Ages ago, Siddhartha took his seat under a pippala tree and resolved not to move until he had found the root of suffering. With great intention, he crossed the threshold of his first dharma gate. During the night he traveled deeper into dharma, passing through gate after gate, and overcoming challenges from formidable gatekeepers. Siddhartha confronted the traumas of his past, the causes and conditions that drove his habitual reactions, and the manifestation of his fears and desires in the form of the great demon Mara.
The Buddha’s confrontation with Mara reads similarly to the temptation of Jesus in the desert. Mara first sent his daughters to seduce Siddhartha with all manner of sensual pleasures. Siddhartha resisted and persisted. Next Mara sent an angry army of monstrous, repulsive creatures. They taunted Siddhartha, and when they could not goad him they attacked, loosing a volley of poisoned arrows. Siddhartha resisted and persisted. The arrows transformed into lotus petals and floated gently to the ground. Mara raged. He drew himself up and spread his wings wide.
“Behold my power, the forces I control, the damage I inflict, the pain I command. My dominion and my minions bear witness to my might. Who gives you the authority to enter the gates? Who bears witness you are worthy of the seat you have taken?”
At that moment, bright Venus ascended over the horizon, and Siddhartha touched the ground beneath him.
“The earth is my witness. The morning star is my witness. There is nowhere else than here. The only gate is now. The only doorway is my body and mind. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing else to be. There’s no destination. There is no afterlife. There is simply this moment. And in it, all beings and I are awake together.”
The ground trembled. Mara’s minions shrieked and dispersed, fully awake and aware of themselves. And in that moment Siddhartha became the Buddha or awakened one.
Today, those who share the belief “unless we are all liberated from suffering, none of us are liberated from suffering”, take the Bodhisattva vow. One refrain of that vow is “Dharma Gates are boundless, I vow to enter them all.”
The Buddha said the only gate is now, so what gives? The reason dharma gates are boundless is that there are as many as there are moments. At every breath we’re asked to drop below the story we’re telling ourselves about our lives and experience the unspeakable reality.
We clamor at the gates of liberation trying to get in by pushing away pain and hanging on to pleasure. If we can get everything situated the way we like it, then Nirvana will open like some sort of combination lock. But in fact, Nirvana is now. This is it. Horrific or sublime as it may be.
It is in this moment we touch the root of suffering and the wellspring of compassion. If we sit with the truth that this is it, it’s impossible not to have compassion. Compassion for all the ridiculous ways we try to buy time, escape, and invest all our energy in some mythical perfected self that can never be. Compassion for the hurt people cause each other due to confusion and delusion. Compassion for the fact we’re all in this strange game together putting our bravest face forward.
The trick of a Dharma gate is once you go through it, you realize it was never there. Like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, you have had the means to go home all this time.
What Dharma gate in your own life are you laying siege to? Who do you need to call as a witness that you are worthy of awakening? Do you need to touch the earth? Your heart? Your art? Your kitty? Your mother’s hand? Your lover’s cheek? What will you do to move through the gate and awaken?