The Eight Gates of Zen

Ira Rechtshaffer

THE EIGHT GATES OF ZEN: Spiritual Training in an American Zen Monastery John Daido loori Dharma Communications: Mount Tremper; NY, 1992. 270 pp., $12.95 (paperback).

“THERE IS NO TEACHER on the face of the earth who can actually give you anything, and there is nothing that you need to receive, because each one of us is already complete and what we seek is not outside ourselves." With this basic Buddhist assumption, John Daido Loori, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York, takes to task the paradoxical activity of writing a complete practice manual on how to realize our inherently existing Buddha nature, now! Keeping within the American Zen literary genre of Philip Kapleau's The Three Pillars of Zen, Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, and his own teacher's (Taizan Maezumi) series on Zen Practice, American-born Zen master Loori skillfully teaches what cannot be taught-how Westerners in the context of American culture can actually walk the Buddhist path of liberation here and now.

Page after page, Loori convincingly demonstrates in lucid and concrete terms that the recipe for awakening and actualizing our unfabricated original nature has been accurately transmitted from sixth-century B.C.E. Bodhgaya to the Catskill Mountains of the twentieth century. The Eight Gates of Zen is a very direct, immediate, and personal account of the specific kind of spiritual training being carried on at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York. The book appears to be living testimony that the flower of Buddha's enlightened inspiration has crossed the Pacific Ocean unsullied and taken root in American soil.

The actual eight gates described by Loori are eight traditional areas of training, consisting of (1) zazen, or formal instruction and practice of Buddhist meditation; (2) Zen study, or face-to-face instruction with a teacher; (3) academic study of Buddhist history, philosophy, and psychology; (4) liturgy, or study and application of rites and rituals as a direct revelation of our minds; (5) precepts, or 'right action,' marked by the continual application of moral and ethical training; (6) art practice, marked by the exploration of both traditional and Western Zen arts; (7) body practice, which emphasized the integration of body and mind embodied by martial arts, and lastly, (8) work practice, which reveals Zen in everyday activities, epitomized by the wellknown Zen aphorism: "If enlightenment is not where you are standing, where will you look?"

Loori provides an excellent description and explanation of the Zen koan system, which serves as the literal guardian at the gate of each developmental phase of the Zen path. Koans are paradoxical or nonsensical statements, often in the form of a direct question, that the Zen master poses to the student. Loori suggests that our mortality is itself the fundamental koan that must be answered, not as a question in the head, but as a challenge of the heart. Like the call of the mythological hero's journey, koans must be responded to with one's whole body and mind, or else the "call to adventure" is never begun and a psychological wasteland ensues.

The very essence of Zen training, according to Loori, is zazen, which typically refers to the formal practice of seated meditation. However Loori defines zazen from the absolute perspective as the activity of the universe itself:

Zazen is not meditation, contemplation, visualization or mindfulness. It is not to be found in mudra, chakra, mantra, or koan. Neither in its stillness nor in its functioning, its seated nor its active form, can zazen be said to be meditation.

He points out, however, that although everything we need to know we already have, unless we do the hard work of uncovering it and making it our own, it is of no use to us. To this end Loori gives practical instruction in the method of zazen so that the reader may begin the practice and discover how our entire lives take place within the moment, and that if we miss this very moment, we miss our lives. This is the integrated view of zazen that Loori's work reflects, revealing the razor's-edge path of Zen Buddhism to be an indefinable synthesis of universal polarities encompassing relative and absolute, passive and active, time and timelessness, form and emptiness.

The Eight Gates of Zen rests upon the Buddhist reference point of no reference point, the revolutionary proclamation of "no-self" or "egolessness," the most essential common thread that turns through all schools and traditions of Buddhist teaching. Loori reiterates the Buddhist rejection of the Western notions of ego, self, or soul, claiming that the "self" is merely a concept having no actual validity. However, if Buddha dharma is to properly take root within our psychologically sophisticated soil, then this point needs further discussion in order to avoid the inevitable polarization between devotees of "fullness" and those of "emptiness," those of "self' and those of "non-self." To claim that there is no self, ego, or "I" fails to adequately explain the convincing continuity of personal identity and our empirical personality from day to day. It is necessary to distinguish between an assumed ontologically existing self believed to be solid and continuous, and the experiential self, without which our human journey makes no sense.

The anatman doctrine of no-self raises significant epistemological and metaphysical questions worthy of explanation that are not addressed by Loori. If an enlightened master is without self, is he or she equally without what Western psychology calls an unconscious mind? Or is the enlightened one merged with the unconscious in a kind of mythic identification with the archetype of the Cosmic Person?

Given Loori's dedication and skillful effort to adapt the true spirit of the dharma to the Western psyche and cultural climate, such interdisciplinary discussions might produce adequate linguistic forms to allow the extreme subtleties of dharma to be grasped and utilized by Westerners, most of whom have been conditioned by Judeo-Christian frames of thinking. The response to these questions would only add to the power and wisdom of The Eight Gates of Zen, and serve to widen the great vehicle of Zen Buddhism to accommodate even more beings across the turbulent ocean of the human condition of neurosis.

Ira Rechtshaffer is a clinical social worker practicing in San Francisco.

 

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