‘You travel through dark and abandoned grasses in a single-minded search for your self-nature. Venerable practitioner, where is your self nature at this very moment?’

Gateless Barrier, Case 47, Tou-shuai’s Three Barriers

The above is the first of three barriers presented by Tou-shuai; last week we appreciated the third barrier. Enough of these barriers, already! Wumen clearly mis-advertised when he called this collection of koans ‘The Gateless Gate (Barrier)’!


Why do we practice? Our practice is a search ~ sometimes through dark, abandoned, weed-infested places ~ to find something. But we are always looking for something outside ourselves, and for something that is deep and rich with steaming heaps of meaning. Perhaps to stretch things out a bit, we ourselves put up the barriers to understanding our self nature. But soon we find that the answer is the searching itself, the koan itself. That is not to say glibly that ‘the path is the goal’. It is just that, as Wumen wrote, the great Way has no gate whatsoever, but is made of a thousand different roads.

In a recent PZI Talk someone wrote: O Captain!, My Captain! in the subject line of a chat string, the content of which I cannot now recall. The phrase, which comes from the title of a elegy to Abraham Lincoln collected in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, for some reason really seized me. It became a kind of koan for me; something I practiced with for some days, not really seeking an answer. ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ What does it mean? Is this my heart’s desire to find union with God? Is this a shout out to all of my teachers from times past and present? Have I been trying to reconcile with my long-passed father? ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ It has no meaning whatsoever! And that is why it is so powerful. To add more is to get lost in the weeds.

Our searching over these thousand different roads can take us through dark and lonely places, not unlike a wandering hike through life. Why do we practice? O Captain! My Captain! If I said more, you would never forgive me.