To advance from where you can no longer advance and to do what can no longer be done, you must make yourself into a raft or ferryboat for others.
Last week we visited the first half of the above koan: finding ourselves utterly and completely stuck in a place from where we cannot move. This week we will look at the second half of the koan: stepping through the gateless barrier to find a world of infinite possibility.
When we chant the Heart Sutra, the core teaching of Zen Buddhism, we say, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” Most of the koans in our curriculum, including the one above, explicitly or subtly express that same point. To advance from where you can no longer advance and to do what can no longer be done, from my view, is a point of absolute not knowing: We come to a point where we are caught fast in our life circumstances; and see no way out. But somehow, from there, we magically and mysteriously take a step forward into a world of complete freedom.
A friend was recently sharing with our Monday night group an experience he had of stepping through the gateless barrier:
“It is safe to say that I came to the sesshin (retreat) last week at the end of my rope,” he began. The friend has in recent years endured more than his share of physical and economic challenges. “I had been saying to myself, ‘Make yourself a raft!’, and I had been playing it two different ways (make your own raft or become a raft). Make yourself a raft! Make yourself a raft!”
“I went into dokusan,” he continued. “And the teacher asked me, ‘Are you a raft?’ and I said ‘Yes!’ That Yes! was the all of it. Suddenly the lights turned on.
“I saw the world I had lived in since childhood ~ the world of self-deprecation, self- judgement, recrimination ~ suddenly lifted. Completely lifted. And it was that Yes! that opened up the whole world. I am still assimilating it. It is there; I know I can count on this understanding to help me when I fall back into that dark place.”
Coming back to that simple world of freedom again and again need not be a crashing and impossibly huge experience. One time, when we were holding a zendo leadership meeting, for some administrative reason, I was very irritated. The subject of the meeting was the inquiry koan, ‘Who am I?”, and I just took my frustration and bore into the koan, “Who am I? Who am I?” Previously, I had always been looking for meaning in that koan: after all, am I not the sum of my parts as father, husband, brother, son? And then I realized a far simpler answer to the question “Who am I?” The answer is a statement: “I am Who! I am Who!” Because when I am Who, there no longer are any barriers, I am the all of it.