Ask the One Who Knows

· Dharma Discourses, Teachings · , ,

by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi

Gateless Gate Case 47

Doushuai’s Three Barriers

Main Case

Master Doushuai made three barriers to test his students.
To inquire after the truth, groping your way through the underbrush, is
  for the purpose of seeing your nature.  Here, now, where is your nature,
  Venerable Monk?
If you realize your own nature, you are certainly free from life and death.
  When your eyes are closed, how can you be free from life and death?
If you are free from life and death, you know where you will go. When the
  four elements are decomposed, where do you go?


If you can rightly give the three turning words here, you will be the master wherever you may be, and live up to the Dharma no matter how varied the circumstances. If, however, you are unable to give them, I warn you, you will get tired of the food you have bolted, and well-chewed food keeps hunger away.


This one instant, as it is, is an infinite number of kalpas
An infinite number of kalpas are at the same time this one instant.
If you see into this fact,
The True Self which is seeing has been seen into.

If you’re free from life and death you know where you will go. When the four elements are decomposed, where do you go? This is the question that human beings have likely been asking since the beginning of our creation. Having a life force, what happens when we die? In death, where do we go?

This question contains our desire and our understanding. There is ‘someone’ who wants ‘something,’ and the question is where does this ‘someone’ go? Most people want to continue through and beyond life, to not die. Anyone who has been in the presence of someone in the dying process knows how vivid and dynamic that sense of life is—of life energy, life spirit—within a person even as they’re actively dying, even if they’re not conscious or responsive. When the moment we call ‘death’ occurs, there certainly is something that changes to that felt sense of life in the person. Something that was there a moment ago seems unmistakably absent, seems to have departed. Having life, where does it go? The Buddha said it’s like a candle burning: moment-by-moment there is a flame. Is it the same flame in each moment? There’s a koan that asks, “When the flame on the altar is extinguished, where does the candlelight go?”

Shibiyama in his commentary on this koan says,

“What is this experience of seeing into one’s nature? It is to see into one’s original nature and to be awakened to the true self. When this is accomplished the student has transcended life and death.”


 Photo By Bill Kando Johnston, MRO

To transcend is to have seen through the nature of life and death. “When your eyes are closed, how can you be free from life and death?” The concern about death is never an abstraction but is about someone’s death: mine, yours, or that of someone we love. Shibayama says,

“Everyone in this world has to face this fundamental question. Most people give themselves up to the pressure of temporal affairs and blindly pass their days and nights. On some occasions, however, we may reflect on the ever-changing nature of human life. We will realize the inevitable limitations and restrictions of our everyday living. Once we realize this actual human situation we can no longer be indifferent but feel an urge to solve this fundamental problem. One has to see into their nature.”

In other words, it is my fundamental question to see into my nature; your fundamental question is to see into your nature. Master Doushuai’s question—Here, now, where is your nature?—is thus addressed to each one of us. Yet, we can make an effort to achieve a kind of indifference to the question, or we can seek peace by avoiding the question, ignoring this inevitable truth of all creatures.

Where do you go when the body dissolves? Is this even the correct question? The question certainly matches our ordinary way of thinking of things: “I am. I have life. I am a person. I have a self. It holds together from moment to moment, day by day. It seems to have a sense of coherence and continuity and permanence: where will it go?” From our ordinary perspective, the question makes a lot of sense even if we don’t know the answer. But is this question itself actually in accord with the real nature of things?

To be free of suffering we might think we simply need to avoid having suffering—that’s how we liberate ourselves. We avoid, or don’t create, or better manage the things in our life that create suffering; just be more in control. Human beings’ search for everlasting life, our reverence for youthfulness in our culture, the desire to stay young and not grow old or become frail or ill, our complaints as we get older, our disdain for old age; what is all of this expressing about our understanding of and peace with life and death?

The Buddha said there are five things that we should remember:

“I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to become sick; there is no escape from having ill health.
I am of the nature to die; there is no escape from my death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change; there is no way to escape being separated from them.

My deeds are my closest companions; my actions and the result of my actions, my karma. I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground upon which I stand.”

I am of the nature of these things. You are of the same nature, as was the Buddha. That means it’s built into our nature: it comes with life, it cannot be escaped, and should be remembered. Remembering doesn’t just mean to obsessively worry or be anxious about, but rather to contemplate, to reflect on, to motivate us to practice, and to see in the world around us.

When we trace our suffering back to the root, what do we find? This is the importance in our practice of simply sitting in a freely given state of vast wakefulness and stillness. As the Chinese master Chih-i taught, “to stop and see.” See what comes before you, one moment after the next and not to try and escape, realizing that you cannot escape. Try something new: try not escaping but turning in. Look closely, examine without moving your mind. When it becomes uncomfortable, stop and see, come closer. What is the discomfort? What is its nature? When you examine it closely? What do you find? Is there anything? Is there?

See what comes before you, one moment after the next and not to try and escape. Try something new: try not escaping but turning in. Look closely, examine without moving your mind. When it becomes uncomfortable, stop and see, come closer.


The Buddha way is the middle path. It is free of eternalism, the idea that there is something we call the self that lives forever; we might call it a soul. But it is also free of any annihilationist perspective, that death is just an extinguishing. When you blow out the candle where does the light go? The Buddha said both of those are not true, both are false understandings and cannot bring ultimate peace and joy. No old age and death, and no end to old age and death we chant in the Heart Sutra. There is no abiding self, separate and independent from the universe. And in the same moment, something is present that we call a person. What is the real truth?

An old master in his death poem said, “In coming, I have no abode; in leaving, I have no fixed direction. How is it ultimately? Here I am all the time.”

