Absolute Freedom

Zen student to teacher: "I come seeking liberation."

Zen teacher to student: "Who has enslaved you? Show me your chains!" +

I’d departed from Shoshoni that morning with 100 miles of ‘rattlesnake country’ to ride through before arriving in Casper, Wyoming – my evening destination. I pedaled slowly, knowing full well that the afternoon would bring the hottest weather that I’d ridden in all year, and my longest ride in many, many a year. And on top of all of that I was tired. I was tired before I’d even begun, still recovering as I was from the sinus infection that had laid me low back in the Tetons, and the long ride from Cody to Thermopolis and then up through the Wind River Canyon – back in time and smack dab into the center of a raging thunderstorm. (See Desire, Aspiration, and Doing What We Can.) But none of that was of any consequence anymore, for there was nothing left to do but ride. Now, it might seem as though having nothing left to do would epitomize an utter lack of freedom, but that is actually not the case. There is great freedom in having nothing left to do – absolute and utter freedom.

We usually think of freedom as being full of options, choices, and variety. Okay, yes, that is freedom – on one level anyway – I’m not going to argue the point. I will say, however, that the freedom of having nothing left to do is the greatest freedom that I have ever known. When there is nothing left to do there is absolutely nothing holding you back. When there is nothing left to do you are free to use every fiber of your entire being without hesitation. When there is nothing left to do not a single trace of psychic energy remains for any path that you’ve not taken or anything else that you might have left behind. When there is nothing left to do not a single trace of psychic energy is spent contemplating anything other than what the universe presents in each and every passing moment. When you awaken to find your house engulfed in flames there is nothing left to do but stumble out into the cool, night air. When you see a child drowning in the river as you take your morning walk there is nothing left to do but kick off your shoes and jump in after him. And when you find yourself miraculously in the arms of a beautiful woman there is nothing left to do but love her – without a trace of hurt or fear. This is absolute and utter freedom.

I’ve left much behind in life: the religion of my birthright…, careers that I’d worked hard to become established in…, ideas regarding what constitutes a good life…, friends and lovers and dreams of what kind of person I would become. I’d watched meaning come and go, and come and go, and come and go. I’d watched love grow and blossom and fade away. I’d clung to things, and yearned for things. I’d clung to ideas of not clinging to anything, and I’d yearned for a time when I wouldn’t yearn for anything. But as I pedaled slowly into that vast and empty space that is the upper reaches of the Wind River watershed, there was only the rhythm of my breathing and the circular motion of my legs propelling me forward. There was only the sweltering heat and the exquisite beauty of mile after mile of empty and desolate rattlesnake country beneath a vast blue dome of sky.

I stopped to rest where a dusty gravel road veered south from the highway, snaking off into the rolling rangeland like a sand colored ribbon on a gray-green, gold tinged fabric. The sky was cloudless, and the sun had baked the road for long enough that it felt much warmer than it had as I rode within my own cool breeze. I dismounted and crunched across the gravel with my bike and leaned it up against a cracking timber fencepost. Barbed wire stretched along the highway in both directions as far as I could see, save for the opening created to allow the gravel road to leave the highway.

This simple entrance into the land beyond was fascinating to me – with fence posts either side lashed in threes and supported with diagonal members in order to withstand the force exerted by the miles and miles of barbed wire pulling them apart. At the base of one of the posts was a pile of empty beer bottles – bringing to mind the image of a couple of ranchers sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck, talking low and washing the dust of a long day of work from their throats. It seemed like ages since I’d last spoken to anyone. Ah, yes, but it was only just that morning when I’d placed my order with the waitress for a breakfast of pancakes and a scrambled egg; and before that it was with the modern day mountain man come surveyor on the sidewalk on the main street in Thermopolis. “Do yourself a favor,” he’d said to me after admiring my bicycle for a time. “Stop in Shoshoni for the night. There ain’t nothing in between there and Casper but a hundred miles of rattlesnake country.” Indeed.

In between the two fence posts on either side of the gravel road was a cattle guard fashioned from lengths of steel I-beam spaced about four inches apart and oriented perpendicular to the road by welding them to support beams buried into the roadbed. In case you’re unfamiliar with such a gate, the design allows vehicles to pass through unimpeded whereas cattle find it virtually impenetrable. For one, they’d likely be spooked from even trying to cross because of the eerie appearance of the gaps in the steel beams revealing the rocky, shadowed gully underneath. But even if fear did not preempt such a crossing, the massive animals could probably never display the agility necessary to place an unseen hoof solidly enough upon one of the narrow steel beams in order to keep their entire leg from slipping dangerously through the gap; and then do it again, and then again.

Despite such inherent difficulties, it still did not seem outside of the realm of possibility that a nimble enough or motivated enough steer could somehow manage to overcome its apprehension and muster up its full potential for sure-footedness in order to make such a crossing safely. I pictured a huge beast tentatively feeling its way with a front hoof before finally lowering it into place atop one of the steel I-beams. It would shift its weight forward and then another hoof would gradually feel its way to solid placement, and then another, and another. And so it would go for not too very long before the dust and dirt on the other side would feel like a wide open meadow underhoof, whispering sweetly of freedom – absolute and utter freedom. So, in that regard that cattle guard was not an insurmountable impediment at all. It was a gateless barrier.

The Great Way is gateless,

Approached in a thousand ways.

Once past this checkpoint

You stride through the universe.

