The open and shut door is an image used of the mind: the open and closed mind. An open mind lets things pass to and fro, while a closed mind shuts out both that without and that within. But a strong wind through an open door can send delicate things within flying or shut the door inadvertently, just as a strong experience can scatter or shut a mind or heart. Who within can reopen the door when the strong winds continue to blow against it? Who without will come to assist us if they cannot see what is on the other side of the door? That is the trouble with doors. A butterfly can pass through a closed gate but not a closed door.
The characteristic of a gate is that it swings back and forth but is never permanently shutting the observer out of viewing one side or another. Perhaps it is locked but we can see through it. A door, in contrast, shuts, and we cannot see what is on the other side. Hence the wisdom literature always speaks of the gate, seldom of the door — except, perhaps, to show how we do not know what is on the other side of some experiences. “Knock and it shall be opened” suggests that we are not sure what is on the other side of the door, that we do not know what to expect, that we are hoping for the best. Knocking on a door involves trepidation, anxiety, uncertainty. Like a child in a dark house, we need reassurance that what is behind the shut door is benign. Will the experience we are soliciting or pursuing (“knocking” on) be what we want or hope? Who can tell? This is called faith.
The gate is a universal metaphor. In the Gospels, Jesus speaks of the narrow gate, and refers to himself as the gate. The Lotus Sutra speaks of the gate of knowledge as being difficult to enter. In the Koran, Muhammed describes himself as the city of knowledge and Allah as the gate. And Zen points to the “Gateless Gate.”
The ultimate gates are birth and death. Birth is literally a difficult passage for the “traveler” who would enter the world, and life is a search for easy gates to one temporal state or another, often distracted from the necessary end, which is to learn how to recognize the final gate.
The image of the gateless gate suggests that our anticipation, preparation and study may not get us to the expected gate. Events may change our minds, blind us to the road before us, mislead us down a fruitless path. The gate, like death, like life, is before us right now. We have but to enter it and abide in the place we have accessed, finding in the end that it is the same place from which we entered.
Why do we not see the banal evils of society and culture (and of our own mundane selves) as the norm, and view creative breakthroughs and inspiration as the product of “daemons”? Instead of the historical view of demonic infestation as the source of evil in ourselves and the world, we can view the affairs of the mass of humanity as a pool of ignorance, and the leap of faith and love as something beyond ourselves, beyond that pool. Perhaps we should claim no more merit to ourselves for successful works of art, music, literature, charisma, love, or other creative feats than we want to take credit for the mundane sins, shortcomings, and ignorance that mark our lives. Brilliant insights are as much the work of harmonic wonder, grace, and “good karma” as sins and evil were viewed in the past as the work of disharmonic demons.
The desert fathers knew that a practiced hermit could make their infestuous demons disappear with a snap of the fingers. But reversing the metaphor also means that our cumulative individual progress can disappear in a moment, too, leaving the shell of a common person, nobody special, just another person trying to cope with their particular bundle of psychological and experiential baggage. Or worse.
The solitary has the opportunity to realize that he or she is not the source of what is good in them nor what is bad. The solitary can avoid the occasions of bad “infestation” by avoiding their source: society and culture. Only then can the good “daemons” begin to operate in one’s being, gently, with simple insights and quiet revelations.
Demonic infestation — the presence of bothersome demons — is common in the writings of historical Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism (especially Tibetan), and most other traditions. The assumed ontology explains psychological phenomena, especially those related to behavior and morals, and always as negative. In monastic circles and among the sayings of the desert fathers, any sin or a temptation to sin was often viewed as demonic in nature.
A world, a sky, infested with demons is a pitiless view of nature.
But perhaps it was less terrifying to think of evil as the product of outside forces than of the darkness of human hearts. We have witnessed horrors enough in society and culture to wish that humans are merely tricked into evils and have nothing to do with them otherwise