How our own clinging obstructs our freedom
This week we're looking at case 5 from the Gateless Barrier, aptly named 'Up in a Tree'.
(If you don’t know what the heck a koan is or have never heard of the Gateless Barrier, go back to the first article in this series and read at least the opening section, which will fill you in.)
We'll get into the details of the koan in a moment, but first I'd like to present the verse commentary from Wumen, the compiler of the Gateless Barrier, because it's one of my favourites. (It may also forestall the question of why I only include the main koan in these articles and not Wumen's commentaries...)
Xiangyan is truly inept
His vile poison is limitless
He silences Zen students' mouths
And demon eyes squirt out all over their bodies
Now it all makes sense, right?
The whole tree business
First things first - as usual, the tree is symbolic, so don't waste your time wondering how on earth someone got themselves into that position in the first place.
A subtler question we could ask is why the poor soul hanging from the branch actually needs to answer the question. The koan says 'if he does not answer, he is avoiding the question', but so what? If the alternative is falling to your death, avoiding the question might seem like a pretty sensible strategy.
Sometimes I've seen commentaries to this koan which suggest that the person asking about the meaning of Zen is the Emperor of China, so he's obliged on pain of death to answer (in which case it isn't much of a choice!), but I think that actually detracts from the conundrum here. After all, you might equally well ask why we need to do anything at all. (This theme will recur in case 16, 'Putting on a Formal Vestment at the Sound of a Bell', but that's a few months away yet.) Why can't we simply ignore what's inconvenient, difficult or dangerous? Why should we expose ourselves to risk, especially for the sake of others?
This question can become especially pertinent for people with a deep meditation practice. After a while, we discover deep resources within ourselves - contentment, joy, even bliss. When we have the option of turning inward and finding everything we really want in that moment, why continue to get involved with other people, with all their messy problems and inconsiderate behaviour? Why not - as my teacher puts it - get out the cosmic deck chair and relax?
Ultimately, only you can answer that question for yourself. But I will say that there's a strong emphasis in the Zen tradition on 'returning to the marketplace' after enlightenment, coming back into society and finding ways to be of service. I would argue that, as our insight deepens and we see our sense of self for what it really is, the motivation to engage in self-centred behaviour at the expense of others really falls away, and the only approach that makes sense any more is to get involved in what's going on around you. But that's my answer - you'll have to find your own.
Life, death and tree branches
Koans can be surprisingly violent on the surface, considering that Zen has attracted stereotypes of equanimous monks sitting silently drinking tea while watching the cherry blossoms. A couple of weeks ago, we looked at a story which seemed to focus on a boy's finger being cut off. Now we have another hapless practitioner plummeting to his doom. This Zen thing is dangerous!
Koans are generally heavy on symbolism. There's often a surface meaning which has nothing to do with the deeper insight being pointed toward. Why is this? Maybe the old masters had a sense of humour. Maybe it's a trap for the unwary. Personally I like to see it as a kind of hook - when I read a koan, I often then think to myself 'OK, that makes no sense at all - I wonder what's really going on here?' That sense of wonderment - sometimes called 'Great Doubt' in Zen - is the heart of the koan practice. If you don't care what a story means one way or another, you're unlikely to stay with it long enough to get any insight out of it. But if you find a koan that gets under your skin, that keeps coming back to mind when you have a quiet moment, that just won't leave you alone - that's a recipe for insight.
In this case, we have a graphic, visceral depiction of someone holding on to something for dear life - with his teeth, no less. We might talk about 'getting our teeth into something' to indicate really getting a firm grip on it, rather than just taking a superficial interest. So there's a picture here of someone who is really quite firmly attached to something, and has good reason not to let it go.
We tend to hold our sense of ourselves in this way. We have a very clear, instinctual, deeply rooted sense of 'this is me, this is who I am, this is the kind of person I am,' and when that deep belief in ourselves is threatened, we may react with anger, fear or confusion. Yet Zen practice challenges us in exactly this way, inviting us to ask ourselves 'Who am I?' or 'What is my true nature?', with the implication that what we've believed about ourselves all our lives might not be the whole story after all.
