The Gateless Gate - Nomenclature and Etymology

Nomenclature and Etymology

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The full title of the work is Chan Zong Wumen Guan 禅宗無門關, and can be translated as The Zen Sect's Gateless Barrier or The Gateless Checkpoint of the Zen Lineage, etc. Chán 禅 is the Chinese source of the word Zen. Zong 宗 means lineage, school, or sect. As the Zen Lineage comes first in the title it is appropriately translated by using the possessive at the beginning or transposing it to the end of the title and using the preposition "of the".

Although the short title The Gateless Gate has become fairly common in English, this translation must be rejected upon closer scrutiny. A particular source of criticism is the fact that in the rendering, "Gateless Gate", the word "gate" occurs twice. However, the two Chinese characters being translated here are 門 (mén) and 關 (guān), which are different words and usually have distinct meanings. In order to more accurately reflect this, the translations The Gateless Passage, The Gateless Barrier or The Gateless Checkpoint are used.

The character 無 () has a fairly straightforward meaning: no, not, or without. However, within Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, the term 無 () is often a synonym for 空 (sunyata). This implies that the 無 () rather than negating the gate (as in "gateless") is specifying it, and hence refers to the "Gate of Emptiness". This is consistent with the Chinese Buddhist notion that the "Gate of Emptiness" 空門 is basically a synonym for Buddhism, or Buddhist practice.

門 (mén) is a very common character meaning door or gate. However, in the Buddhist sense, the term is often used to refer to a particular "aspect" or "method" of the Dharma teachings. For example, 法門 ("fămén") refers to a "Dharma method"; 禪門 ("chánmén") means the "method of meditation". Reading 無門 ("wúmén") in this sense of "the method of not / emptiness" is also in conformity with the text itself, where the first passage describes how to practice the "method of wú", "What is the checkpoint of the Patriarchs? It is just this character "wú", that is the single checkpoint of the (Chán) school" (如何是祖師關。只者一箇無字。乃宗門一關也). This is also the meaning given by Mazu of Hongzhou (洪州馬祖) (according to Zongmi's Records of the Mirror of the School 宗鏡錄), "No method is the Dharma method, is also said to be the emptiness method (無門為法門。亦名空門)..." (T48, no. 2016, p. 418, b13-21).

In modern Chinese, 關 (guān) is most often a verb meaning to close, but it also functions as a noun with the meaning of checkpoint, such as a customs house or a fortress guarding a mountain pass. This implies the literal translation checkpoint without a gate. As a checkpoint is something that can be either closed, functioning as a barrier, or open, functioning as an entry point, this title may be taken to have a double meaning: does "without a gate" mean that the barrier has no gateway through which to pass, or does it mean that the passage has no gate to block it?

One should also note that, as the author of the collection was named Wumen (which could mean either the literal gateless or the figurative gate of emptiness), Wumenguan could also be read as simply, the Checkpoint of Wumen. This corresponds to the passage in the opening of the text, "Just as the General seizes the checkpoint, with a great sword in hand" (如奪得關將軍大刀入手).

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