The Gateless Gate
There is an old Zen saying…“If you pay attention, everything enlightens.” Living from the orientation that everything we encounter can be a teacher, a gift, an opportunity to be enlightened makes spiritual practice fun and joyful. Truly! The content can be ANYTHING, even something as pedestrian as a gate.
The gate in this story stands at the entrance of the Zen Monastery Peace Center. It’s rather unremarkable in appearance, just a few aluminum rods hooked together, stretched between two wooden posts, decorated with a faded white sign lettered in black. With quiet dignity it wards off the random passerby whose idle curiosity might disturb the tranquility of the spiritual community that lies beyond it.
If you’re a guest or practitioner attending a retreat or Sunday morning group, you’ll likely find the gate wide open, an invitation to explore the path that winds between whispering pines to the tile-roofed buildings nestled at the bottom of the hill. If you’re very lucky, on the way down you might even be escorted by a burst of birdsong, a blue jay, or butterfly.
But if you’re a resident or a visiting monk, encountering an open gate is a very rare occurrence. And that closed gate….well… the perfect opportunity for many a monk to work out their own salvation diligently!
The closed gate, like all structures in practice, forces a confrontation with ego. It brings one face to face with the ego-I that
--doesn’t want to get out of the car and open the gate
--feels thwarted that it’s closed
--fumes at the stupidity of having to close it behind one
--resents that it is to remain closed at all times
--resists the effort to walk up to close the gate at the end of a long day
--gets confused about whether to leave it open or closed
--is churlish, grumpy, unhappy, irritated, and urgent when encountering a closed gate that's supposed to be open or an open gate that's supposed to be closed!
In the standoff between the gate and ego, the closed gate is a steadfast teacher. Imagine the lessons in…
Gratitude: Thank you for being open! Now I’ll be on time for group.
Prayer: Please be open! It’s cold and wet and I don’t have rain gear.
Acceptance: If I want to get where I need to go, I have to open a closed gate.
Patience: There’s no hurry, no speed records to set in locking the gate.
Surrender: “I” give up. “I” can’t make this lock work.
Participation: If I struggle with this lock, maybe others do too. Perhaps I should say something.
Courtesy: So many guests tonight. Maybe I can leave last and be the person who closes the gate.
Willingness: I don’t know if the gate is closed, and although I’m tired I will check.
Following Guidance: Do I leave the gate open or closed? Of course! Leave it as it was found. We live without a trace.
... that have been learned by those that have passed by this patient teacher!
We can measure spiritual “progress,” as it were, by paying attention to our response in any karmic encounter. Over time, this gate has changed from an adversary to a practice opportunity and, finally, to a friend.
It’s a special moment on the path when a closed gate produces a smile, when we have a spring in the step as we get out of the car to open the gate, when we give it a friendly pat and wish it good day as we drive through, and when we cheerfully close the gate behind us. This experience is sometimes described by the Zen expression “passing through the gateless gate.” Without having attention on a conditioned conversation that “wants something to be different from how it is,” what was once a barrier ceases to exist as such.
Well, for the moment…
because every moment is essentially a choice between “gate and gateless.”
It’s a spectacular moment in practice when something like this happens:
We’re running late. The gate is closed and the lock proves to be intractable. As we struggle with the lock, our phone rings and we drop the hot cup of tea and important sheaf of papers we’re holding. Frustration induces a burst of self-hatred that is expressed in a loud string of profanity (not a normal behavior) which, horror of horrors, may have been heard by someone who politely turns their back as we come around the bend in the path.
Instead of listening to the voices that might berate us for “damaging the Dharma,” violating the privileged environment, being a horrible Zen student and a failure as a Buddhist, we pick up the recorder and turn to the Mentor and
embrace the sensations of disappointment without going to the egocentricity of having been the instrument of someone else’s adverse experience,
humbly admit that we always have something to practice with, like releasing the energy labeled “anger” in a harmless manner,
receive the encounter as a necessary step in a deeper acceptance of all that is, exactly as it is,
let it all go and be wholeheartedly present and available to whatever Life is asking of us NOW.
When we choose compassion over suffering in a difficult situation, the gate not only vanishes, it becomes a gateway to a new dimension of existence. The process that divides the world into right and wrong, good and bad, closed and open, dissolves. The circumstances, however “hard,” are experienced as what IS—painful, challenging, disappointing, and frustrating but undiluted by “something wrong mind.” In joyful realization, Intelligence recognizes itself, not as a bundle of memories, preferences, opinions, and stories, but as All of IT—every texture, color, frequency, feeling, and expression of existence.
In the words of the Third Patriarch of Zen:
When a mind is not disturbed
The ten thousand things offer no offense.
One in all,
All in One.
If only this is realized,
No more worry about not being perfect!
Your hand opens and closes,
opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds' wings.