The Pine Gate

By Thich Nhat Hanh

It was a chilly autumn evening, and the full moon had just risen, when the young swordsman arrived at the foot of the mountain. The wilderness was bathed in the light of the moon glimmering playfully on branches and leaves. It seemed that nothing had changed during the seven years he was away, and yet it was surprising that no one was there to greet him. The swordsman paused at the foot of the mountain and looked up. He saw that the narrow path up the mountain was barred by a tightly shut pine gate. He walked forward slowly and pushed at the gate, but it was immovable, even under his powerful hands.

Never, in as long as he could remember, had his master locked that gate. This narrow path was the only way up the mountain. So, holding onto the handle of his sword, he jumped as high as he could, but he was unable to jump over the low gate. A strange force had gripped his whole body and pushed it back down. Next he unsheathed his long sword to cut the gate’s bar open, but the sword’s sharp blade bounced back from the soft pinewood with so powerful an impact that it sent a shock through his hand and wrist. He raised his sword toward the sky and examined its edge under the moonlight. Somehow, the gate was too hard for his sword. It seemed that his master had endowed it with the strength of his own spirit. It was impassable. The swordsman sighed deeply, returned his sword to its sheath, and sat down on a rock outside the gate.

Seven years earlier, on the day he was to leave the mountain, his master looked into his eyes for a long moment without saying anything. There was a kind expression on his master’s face, and yet there was something else, too—a kind of pity. The young swordsman could only bow his head in reverence. After a while, the old man said to him, “I cannot keep you here forever. I know you have to go down the mountain and into the world to carry out the Way and help people. I thought I could keep you here with me a little longer, but if it is your will to leave now, you have all my blessings. Remember what I have taught you. In the world below, you will need it.”

Then his master told him what to seek, what to avoid, and what to change. Finally, he put his gentle hand on his disciple’s shoulder. “These are the main guidelines for your actions: Never do anything that might cause suffering to yourself or others, in the present or in the future. Go without fear in the direction that will lead yourself and others to complete awakening. And remember the standards by which happiness and suffering, liberation and illusion are measured. Without them, you betray the Way, and will not help anyone.

“Here is my most precious sword. It is a sharp blade that comes from your own heart. Use it to subdue all evil and also to conquer all ambition and desire.

“Here is the me ngo glass,” he said, handing his disciple a small viewing glass. “It will help you distinguish the wholesome from the unwholesome, the virtuous from the immoral. Sometimes it is called the ‘Demon Viewer,’ for looking through it, you will be able to see the true forms of demons and evil spirits.”
The following day, at the break of dawn, the young swordsman went up to the central hall to take leave of his master. The old man walked with him down the mountain, all the way to Tiger Brook, and there, amidst the murmuring of the mountain stream, master and disciple bade one another farewell. The master put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, looked into his eyes, and said, “Remember, my child, poverty cannot weaken you, wealth cannot seduce you, power cannot vanquish you. I will be here the day you come back, your vows fulfilled!” Then he watched his disciple’s every step very carefully, as the young man walked away to begin his journey.

The swordsman recalled the first days of the journey vividly. Then, months and years swirled through his mind. Humanity had revealed itself under so many different guises! How helpful the sword and the me ngo glass had been! Once, he met a monk, an old sage, whose appearance instantly inspired reverence. The old man invited him back to his hermitage to discuss how they might “join their efforts to help humankind.” The young man listened with rapture, but then something struck him as odd about the old monk. He took out the me ngo glass and when he looked through it, he saw in front of him a giant demon with eyes sending forth crackling sparks, a horn on its forehead, and fangs as long as his own arms! The young man jumped back, drew his sword, and furiously attacked it. The demon fought back but, of course, it had no chance. It prostrated itself at the young man’s feet, begging for mercy. The swordsman then demanded that it swear, under oath, to return to the place it had come from, study the Way, pray to be reborn as a human being, and refrain from ever disguising itself again as a monk to  bewitch and devour the innocent.

