33 – Heaven and Hell (Here and Now)

Heaven and Hell are real, they are the contents of everyday life. They are states we experience in the here and now and WE are the gatekeepers. In this episode, I will discuss the Zen koan called: the gate of paradise.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 33. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about heaven and hell.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular minded audience. The Dalai lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” If you’re new to secular Buddhism or you are interested in learning more, check out my book Secular Buddhism Eastern Thought for Western Minds. It’s available as paperback on Amazon, ebook, Kindle, and ibook on iTunes. Also as an audio book on audible.com. For more information and for links to the book versions, visit secularbuddhism.com.

Let’s jump into this week’s topic. The last couple of weeks I have been reading a booked Zen Koans by Gyomay Kubose. It’s been a fascinating experience to become familiar with zen koans. On the website elephant journal, Don Diande talks about koans and says, “The koan serves as a surgical tool used to cut into and then break through the mind of the practitioner. Koans aren’t just puzzles that your mind figures out suddenly and proclaims, ‘Aha. The answer is three.’ They wait for you to open enough to allow the space necessary for them to enter into your depths, the inner regions beyond knowing.”

Essentially what that means is the koan is meant to help break out of the conceptual way of thinking and into more of an experiential understanding of a specific topic. The specific koan that I read this week that really resonated with me and stuck with me and I decided I wanted to share it in this podcast episode is a koan called the Gate of Paradise.

A soldier comes to visit a famous zen master Hakuin. And the soldier asks, “Is there really a heaven and a hell?” The zen master replies, “Who are you?” The soldier says, “I am a samurai.” “You? A samurai? What kind of lord would have you as his guard? You look like a beggar.” The soldier starts to get angry and becomes so enraged that he’s about to draw his sword. The zen master continues and he says, “Oh, so you have a sword. It’s probably too dull to even cut my head.” At this point, the soldier is just indignant and he brandishes his sword. The zen master says, “Here. Open the gates of hell.” And the soldier immediately recognizes the wisdom in those words and he puts his sword away. The zen master says, “Here, open the gates of heaven.”

It’s just a short story that’s kind of conveying the idea, the Buddhist understanding of heaven and hell. I love the way the zen master does this because rather than answering the question, he shows the soldier these states. He induces them into the very mind of the questioner. Rather than having a theoretical discussion of what is heaven or what is hell, he’s showing him the reality in that moment by allowing the soldier to experience his anger and turning that anger almost into hatred. When he realizes that that’s what he’s doing, he instantly is able to sheath the sword or to control his anger and that’s also the experiential understanding of what it is to be in heaven. To be able to control your emotions.

Gyomay Kubose in his book goes on to say about this koan that heaven and hell are the contents of our everyday life. Here we have this neat little story that I think does a really good job of helping us to understand the understanding that heaven and hell are here and now. These are states that we experience in the present moment. Furthermore, we are the gatekeepers of, you know, the gate to heaven or the gate to hell. I thought about this a lot, many times, when I felt just like that soldier. You know? I think every time that I’ve ever felt that, it was my ego that was being offended or hurt or criticized or questioned. I love knowing that I myself am the gatekeeper of my own paradise and my own hell.

What’s interesting when I think about instances in my life when I felt like that, every single one without exception that I’ve been able to recall or think about is an instance where it’s my ego that’s on the line. It’s the ego that is so sensitive to being criticized. You know for someone like the zen master to say, “Who are you?” It’s like the ego is like, “Who are you to think who am I?” It’s when the ego-self is attacked that way, we instantly start to experience what in this koan is kind of described as that sense of hell.

I bring up the example many times about getting cut off by a car because it’s something that we’ve all experienced. If you think about it in that moment, usually what makes it so frustrating, it doesn’t have to do with time. We might think that it does, but I don’t think that what’s happening is we get cut off and we’re all thinking, “Hey, you just robbed me of five seconds.” We know that we can make up that time by increasing our speed for the next minute or something. It’s not about that even though it may seem like I’m in a rush. If you’re honest with yourself, when I evaluate myself in this example, I think what’s really happening is you’re thinking, “How dare you do that to me. Like don’t you know that I’m an important person and you shouldn’t just be cutting me off. Because I’m me. I’m right here. What are you doing?”

