On Literature Stack Exchange, someone recently asked a question about the quote 大道無門, which was identified as coming from the collection of Zen koans known as The Gateless Barrier (early thirteenth century).

According to the answer given there,

“大道無門” contains a pun: the author’s name Wúmén is written with the same characters (無門) as “no gate” so the line can be understood as “Wúmén’s Great Way” as well as “the great way has no gate”.

As far as I know, 大道無門 literally means "great way no gate" or "great way 'not have' gate" (I wrote 'not have' because Chinese doesn't have verb conjugations). However, for a genitive construction ("Wúmén’s Great Way"), one would nowadays need to write "無門的大道", inverting the order of "大道" and "無門". Was this different in Classical Chinese, so that it was possible to interpret "大道無門" as the modern "無門的大道"?

  • 无 bkrs:А. verb 1) corresponds to 靡, 没有, 不有 in front of words denoting objects 岂曰无衣? 与子同袍? 敌军无路可退 (1) 没有, 跟"有"相对 [not have; there is not] 无, 不有也。 --《玉篇》 无若丹朱傲。 --《书·益稷》 无偏无党。 --《书·洪范》
    – user6065
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 13:24
  • @user6065 Thanks. I have edited the question.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 13:43

2 Answers 2



Now that you only question about grammar, let's just talk about grammar. I found a well written elucidation, though, and paste the link here for reference.


1.無 serves as a verb here, meaning "there is not"., as a pair to 有 in "千差有路"

2.大道無門 cannot be reversed and interpreted as 無門的大道. In Classical Chinese the so called genitive construction is typically ... 之 ... , I ve never met a case where a reversal indicates possession relationship.


the following answer is based on my experience & knowledge only, other's mileage may vary. i would interpret "大道無門" as

the great (大) enlightenment (道) [is] without (無) gate (門)

in chinese, "attaining the enlightenment" is "得道", or "成道"

therefore, "大" is an adjective. "道" means enlightenment, it does not mean way, or path.

the gate (門), is a metaphor of "barrier" which distinguishes external and internal".

for other sect of chinese buddhism; to attain enlightenment, one need to read sutra, speak mantra, beg for blessing from buddha / bodhisattva. all these activities are external, hence, on the other side of a gate.

according to zen buddhism, one would attain the status of buddha, with the correct mindsets. these involved one's mental / spiritual activities. such interpretation would be in line with zen's story, dialogue (公案).

so, without a gate (無門), there's no external --> internal rules :)

together, "大道無門" reminded people that to attain enlightenment, put efforts in one's mind.

無門的大道 "wúmén’s great way"

such comprehension is, well, incompatible with my knowledge of classical chinese, if not incorrect.

btw, i think "大道無門" is not a pun. imo, it's a significant trap that preventing one to misunderstand.

have fun :)

  • Thanks for your answer. It is not unusual for words, e.g. 道, to have both a literal and a figurative meaning, so it's not clear to me why you exclude the literal meaning of 道 while at the same time retaining it for 門.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 12:35
  • well, as i declared: "based on my experience & knowledge" :) secondly, i'm a apple fans, so "think different" :) thirdly, last night, i interpret 道 as way, with some uncertainties; i thought about it before sleeping. this morning, i changed to interpret it as enlightenment. have fun, anyway :) Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 13:10

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