The Physical Zendo is closed Monday, July 15th and Tuesday July 16th

You can enter your life from any direction Barry Magid January 9th 2021

Download Talk

The Blue Cliff Record, Case 9

A monk asked, “What is Joshu?”
Joshu replied, “North gate, South gate, East gate, West gate.”

In my last talk of 2020 I spoke about the previous koan in the Blue Cliff Record, in which the Master says, All through this practice period I’ve been talking and teaching. Tell me, have my eyebrows fallen out? That is, he’s asking: Have my words been the true Dharma? And his disciple Ummon replies with this one syllable word, Kan, which gets translated as barrier. Words are a barrier, and Kan can also be translated as gate, as in Kan in the Mumonkan and that’s translated sometimes as the gateless gate and sometimes as the gateless barrier. That’s the same word that Joshu is using here: North Gate, South Gate, East Gate, West Gate.

Zen teachers often took their name from the place they lived and with this koan you have the image of Joshu being the town that has a gate in each direction. In other words you can enter the town from any direction. Or we could say that the most fundamental realization in our practice, the most fundamental thing we do here is convert barriers into gates. Joshu is most famous from the koan Mu, where Mu, literally meaning No, is presented as this kind of barrier you have to pass through or a gate you have to pass through, but when you’re working on it as a koan it certainly feels like a barrier. It’s this one word that you absorb yourself in, where the teacher can ask you over and over again, What is Mu? What is Mu? And every answer gets rejected. It certainly feels like a barrier you don’t know how to penetrate. But at some point, somehow, it happens that you become Mu, everything becomes Mu, the very question becomes What is Mu? -- and that is the answer to what is Mu. The difference between a barrier and a gate dissolves.

We hear this kind of transformation over and over again in verses we recite and the different koans. In the Sandokai it says, “If you do not see the way, you do not see it even as you walk on it. When you walk the way, it is not near, it is not far. If you are deluded you are mountains and rivers away from it.” You’re walking the way whether you realize it or not. And in the end of sesshin when we chant, “The Dharma gate is open, the Great Way lies beneath our feet extending in every direction,” this barrier is converted to a gate and we realize that the Great Way is none other than our moment-to-moment life, just as it is. This kind of conversion of obstacles into gates happens at all sorts of levels in our practice. The other day we talked about how the pandemic itself, while an obstacle to our meeting together, has also been this gateway to a much bigger, more diverse international sangha. A loss of one thing opens another.

I was talking to an old friend the other day, someone who is also a doctor but a few years older than I am, and he’s someone who is an enormously accomplished and dedicated physician who really has thrown himself into his work practice helping people, yet he’s now at an age because of various physical limitations and his age itself when he has to slow down. He can’t dedicate himself to helping others as he has his whole life, and it feels like a terrible obstacle to him. He can’t be himself. And yet when we talked a little bit, he acknowledged that he grew up feeling very unloved, very unworthy, and that part of what drove him into medicine and helping people was this kind of redemptive curative fantasy, that he would become a good person, he would help others, he would finally be worthy and lovable himself. And in his fifty or more years of practice, that certainly has happened. He is a beloved figure by many of his patients, and yet now he’s coming up to this point where he’s not going to be able to do that anymore. And he’s going to be back in the position he was when he was a small child. Am I worthy? Am I lovable if I’m not helping others? If I’m not always giving? If I’m not always playing this bodhisattva, who am I? What is my life worth?

See, I think that kind of obstacle is potentially a great gate in which he can discover that in his old age he has the same worth that he really did as a small child. A baby shouldn’t have to prove it’s value or its worth or its lovability. Neither should an old man. It’s not just what he does for others, it’s who he is himself. So at a kind of psychological level that’s how a barrier in our life can open us up to something that’s been closed off by the seeming success of our curative fantasy or our whole sense of self that we’ve worked so hard to build up and accomplish.

At a more basic level, regardless of the content, we go through our life or through sesshin as Joko said, chronically in a state of judgment, of distancing, whether through anxiety or anger or disapproval, constantly saying, This is not it and treating the moment as a barrier. Joko’s teaching was constantly to look at the anxiety, look at the anger, look at the bottom intention not as the barrier as to how I wish I was feeling, but the gate to this moment. This is me. This is now. This is the absolute. But our usual way of being is to see ourselves surrounded by barriers rather than in the presence of gates, and that’s our basic practice over and over again, moment after moment in a sesshin like this, to come up against each moment that’s a barrier and say Yes to it, to treat it as a gate.

I was thinking that a good book of teishos could have a cover that has that one ideogram for Kan on the surface. The title would be: Barrier or Gate? The Teachings of Duck/Rabbit Roshi. That’s our basic teaching, that duck/rabbit transformation. That’s really what that is, the gate/barrier duck/rabbit switch, the change in perspective where we see something that’s been there all along in a different light. And certainly the teacher himself is the ultimate duck/rabbit, where students always have to go back and forth from the perspective of this ordinary person versus this embodiment of the Dharma. Are those things the same or different? Is the teacher’s humanness a barrier or a gate? Is the Dharma something different from that? Where else are you going to find it except in human beings and in ordinary moments?

So I think duck/rabbit might be a good Dharma name for me. None of this Empty Cloud or Compassionate Dragon stuff. My Dharma name would be Duck/Rabbit. I like that. Thank you.

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.