Another time, he met a mandarin, an old man with a long white beard. It was a happy encounter between a young hero out to save the world and a high official, a “father and mother to the people” bent on finding better ways to govern and benefit the masses. Again, the young man’s instinct was aroused, and under the glass, the handsome, awe-inspiring official turned out to be an enormous hog whose eyes literally dripped with greed. In an instant, the sword flew out of its sheath. The hog tried to flee, but the swordsman overtook it in one leap. Standing in front of the gate to the mandarin’s mansion, he barred the only escape route. The beast took on its true form and cried out loudly for mercy. Again, the young man did not leave without extracting from the monster the solemn oath that it would follow the Way and that it would never again take the form of a mandarin to gnaw the flesh and suck the blood of the people.

Another time, walking by a marketplace, the young man saw a crowd surrounding a picture and bookstall. The vendor was a beautiful young lady with a smile as radiant as a lotus opening to the sun. Seated nearby was another beautiful young lady singing softly while plucking the strings of a lute. The young ladies’ beauty and the grace of the songs so captivated everyone present that no one left the stall once they had stopped. They could only stand and listen, enraptured, and buy pictures and books. Also drawn to the scene, the young man managed to make his way to the front and he held up one of the pictures. The elegance of the design and strength of the colors overwhelmed him. Yet an uneasiness arose within him, and when he reached for his me ngo glass, he saw that the two beautiful girls were actually enormous snakes whose tongues darted back and forth like knife blades. The swordsman swept everyone aside in one movement of his arms, and with his sword pointing at the monsters, he shouted thunderously, “Demons! Back to your evil nature!”

The crowd scattered in fright as the big snakes lashed at the young man. But as soon as his fabulous sword drew a few flashing circles around their bodies, the reptiles coiled at his feet in submission. He forced their jaws open, carved out their venomous fangs, and extracted the solemn promise that they would never come back to bewitch the village people. Then he burned down the bookstall and sent the monsters back to their lairs.

The young swordsman went from village to village and from town to town on his mission, using his sword and his viewing glass to vanquish demons and offer them priceless counsel. He began to see himself as the “Indispensable Swordsman.” He had come down from the mountain into a world where treachery and cunning reigned, and the world was surely better for his presence. He experienced great exhilaration in his actions for the good. At times, he even forgot to eat and sleep, the joy and satisfaction from helping people was so great.

Years passed quickly. One day, as he was resting alongside a river watching the water flow quietly by, he realized that he had not used the me ngo glass for some time. It was not that he had forgotten it. He just had not felt like using it. He remembered that at first he had used the glass reluctantly, and then had fought to the death every time he saw, through the me ngo, the true natures of the many evils that faced him. He recalled the great happiness he felt each time he saw, through the glass, the image of a virtuous man or a true sage. But, obviously, something had happened to him, and he didn’t know what it was. He no longer felt much joy or fury whether he saw a sage or a monster. In fact, the monsters began to have a certain familiarity to him, even their horrifying features. The me ngo glass just remained safely in his pocket. The young swordsman thought about returning to the mountain some day to ask his master’s advice. Why was he reluctant to use the me ngo glass, that had obviously been of great help to him in the past?

On the twelfth day of the eighth month, seven years after he had left the mountain, he was walking through a forest of white plum trees, when suddenly, he yearned for the days when he studied under his old master, whose cottage also stood in an old plum forest. Covered with snow-white plum blossoms under the autumn moon, he decided to return to the mountain.

He climbed many hills and crossed dozens of streams and, after seven days and seven nights, he reached the foot of the mountain. As he arrived, darkness was descending, and the rising moon revealed that the pine gate to the path up the mountain to his Master’s abode was tightly shut. There was nothing he could do but wait. He could not go any further until one of his brothers came down to open  the gate. At dawn, he thought, one of them will surely come down to fetch water from the stream, and they will open the gate for me. Now, the moon had risen and the entire mountain and forest were bathed in its cool light.

