Up a Tree

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

Reaching for the Pillow

Avalokitesvara_wts
Yunyan asked Daowu, “How does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion use so many hands and eyes?”

Daowu said, “It’s just like a person in the middle of the night reaching in search of a pillow.”

Yunyan said, “I understand.”

Daowu said, “How do you understand it?

Yunyan said, “All over the body are hands and eyes.”

Daowu said, “What you said is all right, but it’s only eighty percent of it.”

Yunyan said, “I’m like this, elder brother. How do you understand it?”

Daowu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.” Continue reading

Ordinary Mind

kim-phucJoshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?”

“Ordinary mind is the Way,” Nansen replied.

“Shall I try to seek after it?” Joshu asked.

“If you try for it, you will become separated from it,” responded Nansen.

How can I know the Way unless I try for it?” persisted Joshu.

Nansen said, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?”

With those words, Joshu came to a sudden realization. Continue reading

Chopping Wood

It is a cold morning in late January. Since wood is the only source of heat I use at this time of year I need to grab my hat and coat and head out to the woodpile in order to warm my home. As I feel the cool air I pause momentarily, realizing my relationship to the cold, the warmth of the fire and the wood. It is a relationship as old as the first humans who gathered by a fire to keep safe and ward off the chill of the night. Now, as then, if I don’t go out and return with my sling of wood, it will be a long cold day. In this simple relationship, my actions have a direct and immediate consequence.

Yet this is a relationship that we in much of the Western world sought to eliminate in the last century, when we brought central heat into our homes. No effort need be expended. No pause to acknowledge of our relationship to the world. Just a spin of the thermostat and the inconvenience of experiencing cold is eliminated. No wonder we respond like petulant children when our link to the blandness of perpetual comfort, the global oil pipeline is threatened. Continue reading

Meeting the Neighbors

Black_bearsThis weekend I met our new neighbors. I recently purchased 10 acres of mature forest land on the slopes of a small mountain in northeastern Vermont. The property is fairly remote, being off grid and on a road that is not plowed in winter. There are only a few buildings along the three miles of the road that is drivable during the summer and fall and most of those are seasonal camps. Only two households reside here year-round. Continue reading

Joshu’s Oak Tree

oak treeI wanted share something with a seasonal theme, given that spring is almost here. I realize that the spring equinox passed several weeks ago; a day on which the season undoubtedly arrived somewhere, perhaps in Maryland or New Jersey. However those of us who have endured the last few weeks punctuated with spells of cool, damp, weather, giving us frequent downpours of frigid rain and flooding the rivers, know that here in Maine spring has not arrived; we are mired in “mud season.” So, I thought that it would be a good time to look at a koan with a pleasant taste of nature to lift our spirits.

From the Mumonkan, Case 37:
A monk asked Joshu in all earnestness. “What is the meaning of the patriarch’s coming from the west?”

Joshu said, “The oak tree there in the garden.” Continue reading

A Stalk of Grass

Caribou LookingWhen the Master was about to die, the head monk asked him, “Your Reverence, a hundred years from now where will you be?” “I shall be a water buffalo at the foot of the hill,” said the Master. “Will it be alright for me to follow you?” asked the head monk. “If you follow me, you must hold a stalk of grass in your mouth,” was Puyuan’s reply.

Puyuan is Nanquan Puyuan. This encounter appears in the Entangling Vines or the Shumon Kattoshu, in the biographical sketch on Nanquan. I find the monk’s question rather curious, why is he asking the Master where he will be a hundred years after his death? Perhaps the question is just what it appears to be, the monk simply wants to learn what the Master believes will happen after death. Nanquan’s response is even more curious. “I shall be a water buffalo at the foot of the hill.” Is he answering the monk’s question as to where he will be long after his death? Continue reading