It’s an attack on me, the ego me, not just the me that’s driving along. When that ego is removed, you start to look at a scenario like that and what is there to be offended at? I got slowed down. It doesn’t matter if it was person or if it was something that got in the road. A tree that fell or an animal that got in the road. The results in all those scenarios could be the same. I had to stomp on my brakes or I had to swerve and now I’m five seconds behind the schedule that I was on. When it’s a person, this is an attack on what I perceive as my ego, my self, the sense of self. I think that’s what makes it so difficult to work with in these scenarios.

In my understanding, that’s probably what this soldier was experiencing. It’s an attack on his ego. I think that’s a very quick to open the gates of hell so to speak.

I would invite you to take a minute and think about instances in your life when you felt like this soldier. When you felt any form of anger that’s at risk of turning into hatred and see if you can pinpoint in what way is the ego attached to that story. Is the ego the culprit of feeling so hurt or offended or whatever emotion you were experiencing with that? Criticized. See if like me you find that the ego is what was attached there that’s kind of the common denominator in these instances. We’ve all experienced anger. Every single one of us. You’ve probably also heard the expression that’s often attributed to the Buddha, however it’s not an actual quote from the Buddha. The quote says, “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the only one that gets burned.”

The expression I think comes from a monk named [Buddhaghoṣa 00:09:16]. He was discussing anger. He says by doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink. I like Buddhagosa’s version because I think it’s easy for us to imagine somebody right there next to you holding a hot coal, waiting to throw it at someone. The burning ember. But it’s hard to see how that really effects me. If you’re standing right next to me, you’re holding this coal cause you’re angry at someone and you’re waiting to throw it at them. I could be looking at that scenario and thinking, “Well, that’s unfortunate. You’re burning your hand. You know if you would just let go of that, it would stop hurting.”

I like Buddhagosa’s cause he mentions not just the burning ember, but also excrement and how he makes himself stink. That to me is a little bit more indicative of what it’s like when someone is around me for example if I were experiencing this type of anger that I’m holding onto that I want to let go of. The stink that he talks about. Now that effects the people around you. I think we all know someone like this. Who maybe is holding onto anger or is vengeful or has you know their anger makes them difficult to be around in the same way that it would be uncomfortable being around someone who smells of excrement. You’d say, “That’s affecting me now because I’m standing too close to you.”

I think anger can cause a similar aversion almost. Where you’re like, “I don’t want to be around this person cause they’re not pleasant to be around,” in the same way that it would not be pleasant around someone who’s stinky. I kind of like that correlation of the ember. It’s burning me if I’m holding it, but I’m also the stinky one if I’m holding onto it. Others around me are going to start to notice that and they may not want to be around me so much.

Don’t pick up the burning ember. Don’t pick up the excrement and make yourself stinky. Now sure this a lot easier said than done, but how do we go about actually not doing it? Well that’s the tricky part. I think this is where it becomes a matter of introspection for you. How do you drop that coal, that burning ember or that excrement? That’s for you to decide. I think that’s kind of the point of this koan. The soldier was able to experience what did it feel like to sheath the sword, to put the sword back and say, “Huh. I’m not going to allow myself to go that far.” That’s when the zen master says, “Here, open the gates of heaven.” Because the soldier was noticing, “Wow, I have the ability to calm myself down and not want to chop your head off. I’m putting the sword away and that’s the start of it. That’s the gate.”

You are the gatekeeper of your own heaven or hell. That to me is the essence of what’s being taught here. Now that can only be experienced by you. You know when you’re one place or when you’re in the other. It’s not about someone telling you, “You should feel this way or you should feel that way.” Because then you could pretend, but pretending doesn’t get you there. I could pretend I’m in no longer in this state of hell. I’m putting myself in this state of heaven and pretend that all I want, but if I’m not actually there I’m not actually there. That’s kind of what this koan is trying to get us to experience is that in a very experiential way we know when we’re in one or when we’re in the other, but only we know.

The answer to you know how do we actually get there? To me that’s the part of the koan that’s for you to figure out. I think meditation plays a big part here. You know we talk about this often with the whole premise of mindfulness is creating that space between stimulus and reaction. That space is where we have the freedom to decide well here’s the trigger but I choose how to react here. I’m not going to allow my habitual reactivity to put me in a state of anger that puts me at risk of experiencing hatred because that’s entering my own hell. You know, what mindfulness allows us to do is to have a greater sense of understanding of what’s happening and to remove the ego from that equation. At that point, like we say, “No self, no problem”, right? If I can remove my ego from that equation, well then what is there to even be offended?

