Yunmen showed his staff to the assembly and said, “This staff has become a dragon. It has swallowed up the whole universe. The mountains, rivers, and great earth, where do they come from?”
-Blue Cliff Record, Case 60
We are going along in our meditation, in our analysis, in cooking dinner, or pulling weeds in the garden. Things are ordinary, we are in familiar territory, we know what’s what. And then suddenly there is a moment when we fall in. The mundane becomes extraordinary; a staff is transformed into a dragon. This is the creative moment, the moment where the world opens up it’s treasure house to us. What happens in this moment of transformation, and how can we cultivate it?
When the staff becomes a dragon, the walls of the possible fall away. Distinctions we usually hold about inside and outside, self and other, are insubstantial. We open our mouth and the whole world is sucked in, breathed out. But this koan is not just about creative or mystical perception, it is also about manifestation. When we show our staff dragon we are bringing our creative living out into the world, showing it to others, and inviting participation. This koan points us to a way of life that is full of dragons, rivers, and the great earth, a way full of beauty and mystery.
From a psychoanalytic point of view, this koan zooms us into an early experience of oral satisfaction, where I, the royal dragon-baby, take in everything good through my mouth. I feel my potency to swallow the whole universe. And I can have the feeling that everything also flows out of the great dragon’s mouth, mountains and rivers, all in a lusty cry. Yes, it’s a place of grandiosity, of absolute omnipotence. And, we have to be able to play in this world of unlimited possibility, and also to emerge from it back into ordinary life, where a staff is just a staff, a cigar is just a cigar.
Some people have asked me about the name Crimson Gate, so I thought I’d say a little about that. One of the biggest changes to Buddhism in the West is that most of us are not monastics, and our lives look nothing like life in a monastery. Most of us have families and jobs and bills to pay. We don’t have the luxury of hours of meditation each day, or the structure that would support that, except for occasional retreats. So we have to figure out how to practice in the midst of these lives, which is pretty different from monastic life.
Another big change is here in the West is that so many practitioners are women. And that was not so common in Asia. Those cultures, like many of the time, were pretty rejecting of women practitioners. So an interesting part of the Western experiment is, how does the tradition get shaped when a lot of the teachers and practitioners are women?
We get to find out. We are the ones who get to help determine that. One of the things that this means is that it’s not relevant to us to practice escaping our lives. If it’s going to be meaningful, practice has to be something we do in the midst of our lives. And that means in the midst of taking care of a sick child, or doing the dishes, or sitting with our own aging bodies, and the various pains that can happen there.
Practice cannot be an escape hatch. It’s actually sitting in the midst of the flames. I think of tanka paintings in the Tibetian triadition that show the Buddha meditating in the flames of hell, sometimes that’s what we do.
These are the crimson parts of life. Our passions, our emotions, our pains, our blood, our flesh, our hearts, we practice right here.
In Zen we often take koans into our meditation to keep company with a piece of wisdom and guidance from the ancestors. Here is a koan is from medieval Japan, a time and place where women were seldom able to practice, as they were seen as unclean and inferior. This is a koan about a woman who found a way to practice, which I love. This woman named Yoshihime was the daughter of a general, and she was very strong, and her nickname was Devil-Girl. She was determined to have a Zen interview with the teacher, so she went to the temple gate at Enkakuji. In Zen there is often a gate to the temple, and a gatekeeper who is sort of like a bouncer, who determines who can get in. So here’s the koan.
Devil-girl wanted to meet with the teacher at the monastery of Engakuji, but the gatekeeper monk barred her way with a shout: “What is it, the gate through which the buddhas come into the world?”
Yoshihime grabbed his head and forced it between her legs, saying, “Look, look!”
The monk said, “In the middle, there is a fragrance of wind and dew.”
Yoshihime said, “This monk! He’s not fit to keep the gate; he ought to be looking after the garden.”
The gatekeeper ran into the temple and reported this to the teacher’s attendant, who said, “Let me test her.”
So the attendant went to the gate and asked her again, “What is it, the gate through which the buddhas come into the world?”
Yoshihime grabbed his head and held it between her legs, saying, “Look, look!”
The attendant said, “The buddhas of the three worlds come, giving light.”
Yoshihime said, “This monk is one with the eye; he saw the eighty-four thousand gates all thrown open.”
Devil Girl is one of my Zen heroines, and a big inspiration for Crimson Gate.
She points us to the gate through which we enter the world, and also the gate at which we live in the world. It’s not separate from this. She brings in this body, this fierceness and passion, being in the flames of life.
When we take up the posture of meditation, when we set an intention to meditate, we are setting up a gate, a place where we can meet whatever comes. We agree to meet any experience, whatever states or feelings come along, we will sit in the midst of that. When you look at a group of people meditating they look more or less the same, we all hold the same posture, people look still, or at least the other people look that way! But what’s happening on the inside can be very different. There may be moments of great stillness and peace, and there are times of agitation, pain, boredom, monkey mind. But it doesn’t really matter. We agree to all of it.
The truth is, when we sit down to practice, it’s a setup for tension. People think meditation is to calm down, but we are inherently inviting tension. What comes through the gate isn’t up to us, and it’s often disturbing.
So the question then becomes, how do we meet what arises? As we practice, we find over time that we can meet more and more things. All kinds of thoughts, feelings, bodily states come through the gate of practice. And we can just let them pass through. So many moods, opinions, images pass through, sometimes peace and beauty pass through. As time goes on, we find we can welcome more things, and the field of meditation expands.
Then it’s not just us and our introverted practices; we find that the gate is quite wide. It opens up to all of us practicing together, and the birds, and visitations from the imaginary, and the calls of the world. The gate connects us to something quite vast. There can even be moments when we experience the gateless gate. There’s no impediment, no problem separating us. In order for that to happen we have to constantly be walking through the red gate, the gate of our real lives. With practice we have a gate, a place to return to in the midst of whatever craziness life is delivering. It’s a place to fall back on.
In so much of life we don’t quite know what to do, we don’t really know what’s happening or how to respond. Practice gives us a place to land, we land in the breath, in awareness, in the myriad crimson gates. And we find they might be wider than we sometimes think. We find that all kinds of things come and go, we don’t have to react, we can just watch.
So to me Crimson Gate is an invitation from our ancestor Devil-Girl, to have that kind of courage and spirit, to really show up with this life, this body, these passions. It’s a way of finding a gate here that can offer us guidance, finding a true spiritual home right here in the midst of this very life.
Megan Rundel is the resident teacher at the Crimson Gate Meditation Community in Oakland, CA..