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The Gateless Gate



The Gateless Gate

When asked about the path of practice, Buddha explained that there are four ways for spiritual life to unfold. The first way is quickly and with pleasure. In this, opening and letting go come naturally, like an easy birth, accompanied by joy and rapture. The second way is quickly but painfully. On this path we might face a near-death experience, an accident, or the unbearable loss of someone we hold dear. This path passes through a flaming gate to teach us about letting go. The third form of spiritual progress is gradual and accompanied with pleasure. In this way, opening and letting go happen over a period of years, predominantly with ease and delight. The fourth and most common path is also slow and gradual, but takes place predominantly through suffering. Difficulty and struggle are a recurrent theme, and through them we gradually learn to awaken.

In this matter we do not get to choose. Our unfolding is a reflection of the pattern of our lives, which are sometimes described as "our fate" or "our karma". No matter the apparent speed, we are simply asked to give ourselves to the process. It is like being in a small rowboat on the ocean. We row, but there is also a larger current; we may continually head east, but cannot know how far we have gone. The question of distance and time however, is one that arises only at the beginning. It does not matter how far we think we have gone. It is our willingness to open radically and repeatedly, just now that characterizes this journey.

It is easy to get caught in the notion that there is a goal, a state, a special place to reach in spiritual life. Accounts of extraordinary experiences can create ideas of how our own lives should be, and lead us to compare ourselves with others. In Tibet one famous yogi had lived for years practicing ardently in a mountain hut supported by the villagers below. Then one festival day he heard that all his supporters were going to visit him. The yogi carefully swept his hut, polished the offering bowls on the alter, made a special offering, and cleaned his robes. Then he sat back and waited but an unease came over him. Who was he trying to be? Finally he got up, scooped up several handfuls of dirt, and threw them back onto the alter. Those handfuls of dirt were said to be his highest spiritual offering.

The ultimate end of the koans might be seen in the following story, a bit of modern Zen humor regarding a disciple who sent his master faithful accounts of his spiritual progress. In the first month, the student wrote, "I feel an expansion of consciousness and experience oneness with the universe." The master glanced at the note and threw it away.

The following month, this is what the student had to say: "I finally discovered that the Divine is present in all things." The master seemed disappointed.

In his third letter the disciple enthusiastically explained, "The mystery of the One and the many has been revealed to my wondering gaze." The master yawned.

The next letter said, "No one is born, no one lives, no one dies, for the self is not." The master threw up his hands in despair.

After that a month passed by, then two, then five, then a whole year. The master thought it was time to remind his disciple of his duty to keep him informed of his spiritual progress. The disciple wrote back, "I am simply living my life."

When the master read that he cried, "Thank God. He's got it at last."



Signs of Spiritual Progress
By Pema Chödrön

"As long as our orientation is toward perfection or success, we will never learn about unconditional friendship with ourselves, nor will we find compassion."

It is tempting to ask ourselves if we are making "progress" on the spiritual path. But to look for progress is a set-up—a guarantee that we won't measure up to some arbitrary goal we've established.

Traditional teachings tell us that one sign of progress in meditation practice is that our kleshas diminish. Kleshas are the strong conflicting emotions that spin off and heighten when we get caught by aversion and attraction.

Though the teachings point us in the direction of diminishing our klesha activity, calling ourselves "bad" because we have strong conflicting emotions is not helpful. That just causes negativity and suffering to escalate. What helps is to train again and again in not acting out our kleshas with speech and actions, and also in not repressing them or getting caught in guilt. The traditional instruction is to find the middle way between the extreme views of indulging—going right ahead and telling people off verbally or mentally—and repressing: biting your tongue and calling yourself a bad person.

Now, to find what the middle way means is a challenging path. That is hard to know how to do. We routinely think we have to go to one extreme or the other, either acting out or repressing. We are unaware of that middle ground between the two. But the open space of the middle ground is where wisdom lies, where compassion lies, and where lots of discoveries are to be made. One discovery we make there is that progress isn't what we think it is.

We are talking about a gradual awakening, a gradual learning process. By looking deeply and compassionately at how we are affecting ourselves and others with our speech and actions, very slowly we can acknowledge what is happening to us. We begin to see when, for example, we are starting to harden our views and spin a story line about a situation. We begin to be able to acknowledge when we are blaming people, or when we are afraid and pulling back, or when we are completely tense, or when we can't soften, or when we can't refrain from saying something harsh. We begin to acknowledge where we are. This ability comes from meditation practice. The ability to notice where we are and what we do comes from practice.

