The Great Way has no gate;
There are a thousand different paths;
Once you pass through the barrier;
You walk the universe alone.
~ Wumen’s preface, The Gateless Barrier
Gates. They are a wonderful metaphor: a barrier used to close an opening in a wall, fence, or hedge, says Merriam-Webster. Sometimes we call koans gates: invitations to enter into a world that is at once changed and yet utterly the same before passing through. Koans are a barrier of no barrier, a gate of no gate.
Last week I put up a 15-foot gate on our farm with my brother Dan. It is a beautiful g
ate, made of salvaged chain-sawed redwood. We spent a day and a half hand-pouring the base, and another three days of hard work in the blistering hot weather to sand, saw, drill, bolt, and finally raise the heavy gate with a fork lift. I could mark the days on my hat by the high-water marks left by the sweat-rings on the hat’s bill: this salty line was the 104-degree day, that the 99-degree one.
As we were putting up the gate, Wumen’s above poem came to me: the Great Way has no gate. The gate I put up last week was a barrier wholly of my own construction. Before I built the gate, there was no inside and no outside. There was nothing to pass. Before the gate, there was not even a concept of barrier.
I was going through some old files today and came across a hand-written note from a friend who had left it on my cushion some years ago when I was serving as head of practice during a retreat. Though the koan reference is different (In Pai-chang’s Fox, a monk is reborn a fox for 500 lives because he believes he gives a wrong answer), my friend is nonetheless walking through a strange and beautiful gate:
“The one who hears this sound? The old man shows up, trapped in a fox’s body, sitting there to hear a turning word. Sitting here, I show up, trapped in a who’s body; what word could cut the bonds? Then a friend says, ‘All that other stuff doesn’t mater.’ Sheared off, or fallen off, too happy to keep track.”
Before the Great Way, there was not even a gate. It was just us walking the universe. Alone.