In “Here I am all the time,” who or what is this “I”? When the four elements are decomposed where do you go? Is this life all there is? Master Bankei taught, “When the time comes for you to die, just die” does that mean there is utter nonexistence? This moment arrives as it departs, complete, all encompassing. Our mind creates continuity, seamlessly stitching together each moment into an exquisite fabric. Our mind creates a sense of continuity so we can move gracefully, but we impute that there is someone that coheres and is holding it all together, someone that sits at the center of our universe, “the” universe. And when death occurs, this someone must go somewhere. Many Westerners just assume that rebirth in Buddhism means your essential self is reborn into another life. But the self is empty, so what is reborn? Moment to moment, what lives and dies? It’s not you, but it’s not not you. When the candle burns, is the flame the same or different?

This is why we practice, because the dualistic mind cannot resolve this. But we can know it directly, beyond knowing and understanding. That is seeing into our true nature; there is no essential self. Understanding this conceptually, some might think, “Well that means life doesn’t matter; it’s all meaningless.” Yet when we realize impermanence and see self-nature clearly, everything becomes deeply important. The sense of a solid and separate self is what gives rise to a perspective that can logically desecrate what is sacred, turn people into objects to throw away, defile what should not be defiled, and turn against oneself. From the illusion of the self comes that preoccupation with having and not having, winning and failing. When we’re freed from this, compassion naturally arises because the preoccupation and the fear dissolve; our self-clinging and self-attachment dissolve and compassion arises. Compassion arises because it’s always there, and it is naturally expansive and includes everyone.

Photo By Tim Ellis

Tibetan master Longchen Rabjam spoke of self-nature in this way:

“Uncontrived self-nature, utterly
unimaginable. It’s like the precious gem that comes from all spiritual mentors without any frame of reference and without depending on any changeable state. It is effortlessly fulfilling, since by its very nature it is excellent. If one examines it, it proves to be nonexistent. You cannot find it but if you let it be, it is supreme and its occurrence is sublime. There is no vacillation inwardly, no object to seek within. Sense objects form outwardly but there is no framework for elaborating on those objects. Names cannot contain it. Compassion not arising from or engaging in such objects and without identity, without self is not derived from anything else nor will it ever be. It abides timelessly.”

When the body dissolves, where will you go? We can certainly think of this as our mortal life, but we can also see it in terms of the life and death of aspects of our lives—a job, relationships, an identity, our possessions—that we’ve infused with a sense of self. The self that we imputed into this physical being we impute into everything, and then experience the world as a place of independent objects. From that way of seeing things there will always be conflict; it’s inherent in the view. We find many ways to address the conflict from within that view of separate autonomous bodies. We find ways to be patient and tolerant with each other and to make peace rather than conflict, and this is incredibly important because it can cross all religious, cultural and ethnic boundaries. But the Buddha said that any peace that is created is always precarious; it’s always subject to coming apart.

Think about this in terms of the conflicts and violence we’re witnessing. We see it in different countries, different causes, different groups of people. We see it formed around ideas of hatred, of bigotry, of violence, conflict and division. What is the self in hatred? What is the self in bigotry? The self exists for the purpose of fulfilling desires and trying to protect us; it’s a buffer. What does the self seek in hatred? What is the desire in that? What is it protecting us from? What sense of purpose does it give us? To examine this closely, we need to stop and see.

Photo by Michael Chizen Brown, MRO

I was reading an article recently about a town in Germany that had a tomb of one of Hitler’s deputies in its cemetery. Every year, to the great displeasure of the community, hundreds of neo-Nazis would come to hold a march to commemorate the Nazi officer. For years the community gathered to protest, and then they decided to try something new. They turned the protest into what they called “The Most Involuntary Walkathon.” The townspeople contributed money for every step that each neo-Nazi took in the march. The money was then collected and given to an organization that helped people who wanted to leave a neo-Nazi community, to defect. So rather than going out to protest, they went out to cheer them on. They had signs along the way letting them know how much money they were raising to fight Nazism. At the end of the march a large sign which read, “Congratulations on helping to defeat yourself, and thank you for your contribution to the anti-Nazi cause!”

Studies have been done on nonviolent responses to conflicts like this one. They found that when nonviolence was used as a principal measure to try to affect change in a conflict, it was twice as effective and worked much more quickly. Nonviolence also attracts more allies then violence. Think of all the heroes of the civil rights movement who actually trained in nonviolence as a discipline. It’s not easy to not be violent in the presence of violence, to not hate in the presence of hatred. It’s hard not to do that.

Don’t we see that within our own mind? What nonviolence does in the presence of hatred and violence and bigotry is to expose it. Whereas when violence meets violence, it gets all confused between antagonist and victim; violent retaliation becomes the next violence to retaliate against. When we resolve things violently, the karma of that continues on and on. There have been times in our history when it seemed violence was needed to stop a greater harm. These are difficult choices. To not respond to anger with anger, but rather skillful compassion, takes tremendous discipline. So we practice to strengthen wisdom, compassion, and our skillfulness.

To create peace together requires tremendous discipline, individually and as a community. That’s a Sangha. It’s what we vow to do every day here as a monastic, practicing community. The Bodhisattva Vows compel us to do this in the world together as a Mahasangha: to bring that measure of discipline, wakefulness, commitment, patience, and courage into the lives we share with all beings. It is the most difficult thing we can do in our lives. It is the most important thing we can do in our lives. It is our basic nature.

When the four elements are decomposed, where do you go?

Master Ikyu offers us this:

I won’t die,

I won’t go anywhere,

I’ll be here.

But don’t ask me for anything,

I won’t answer.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Roshi is the Head of the Mountains and River Order and the Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of New York City.

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