So as for the iron yoke, is it freedom or not? We should really look at what freedom is. In placing the yoke around his head, did Guishan give up the freedom that he demonstrated in kicking over the water pitcher? Does putting on the robes of a monk mean giving up the freedom you had as a layperson? Does putting on a rakusu and becoming a Buddhist mean giving up the freedom that you had as a non-Buddhist? What is this freedom? A hundred years ago, just to be able to leave the village and go to the next town was incredible freedom, and now we can go anywhere in the world, easily, and probably very soon anywhere in the solar system. But freedom has more to it than that. If you restrict someone’s movement to one country, state, county, city, building, cell—if you physically tie that person up so he or she can’t move, can’t talk, you’d say that person is utterly restricted. Yet someone completely bound like that can still be totally free, while someone who has complete freedom of movement can still be restricted. Janis Joplin popularized the song “Me and Bobby McGee,” and the lyrics say, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose...” It’s true. The only problem is she didn’t know it was true. To sing about it, to talk about it, to believe it doesn’t make you free. To have nothing to lose—that is, to be holding on to nothing—is freedom. Within the form of Zen we practice, we practice freedom; within discipline, there’s freedom; within life and within death, there’s freedom. How does that freedom function when we have responsibility, for example, or a particular commitment?

Any form is directly dependent on the degree of discipline practiced within that form, whether you’re an athlete or a Zen student.

The same principle of discipline and freedom functions with a musician, or a dancer, or an artist, or a karate master. And within life, our discipline is the practice of letting go. Letting go doesn’t mean not caring. Letting go means letting go—not holding on. It means loving, it means caring, it means holding, but not sticking, not attaching to people, places, things; not to ideas, positions; not attaching to anything. And so, in a sense, the iron yoke of Guishan is no more of an iron yoke than that of a dancer, athlete, musician, or a Zen Buddhist practitioner.

Nevertheless, once we've tasted this practice, once we’ve experienced even a bit of it in our lives, there’s no way to avoid feeling deeply grateful to Shakyamuni Buddha and the hundreds of buddhas and bodhisattvas that preceded and followed him. The best way that we can truly express our appreciation is to realize ourselves and to make ourselves free—to make this life the life of the Buddha


The Gateless Gate, or Wumenkuan, is a collection of forty-eight koans compiled in the early thirteenth century by the Chinese Zen master Wumen Huikai. Each koan is accompanied by Wumen’s commentary and verse. The collection is widely used by practitioners to this day.