Dharma Gates and Beginner's Mind

By Gary Enns

| 2022-04-23 | Saturday Morning Mondo |

Back to Basics

Practitioner 1: "It’s been eight years since I last sat. I should have stretched beforehand! I had some pain in my ankles, but halfway through, they sort of adjusted. I’m getting used to the breathing and the posture again. I’m getting back to the basics."

Good! We always go back to the basics, every one of us, every time we sit down on the cushion. Posture first, then breath, for every one of us, this is the same returning. 

In this practice, we are cultivating our beginner's mind. We don't come to the cushion with a bag full of concepts and ideas. We come fresh, with an open mind, ready to continue cultivating that openness. 

When we sit down, we find the posture and breath again, coming back to them like old friends. These are fundamentals—in fact, so fundamental to our way of being that we don’t have to carry knowledge of them around, just like we don’t have to relearn how to ride a bike or brush our teeth once we know how to do these things. With practice, the posture and breath become intuitive and natural.  

Everything else, everything we think we know, even about ourselves, we leave with our shoes at the door. Just drop it all. So in that sense, everybody's in the same boat together. In beginner's mind, we're all new beginners here every time we sit, because each moment is fresh and new, and we can't possibly know this occasion because we've never experienced it before. 

Clearing the Mind

Practitioner 2: "Clearing the mind, really it's quite difficult, you know, but I did enjoy it. When I finally settled, there were a few moments of clarity, of emptiness."

Thank you. That’s good to hear. And regarding this difficulty, for first timers, we often hear of this hardship of clearing the mind. Where did all this space junk of the mind come from, right? Well, it's probably always there throughout the day, but now, in the beginning of this practice of stillness, all of the thoughts are in stark relief. We are opening up here, finding spaciousness, emptiness. Well, now we see all of the crocodiles in the water of our minds, churning things up. 

How do we cope with all of it, all of the past and future, all of the worry and all of the seriousness and triviality? The way of zazen is not the way of engagement, of wrestling and wrangling. Zazen practice releases us from the trap of thinking that we have to wrestle everything into submission. Our practice instead is to let whatever presents itself come and go without engagement. 

And remember that the function of the mind is to think, just as the function of the heart is to beat and the function of the lungs is to breathe. Functions of heart and lungs don’t bother us, right? Well, the function of the brain need not bother us as well. You're not going to get rid of thinking, just like you’re not going to get rid of breath and heartbeat. Instead, you release the delusion of control and dominance over that very natural function of the brain. In zazen, we knock down the fences of the mind and set the horses free. Pretty soon, because you’re not trying to dominate them and keep them in check, all those mind creations can relax, wander into the meadows, and stop agitating us.

Acceptance of Self

Practitioner 3: "What I've learned is the importance of being kind to yourself, because you have this expectation of reaching non-thinking, but it's impossible. The  monkey mind is very busy. And you can get so frustrated that you just can’t do it. It's very difficult. I've learned over the years just to be kind to myself and say, it's okay, some sittings just aren’t going to go that well. It's just a consistent state of being kind to yourself and just letting this experience be whatever it is."

Good point. Thank you. And then even in those sittings that you say don't go so well. Well, if you reframe it, even those have gone perfectly because that's where you were at that moment in time, and you couldn’t have been any other way. So that being kind to yourself, that radical acceptance of the self as it is. coming to that conclusion you are speaking of, is a great milestone in practice. We see then that we have been attached to having things go well all the time. So we reach the end of twenty-five to thirty minutes of sitting, and we think, Wow, I was just mind-wandering the whole time, just planning my entire day. Well, that realization at the end, in and of itself, is a precious gem of wisdom. Those mind challenges during zazen were what the cosmos gave you to practice with, so you can smile at all of it in gratefulness. How could it be any other way?

Dharma Gates

Practitioner 4: "It struck me when you mentioned dharma gates we vow to go through. In sitting here, facing a wall or a mirror, how many times do we pass through these energetic memories or pride or anything that presents itself, again and again. Each time, there is a chance to cut through and just feel it all fall away and come back to presence. Then, a few seconds later, we enter a whole new embodiment, a whole new dharma gate."

