We must pass through three gates in our practice: The Gate of Suffering, The Gate of Joy, and The Gate of Compassion. If we omit one of the gates or pass them in a different order, our practice may become unbalanced or we will find our selves stranded on a plateau not knowing how to take the next step.
The Gate of Suffering. The First Noble Truth: All life is suffering. Here we must face the fact of change & impermanence. When we resist this truth we suffer by trying to control the uncontrollable (which is one definition definition of anxiety).
We may try to control our inner world with addictive behaviors or self improvement projects. We may try to control others so they will be always available to play their part in our life drama. We may become obsessed with monuments & legacies.
If we fail to pass through this gate into acceptance, we will either live in a constant struggle against life as it is, or find ourselves bitter and resigned at our failure to stay young, healthy, calm or happy.
The Gate of Joy. When our struggle against life ends, the Gate of Joy may swing open. Suddenly the outcome of all our the struggles is irrelevant; what brings us joy is our capacity to wonder at every moment of life, regardless of its content.
If we pass through the first gate but fail to pass through The Gate of Joy, Buddhism is reduced to "Life sucks and then you die."
We experience practice as swallowing one bitter pill after another, even as we resign ourselves, in the name of practice, to the unavoidability of change.
With joy, we can marvel at each passing moment; without it our life is a continual process of mourning.
Sometimes, a person will pass through this second gate before the first gate. They may have experienced a moment of grace, a realization unconnected to practice. Or they may be prodigies of samadhi, adepts at creating blissful states of consciousness.
Practice then is in danger of becoming an anodyne, the zendo an oasis. We turn away from the suffering of life into our practice world of joy. The joy is genuine, but it circumscribes rather than expands the horizons of our life. We devote ourselves to the cultivation of our oasis but use it to avoid facing the hard truths of impermanence. Eventually, sadly, life will one day overwhelm our joy and we find we cannot block out the pain of age and loss. Then we may have a crisis in which we lament that practice has failed us, or that we have lost our former capacity to live within our bubble of joy. "Where has my enlightenment gone?," we will cry out.
The Gate of Compassion. Just as the first gate is based on the truth of impermanence, the third gate is founded on the truth of interconnectedness. Unless we pass through this gate, our practice becomes private, solipsistic, and we are preoccupied with our individual state of mind and our individual attainment.
If we do not see that who we are is inseparable from who we are together, even as we accept change and wonder at each moment's experience, we will subtly reduce other people to their role in the experiences and sensations we are having. They will forever play, well or badly, the roles we have assigned them in our personal drama. We will be blind to how our behavior affects them, except as it affects us , and becomes one more thing we have to deal with. Without passing through this gate, we will be lonely in our lives and in our practice, without the comfort of our connection to the rest of existence. Nor will we be able to truly understand and fulfill our obligation to others or to the Dharma, of which we are a part.
Sometimes, a person passes though this third gate without passing through either gate one or two. Such a person will have a deep empathy for the suffering of others, and outwardly their lives may appear dedicated to the common good, even to the point of appearing saintly. But if they have not passed through the other gates, they do not know how to put their own needs and happiness in the larger picture they feel part of. The "self" is reduced to "self-centeredness" and they allow it no legitimate needs or desires. They live as if they have vowed "to save all beings minus one." The may become spiritual or literal anorectics, starving and denying themselves physical and emotional sustenance. They pretend they can live without the love and care they devote their lives to giving to others.
Usually, they burn out or break down for lack of basic emotional self-care. In the worse case scenario, they are canonized and their self-denial becomes a model for others, even though it is a sad caricature of true practice.
The Gateless Gate. The Great Way lies beneath our feet, extending freely in every direction. Each moment offers a chance to pass through all three gates; each moment offers to teach us the lesson of change, of delight, of interconnectedness. To speak of a Gateless Gate is our way of saying we can enter the life of the Dharma anywhere, at anytime. The Way is wide open to us all.
Yet, as conditioned beings, living our lives out in time, slow learners that we are, we typically must pass through these gates separately, spend years thoroughly digesting the lessons each offers, and then go on to the next, only to return again and again to lessons incompletely learned the first time around. Whenever we pass through one of these gates, we are tempted to believe we have completed our journey and that we have learned all there is to learn. It is the function of the teacher, who has learned the hard way that we are never finished learning, to show the student where they are stuck, on what plateau they are resting too comfortably and complacently.