My father would have turned 113 this past Thursday. I took his support for our family for granted while he was alive. If he was sitting at one of the four gates that surround the homeland where I have my being, which one would it be? For that matter, where would I place my mother; where would I place the overall environment of growing up in a French province in Canada as an English-speaking white male? Where would I position Eric, who entered my life before I started high school, who shared with me his despair about what he saw happening in our society: the disregard for the terrible cost that had been paid in WW II to protect our freedoms.
Why would I think of my life as unfolding within a four-gated structure? The following appeared in a book I have been reading:
“In the east is awareness; in the west is consciousness, with its capacity to remind us of the way things are. In the south are the activities of mind: temptations, the exhibitions of the sensory fields, the busyness of minding and all kinds of distractions. In the north are the spies who make sure all is proceeding according to plan, as well as the ones who dictate the rules we follow.” Keys of Knowledge, by Tarthang Tulku, pages 40-41.
If you’re like me, you’d like to rewrite that description of the north gate—at least to find a more neutral word than “spies”. As a human being who places himself at the center of his experience, the gate for the rules that guide me, as I search for my place, is surely a necessary component of my life in this world.
Eric’s influence on me, as an unformed adolescent, made me aware—before most of my teenage peers probably were—that the systems by which societies organize themselves can be taken over, at any time, by forces that don’t care about the interests of ordinary people.
How would I rewrite the role played by that north gate–the component that organizes, controls and dictates “the way things are”, thereby determining whether we live in freedom or in a totalitarian regime? How does that societal regime—whether it is fair or dictatorial–interact with the other three components in the life of a human being? How do the operations of awareness, consciousness and the flood of appearances we receive from inside and outside our bodies interact with the regimented constructs (social, psychological, educational. . .), that are set in place before we take our first step as an individual?
For the past several mornings, when I set my timer for 30 minutes and close my eyes, it feels fitting that I am facing east on my wicker couch–which I continue to use in the mornings in the townhouse to which we moved at Thanksgiving–because “awareness” (at the eastern gate) feels like it is the fundamental member of the four horsemen, as they all gallop forth without pause in this lifetime on Planet Earth. If there was no awareness flickering in my inner being, what else could possibly arise inside or outside me? How could there be “consciousness”, fields of “sensation”, or guiding “rules” to debate, if I were not first aware of their arising?
Sitting in the darkened room, I wonder about consciousness. Does consciousness only arise when fueled by what appears in the fluid outpourings of time? Does consciousness fire up directly from awareness or does it need some musical melody to invoke it? Those melodies that come out of the south gate, in the flood of sensations, emotions, thoughts, and feelings; all the constant stirrings of embodiment?
What about that north gate? Is there really reason to fear that troops are ready to march into our towns and homes in the shadow of our inattention; trampling crops, leveling buildings, seizing the reins of power on behalf of a regime that serves those in power but cares nothing for the diversity of freedoms vouchsafed in documents few of us have read?
Clearly, we need a fourth component to complement and complete awareness, consciousness and the symphony of life flooding our experience as human beings. That fourth gate to the north plays the necessary role of creating and maintaining our culture, our society, civilization, language, means of communication, customs, shared values, common understandings and the laws that defend the integrity of the natural world on which we depend.
It is hard to imagine that awareness, consciousness and the flowing streams of sensation could continue if there were not also a 4th component to record, appreciate and preserve what is best in our civilization.
How sad that we live in a time in which the trivial has risen to the fore; that humanity is floundering on a ship whose hull and keel are badly damaged, its rudder thrashing back and forth with each wave, while would be-captains, each with less and less sense of the sea, grab hold until they too are flung overboard; sails, flapping in the wind, ripped to shreds. How dangerous that a rising chorus of discontent threatens to smash that fourth gate; to eradicate agreements that are being defamed as serving no purpose.
Yet, it is this north gate that gives harbor to the knowledge accumulated over centuries; that preserves the ideals of freedom of equal opportunity, of healthcare and daily bread for all; that enshrines a richly diverse spiritual understanding of life’s sacred purposes. We must not allow our ability to cherish life’s shining potential to be cast aside like an unwanted garment simply because it can feel uncomfortable at times. What can feel like an optional garment is actually the wider realm that nurtures life in all its guises.
In this precarious time, the world that surrounds us is waiting for us to recognize that we are part of a larger community that has arisen alongside us; so that together we can respond to the challenges of this time. Without the strength of shared being, whatever shows up at the four gates will fall unheeded on the ground; as forests continue to rise up in flames; rivers overflow their banks; and winter without mercy descends onto the land.