The conversation starts with a deceptively simple question, “What is Chao-chou?” Chao-chou is a Zen teacher, one of the more remarkable and creative ones. Chinese lore has him living to the ripe age of one hundred and twenty, after a transformational enlightenment experience sometime when he was eighteen. That means that for some one hundred years there was this wise person walking around China, guiding others while maturing in his appreciation of the dharma. He settled in a small town called Chao-chou, and took its name. Many of the Zen teachers did that—abandoned their family name for the name of the location where they lived and taught. As if they were merging and enlarging into the reality of the surroundings, fusing their teachings with the teachings of trees, wind, creatures, buildings and gates.
When the monk comes to Chao-chou and poses this question, what is he looking for? What kind of an answer is he expecting? The monk knows that he is facing a Zen teacher. That may seem like an obvious fact, but the degree of that acknowledgment determines how the exchange unfolds and how it is received. If the monk condenses all of his spiritual angst into the question, presenting a compact target shimmering with doubt, there is a possibility that Chaochou’s intervention could catalyze a release. If the monk is unfocussed, not invested in his search, he may not even notice that the medicine was injected into his very heart. Either way, Chao-chou will not let the opportunity slip by. This may be the only time that he’ll meet that person. Everything is on the line and, as a dharma teacher, he will observe his vows and deliver everything he can. And he does; “East gate, west gate, south gate, north gate.” Everything is neatly wrapped up. Everything is presented—precisely and completely.
In the first line of his verse, Hsueh-tou acknowledges this monk’s perceptiveness and courage: “In their words they show their ability”—both the monk and Chao-chou— “in direct confrontation.” They’re facing each other directly. There are no deceptions, subtexts, or sophistry. During private interviews, this is captured and harnessed in the face-to-face, inches-apart-posture that the teacher and the student take up. Eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart. Intimate. Just like the south gate is facing the north gate, the west gate facing the east gate; directly across, completely open.
Here, the student is asking about the true nature of the teacher’s mind. He is forcing Chao-chou to reveal himself completely. In the process of connecting and establishing a clear understanding of each other, the teacher and the student come to rest within complete trust of their true nature. It is said that a student seeing a teacher is simply a student seeing himself and the teacher seeing herself. That is the nature of the mindto- mind transmission. That is the nature of meeting each other within our reality, within the reality of that complete openness and complete capacity to welcome each other. We allow each other to pass right through our lives, unobstructed.
Who are you? East gate, west gate, south gate, north gate. That response provides us with all the space we need within which we can turn around and spin freely like dervish dancers. It is about the spaciousness of this moment. It is also pointing to the fact that practice is a process of recognizing that very spaciousness and that infinite mobility that we have within it, within us, on whatever level we decide to look at it.
The name of the founder of this monastery was Muge Daido: no-barriers, greatway. That is the same reality as “East gate, west gate, south gate, north gate.” It echoes nicely Chao-chou’s response. It invites you to explore every nook of this building, of this schedule, of this mountain; and everything that you find here, everything that you encounter will be Muge Daido. It will also be you. There is nothing stopping you here—except you. This monastery, this place has no barriers. It is wide open.
During one of the dharma encounters, a public meeting between teacher and student, Daido Roshi was challenged by one of the participants on the apparent isolation of this monastery. Daido first explained how monasteries traditionally straddled the boundary between the city and the wilderness, not drifting too much in either direction. Then he got more direct and pointed out how the New York State Thruway passes right through the heart of this meditation hall, as verified by the fact that this person was asking this very question at this very time. Yes, there are barriers of entry to get here. And yes, they are open. Do we see them that way?