The Gate

The Gate


Tesshin opened his talk this week with a parable…  


A muscular samurai approaches a Zen master to ask for wisdom on Heaven and Hell.  

The master asks, “What is it to you?”  

(Remember a master never asks a casual question – it is always loaded with meaning)   

The warrior responds that he wants to get into heaven. 

(Does he even know what that means?)  

To which the master responds, “You are ugly and smell – you will never get into heaven!”  

(This is the master lovingly ‘bonking’ the swordsman on the head – do you see it?)

The samurai is not used to someone talking to him like this and becomes very angry.

(Attached to his story of greatness) 

Without thinking he pulls out his sword and is ready to smite the master. 

The master calmly comments, “Now the gates of hell are open to you!”  

The samurai instantly understands and bows deeply.  

(He got it, do you?)  

In the same calm voice, the master says, “Now the gates of heaven are open to you. 


Do you understand what just happened?  The warrior had to make a choice.  It is a choice we all really have to make.  What do we value?  On the one hand, we have our status and accomplishments – namely our story which we will do anything to protect.  On the other hand we have spiritual understanding.  In the parable we have this wrinkled old man standing in front of a mighty samurai – brave beyond belief due to his mastery of reality.  With endless love for all beings he simply “states it as it is.”  If you cling to your story the gates of hell will open up to you.  The warrior is stuck – he has hit a barrier to understanding which the old master knocks down with a single sentence.  Who is the more powerful one here? 


Commonly in Zen temples, there is a gate called the “Mon.”  A new student arrives at the temple gate and announces his desire to know the truth.  Immediately, the gate is closed to him and he is told to go away.  Remember, nothing is done in the training for capricious reasons.  The young student does not know it yet, but the training has already begun!  Is this gate a real barrier?  Is there anything intrinsic in that gate at that time which is preventing the student from knowing suchness?  It is just a gate, after all – wood and metal.  Here is the first test of Zen.  Can you distinguish a physical barrier from a spiritual barrier?  Many students fail and leave the temple before the waiting period is over.  They falsely believe that the something is being withheld.  How sad!


Tesshin reminded us that the real barriers to spiritual understanding are in your own mind and not “out there” in the physical world.  The temple gate is nothing and can never keep you out if you understand!  The barriers are what we bring to practice.  It is interesting that the first set of koans which we study is called the Mumonkan or “Gateless Gate.”  So what is a gateless gate?  How can nothing be the greatest barrier to understanding?  How can nothing be greater than a wall constructed of mile thick concrete?  Mu is nothingness – so what is holding you back???   The “gate” manifests when you cannot sit down to practice.  What stopped you?  The “gate” manifests when you “buy into” your own story.  You know better!  For the samurai the gate manifested when he became enraged at the seeming disrespect of the master.  He changed, can you?


Tesshin wrapped up by saying that in practice there is no barrier because there is nothing in practice which is outside of your own mind.  The challenges and blockages are in your own mind and only you can transcend them – and when you do the gates of heaven will be open to you as well.