This verse is contained in the preface to the Mumonkan, as translated by Katsuki Sekida (1977). According to Sekida (1977), the Japanese mu is often translated as nothing or nothingness, mon as gate, and kan as barrier. In combination, then, mumonkan can be translated as “gateless barrier” or “gateless gate” (pp. 27-29). Robert Aitken roshi (1991) opts for “The Gateless Barrier” in his translation of the Mumonkan. The Mumonkan is a collection of forty-eight koans that were used by Mumon Ekai (1183-1260) to train the monks in his charge at Ryushu Temple. As the monks progressed through this collection of koans they dropped off more and more of their conditioned ways of looking at the world and opened up to the truth of ultimate or supramundane reality (Sekida, 1977, pp. 25-29). Such koan practice is largely within the realm of the Rinzai tradition of Zen, but koans are sometimes used by teachers and students in the Soto tradition, as well.

Often, a practitioner’s first koan of contemplation will be, quite simply, mu. In the Mumonkan, however, the first koan is one titled Joshu’s Dog (Chao-chou’s Dog):

Zen student to Joshu: “Has a dog the Buddha Nature?”

Joshu: “Mu.”

Please see Sekida (1977) and Aitken (1991) for full exposition and commentary on this koan. However, if you’ve been following this blog through last month’s Heart Sutra series of posts, you may have a toehold on this one already. Aitken (1991) translates one passage of Mumon’s commentary on this koan as follows:

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…. (p. 7)

Recall from the previous post that “all the Buddhas that have ever been or will ever be have awakened to this truth of shunyata – emptiness.” See The Heart Sutra - Compassion and the Cessation of Suffering (Part 5 of 5).

Buddhism’s message is that of our ability to alleviate our suffering by skillful use of our own body/minds without reliance on anything or anyone external to us. In our present mundane state – buffeted as we are by the three poisons of attachment, aversion and delusion – we think that truth and enlightenment lie behind a gate that is locked to us and may never be known. That is not the case. Like all animals, we arise as complex webs of intertwining genetic dispositions and conditioned ideas, beliefs and behaviors. Is the steer completely and absolutely unable to cross the cattle guard due to its innate and natural composition? What is standing in our way? In the words of the Zen teacher at the beginning of this post: "Who has enslaved you? Show me your chains!" + We are our own gateless gates. Says Robert Aitken roshi (1991):

The barrier is Mu, but it always has a personal frame. For some the barrier is “Who am I really?” and that question is resolved through Mu. For others it is “What is death?” and that question too is resolved through Mu. For me it was “What am I doing here?” For many students it is Sakyamuni’s question, “Why should there be suffering in the world?” The discursive words in such questions just take the inquirer around and around in the brain. With Mu – the single word of a single syllable – the agonizing interrogatives “who?” “why?” and “what?” are not answered in any literal sense, but they are certainly resolved. (p. 12)

For Dogen Zenji, the Japanese monk who is often considered the preeminent teacher within the Soto Zen tradition, the question was this: if we are all already endowed with Buddha-nature, why is it that we must practice? His resolution of this personal koan is his teaching regarding cultivation and verification. Cultivate your practice and verify the teachings with your own experience – not with the lifeless words and adopted beliefs of others.

When I’ve found myself in the middle of a multi-day meditation retreat (sesshin), and I’ve broken through the pain and fear that such intense sitting can bring on, and I’ve become positively bored with all of the stories that I keep telling myself over and over again, my own personal koan becomes: “what am I still hanging on to?” The beauty of sesshin is that it is structured in such a way as to afford one absolute and utter freedom to contemplate such questions, and their answer – Mu. Somewhere in the midst of sesshin one realizes that there is nothing left to do but sit.

So, can I open up my mind and know the vastness of the universe in the time it takes my self to drop like a stone into the dry and dusty earth…, in the time it takes a raindrop to be lost within a raging river…, in the time it takes my wisdom eye to blink open into wakefulness? Can I?


To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization. (Dogen Zenji in the Genjokoan, as translated by Okumura, 2010)

+ I’ve stumbled across variations on this dialogue numerous times with the only attribution being “Zen Story” or something to that effect. One possible early Western source is a transcribed lecture by Alan Watts from the 1970s. See references below. The version here has been adapted for the sake of brevity and impact.  


Aitken, R. (1991). The gateless barrier – The Wu-men Kuan (Mumonkan). North Point Press. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.
Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing genjokoan: The key to Dogen’s shobogenzo. Wisdom Publications. p.2. (Original work published 1233)
Sekida, K. (1977). Two Zen classics – Mumonkan and Hekiganroku (ed. Grimstone, A. V.) Weatherhill, Inc.
Watts, A. (1996) Myth and religion: The edited transcripts. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. One might think that I constructed this post in such an elaborate way as to end with a visual pun on the word Mu. However, such an ending is purely serendipitous. Have a great day and week, everyone!

  2. I like the new blog template/design - very clean and simple!

    As I read the post, I was reminded of the Shunryu Suzuki quote that is my current Facebook status. (By the time you read this, I will have updated it, but it's still there if you want to refer to it.) Then I started thinking about what my personal gateless barriers are. I've actually been thinking about this topic for a few days, so I'm finding it synchronous that you posted this. I don't have the answers yet, but I think I'm on the right path to finding them!

    Have a great week!

  3. Kristen, the new look was rather serendipitous as well. I was checking out the new 'dynamic views' that Blogger has. I applied it to the blog and then found out that it didn't allow me access to post or anything. Perhaps I am dull in such matters, but I finally figured it out. By that time, however, I had no time to do anything but apply a simple template. It's growing on me!

    I'm glad you're reflecting on those gateless barriers that are your own. I think many people are simply swept along by their karma. It is only through such reflection (and sitting) that we become aware of what keeps driving us.

    I'll look for that Suzuki quote. I don't think I saw it in my feed. You have a great week, also!


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