what this barrier is. If I did, I suppose I’d be beyond it. So I’ll stop traveling on my mind road and let Wu-men, a thirteenth century master of the Rinzai school, speak about another way.
“Mu” is Japanese. “Wu” is Chinese. The words roughly mean “without” or “have not.” Roughly is the operative adjective, as Wu-men explains.
(From “The Gateless Barrier: the Wu-men Kuan,” translated and with a commentary by Robert Aiken)
A monk asked Chao-chou, “Has the dog Buddha nature or not?”
Chao-chou said, “Mu.”
For the practice of Zen it is imperative that you pass through the barrier set up by the Ancestral Teachers. For subtle realization it is of the utmost importance that you cut off the mind road. If you do not pass the barrier of the ancestors, if you do not cut off the mind road, then you are a ghost clinging to bushes and grasses.
What is the barrier of the Ancestral Teachers? It is just this one word “Mu”—the one barrier of our faith. We call it the Gateless Barrier of the Zen tradition. When you pass through this barrier, you will not only interview Chao-chou intimately.
You will walk hand in hand with all the Ancestral Teachers in the successive generations of our lineage—the hair of your eyebrows entangled with theirs, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears. Won’t that be fulfilling? Is there anyone who would not want to pass this barrier?
So, then, make your whole body a mass of doubt, and with your three hundred and sixty bones and joints and your eighty-four thousand hair follicles concentrate on this one word “Mu.” Day and night, keep digging into it. Don’t consider it to be nothingness. Don’t think in terms of “has” and “has not.” It is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you can’t.
Gradually you purify yourself, eliminating mistaken knowledge and attitudes you have held from the past. Inside and outside become one. You’re like a mute person who has had a dream—you know it for yourself alone.
Suddenly Mu breaks open. The heavens are astonished, the earth is shaken. It is as though you have snatched the great sword of General Kuan. When you meet the Buddha, you kill the Buddha. When you meet Bodhidharma, you kill Bodhidharma. At the very cliff edge of birth and death, you find the Great Freedom. In the Six Worlds and the Four Modes of Birth, you enjoy a samadhi of frolic and play.
How, then, should you work at it? Exhaust all your life energy on this one word “Mu.” If you do not falter, then it’s done! A single spark lights your Dharma candle.
Dog, Buddha nature—
the full presentation of the whole;
with a bit of “has” or “has not”
body is lost, life is lost.