Zen legend often brings up stories of students who have to work hard to be accepted into temples, and of masters who put potential candidates to rigorous tests. The most famous example is that of Bodhidharma and his disciple Huik’e, who stood in the snow for three days and even cut off his own arm to prove his sincerity to his teacher. It may seem cruel and extreme, but this tradition, argues John Daido Loori in his essay on barriers to entry in the study of Zen, is essential in ensuring that any potential student is ready to make the substantial commitment of taking up zen practice.
The barrier of entering into practice is sometimes difficult to understand because many religions are kind of evangelistic, bringing people into the “flock,” saving souls. That is not our way; in fact, we do exactly the opposite by creating barriers to entry. Only those who can pass through those barriers have any hope of accomplishing themselves. The journey is that difficult. It requires that much commitment. That’s why we use the metaphor of the lioness who pushes her cubs off the edge of the cliff and will only raise those who can climb back up to where she is. It seems very cruel. The poor runt of the litter is not going to make it. Only the strong ones are going to make it. The key to appreciating this koan is to understand the difference between “doing good” and the functioning of compassion. With doing good, there is sentimentality. In a sense, compassion is the act of being selfish, because everything is nothing but yourself, and you’ve realized it with your whole body and mind. When you are helping someone, the helping is always appropriate to the circumstances. Sometimes that means kicking the crutch out from under someone and letting him fall, taking the crutch away and hiding it, forcing him to get up on his own two feet and walk. You encourage, goad, pull, but always the other person must do the work. You can only help others help themselves with their pain and struggle. At the same time, you do what is appropriate. You act according to imperative, not with sentimentality or romance, but according to the circumstances. This only works when there’s no separation between the doer, the act of doing, and the thing or person being done to. They become one reality, one act.
Where there’s no entry barrier, we cannot help but waste the potential of an otherwise fine student. The barrier strengthens those who will accomplish, and it discourages those who are not ready, or who should be using another process. This is a very important point. Knowing the nature of the self, the nature of reality, realizing it for oneself rather than understanding it or believing it, is where compassion arises. Once one has been transformed by the realization, that realization in activity manifests itself as compassion. When a teacher pulls the rug out from under a student and the student falls, that pulling the rug out is called “holding back.” That’s what Bodhidharma was doing, holding back, letting the student reach. When the student falls, the teacher rushes over, helps him up, gets him on his feet, makes sure he’s steady, and then pulls the rug out again. Down he goes. The teacher rushes over, picks him up, pulls the rug out again. Down he goes. The teacher rushes over . . . and the process is repeated again and again until the time when the rug comes out and the student does not fall. Then the student is no longer a student; the teacher is no longer a teacher. This is the merging of teacher and student, in which parent becomes child and child becomes parent.
There are no shortcuts. You’ll see the advertising promising satori in one weekend. That’s just bullshit, and most of us know it. We’ve got an entire lifetime of conditioning to work through, and that doesn’t happen in a weekend. Enlightenment itself is a moment, but before the moment arrives, the pump needs to be primed by single-minded practice. That is why it is so important to have the proper state of mind before entering training. Anything less than that would be deceiving. It would be saying to you that you can’t do it, when you can do it! Every one of us can do it. Each one of us has all the equipment to do it. We are all fully equipped Buddhas. But if the aspiration doesn’t exist, if the mind of the student doesn’t exist, it is hopeless. It won’t happen, and to imply otherwise would be dishonest. So we create the barrier gate to test the perseverance of the student. In a traditional monastery, the monk who is the guardian of the gate chases people away: “Go away. We don’t want you here.”
The monk persists, “Please, I must come. I must study.” “Go away. We don’t have any room. The Master doesn’t want any more students.”
The monk simply persists, sometimes for days. If he gets by the gatekeeper to the entrance of the main monastery, he must sit on the steps and wait to be acknowledged, and that will only come if great determination born of a deep spiritual quest is evident. This tradition of the barrier of the gate has continued for thousands of years.