As the night wore on, the air became chillier. He pulled his sword out of the sheath and watched the moon’s reflection on the sword’s cold, sharp edge. Then he sheathed it again and stood up. The moon was extraordinarily bright. Mountain and forest were still, as if unaware of the swordsman’s presence. He dropped onto another rock, dejected, and the past seven years passed before him again. Slowly, the moon edged toward the summit of a distant mountain, and the stars shone brightly. Then they, too, began to recede, and there was a hint of glow in the east, as dawn was about to break.

The swordsman heard the rustling of dry leaves. He looked up and saw the vague form of someone walking down the mountains. It must be one of his younger brothers, he thought, though it was not light enough to be sure. The person was carrying something like a large water jug. As the figure came closer and closer, the swordsman heard it exclaim, happily,

“Elder Brother!”

“Younger Brother!”

“When did you arrive?”

“As the moon was just rising! I’ve been here all night. Why is the gate locked like this? Was it the master’s order?”

The younger disciple raised his hand and pulled, ever so lightly, at the heavy gate. It swung open with ease. He stepped through it, and, grasping the swordsman’s hands, looked at him and said, “You must be chilled to the bone. Look, you’re covered with dew!

“My job used to be to come down here all day to pick herbs and watch the gate. If someone came who deserved an audience with the master, I’d bring him up. If I thought someone was not ready to see him, I’d just stay behind the bushes, and eventually they’d just give up! As you know, our master doesn’t want to see anyone who does not have a true determination to learn.

“Lately, the master has allowed me to move on to more advanced studies, and as I stay up at the retreat most of the time, he told me to close the gate. He said it would open itself for anyone who is virtuous, but that it would bar the way for those too heavy with the dust of the world!”

The swordsman asked, “Would you say I am such a person? Why did the gate stay shut for me?”

The younger man laughed heartily, “Of course not! Anyway, we can go up now. But wait a moment, Elder Brother! I must first fetch some water. Will you come with me? Smile, Brother! Why are you so angry?”

Both men laughed. They made their way down to the stream. The sun was not yet up, but the east was already glowing brightly. The two disciples could now see each other’s faces clearly. In the water, which was tinted a pale rose by the dawn, they could see their reflections next to one another. The swordsman was bold and strong in his knight’s suit, the long sword slung diagonally over his back. The younger disciple’s figure was gentler in his flowing monk’s robe, a jug in his hands. Without speaking, they looked at both reflections, and smiled to one another. A water spider sprang up suddenly and caused the rose-tinted surface to ripple, sending their images into thousands of undulating patterns.

“How beautiful! I would certainly destroy our reflections for good if I dipped the jug in now. By the way, do you still have the me ngo viewing glass with you? I remember that our master gave it to you when you came down the mountain years ago!”

The swordsman reached in his pocket to get it, and he realized that for all the years he was away, he had used the glass to look at others, but never once had he looked at himself through it. He took the glass out, wiped it on his sleeve, and aimed it at the water’s surface. The two men’s heads came close to look through the small glass together.

A loud scream escaped from the throats of both of them. It reverberated through the forest. The swordsman fell forward and collapsed. A deer, drinking water farther upstream, looked up in fright. The younger disciple could not believe what he had seen. There he was in his flowing robe, jug in hand, standing next to a towering demon whose eyes were deep and dark like waterwells and whose long fangs curved down around its square jaw. The demon’s face was bluish gray, the shade of ashes and death. The young man shuddered, and, rubbing his eyes, looked again at his senior, who was now lying unconscious on the blue stones of the riverbank, the older man’s face still expressing shock and horror. Suffering had been etched upon his brother, who, for seven years, had ceaselessly braved the rough and cruel world down below their mountain retreat.

The young disciple reached down to the stream to fetch water to douse his elder’s face, and a moment later, the swordsman came to, his face ravaged with despair. His true image had appeared in the me ngo glass so unexpectedly, bringing him self-knowledge in such a swift, brutal fashion that he could do nothing but collapse under the blow. His energy had vanished. He tried to stand up, but he had no strength in his legs or arms.

“It’s all right. It’s all right, my elder brother! We’ll go up now.”

To the swordsman’s ears, his brother’s voice was like a faint breeze murmuring from afar. He shook his head. His world had collapsed, and he wanted to live no longer. He felt as if he had just stood in the path of a hurricane. How could he bring himself into his beloved master’s presence?

The younger man brushed the dirt off his brother’s shoulder. “You need not worry about it. Our master has nothing but compassion for you. Let’s go up now. We’ll live and work and study together again.”

The two figures made their way slowly up the steep, rock-strewn path that wound its way up the mountain. It was not yet day, and the silhouettes imprinted themselves on the thin veil of dew stretching over trees and rocks. The first rays of sun finally reached the two men and heightened the contrast—the swordsman seemed only more broken in body and spirit walking next to the younger disciple whose steps were firm and whose mien was gentle. Over the mountaintop, far away, the sun rose.

Reprinted from The Stone Boy and Other Stories (Parallax Press, Berkeley, 1996)

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Using Mindfulness to Rewire the Brain

How the Insights of Neuroscience Can Aid Our Practice

By Paul Tingen

Around twenty-five years ago, neuroscience went through a dramatic change in perspective that had profound implications for mindfulness practitioners, and that can greatly deepen our understanding of our practice and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. To be able to describe neuroscience’s big discovery, first some basic facts: the brain is astoundingly complex, typically containing some 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Each neuron is capable of making thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of connections with other neurons using chemicals called neurotransmitters that transmit electrical signals along complex cellular pathways. “Thoughts, memories,  emotions—all emerge from the electrochemical interactions of neurons,” writes Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.1

Until the 1980s, conventional wisdom in neuroscience held that the brain developed during childhood until it reached a fixed form that remained the same during adulthood. This belief in the brain’s static cellular circuitry gave rise to a very limited view of human consciousness, a “neurological nihilism,” in which consciousness was seen as no more than the byproduct of these fixed pathways. With the emergence of the computer, the analogy was made that the hardware of the brain determined and limited the software (our feelings and our thoughts).

However, due to pioneering research in the 1980s, most famously by Professor Michael Merzenich,2 this orthodoxy was turned on its head. Since then it has become widely accepted that the brain constantly rewires itself in response to changes in our feelings, thoughts, experiences, and the way we use our body. This phenomenon is referred to as the plasticity of the brain. In computer language, the software and the hardware inter-are: the software can shape the hardware, just as much as the other way around. Neuroscience today is governed by what is known as Hebb’s rule: “Cells that fire together wire together.” The brain gets less plastic as we grow older, but the capacity for rewiring remains.

The idea of neuroplasticity has given new hope to people with physical, emotional, and mental impairments that had hitherto been regarded as unchangeable. Conversely, just as it is possible for the software to change the hardware for the better, it can also change the hardware for the worse. Moreover, in Carr’s words, “plastic does not mean elastic.” Neural pathways become entrenched, and the more entrenched they become, the more they resist the process of rewiring. The older, entrenched pathways are paths of least resistance amongst which neurons like to communicate with each other, propelling us to keep repeating similar feelings, thoughts, and actions. Every time we use a particular pathway, it increases the likelihood that we will do it again.

Says Carr, “The more a sufferer concentrates on his symptoms, the deeper those symptoms are etched into his neural circuits. In the worst cases, the mind essentially trains itself to be sick.” In short, whenever we’re stuck in habitual suffering, we’re not just wasting our life energy and time, we’re actively entrenching this suffering in our neurological pathways, making it more likely that we’ll suffer in the same way again. Suffering is not a free ride.

Rewiring for Well-being

There are many parallels between these theories of neuroscience and Thay’s teachings. The essence of our Buddhist practice is to use mindfulness to develop singularity of thought (concentration/samadhi), which can help us to get out of habitual thinking and feeling and help us to stop triggering our habitual neural pathways of suffering. Mindfulness, in effect, allows us to consciously rewire our brain for improved well-being.

Mindfulness is intentional and based on our free will. Free will can be applied in many ways. An athlete or musician will construct neural pathways in his or her brain through endless deliberate practice. However, the practice of an athlete or musician will rarely be self-aware, and while it may push pathways of suffering out of sight, it won’t transform them. Mindfulness may be the only state of mind that is wholly deliberate and wholly self-aware, and that is able to embrace other states of mind, transform them, and foster well-being, thereby allowing us to consciously rewire our brain.

The way we use the mantra, “This is a happy moment,” is a good example. We train the brain to create and deepen a neural pathway of well-being that might not otherwise be there. Conversely, if we focus on the negative, we keep firing and strengthening the neural pathways associated with our suffering. We know that certain ways of expressing our suffering can make us feel lighter and freer, while others appear to deepen it. One main reason for the difference between “rehearsing” suffering and transforming it lies in whether we embrace our suffering with mindfulness or not. Another factor is whether we look at our suffering with Right View; wrong views trigger the very thoughts that cause and entrench our suffering. If we don’t embrace suffering with mindfulness and with Right View, we will almost inevitably be caught in habitual suffering. But if we embrace our suffering with Right View and mindfulness, and stop the thoughts that trigger it, we can transform the energy of our suffering so that it becomes available for our well-being. The light of mindfulness cooks the raw potatoes, so they become a joy to eat.

Thay has always disagreed with a widespread view in Western society that we can get rid of unpleasant feelings, particularly anger, simply through expressing them. He often warns against the danger of rehearsing these feelings. Neuroplasticity shows us that repeatedly firing off our neurological pathways indeed risks strengthening those very pathways. And so, again contrary to a lot of Western thinking, Thay has long recommended that people who come to Plum Village don’t immediately start digging into their suffering, but instead begin with watering their seeds of well-being. Once we are stable and our sense of well-being is strong enough, we can look at our suffering again and have a chance to transform it, rather than risk being overwhelmed by it.

Our Sun of Mindfulness

To describe these processes more clearly, I would like to build on Thay’s analogy of our practice as that of a gardener. A gardener transforms compost (the mud) into flowers (the lotus). A skillful gardener knows how to create a pleasant garden with lots of flowers and just enough compost to feed them. Being a skillful gardener of our own inner garden is our spiritual work of self-love. To offer another analogy: neural pathways can be described as a collection of gullies, brooks, canals, and canyons; our feelings and thoughts can be considered the water in them. Mindfulness has often been described as a light, and in this case we could extend the analogy by describing mindfulness as the sun.

And so, it rains and a rivulet forms: the first arrow has hit and we suffer. The Buddha’s teachings tell us this is unavoidable; life will fire us arrows. Suffering is inevitable. But if we don’t handle this arrow correctly, if we add other arrows to it with wrong thinking, the rivulet turns into a stream, a river, and eventually a flood of suffering. The one neural connection has turned into a pathway and is likely to join with other similar pathways, and all of them may be deepened. As these neural pathways are strengthened, so are the corresponding mental formations, and they will be more difficult to transform. And once this gully or canal or canyon has formed, new rain will be drawn to it, deepening these pathways still further.

There is a belief in Western culture that we have to go through our suffering (the dark night of the soul), but from the perspective of neuroplasticity and our practice, we cannot transform our suffering from inside our suffering. We cannot affect the course of a canal while being caught in the stream. We cannot dissolve neural pathways while firing them simultaneously. There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way. We have to step out of the stream and shine our sun of mindfulness on it. Only with the healthy parts of ourselves can we heal our afflictions.

When we’re suffering, streams (or storms) of thoughts and feelings run through us; and when we manage to breathe and become mindful, these streams calm down to a gentle trickle. As the water slows down, as the storm abates to a gentle breeze, the neurons stop firing together, and we no longer strengthen our neural pathway of suffering. The suffering, the neural pathway, may still be there, but it is no longer a danger to us. It is like the mother embracing her angry child: she holds him firmly, so he can do no damage, and also lovingly, so he can come back to his true self. At that point, the water can mingle with the earth and turn into mud, or it can evaporate in the light of the sun of our mindfulness and fall down as rain (our tears) somewhere else in our garden. In both cases, the water will help grow flowers rather than deepen the pathway of suffering.

When we consider this analogy, it’s easy to see why Thay so often stresses that we should not judge or suppress our suffering. In seeing our suffering as water flowing through a canal, we realize that we need that water to tend our garden. If handled unskillfully, the water can deepen the groove of our suffering; if we know how to practice, we can use it to grow flowers in our garden. The analogy can be extended yet further. Sometimes our suffering has become frozen, hidden, inaccessible: we may have become bitter or repressed our feelings. One can’t grow flowers with ice, so we have to first melt our frozen feelings.

Mindfulness practice in general, and sitting meditation in particular, are ways of strengthening the power of the sun of our mindfulness, or the power of our concentration (samadhi). But sometimes, if our sun of mindfulness isn’t strong enough to transform our suffering, we need the compassionate and mindful presence of another person. As the water starts to flow, we cry, and we begin to disarm and transform our suffering with our collective mindfulness. This is one of several reasons why practicing in a Sangha is so important. Neuroscience offers an additional reason, emanating from its research of a particular class of neurons called mirror neurons, which are triggered when we observe the actions and/or feelings of others, and which then fire in corresponding ways. Neuroscientists have argued that mirror neurons make empathy possible; and even simply being in the company of other practitioners will trigger mirror neurons that strengthen our own practice.

What Thay calls our store consciousness can be seen as the network of neural pathways in our brain, much of it inherited from our ancestors, with each seed corresponding to a neural pathway. Intense feelings, addictions, and many of the noxious things we consume in our society can strengthen our neural pathways of suffering (hence the importance of the Fifth Mindfulness Training). By contrast, the calming nature of our entire practice makes it easier to rewire our brain. There are no magic formulas or strategies; the crucial point is that we need to be very mindful, at all times, of whether we’re transforming our suffering or merely rehearsing it.

Living lightly offers more freedom and clarity to practitioners and also makes it possible to turn neutral feelings into pleasant ones—in other words, to turn neutral and often forgotten neural pathways into pathways that trigger well-being. It is, so to speak, far easier to cultivate flowers in the gently rolling hills of Plum Village than in the steep crags of the Grand Canyon.

© 2012, Paul Tingen

1) All quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (New York: Norton, 2010), which has been credited with giving one of the best descriptions of the concept of neuroplasticity available. The thesis of Carr’s book is that extensive use of the Internet rewires our brains to make it more difficult for us to handle deep thoughts and extended narratives. Some of Carr’s sources on neuroplasticity are:

* Pascual-Leone, A. Amedi, F. Fregni, and L.B. Merabet, “The Plastic Human Brain Cortex,” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 28 (2005).
* Michael Greenberg, “Just Remember This,” New York Review of Books, December 4, 2008.
* Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Science (New York: Penguin, 2007).
* Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (Harper-Perrenial, 2002).

2) Carr, pages 24-26.

Paul “Ramon” Tingen, True Harmony of Loving Kindness, is an anglicised Dutchman who now lives in France, near Plum Village. Paul writes for music technology magazines and is the author of  a book about the electric music of  Miles Davis entitled Miles Beyond. Paul has recorded one CD, May the Road Rise to Meet You, and is currently recording a second album titled Metamorphosis. He ordained as an OI member in 1997. His website is www.tingen.org.