A soldier went to a Zen master and asked, “tell me, is there really a Heaven and Hell?” The master looked at him and exclaimed, “who are you?” “I’m a Samurai warrior”, came the reply. “A warrior!” Mocked the master, “what kind of king would have you for a guard?” Look at you, you look like a beggar!” The warrior became very angry and made to draw his sword. “So, you have a sword do you”? The master continued to mock. “That sword is probably so blunt it wouldn’t even be able to sever my head. ” The warrior flew into a rage, drew his sword and raised it above his head. “Behold! The gates of Hell”, said the master. The warrior, realising what was happening returned his sword to its scabbard and bowed his head in humble apology. “Behold! The gates of Heaven”, said the master.
This informs us that Heaven and Hell are not places that we go to; they are states of mind that we create for ourselves. It also illustrates how Zen is about direct experience and not the expounding of philosophy. The soldier came to the master with a very relevant question, but rather than become the orator, the master allowed him to experience directly how he could create his own Heaven or Hell. When the soldier understood what was going on he dropped his ego, thus closing the “gates of Hell”, which were opening up before him; in doing so he unlocked the “gates of Heaven”.