A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”
“Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.
“I am a samurai,” the warrior replied.
“You, a soldier!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.”
Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: “So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.”
As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: “Here open the gates of hell!”
At these words, the samurai, perceiving the master’s discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.
“Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.
(Taken from ‘Zen Flesh, Zen Bones’ by Reps & Senzaki
Many readers have probably come across this story before; it is very well known in Zen circles, and perhaps over quoted. I couldn’t resist joining in the fun, however, and giving it a place on Buddha Space. It’s a joy, isn’t it?
A fascinating aspect to this interchange is to reflect on its central theme: are heaven and hell real? Do good people get reborn in heaven, and bad ones end up in hell? All the major religions teach the existence of such realms as literally existing, rather being symbols of divine & hellish states of mind as many would have it. What is Hakuin saying in this dialogue?
When the Zen master says, “Here open the gates of hell!” he might be indicating that the doorway to Hades (or the Japanese equivalent) is agape, waiting for Nobushige to slice through Hakuin’s neck. Upon his death, thereafter, the samurai will then descend to his infernal punishment. Alternatively, Hakuin may be bringing Nobushige’s attention to the present moment, telling him that there and then he is about to descend into hell, psychologically speaking. The same alternatives can be applied to the statement, “Here open the gates of paradise,” of course. Well, dear reader, what do you think? Was Hakuin referring to the samurai’s possible future destination or a more immediate mental condition…or perhaps both?
Some will laugh off this commentary as so much waffle, and rightly so. For, it could be said that the interchange between master and warrior is no different to the myriads of koans (or Zen riddles) that point to our true nature. In this interpretation of events, it matters not whether the paradise & hell referred to by Hakuin are physical or psychological. The whole point of the dialogue is to bring the reader into the present, where notions of heaven & hell, physical & psychological, good & bad etc. are transcended. With this understanding, we can see that paradise & hell are everywhere & nowhere, and Nobushige’s sword has already removed our heads, even though it never left its sheath.