You know, you could call me whatever you want to call me and I’m not going to respond to it. Not because I’m pretending and saying, “Huh, that didn’t bother me.” You know, if it’s bothering you, it’s bothering you. Rather than pretending it’s not, that’s where you want to get very introspective and say, “How interesting. This is really affecting me. Why? Why does it affect me if somebody calls me this? Or if somebody does that?” You know, that’s for you to analyze and become introspective with. I think the threefold mindfulness meditation is a powerful technique to be able to do that. My question for you and question for myself is, “What gates are we opening today? What gates are open right now?”

Only you know where you stand and only you have the keys to open and close the gates to heaven and hell. I like a quote by Pema Chodron who says, “The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.” Because isn’t that the truth? I think about that a lot and the difficult times that I’ve experienced, not all of them, but many of them I can look at and say, “Huh. In what way have I given myself these difficult times?” Like I said, this isn’t always the case, but in many times it is the case. Hopefully, I like to imagine now and knowing that if I’m the gatekeeper and I’m the one who holds the keys, now the responsibility is on me. Rather than blaming circumstances or blaming specific people. I’m the one who decides when I’m going to open and walk through the gates of heaven or the gates of hell.

That’s my invitation to you with this koan like the zen master who allows the questioner to experience in a very experiential way what heaven and hell actually are. The question of what is the reality of is there really a heaven and hell. Ask yourself that. Is there? I’m sure you know the answer because you’ve been in both. You’ve experienced both at one time or another. What caused you to feel in one versus the other? What I found, again for me personally, when the ego is not attached those are the moments that I would equate to being in heaven. These are moments where you’re kind of in a state of flow almost or suddenly it’s not about me. It’s about something greater than me. You know, these are moments where holding a newborn or doing humanitarian work or doing something that puts me beyond just me. These are moments that you experience just joy and happiness and contentment in a way that it has to be because the ego has been so detached in those moments.

It’s not about me. The moments where I feel the opposite, what I would equate to hellish moments. Like I said earlier, every single one that I’ve analyzed I’ve concluded it’s because the ego was very attached to that moment. The suffering that was coming from it was almost a direct attack on the ego itself. Like how could this person have done this to me? Don’t they know who I am? How dare you call me that or cut me off? Me or mine always fits in very nice with these scenarios of hellish moments or hell.

Those were the thoughts that I wanted to share with you guys. I think this is kind of a shorter episode, but I wanted to make sure that I shared something this week. Again, ask yourself, “In what way am I the gatekeeper to my own heaven, to my own hell?” And when you’re experiencing these in day to day living, see if you can make that pause between the stimulus and reaction. Oftentimes it’s right after the reaction that you can pause and say, “Oh, that’s what I just did.” But that’s still good, because noticing that you just noticed is a form of awareness. Ask yourself, these moments of heaven or these moments of hell that happen in the here and now and the present moment, what are they for me? How do I experience one? Why do I experience the other? Be introspective with it. What are the causes of these moments when I experience this feeling or that feeling?

See what you can find. This koan is here for you to get introspective and to find the answer yourself. Something that I wanted to end with in this podcast episode that I really enjoyed is a statement of intent rendered by Sharon Salzberg. She’s a Buddhist teacher and does a lot of writing for Lion’s Roar. I can’t remember exactly where I came across this, but it’s a statement of intent. It’s kind of a thought that you keep with you. Rather than having like a form of prayer, like the Buddhist form of prayer is usually something like this. A statement of intent that’s kind of internal. It’s a reminder of me, of what I’m doing or why I’m doing it. This statement of intent, she says, “May the actions that I take toward the good, toward understanding myself, toward being more peaceful be a benefit to all beings everywhere.”

I really like so I wanted to share that with you guys. As always, if you enjoy this podcast, please feel free to share it with others. Write a review or give it a rating in iTunes. Of course, if you’re in a position to be able to, I would appreciate if you could consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the donate button on the top of the web page. That’s all I have for this week. I will look forward to recording another episode next week. Until next time.