I should point out that what we're talking about is not judgmental acknowledging, but compassionate acknowledging. This compassionate aspect of acknowledging is also cultivated by meditation. In meditation we sit quietly with ourselves and we acknowledge whatever comes up with an unbiased attitude—we label it "thinking" and go back to the outbreath. We train in not labeling our thoughts "bad" or "good," but in simply seeing them. Anyone who has meditated knows that this journey from judging ourselves or others to seeing what is, without bias, is a gradual one.

So one sign of progress is that we can begin to acknowledge what is happening. We can't do it every time, but at some point we realize we are acknowledging more, and that our acknowledgment is compassionate—not judgmental, parental or authoritarian. We begin to touch in with unconditional friendliness, which we call maitri—an unconditional openness towards whatever might arise. Again and again throughout our day we can acknowledge what's happening with a bit more gentleness and honesty.

We then discover that patterns can change, which is another sign of progress. Having acknowledged what is happening, we may find that we can do something different from what we usually do. On the other hand, we may discover that (as people are always saying to me), "I see what I do, but I can't stop it." We might be able to acknowledge our emotions, but we still can't refrain from yelling at somebody or laying a guilt trip on ourselves. But to acknowledge that we are doing all these things is in itself an enormous step; it is reversing a fundamental, crippling ignorance.

Seeing but not being able to stop can go on for quite a long time, but at some point we find that we can do something different. The main "something different" we can do begins with becoming aware of some kind of holding on or grasping—a hardness or tension. We can sense it in our minds and we can feel it in our bodies. Then, when we feel our bodies tighten, when we see our minds freeze, we can begin to soften and relax. This "something different" is quite do-able. It is not theoretical. Our mind is in a knot and we learn to relax by letting our thoughts go. Our body is in a knot and we learn to relax our body, too.

Basically this is instruction on disowning: letting go and relaxing our grasping and fixation. At a fundamental level we can acknowledge hardening; at that point we can train in learning to soften. It might be that sometimes we can acknowledge but we can't do anything else, and at other times we can both acknowledge and soften. This is an ongoing process: it's not like we're ever home free. However, the aspiration to open becomes a way of life. We discover a commitment to this way of life.

This process has an exposed quality, an embarrassing quality. Through it our awareness of "imperfection" is heightened. We see that we are discursive, that we are jealous, aggressive or lustful. For example, when we wish to be kind, we become more aware of our selfishness. When we want to be generous, our stinginess comes into focus. Acknowledging what is, with honesty and compassion; continually training in letting thoughts go and in softening when we are hardening—these are steps on the path of awakening. That's how kleshas begin to diminish. It is how we develop trust in the basic openness and kindness of our being.

However, as I said, if we use diminishing klesha activity as a measure of progress, we are setting ourselves up for failure. As long as we experience strong emotions—even if we also experience peace—we will feel that we have failed. It is far more helpful to have as our goal becoming curious about what increases klesha activity and what diminishes it, because this goal is fluid. It is a goal-less exploration that includes our so-called failures. As long as our orientation is toward perfection or success, we will never learn about unconditional friendship with ourselves, nor will we find compassion. We will just continue to buy into our old mindsets of right and wrong, becoming more solid and closed to life.

When we train in letting go of thinking that anything—including ourselves—is either good or bad, we open our minds to practice with forgiveness and humor. And we practice opening to a compassionate space in which good/bad judgments can dissolve. We practice letting go of our idea of a "goal" and letting go of our concept of "progress," because right there, in that process of letting go, is where our hearts open and soften—over and over again.

Pema Chödrön is the director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are and When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.

Signs of Spiritual Progress, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, March 1999.


I Am Making Progress
by: Author Unknown, Source Unknown

Yen Hui said, "I am making progress."

Confucius asked, "In what way?"

Yen Hui said, "I have given up doing good and being right."

Confucius said, "Very good, but that is not quite enough."

Another day, Yen Hui saw Confucius and said, "I am making progress."

Confucius asked, "In what way?"

Yen Hui said, "I have given up ceremony and music."

Confucius said, "Very good, but that is not quite enough."

Another day, Yen Hui saw Confucius again and said, "I am making progress." Confucius asked, "In what way?"

Yen Hui said, "I just sit and forget."

Confucius was startled and asked, "What do you mean by sitting and forgetting?"

Yen Hui said, "I am not attached to the body and I give up any idea of knowing. By freeing myself from the body and mind, I become one with the infinite. This is what I mean by sitting and forgetting."

Confucius said, "When there is oneness, there are no preferences. When there is change, there is no constancy. If you have really attained this, then let me become your pupil."


Be Happy Now!
by: Alfred D. Souza, Source Unknown

We convince ourselves that life will be better after we get married, have a baby, then another. Then we're frustrated that the kids aren't old enough and we'll be more content when they are. After that, we're frustrated that we have teenagers to deal with. We'll certainly be happy when they're out of that stage.

