The Six Gates to the Sublime



Tesshin Roshi returned to our normal Dharma talks this week after our intensive preparation for the Jukai ceremony during this past spring.  This week he shared with us the “The Six Gates to the Sublime.”  This classic text was written by the sixth-century Chinese Buddhist monk and meditation master, Shramana Zhiyi (Chih-i)


The text lays out six gates or methods a meditation student should follow on the path to liberation.  It is interesting to note that all of them center on the breath.  This is because the breath is a universal constant for all of us throughout time.  We share the same breath which master Zhiyi had.


The first gate is “Counting the Breath” In one way, we can look at this as our entry gate.  We use the count as a way to quiet the mind and be in the moment.  How are we ever to realize the true nature of reality if our mind is buzzing with all kinds of distracting thoughts?  It is interesting to note that in counting the breath, we can count to some arbitrary number like ten or simply realize the fact that every breath is actually our first breath.


The second gate is “Following the Breath through the Body” Once our mind is settled, we can follow the breath and notice how it flows through the body.  This is why we focus so much on our center point, namely the Hara which is co-located with the diaphragm which is where the breath is generated from.  The key message here, according to Roshi, is that there is no separation between our mind and our body.  As the breath calms the mind, we also note how this calmness pervades our entire body.


The third gate is “Active Breath” This is bringing life to the breath.  This is a common practice in schools of Yoga.  Roshi described this as bringing life to the breath and can describe the energy which powers the practice during good times and bad.


The Fourth gate is the “Discriminating Breath” This is the state in Zazen where we notice and see everything.  We notice how we are “really” feeling and we see everything around us.  Nothing escapes us as we are really “awake” and not lost in our internal monolog.  


The Fifth gate is the “Question Breath” Here we have found our center and are in a good place.  All of our internal conflicts are resolved and our pain and suffering has melted away.  The only thing left is the most profound question.  We are finally ready to really practice.  What is the nature of reality?  What is Mu?  When passing through this gate it is just you and the question – nothing else.


The Sixth gate is the “Falling Breath” Here the question is resolved as there never really was a question.  Here we have made the leap into the abyss of no perfection and everything is perfection.  Roshi likened this breath to standing at the edge of the precipice – can we really take refuge?  Can we make the leap?


Roshi wrapped up by reminding us that the most important message here is that these gates are not to be considered levels of practice.  One does not start with gate 1 and work up to gate 6.  Once we really understand, it becomes clear that all the gates are in all the other gates.  They are all here right now.  For instance, in sitting down to count the breath (gate 1) we are actually taking a leap of faith (gate 6)  It is only that we are unrealized that we see these as separate gates.