To address the finer nuances of the teacher-student relationship at the beginning of training, for example, may seem premature, but Chao-chou’s response: “East gate, west gate, south gate, north gate” is relevant to every moment of our lives, every moment dedicated to waking up. Chaochou’s untangling answer resonates with any question that articulates the doubt about the ground of our being. The monk may be asking about Chao-chou but he can not avoid asking at the same time about the essence of mind or the nature of the self. The question may be “What is Zen Mountain Monastery?” or “What is an Introduction to Zen Training Workshop?” It would be true, inviting, possibly skillful to invoke Chao-chou and declare that your experience here can be summed up in the phrase “East gate, west gate, south gate, north gate.” Somewhere within the experiences of a weekend here at the Monastery, at the heart of the offerings you may receive, you actually have a chance to meet Chao-chou.
The prologue, however, sounds a cautionary tone. That’s what the koan prologues are for. They introduce a sense of tension and urgency, sending us deeper into our search, refining its direction, bringing the inquiry into sharper focus. In his pointer, Yuan-wu says, “If you don’t have the eye to penetrate barriers, if you don’t have any place to turn yourself around in, at this point, obviously, you won’t know what to do.” You’ll be stuck, unable to respond or act freely. Then he poses the question, “What is the eye that penetrates barriers, what is a place to turn around in?” We could imagine that place to suggest a special spiritual realm. It is more helpful to realize it as a plane of this shared reality, the place where you are sitting right now, reading these words. Where can we encounter unlimited freedom? Is there any other kind of freedom? What is that place?
Reflect for a moment, as you rest aware within the experience of your physical body, to what degree are you free? How do you experience this moment? Are there any hindrances or obstructions? Is this a place within which you can turn? How far? How completely? Is this instant of life an open gate or a barrier stopping you in your tracks, in your creativity and vitality?
For many years I had a perplexing and conflicted relationship with doors and gates. In my childhood, a gate unequivocally meant, “Stop!” Turn around quickly. Don’t press into it; don’t look beyond. Don’t investigate behind the closed door. There were too many dangers there, and it was better not to know certain things. In Poland, in the early sixties, within a communist setting, knowledge could get you into trouble, and could get those you loved into deeper trouble still. This attitude quickly became embodied in me. When I came across a closed door, I would not even test it to see if it was locked or unlocked. I would just spin around and walk away, not fully aware that I was even doing that. Then, one day, I was with a friend lost in the labyrinth of a Veteran’s Hospital. We were stuck in a service stairwell, descending to the ground level. There, I came around the corner and faced a closed fire exit door, barred and bearing a Danger! sign. Dutifully, I began to withdraw. My friend, instead, walked right past me and without hesitation pushed the door open. Alarms went off, he strode through, I snuck past behind him. The door shut behind us, followed by immediate silence. We were out on the parking lot, under an open sky. I was mesmerized by the simplicity of it all, and transformed in my relationship with doors.
Whatever the dimension of our existence we care to consider, how we experience reality hinges on how we relate to and navigate the situations in which we are stopped by the apparent end of the road. On a physical level, the floor below you is obstructing your fall with respect to gravity. Einstein said something to the effect that we are continuously falling and floors get in our way. You are hindered by the floor from the experience of continuous freefall. So, if you want to consider what obstruction may feel like, right there, in your body’s pressure against the floor is a hint of it. But how does that experience become restrictive? Does it?
How does this work with respect to time? Are you obstructed by time? Are you obstructed or free emotionally? Intellectually, what does it mean to be stopped by your thoughts? Can you be stopped by somebody else’s thoughts? What is a spiritual barrier?
Chao-chou says, “East gate, west gate, south gate, north gate.” And the gates are open.