A Brief Reflection on Toushuai’s Three Barriers

Today in 1945, when he witnessed the detonation of the first atomic bomb, one of the scientists present, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was also a student of Sanskrit, is said to have spontaneously chanted those words from the Bhagavad Gita, “Lo! Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Many human cultures have a sense of an end time.

In fact while we can be sure of few things, one that is relentlessly in our face is mortality, is the fact things end. You and I die. All we know will die. And, it doesn’t take great analytic powers to notice that cultures themselves end. And we would be foolish indeed to think ours is some exception. All. Die.

What I find interesting is that while in the past the destruction of human cultures was always something finite, one culture dies, but another rises; since today in 1945, at least, we have in our hands the power to destroy all human life, and done with sufficient attention, to take most of the rest of the living things along with us…

I’m a child of the atomic age. In my youth I learned to duck and cover. In my adolescence I noticed the futility of that exercise.

I’m sure it has marked me.

In some ways not much differently, I suspect, than those who in various cultures believe they’re in end times.

And, tomorrow, I turn sixty-six. And from my current move, I’m experiencing a few more aches and pains than usual. Still, with or without that little extra bit, I’m acutely aware of my mortality.

All. Things. Die.

Or, as it is put in more Buddhist terms, all things made of parts will come apart.

And, at this point in my life, what it immediately brings to mind is case 47 in the Wumenguan, the Gateless Gate anthology of koan, Toushuai’s Three Barriers. For me it is the epitome of Zen practice. It goes like this.

The priest Toushuai set up three barriers for those who walk the way.

Making your way through the brambles and weeds you give yourself fully to the quest to find your true nature. Right now, dear one, where is your true nature?

Once you realize your true nature, you are free from birth and death. At that last moment as your eyes fall, how are you free from birth and death?

When you are free from birth and death, you will know where to go. So, when the parts that make you all fall apart, where will you go?

The world is dying.

You are dying. As am I.

Do you want to penetrate to the heart of things before you die?

There is a way. And this little koan tells us a bit of how…

It is possible to see these as progressive, you start with the quest, you know what to do as you die, you know what to do after you die. Of course, as with so much of the Zen way, that would be a tad too simple, or, more correctly, too complicated.

I recall one teacher who said if you figure out Mu, she would give you all the rest of the “answers” to the koan curriculum. What I understand she meant is that there is a sense in which to answer one, particularly one like this, you have indeed touched them all. There is, however, as it turns out, always a bit more to do. So, answer this one, and I will simply give you another.

But, it is a great question. A central question.

And the whole of the matter can be resolved, at least in a sense, a very important sense, by resolving that first question. You notice there’s a problem. You determine to resolve it. And you embark on the great way. That means many different ways. In Zen it means learning how to sit. It also means finding a spiritual director. It may mean living in a temple or monastery, for a time or maybe for a life time.

But to what purpose? With the first barrier we are given a pointer about the real nature of practice. Here Dogen’s advice to sit down and become Buddha may help clarify the koan point, or the koan point might help clarify Dogen’s advice.

Then there’s that second barrier, our own dying. From one angle pure speculation. Unless, that is, you’re dying. And, from one angle, who isn’t? From that place. From this place? Where is your true nature?

And finally, the question that I’ve notice traps people a bit more often than the other two, the barrier that people sometimes like to linger at for a while.

After you’re dead? What is that supposed to mean? Heaven? Hell? The next round?


The mushroom cloud has already gathered…


Death has come…

What does that mean to a person of the way?

For you?

What will you do?

What are you going to do?

The world awaits your response…

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