We tell ourselves that our life will be complete when our spouse gets his or her act together, when we get a nicer car, are able to go on a nice vacation, when we retire. The truth is, there's no better time to be happy than right now. If not now, when?

Your life will always be filled with challenges. It's best to admit this to yourself and decide to be happy anyway. One of my favorite quotes comes from Alfred D. Souza. He said, "For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin - real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, or a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life."

This perspective has helped me to see that there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way. So, treasure every moment that you have and treasure it more because you shared it with someone special, special enough to spend your time with... and remember that time waits for no one.

So, stop waiting ... until you finish school, until you go back to school, until you lose ten pounds, until you gain ten pounds, until you have kids, until your kids leave the house, until you start work, until you retire, until you get married, until you get divorced, until Friday night, until Sunday morning, until you get a new car or home, until your car or home is paid off, until spring, until summer, until fall, until winter, until you're off welfare, until the first or fifteenth, until your song comes on, until you've had a drink, until you've sobered up, until you die, until you're born again to decide that.

There is no better time than right now to be happy!


Happiness is a by-product of other activities.

Can't remember who said it.


For both the Ika and Kogi the earth is alive. Every mountain sound is an element of a language of the spirit, every object a symbol of other possibilities. Thus a temple becomes a mountain, a cave a womb, a calabash of water the reflection of the sea. The sea is the memory of the Great Mother.

The life spun into being at the beginning of time is a fragile balance, with the equilibrium of the entire universe being completely dependent on the moral, spiritual and ecological integrity of the Elder Brothers. The goal of life is knowledge. Everything else is secondary. Without knowledge there can be no understanding of good and evil, no appreciation of the sacred obligations that human beings have to the earth and the Great Mother. With knowledge comes wisdom and tolerance. [......]

One is called to the priesthood through divination. As soon as a child is born a mama (an enlightened priest) consults the Great Mother by reading the patterns that stones and beads make when they are dropped in water in ceremonial vessels. Those who are chosen are taken from their families as infants and carried high into the mountains to be raised by a mama and his wife. There the child lives a nocturnal life, completely shut away from the sun, forbidden even to know the light of the full moon. For eighteen years he is never allowed to meet a woman of reproductive age or to experience daylight. He spends his life in the ceremonial house, sleeping by day, waking after sunset to cross in the darkness to the mama's house where he is fed. He eats twice more through the night, once at midnight and again shortly before dawn. His food is prepared only by the mama's wife, and even she may see him only in the darkness. His diet is a simple one: boiled fish and snails, mushrooms, grasshoppers, manioc, squash and white beans. He must never eat salt or foods unknown to his ancestors. Not until puberty is he permitted to eat meat.

The apprenticeship falls into two distinct phases, each lasting nine years and thus mimicking the nine months spent in a mother's womb. During the first years the apprentice is raised as a child of the mama, educated in the mysteries of the world. He learns songs and dances, mythological tales, the secrets of Creation, and the ritual language of the ancients known only to the priests. The second nine years are devoted to higher pursuits and even more esoteric knowledge - the art of divination, techniques of breathing and meditation that lift one into trance, prayers that give voice to the inner spirit. The apprentice learns nothing of the mundane tasks of the world, skills best left to others. But he does learn everything about the Great Mother, the secrets of the sky and the earth, the wonder of life itself in all its manifestations. Because the initiates know only the darkness, they acquire the gift of visions. They become clairvoyant, capable of seeing not only into the future and the past, but through all material illusions of the universe. In trance they can travel through the lands of the dead and into the hearts of the living. Finally the great moment of revelation arrives. After having learned for eighteen years of the beauty of the Great Mother, of the delicate balance of life, of the importance of ecological and cosmic harmony, the initiate is ready to shoulder his divine burden. On a clear morning, with the sun rising over the flank of the mountains, he is lead into the light of dawn. Until that moment the world has existed only as a thought. Now for the first time he sees the world as it is, the transcendent beauty of the earth. In an instant everything he has learned is affirmed. Standing at his side, the mama sweeps an arm across the horizon as if to say, 'You see, it is as I told you'.
(P. 57)


Thanks Apo you find some really great stuff out there.

Past, Present, and Future
by: Danyel De Bruge, Source Unknown

I have been left to think of things past, present and future.

Although I cannot change the past, I can work in the present so that it is not repeated in the future.

I can be humble enough in the present to admit that I have seriously injured people in the past, so that hopefully they can forgive me in the future.

I can forget the past mistakes of others against me and love them both in the present and future.

I can look to the future and pray that the present I am in today is not the past of tomorrow I will regret.