At the end of the summer retreat, Cuiyan said to the assembly, “All summer I’ve been
rambling on for your benefit, friends. Have my eyebrows fallen out yet?”
Yunmen said, “Barrier!”
~ Blue Cliff Record, Case 8 (abridged)
In Zen, barriers are also gates. The brilliance of Yunmen’s response above is that the character for ‘barrier (関)’ literally means a gate that separates the city from the frontier, civilization from wilderness, ourselves from the outside world. Our practice is to realize that sometimes what we see as impediments are in fact opportunities.
I was recently working on this koan with a friend. She described having gotten into not just one, but two auto accidents in recent months. On top of how upsetting are auto accidents, great and small (thankfully, only fenders were damaged), the bumps have highlighted for her some greater challenges in her life: aging, partner relations, lifestyle.
With practice, what we come to learn is that at the most fundamental level all our human existance ~ accidents, aging, and relationships ~ are ‘barrier’, to be appreciated for their richness just as they are. For if we and our circumstances are ‘barrier’, if those around us are ‘barrier’, if the whole world is ‘barrier’, then the whole world is also ‘gate’, and fully open for us to enter. Opening the gate is an act of freedom.
‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.’
~ Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi