Master Yunmen said, “See how vast and wide the world is! Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?

This koan is from The Gateless Barrier, a collection of verses and stories compiled by Master Wumen. Gateless? Essentially yes, but when we are hitched to conceptual formulations, investing our attention in trying to figure life out, it presents a barrier (and a means) to realizing the freedom of Zen.

In 1972, I was training at the Maui Zendo. During evening meditation, while everyone was gathered for chanting and meditation in the Zendo (Zen meditation hall). I was upstairs in our tree house dormitory, solitary and absorbed in contemplation. There was a knock on the door that disoriented me, and my teacher Aitken Rōshi entered in his robes. He asked what I was doing, and I replied, “All things are flashing into the phenomenal world,” a phrase from a Zen sutra. He said simply, “And we’re missing you in the meditation hall.”

I was reveling in “vast and wide.” I wasn’t able to respond in accord with my circumstances. When we begin practice, we are caught up in searching for a conceptual answer, a blueprint that explains everything. With practice, this search falls away and we find ourselves immersed: this inhale, this step fill the screen. We become fully invested. Obstructions begin to slough off.

“Why” is the hook. Our conceptual minds gear up: “Why not put on ordinary garb? Why not the two-panel robe? Why rush off in a knee jerk reaction without deliberation?” So many possible reasons and answers.  But when we inquire deeply, fall away, and come awake, we find no opposition at all between “vast and wide” and responding in accord with actual circumstances.

The world is on fire. The awakened one doesn’t sit in a cave and bogart her jewel of no-price. When she hears the bell, when she feels the heat—when she sees planet and beings consumed by greed, hatred and delusion—she bears with it, lets it inform her, and she acts. From the vast ground of original mind, in accord with the actual moment, for the benefit of all beings.

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