The Gates of Paradise

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Dear Still Water Friends

In Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Paul Reps tells a story about Hakuin, a revered 18th century Japanese Zen master:

A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked:  “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”

“Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.

“I am a samurai, ” the warrior replied.

“You, a soldier!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.”

Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: “So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.”

As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked:  “Here open the gates of hell!”

At these words the samurai, perceiving the master’s discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.

“Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.

Does this story speak to you?

For me it is a reminder that regardless of what happens around me or to me, I have some control over the nature of my response. Choosing that which nourishes generosity, kindness, and clarity in myself and others brings me closer to the gates of paradise.

Though Hakuin managed to transmit deep understanding to Nobushige in only a few moments, my experience is that it usually takes some time. Most of us go through three stages:

  • Calming and settling: We learn to observe and monitor sensations in our bodies and our changing mind-states.
  • Recognizing roots and fruits: Gradually, we understand how certain causes and circumstances condition a particular response (seeing the roots); and how certain mental and physical responses condition ensuing mind-states (seeing the fruits).
  • Transforming our responses: Once we clearly see the lines of influence, our motivation to change our response becomes greater. We discourage or curb thoughts, words, and behaviors that lead to pain and suffering in ourselves and others (hell). We cultivate those that lead to peace and joy (paradise).

There is a Plum Village song that highlights this teaching:

The realm of the mind is mine, I can choose. I can choose where I want to be.
Both heaven and hell, I know equally well. The choice is up to me.

(You can hear the song on YouTube.)

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will read together Paul Reps’ story about Nobushige and Hakuin and reflect on what it might mean for us as we enter into a new year.

You are invited to join us.

An excerpt on inviting our positive seeds by Thich Nhat Hanh is below.

Peace and joy to you,

Mitchell Ratner

Inviting Positive Seeds
From No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering by Thich Nhat Hanh

We each have many kinds of “seeds” lying deep in our consciousness. Those we water are the ones that sprout, come up into our awareness, and manifest outwardly.

So in our own consciousness there is hell, and there is also paradise. We are capable of being compassionate, understanding, and joyful. If we pay attention only to the negative things in us, especially the suffering of past hurts, we are wallowing in our sorrows and not getting any positive nourishment. We can practice appropriate attention, watering the wholesome qualities in us by touching the positive things that are always available inside and around us. That is good food for our mind.

One way of taking care of our suffering is to invite a seed of the opposite nature to come up. As nothing exists without its opposite, if you have a seed of arrogance, you have also a seed of compassion. Every one of us has a seed of compassion. If you practice mindfulness of compassion every day, the seed of compassion in you will become strong. You need only concentrate on it and it will come up as a powerful zone of energy.

Naturally, when compassion comes up, arrogance goes down. You don’t have to fight it or push it down. We can selectively water the good seeds and refrain from watering the negative seeds. This doesn’t mean we ignore our suffering; it just means that we allow the positive seeds that are naturally there to get attention and nourishment.

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