Here at the Monastery, we are in the final stages of designing a new building. We are attending to numerous details, trying to assure some functional and environmental sensibility, and to present a harmonious connection to the existing main building and the local surroundings. Amidst this imaginings, we are envisioning a front door that will capture the spirit of the invitation, a passageway revealing the light inside while stopping us in our tracks to carefully consider where we are going. You are welcomed. You choose to enter. You find yourself inside.
The monk wants to know Chao-chou. How well can he do that? How well can we know anybody? What does it actually mean to know somebody? How well do you know those you love or those you hate? Is that loving or that hating the knowing itself? What can you know about their experience? We have their stories, their reports, their willingness to struggle with articulating something about what actually goes on as the experience of their lives. We can observe the manifestations of their bodies, their actions, feel our experience of being in their presence, free associate around their descriptions and musings. We can bring forth our empathic capacities, open ourselves to some sort of merging. But what does it mean to be completely intimate with another?
There’s a saying in Zen that we are born differently but we die the same way. Chaochou, facing that monk, speaking those words, “East gate, west gate, south gate, north gate,” is inviting that monk to die together with him. Not into a shared reality, but into the same reality. Not some sort of an insubstantial and vague merging within a spiritual realm, but the same reality that accounts for both complete identity of our beings and our unique embodiments and personalities. What is the complete identity of you sitting there exactly as you are and me sitting here exactly as I am? How do we do that?
Realize “East Gate, west gate, north gate, south gate.” Realize the nature of what is this form, this moment, this reality, this body, this thought.
We see things as separate and distinct. We convince ourselves of boundedness and isolation of events and objects in space and time, the confines of our bodies, the privacy of our thoughts. The habit of seeing reality this way can be traced to the very beginnings of life on this planet. Soon after all the inorganic matter organized itself into primary organic building blocks, chains of complex molecules started forming spheres enclosed by lipid membranes—precursors of cells. As molecules began to enter the sphere, some were unable to depart because they grew larger inside, and the complexity of that difference between inside-me and outside-other started to escalate. Given that, what and where is the essence of Chaochou?
East gate, west gate, south gate, north gate—cardinal points of a mandala, a depiction of the universe as an enlightened space within which everybody is encouraged to recognize their complete freedom. This universe is wide open; nothing is held back. At this moment nothing is concealed from you. Chao-chou is that reality. No-barrier great-way is that reality. Your mind, the creation of this place, a moment of time are this reality. It is all precisely the same mandala. It is the invitation for you to make that mind-to-mind connection, to practice mind-tomind transmission— an assertion that this is how we can live this life.
In “Genjokoan,” Master Dogen says: “That the self advances to realize the ten thousand dharmas is delusion. That the ten thousand things (dharmas) advance and carry out practice- enlightenment through the self is realization.” That the self advances, that you as an isolated being— some concrete, defined, definable reality— advances on the path of spiritual practice towards some dharma, some insight, some space, some bliss, is delusion. This conclusion is based on a false premise.
On the other hand, that the ten thousand things—bird song, your achy body, a good idea—advance and carry out practiceenlightenment through you—that’s realization. Sit back. Rest in your breath. Deeply relax. Open up. Let the universe take a step towards you, through you, past you. That’s realization.
The gates are open. This is a user-friendly reality. You are Times Square letting this world advance through your heart. Form is nothing but form; emptiness is nothing but emptiness. One hundred blessed lives; everything is in its proper place.