As the practice develops and deepens, we tend to find ourselves confronting our fixed ideas about ourselves, discovering them to be limiting at best and actively harmful at worst. It's common to undergo a kind of 'purification' process, as we find wave after wave of unprocessed psychological 'stuff' coming up in our meditation practice until we finally give it the attention it needs to be fully digested and released. This is typically a long, slow process of being shown what we least want to see about ourselves, and ultimately having to let it go. When we do finally release it, we find that freedom opens up in its wake - now we are no longer fettered by whatever pattern we were holding on to. In the language of the koan, the 'death' of the pattern brings us a new kind of 'life'.
But often we don't want to let it go! It may even be there for a good reason, and perhaps even appear to serve a useful purpose. For example, I have pretty bad social anxiety in certain situations. As a kid, I wasn't particularly socially astute, and would often find myself making social blunders that would earn me a round of mockery from my peers. After that had happened enough times, some part of me learnt that social situations are fundamentally unsafe, and, honestly, maybe it would be better just to avoid them altogether. OK, it's a bit limiting, but at least it avoids the pain of yet another social catastrophe. These days I have much better social skills, and although I still screw things up from time to time, social interaction isn't anything like the minefield it used to be - but the part of me that wants to run a mile from any group of people is taking a while to get the message. All I can really do is be patient, and keep chipping away at it, little by little.
This sense of letting go of something close to one's heart was very much personal for Zen Master Xiangyan, whose koan this is. In his earlier life, Xiangyan had been a great scholar, collecting, studying and writing many books about Buddhism. One day, he encountered a Zen teacher, Weishan, who challenged him to answer another classic koan ('Before you were born, what was your original face?' - we'll see another version of this question in case 23 of the Gateless Barrier). No matter what Xiangyan said, however, Weishan rejected his answers. Xiangyan searched far and wide in his books and notes, but nothing would satisfy the master. In sadness and desperation, Xiangyan finally uttered the famous phrase 'A painting of a rice cake cannot satisfy hunger', left behind all his books - his life's work up to that point - and took up the study of Zen himself. So, if it's any consolation, when we find ourselves struggling to let go, Xiangyan knows how we feel.
What are you holding on to?
Well, if Xiangyan can do it, so can we. One way to start is by asking ourselves a simple question: 'What am I holding on to?' To put it another way, 'What am I unwilling to let go of?'
It's important to say that 'letting go' doesn't have to mean 'getting rid of'. You don't have to give away all your possessions. But do you have any possessions you feel you simply couldn't live without? What about relationships? What aspects of your life are so foundational that you couldn't imagine being without them - and how would it be if they went away? As Guo Gu puts it in his commentary on the Gateless Barrier, don't you realise that whatever can be gained will be lost?
One approach to exploring this question is to work with five themes that the historical Buddha recommended that we reflect on frequently (and which have now become known as the Five Daily Recollections or Five Daily Reflections, probably because 'frequently' was kinda imprecise and someone decided to nail it down). I don't bring these up all that often in my Wednesday night class, because I get a lot of beginners coming through and these can be a bit of a bummer at first, but spending some time exploring these themes, especially in the quiet environment of a retreat but also more generally, can be profoundly eye-opening.
To work with these as a contemplation, one approach is simply to settle into meditation, bring up any one of these themes, and then sit with it for a while. Think about it, see how the theme applies to your own life, explore its implications. If you have enough time, you can work through all five - but don't short-change them. You can profitably spend an entire meditation period on any one of these.
Another way to explore the themes is to use some additional 'probes', follow-up questions along the same lines. My teacher Leigh Brasington and fellow jhana teacher Mary Aubry have developed a thorough exploration of the Five Daily Reflections which is really quite excellent; you can find that here.
Whichever approach you take, I hope you get down from the tree safely.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.