True Expression | The Village Zendo Newsletter
May 07 Newsletter » Gates and Barriers
Sinclair Shinryu Thomson
Photos: Paul Johnson

In the classic Zen temples of Japan, space is very consciously patterned. You move in them from the outer limits which are more formal, through entryways that create semiformal transitions, into an interior space that is the least formal.

The outer structures can be elaborate and impressive, modeled on formal Buddhist temple design from China. The perimeter gates can also be imposing, evoking the helmet style of a samurai warrior. The high and thick gates of Nanzenji temple, where the film “Rashomon” was filmed, make people who approach them look puny. To enter, you also have to take a high step to cross over the threshold. It takes attention and intention to come in.

This is like the way we enter the meditation hall. Step in with the left foot. Step out with the right foot. We don’t just shuffle in any old way. We are aware of where the threshold is, and we cross over it with attention.

The entryways on the temple grounds take you on a course that is not direct. The paths turn and turn again, shifting your perspective. Bamboo groves, small garden settings, angles on a building. You leave behind the place where you began. You can’t see and don’t know where you are going to wind up.

Finally, you reach the interior space of the temple. The place for meditation or for the tea ceremony is the most informal, the most intimate.

It’s a little like this at the Village Zendo… First of all, our own Daitokuji temple is nestled inconspicuously in the midst of the city like so many of the ancient Zen temples of Kyoto. At our own outer gate, you come off the big thoroughfare, with its towering buildings, and pass through the thick columns of 588 Broadway. Our entryway transitions take us through lobby, elevator, corridors, up to the door of Suite 910.

Finally we come to the interior space of the cloakroom, the meditation hall, the zabuton mat, your own breath and awareness. It becomes progressively more intimate. You are just right here, at the heart of the temple — with no need to go all the way to Japan!

Kotoin, one of the subtemples within the Daitokuji temple complex, is associated with the great tea-master of the sixteenth century Sen no Rikyu. In one tiny tea room he created, the lintel of the door is so low, that anyone passing through must take care to lower his or her head. To enter the intimate space of the tea-room, rank and hierarchy must be stripped away. There is a leveling, an equalizing. Just as you must enter with intention at the outer gate, you must bow down with humility at the inner door.

In another tea-room made by Sen no Rikyu, I saw a calligraphy in the alcove. Amidst the spare, subtle walls and flooring, the single character leapt out at me: “Barrier!”

Coming across that calligraphy, based on a famous koan involving Master Ummon, altered my practice. I began looking at my “problems” — so many, so ordinary — as “barriers.” The sickness of a friend. A sticky relation with a colleague. The balance between work life, home life, and zendo activities. The financial difficulty of supporting a Zen center in the heart of the city. To treat my “problems” as “barriers” shifted the ground for me. I don’t have to see them as something getting in the way of my life — they are my life. I don’t have to fret and plot to solve them — I have to face them and acknowledge them as they are: barriers!

In Mumon’s preface to his thirteenth-century koan collection, The Gateless Barrier, he says: “The Buddha Mind is the basis, and gateless is the Dharma Gate. If it is gateless, how can you pass through it? Have you not heard that ‘nothing that enters by the gate can be a family treasure — whatever is casually gained is always subject to change’?

“If a fellow is brave, he will plunge straight in with no regard to any danger. The eight-armed Nata may try to stop him, but in vain. Even the twenty-eight Patriarchs of India and the six Patriarchs of China would cower at his bravery and have to beg for their lives. If he hesitates, however, he will be like a man watching a horse gallop past the window. In the twinkling of an eye it is already gone.”

The Way, the Dharma Gate is gateless. There is no creed, dogma, definition, form, means, vehicle, way for us to pass through. Yet we have to get through. So Mumon encourages us: Plunge straight ahead!

But he also says: “Nothing that enters by the gate can be a family treasure.” Another way of saying this would be: “The true value is not one that can be given to you.” When you experience your true self, there is nothing to receive, nothing to come from outside. When you inhabit the intimate space of the self, then your true inheritance, the Mind of Buddha, is already in your possession.

The barriers in our lives are where we find no gate to pass through. But if there really is no gate, no steps to climb, no path to follow, no rail to hold on to, what stops us from passing through? Gensha said: “No-gate is the gate of emancipation.” Or we could rephrase this: “Barrier! is the gate of emancipation.”

When we are outside the temple, we have to step forward over the threshold. When we are outside the tea room, we have to bow down under the doorway. When we are inside the temple, we sit. When we are in the tea room, we drink tea. When we are at the barrier, “Barrier!”

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