Today’s Koan: “Manjushri Enters the Gate” – The Iron Flute, Case 1
Some background: In Buddhist mythology, Manjushri is the bodhisattva representing wisdom. A “bodhisattva” (“Bodhi” from the Sanskrit means an enlightened or awakened understanding and “sattva” means a being or spirit) can be roughly translated as a person who is focused on reaching the goal of enlightenment or whose very essence is enlightenment.
This koan describes how the Buddha was testing Manjushri’s understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. But what was he testing? Remember, a koan is a problem that can’t be solved by the intellect or our typical classifications or conceptualizations. The Buddha was not testing Manjushri’s ability to enter a gate, nor the fact that there was a gate to perceived by the senses.
Before digging deeper into Manjushri’s answer, let’s pause and consider what Manjushri represents. He represents wisdom. Wisdom is very different than intellect. I’m sure your life experiences have clearly demonstrated the difference between intellect and wisdom, as you observe your own thinking and the thinking of others. Like the old story goes about a child-turned-adult remarking how much smarter her parents seemed to have gotten.
Manjushri, representing wisdom, answers without even mentioning a gate. This is clearly not an answer of intellect alone, but one of wisdom. It would seem that he must have made the Buddha happy with that answer. He answered from wisdom, from seeing without duality: He did not discriminate between inside the gate and outside the gate.
Rev. Gyomay Kubose’s comment expresses that wisdom this way:
Manjushri replied, in effect, that there is no gate in the world of Truth. Truth is everywhere; he was not outside it. But still, [we feel] that there is a gate. But it is a gateless gate and hard to enter, even though it stand wide open all the time! The gateless gates are numerous—as many as there are people. Each must enter through his own gate.
That is how Rev. Gyomay Kubose helped us work with this koan, but each person must bring his own wisdom to it. How can you use this koan in everyday life? How can you use this koan to break free from thinking ruts, hardened concepts, and judgments?
You can begin by asking yourself where do you see gates? Is it a promotion or other title you’d like to be considered for, but not sure you’d be seen as perfect? Is it another industry or job entirely? Or is it the other way around? Do you see yourself as inside the gate and who outside have you not invited in? And why?
Ask yourself where have you discriminated between inside and outside? What represents “the inside” to you? Money? Position? Security? Being Liked? What represents the outside? Have you thought to step inside or outside to see what it looks like? Have you really imagined in full detail how it would be to be “on the other side”? Is it where you would like to be? Is it that much different than the ‘side’ you are on now?
And even if you aren’t discriminating between inside and outside a gate, why haven’t you entered? If you sense a gate between what you want and what you don’t have, why haven’t you made steps to enter?
Is there a gate between you and someone else? Why do you think that gate is permanent? Maybe it doesn’t exist at all. Maybe you could just walk through the gate that was wide open all the time and say “Hi.”
When I work with this koan, I end up asking myself, if Manjushri didn’t see himself on outside, then why didn’t he enter?
And that leads me to ask myself where it is I haven’t entered my life fully. Where is it I’m not allowing myself to truly enter into or connect to person in my life or a part of me? Where am I content to be a half-hearted participant in a cause or activity I believe in or where am I just going through the motions of doing something—instead of being fully-engaged—jumping up off the bleachers at the risk of possible failure, embarrassment, or the fear of being seen as different.
Maybe the best practice using this koan is to ask yourself every day, “Where is the gate?” or just “Where?” And also ask “Why should I enter?”
And another is “Where have I put a gate of separation between myself and another; between ‘my group’ and ‘the other?’
Every time you pause to ask yourself to think again, you come one step closer to true wisdom. You come to the place where you don’t see yourself, or anyone else, as outside or inside.
Overview of Koans for Everyday Life: Living Clearly, Simply, and Directly for Happiness and Success
On January 1, 2016, I began a practice for the new year: Reading, reflecting, and meditating on a Zen koan each day. I am using the book Zen Koans, by Rev. Gyomay Kubose, the father of my teacher, Rev. Koyo Kubose, and the founder of our school and center, The Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism.
A Zen koan is, in essence, a problem that can’t be solved by the intellect. In trying to understand it, you run up against the limitations of thought and, hopefully, tap into a direct and non-verbal awareness of reality. Koans plumb a dimension deeper than the five senses that keep us attached to things, conditions, and concepts—preventing us from being aware and resilient in the face of challenge and change.
We typically intellectualize and conceptualize our life—both personally and professionally. When we do that, we shackle ourselves to concepts. Concepts seem so real that our mind gets confused about whether it’s a concept or an absolute. These concepts harden like concrete, keeping our minds trapped and our forward momentum stuck.
We may classify or conceptualize certain people as “trouble” or “wrong” or “bad.” We may categorize a task or activity as “beneath us” or “too hard.” We may look to escape our job because the company our department is “behind the times.” Once that concept has repeated in our thoughts long enough, then that person IS trouble for us … the project impossible … and the company useless and of no value, even though we receive our paycheck from them.
Our minds have become victims to those perspectives and we freeze that person into a characterization, a concept, rather than a living being capable of change. And no task is beneath us, really. If a task that is a part of our job or our family life and it needs doing, then it is our responsibility to life to do it. Is a company or organization really not capable of change? Or did we make it not capable by giving up and looking to get out—essentially abandoning any help we can offer.
As part of my practice, I thought I would repackage and share a few of the koans, as brief blog posts offering a different way for you to view and respond to your professional life. Sometimes a new way of looking at things can help you solve a work problem, overcome a challenge with a co-worker, be more productive, or—if you’re a job seeker—bring a new, more positive energy to the challenge.
I was intrigued from the first moment I read the bold claim accredited to Socrates that "the unexamined life is not worth living" and it has been a touchstone throughout my life. And, through the power of hindsight, I see its influence powering many of my career choices and life activities.