Here is a story about the great Japanese Zen master Hakuin Ekaku who lived between 1686 and 1768.
It expresses a mystical understanding of the way life is lived by most people in contrast to the experience of Enlightenment. A similar idea is found in the writings of John Milton who said “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.” And also connects with the thoughts of C.S. Lewis who observed that to some extent “the gates of hell are locked from the inside.” It is our own impulses, desires and emotions that create and maintain for us the state of heaven or hell.
One day, a soldier named Nobushige came to Master Hakuin. He asked: “Is there really a heaven and a hell?”
Hakuin immediately confronted him – “Who are you?”
“I am a samurai,” the warrior replied.
“Ha!” exclaimed Hakuin. “You call yourself a samurai! 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 out his sword.
Hakuin, unafraid, continued his insults: “So you have a little sword, do you! That piddly thing is probably much too dull to cut off my head.”
Red faced with anger, Nobushige drew out his sword and held it over the teacher.
Hakuin calmly remarked: “Here you have opened the gates of hell!”
These words struck the samurai like a fist. Awakened by the shock, Nobuhige clearly perceived the situation and realized the master’s wisdom. He sheathed his sword and knelt in supplication.
“Here” said Hakuin, “you have opened the gates of heaven.”