Oh, that's great. Thank you for sharing that. You are referring to the dharma gates as mentioned in the Bodhisattva Vows. Dharma gates, what are they? You’ve captured the experience well. There are lots of definitions of the word dharma. Dharma is all of reality, for instance, and Dharma also refers to the teachings of the Buddha. In the context of the Bodhisattva Vows, we might think of the dharma gates of our lives as learning moments. Well, when do those happen? If you think of each present moment, this here and now, as sparklingly new and fresh, then we are always passing through a dharma gate. This current gate can be a great challenge, or it can be easy and mundane. Well, how do we pass through them? How do we succeed in that moment? 

In zazen, of course, we simply drop everything, and in this sense, we pass through our dharma gate in the posture of great ease, not grasping, not trying to control. We let whatever presents itself come and go. In this way, we fulfill the vow of passing through dharma gates. 

At another point in our day, maybe we meet a challenging person at the drugstore or at school. That moment is our dharma gate, our opportunity to live out our Zen, our expansive heart-mind. How do we pass through successfully, or how do we trip ourselves on the threshold? We can all think of scenarios where we have stumbled in some type of situation, where we have not treated somebody with respect, where we have flared up in anger. But even then, once we realize, once we repent—not in a guilt-ridden way but in a way of open learning about ourselves—suddenly we are passing through a new dharma gate—the gate of balanced repentance. How do we hold that regret, give it the space it deserves, and then let it go at the appropriate time? There is a way to pass through this new dharma gate with grace, but we never would have experienced it without our earlier trip-up, so even that earlier mistake was needed. Stumbling in itself is its own flavor of dharma gate. 

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Practitioner 5: "For class, we read the first chapter of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and in it Suzuki talks about how to live out our Zen life by taking up the posture of zazen mentally as we go about our day."

Okay, great. Well, I really like how you've summarized that—holding the posture or keeping the posture even in your daily life. Of course, we can't do this literally, keeping the physical posture 24/7. And yet the spirit of zazen, what you learn about yourself in relation to reality, about when to engage and not engage, how to create space within and without, how to break down the barriers of the mind between yourself and others. All of that is the spirit, the posture, of zazen that we can live out in our daily lives. 

If instead we don’t take this posture into our daily lives, if this practice doesn’t transform us, or alter how we view the world and live with others, it is interesting to consider why this practice would have lasted for so long, stretching as it does into the mists of time to reach us today. Why has it been transmitted from one teacher to the next through the ages? Well, our experience can answer the question. If we wholeheartedly practice, our experience does affect every aspect of our lives. It percolates through, gets into the nooks and crannies of everything if we let it, and if we don’t continue to block it. 

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is a landmark book for us. Suzuki came from Japan and established practice right here in California. The essays within are his oral teachings written down by his students and meant for Westerners like us who may not have grown up steeped in the traditions of the East. It is a book that always seems fresh and vital, that dispenses with intellectualizing and instead cuts through to the quick of the mind, always focused on the shape and significance of the practice of Zen. Many of us come back to this text time and time again, so I'm glad you've read some of it. It's a good choice. 


I hope this practice and this discussion, but particularly the practice of zazen, has been revealing. Of course you can always intellectually work through subjects like religion and Buddhism and Zen, and that type of study will be revealing on the intellectual, theoretical level, but if you stay in the head with it all, you will never truly know the practice. To truly know, you must experience it. It's like wanting to become an expert in taekwondo, so you go to the library and read ten great books on the subject. You’ll hold a lot of facts, a lot of history, a lot of theory in your head, but how will you perform when it comes time to spar? At that moment, you may just need to run for the exit. 

Well, here it is. Now you've done it. My teacher Richard has said many times, “Bring your zazen to the reading, don't bring your reading to the zazen.” So now you can take this practice experience back to the reading of your Zen texts and let the practice illuminate the reading rather than the other way around. Keep practicing, and your zazen will be the test of all texts. 

Thank you, all of you, for sharing your practice and your observations today. 



Morin, Basile. "Torii Path with Lantern at Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Kyoto, Japan." CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


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