The Gateless Barrier 4 __ Master Woohak

Zen Master Muil Woohak | After joining the monastic order at Tongdo-sa Temple at age 21, he studied Zen at Dongguk University and then practiced Zen at many Zen centers in Korea. Currently he is the founder of and most eminent elder at the Korea Buddhist College of the Great Gwaneum-sa Temple and the chairman of the Muil Educational Foundation. He has been engaged in many kinds of social welfare work and NGO services. He has published more than 100 books.

Case 7 Master Zhaozhou Says “Wash Your Bowls”


Original case

A monk came to see Master Zhaozhou and said, “I have just now entered the monastery. Please teach me, great master.”

The Master asked him, “Did you eat your breakfast?”
The monk answered, “Yes, I did.”
The Master replied again, “Well, did you wash your bowls?”
When the monk heard this, he attained something.



Wumen’s Comment and Verse

Wumen commented:

When Master Zhaozhou opens his mouth, he displays his gall bladder; he reveals his heart and liver. However, that [visiting] monk couldn’t really understand the truth; he mistook a bell for a jar.


Wumen’s verse:

Since it’s too clear,
One is slow to understand it.
If early on you realize that a lamp is fire,
The meal has already been done for a long time.


Woohak’s Comment

There is a story mentioned in the Record of Zhaozhou:

When Zhaozhou first went to visit Master Nanquan Puyuan, the master was lying down in his room resting. As soon as Zhaozhou entered the room, Nanquan unexpectedly asked him, “Where have you come from?”

Zhaozhou answered, “I came from the Holy-Image Temple.”
Nanquan then asked him, “Have you seen the holy image?”
Zhaozhou answered, “I couldn’t see the holy image, but I have seen the Tathagata lying down.”
Nanquan abruptly stood up and asked him, “Do you have a master or not, baby monk?”
At this Zhaozhou answered, “I have a master.”
Nanquan continued, “Who is your master?”
Zhaozhou bowed and said, “December is very cold. I wish you great happiness in your life, Master.”


Master Nanquan thought highly of him, so he let him enter the room. From the beginning, their conversation was not complicated and quite down-to-earth. The more one examines their verbal exchange, the more fascinating it is. This episode of Zhaozhou telling the monk to wash his bowls, as well as the case of Zhaozhou meeting Nanquan for the first time, point to the silent awakening within everyday speech, without any radical actions such as giving a loud shout or waving a stick. We should remember to keep a “not-knowing mind,” even in the midst of our daily lives.


A true living practitioner is one who, while going about their daily business, whether working, resting, sitting, lying down, speaking, being silent, moving or being still, takes nothing to be less than the practice of Dharma. Even to resolve the great matter of life and death, we must ultimately reflect on the truth that’s right under our feet. Though one may be aware of all daily affairs, if you lose yourself in daily life, then grandiose words such as truth and enlightenment are really of no use at all.


It is also interesting that the preface of the Diamond Sutra can be seen from this point of view. The scene where Subhuti marvels at the Buddha’s common daily activities is really enlightening. The Diamond Sutra shows us clearly that any truth or practice that is separate from daily life has no meaning at all.


Someone who realizes true enlightenment is one who manifests their practice in daily life, right here and now. So it’s only natural that you wash your bowls after a meal!

Case 8 Xizhong Makes a Cart


Original Case

Master Yue-an asked a monk, “A man named Xizhong made a cart with one-hundred spokes, but removed the axle which supported both wheels. What became clear?”


Wumen’s Comment and Verse

If someone can directly attain this, his eye will be like a shooting star, and his wit will be like a flash of light.


Wumen’s verse:
Even an accomplished person is confused
At the point where the wheels spin;
Traveling freely in the four directions,
The four intermediate directions and above and below


Woohak’s Comment

Xizhong was a man in ancient China who invented the first horse/oxdrawn cart; he was the best cart-maker. Oddly enough, Xizhong made an excellent cart with one hundred spokes, but removed the axle that connected the wheels. Why did he take away the main axle—the cart’s central axis? In other words, it is asking what happens if you eliminate the central axle that runs through the wheels on both sides.

Master Wumen frankly states his opinion that if you remove the object around which the wheels rotate, even an accomplished person is at a loss. Furthermore, he says that you can wander freely in the four directions, the four intermediate directions and above and below.


In this case, the axle is the karmic fruit of our actions which runs through our present lives, in other words, the results of cause and effect. This is the reason that sentient beings cannot help but just be sentient beings. Ultimately, in a practical sense, the axle refers to our fixed ideas, concepts and attachments. It is truly for naught that ordinary sentient beings stake their lives on useless things that cause suffering. If you take away this axle, it seems like at any moment you could lose everything, but actually, if you take it away, the whole universe becomes yours.


The great capacity and great functioning of a Zen teacher, who is free in his use or disuse of any means, must transcend the scope of mere common sense and knowledge. That is to say, just as the wheel with no axle moves freely in all directions, the wise functioning of nomind allows us to live freely and independently.


Seen from this standpoint, the story of Xizhong’s cart is an exceptional case that uses a metaphor to pierce through to the truth. If you want to completely discard any sense of self, then you have to thoroughly remove the four marks of the self with the diamond club of practice. The four marks of the self refer to the following four illusions: that in the five aggregates there is a real self; that this self is a man; that all beings have a self; that the self has age, a determined period of existence. These four illusions are merely delusory thoughts and relative distinctions. When the deluded concept of self disappears, then the original true-self is revealed. When you transcend erroneous thoughts and sever all attachments, even to enlightenment, then you yourself become the cart with no axle and can move freely anywhere, without hindrance.


There is an expression that says, “Don’t pay attention to the fulcrum star.” This refers to the star in the constellation Libra that is located at the fulcrum point of the beam supporting the scales. This has nothing to do with the relative weight of material objects—it merely indicates the center of the beam, but unenlightened people focus their attention here. In Zen, this metaphor is a warning not to become attached to speech and words. Tear down the barrier of thought, and the framework of intellectual understanding is cast away.


When the function of no-mind and the mystic usage of the practical, Middle Way of emptiness are brought to life, then the cart of the mind can go anywhere in the universe. An axle is not needed for a life of
great liberation.

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