This week we continue with #19 of The No Gate Gateway. Last week we took the first two lines. Zhaozhou’s question, “What is Way?” and Nanquan’s response, “Ordinary Mind is Way.” This week we will follow those two as they continue their dialogue about Way,

Zhaozhou asked, “Still, it’s something I can set out toward, isn’t it?”
Nanquan said, “To set out is to be distant from.”

Setting Out

I live at where the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains begin. To my west the rolling hills of Bluegrass country. To my east a venerable old mountain range, at one time as high as the Sierras, whittled down over millennia by wind and water — time. I am right on the edge. Off in the close distance is Lily Mountain. This is something I can set out toward isn’t it? And I did just that a few months ago. But you don’t just set out — You need:

  1. the Vision
  2. The Preparation
  3. The Journey


I have noticed over the years that places on earth have a mountain. In Marin County of Northern California Mt. Tamalpais reigns. Across the Bay it is Mt. Diablo. Towering over Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico it’s Pedernal, a majestic flat top mountain painted many times by Georgia O’Keefe. These mountains inspire, define and anchor a landscape. Here in the tiny community of Panola, Kentucky, it is the relatively small peak, Lily Mountain. Looking across the little valley carved by Drowning Creek, I see Lily Mountain and remember the Hebrew psalmist, “I look to the hills, from where will my help come….” It is no wonder that the early Chan (Zen) masters made their home on the slopes and in the shadow of mountains. John Muir wrote, “The mountains are calling, I must go.” Just so, mountains inspire us to set out. Just as the Greeks looked to OIympus; the Hebrews, Sinai; the Japanese, Fuji — we look to  our mountains for epiphany — the mountain has what I need. In the spiritual life, initially my gaze is fixed and away — somewhere over the rainbow, over the horizon. There is a high Truth out there. A distant call beckons. I must go. I will set out. But, first, I prepare.


You just don’t set out. Even John Muir packed a crust of bread and a bedroll when setting out for a week in the high Sierra. When I climbed Lily Mountain for the first time I made all necessary preparations. Jeans and long sleeve shirts: protection from Poison Ivy; bug spray, ticks and mosquitos; map to find my way; water. With preparation we set our intent, we put some skin in the game, we take what we know to prepare for what we do not. In a sort of spiritual hokey-pokey (you put your whole self in) we throw our whole selves into the climb. You can see in the dialogue between Zhaozhou and Nanquan that Zhaozhou has thrown his whole self into the journey — his questions are up top for him. When told of Way, because he is earnest and prepared he asks, “It’s something I can set out toward, isn’t it?”

The Journey

A life’s journey is an interesting thing — we confront landscapes, meet interesting people, find strange lodging, encounter demons, angels and monsters along the way. Think Odysseus, or Dante, or the migrant worker traveling across borders. Or to pay a visit to our local peak.

It was a journey to and up Lily Mountain: the walk along the country road to the trail, the territory that does not match the map, the wild flowers, crows and vultures, steep hills, jagged rocks, poison ivy, mosquitos, snakes. There is so much to a journey. Reaching the top of Lily Mountain, looking to the west, I see the farm, pond glistening, trees bordering and defining the fields. There’s the house, the chicken coop, the horse barn. Tears come in response to the beauty. Home. Maybe this is what the gods feel looking down from Olympus/Fuji/Tamalpais: that’s where it is at, where I want to be.

We look at life as a journey, and it is. We set out for distant lands, for peace, harmony, wholeness. We keep setting out putting our whole selves into the journey. This is as it should be. It is by putting our whole selves into the journey, by paying attention, we notice how the sound of the crow touches the heart, the way the sun strikes the poison ivy, the pattern of the snake’s skin, how hard granite holds flecks of quartz. We notice that as we are struggling up the mountain our friend reaches out her hand. We notice that the journey, each step we take, everything that reaches us as we travel, is home.The home we imagine distant is here.

To Set Out is to Be Distant From

To set out for a distant truth, you get distance.You find yourself apart from heart’s desire. We reach the mountaintop and notice that the ideal is still far out in the distance. And yet, it is by taking he trip, by committing our selves wholly to the journey that we begin to notice heart’s true home in the right here of honeysuckle growing along an abandoned fence row, the sound of the cows calling for breakfast, the back of the head of someone ahead of you stuck in traffic, the stirrings in your own heart for home. Nanquan shows Zhaozhou that though he will set out, life is not found in the setting out, in the distant ideal, in the God out there, the tablets on Sinai, the pantheon on Olympus. Life is found as he takes the next step and the next and the next. It is here. Right now!

In Zen we do not hold out for the truth in the distance, in the far off and away, distant in space and time. We find there is enough right here. So, we immerse ourselves in our lives. For us, if there is a journey, the journey is home. As Nanquan tells Zhaozhou truth is not in the delusions that we hold about life, nor is it in simply turning away from life.

“If you truly comprehend this Way that never sets out for somewhere else, if you enter into it absolutely, you realize it’s exactly like the vast expanses of this universe….”

We dive in and life will come to us as it comes. And as the very life that is us comes, we act, we move, we respond, participate. There is no me and life that I have. It is all seamless and joined. Later In life, as a teacher, Zhaozhou responds to a student’s big question, “It’s alive! It’s alive!