Saturday, October 21, 2023

The Gateless Gate

In all areas of human endeavor we rely on the expertise of others—the dentist, the attorney, the chef. Why would the fulfillment of our spiritual needs be any different? It is only natural that in times of need we turn to spiritual guides for help.

            But therein lies the danger—the illusion that spiritual enlightenment is something we can attain second hand; the mistaken presumption that the footsteps of others can do the walking for us. The Chinese and Japanese tradition of Zen Buddhism is particularly focused on this common error.

One day, 13th century Zen Master Ekai gathered his monks for a talk. Always eager for knowledge, the young aspirants leaned into the words of their venerable teacher, sure that they would be of enormous value. Ekai sensed the time was ripe for an unexpected lesson.

“The great path has no gates,” he said, “thousands of roads enter it. When one passes through this gateless gate he walks freely between heaven and earth.”

It isn’t difficult to image the monk’s sideways glances, checking to see if anyone understood a word of what the master just said. What the heck is a gateless gate?

            “Zen has no gates,” Ekai continued. “The purpose of Buddha’s words is to enlighten others. Therefore, Zen should be gateless. Now, how does one pass through the gateless gate? Even such words are like raising waves in a windless sea or performing an operation upon a healthy body. If one clings to what others have said and tries to understand Zen by explanation, he is like a dunce who thinks he can beat the moon with a pole or scratch an itching foot from the outside of a shoe.”

            Then Ekai launched into a series of koans—unanswerable riddles designed to confound and ultimately disengage the mind, clearing the way for authentic satori or enlightenment. Later Ekai wrote the following account of the event:

            “In the year 1228 I was lecturing monks in the Ryusho Temple in Eastern China, and at their request I retold old koans, endeavoring to inspire their Zen spirit. I meant to use the koans as a man who picks up a piece of brick to knock at a gate, and after the gate is opened the brick is useless and is thrown away. My notes, however, were collected unexpectedly, and there were forty-eight koans, together with my comment in prose and verse concerning each. I have called the book The Gateless Gate, wishing students to read it as a guide.”

            To this day, Ekai’s The Gateless Gate is regarded as a masterpiece of Zen wisdom—even if it is one of the most exasperating philosophical works ever recorded. At the playful heart of the project is the notion that enlightenment cannot be conceptualized, codified, or conveyed second-hand by anyone—no matter how clever or erudite. All words and teachings can do is shake us awake to an unmediated awareness of our own essential nature. The moment you try to describe or explain it, any nascent awareness vanishes. The more fervent the grasping, the lower the yield. The fact that someone wrote the koans down was frustrating to Ekai, because writing wisdom down often dooms it to domesticity, misunderstanding, and misuse. But we’re grateful to that nameless monk anyway because now, 900 years later, we too can be challenged by these odd and edifying riddles.

All quotes from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings compiled by Paul Reps (Charles E. Tuttle: Rutland, Vermont, 1958) 113-114.

[This piece first appeared in my column called A to Zen in the November/December 2023 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

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