The story of Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who brought Zen teachings to China 1500 years ago, is all drama: a dangerous voyage, conflicts with royalty, nine years of meditation in a cave, and plenty of blood. He’s an exciting character—so exciting that no one can really say for sure if he did any of those things, or if he even existed at all. Whoever he was (or wasn’t), he left behind a legacy of uncompromising practice, one that informs the Zen tradition to this day. He also left behind (or at least, we say he did) some teachings—not dramatic, not action-packed, just very straightforward and clear.
One of the most famous is on the “two entrances” to the path: entrance by principle, and entrance by practice. At least one of them applies to you (and maybe both).
Entrance by principle is what so many of us do: we read a book, watch a dharma talk on YouTube, or take a class, and the teachings we encounter there draw us in. For me, books opened the gate: trippy books about psychedelic meditation experiences, and also classical books about Zen. Both types pointed to a world I wanted to know; both spoke a language that was, for whatever reason, not completely foreign, even if the experiences they described were.
Of course, if reading those books just leads to more books, or those videos just lead to more videos, that isn’t really an “entrance”; we’re still outside the gate. The idea is that the principle is so compelling that you want to put it into practice—the idea that is so exciting to think about includes an element of “now let’s stop thinking about this and start doing it.” The Buddha entered by principle: he witnessed old age, sickness, and death, and was so overwhelmed by them that he knew he had to do something about them. He didn’t know in that moment what practice was, just that thinking about the reality of human existence wasn’t enough on its own.
Entrance by practice is just what it sounds like. Maybe you first encounter the dharma by joining an Intro to Meditation night somewhere, or a retreat, or a Buddhist service. Maybe you take a mindfulness class. Maybe it’s something like yoga or running—an activity that prompts an awareness of, and curiosity about, the relationship between body and mind.
In this second model, practice—whether that’s formal sitting, chanting, bowing, community involvement—is not only a way to enter a space where you have access to the teachings (the principle), but also a way of revealing the fundamental truths behind them. Meditation, in particular, offers an undistracted look at the three seals of dissatisfaction, impermanence, and interdependence. So we get a taste of these things through practice, and then, when we hear them articulated in the teachings, we just think, “Yup.”
There is no superior entrance, no gate that’s better than another. The important thing is the path on the other side.
I suspect most of us are intimately familiar with both gates, principle and practice. I entered by principle, through all those books, but later, after I’d started meditating, I felt like I needed to get some distance from them, to get out of my head. And when I’ve started to drift in my practice—either by getting off course or feeling distant from it altogether—I’ve returned to principle, to the teachers and words that inspire me, that excite my mind, that (ultimately) bring me back to practice.
Where are you right now? Which gate is before you? Which one have you passed through? No matter the answer, you know you can find the path, because principle brings us to practice, practice brings us to principle. There’s nowhere to go except right here.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.