Barbarians at the Gate
‘Though people from the South and the North differ, there is no north or south in Buddha Nature.’
~ Hui Neng, the sixth ancestor of Chan (Zen) Buddhism in China, The Platform Sutra
We have met the barbarian, and he is us. When Hui Neng traveled from the wild south to the cultured north of China to study with a famous teacher of the time, Hung-jen, the teacher challenged the boy, questioning whether a barbarian from the south could practice Buddhism. Hui Neng, who would go on to succeed Hung-jen, made the above reply.
Barbarians are not scarce in the world, proven by daily news reports of police violence and reprisals, torture, and abuse of women and children. But we don’t have to travel far to find barbarians, who we daily discover in our workplace, our religious communities, our families and friends. And we find them in ourselves. For years, working on Wall Street while practicing Zen; I sometimes wondered if I was a barbarian sitting at the gate of Zen, somehow not fitting in.
Hui Neng, I think, is telling us it is all about the size of our tent we choose to erect. When we make ourselves small, our tent is small and our world shrinks. I once heard a teacher question whether a pair of Air Force officers could practice Zen. No room for barbarians at that temple. When we unfurl our tent and make it large, the universe available to us expands infinitely, and the barbarians disappear from the gate.
Recently I found out that several of the people from my office in New York long ago were not only practicing, but teaching Zen. One of the teachers recently wrote: ‘Who knew we’d wind up here??’, she added, ‘Aren’t we blessed?’ Indeed, all barbarians are blessed.