Kyogen said, “Its like a man up in a tree, hanging from a branch with his mouth; his hands can’t grasp a bough, his feet won’t reach one. Under the tree there is another man, who asks him the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west. If he doesn’t answer, he evades his duty. If he answers, he will lose his life. What should he do?
What does it mean to be up the tree like the person Kyogen is speaking about? If we respond to the question we will fall and probably die. However, if we do not speak, we ignore the questioner and fail in our responsibility to the Dharma. Does this seem like an absurd dilemma the Master has created for us? Perhaps, and yet it can be understood in such a way that it’s remarkably relevant to our lives today.
Why is this man clinging to the branch? Because he does not want to fall. He does not want to die as he meets the ground below. However he is clinging to an illusion, the illusion that death can be indefinitely avoided or averted. Eventually he and every one of us will crash, passing into oblivion. It is inevitable, not matter how healthy and strong any of us living up the tree are, eventually our jaws will tire and our grip will fail. Yet we live our lives as if that will never happen. And what is the price of that avoidance of death for this man and for all of us as well? His life is spent clinging by his teeth to the branch. He is unable to speak, to teach, to express and manifest the Dharma. He lives and yet he misses all of life by clinging and vainly trying to preserve life. Continue reading