Tuesday, June 12, 2007


A koan may present a fanciful situation.

A man is hanging from a high tree branch by his teeth. He is asked, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?” If he doesn’t answer he sidesteps his responsibility. If he answers he plummets to the ground. What does the poor guy do?

I’d like to talk about this last koan, which is known as Case 5 in the Mumonkan. Its formal title is “Up a Tree.” In modern terms it could be called “Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle.” Here’s how it goes.

Master Kyogen Osho said, “A man is up in a tree hanging from a branch by his teeth. Someone appears under the tree and calls out, ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?’ If the man does not answer he fails to respond. If he does answer, he will lose his life. In such a situation what would you do?”

Think about it for a moment. Don’t worry, I won’t call for answers.

According to Zen history Kyogen was, in his early years, a learned scholar of Zen, but his erudition kept getting in the way of full awakening. Instead of seeing a situation for what it was he had to analyze it six ways from Sunday and find validation after validation. All of that justification may have been instructive for a scientific mind, but it led Kyogen farther and farther from truth.

His master, Isan, realized what was going on, and he told Kyogen that all the book-learning in the world wouldn’t help in Zen. Isan said “I’m not interested in challenging your wisdom, but I want to ask you one question.”

“Fire away,” Kyogen said, oozing absolute confidence.

Isan asked, “What is your real self, the self that existed before you were born?”

Kyogen’s mind responded like a modern-day computer. It ran through all sorts of permutations and combinations, However, it couldn’t spew out a rapid fire, proper response. In desperation Kyogan asked Isan to explain the question, to reveal the answer.

Isan chuckled and said, “Look, my friend, what I say belongs to my own understanding. I’m not selfish about that and I’m willing to share it with you, but if I spell things out they won’t have any meaning for you."

Kyogen went to his room and combed through all of his books and notes for some comeback to Isan’s query. He couldn’t discover anything, so he trashed the texts and burned his notes. Believing that he’d never understand Zen, he left the area and became a caretaker for the tomb of Chu, a master who had been teacher to the emperor.

Kyogen was so disillusioned with intellectual matters he stopped actively seeking enlightenment, convinced it was far beyond his capacity. He didn’t attempt to decipher the koan, like a cryptologist unravels a scrambled message. He realized that such efforts would only drive the thing away from his comprehension. However, he did continue with zazen.

One day Kyogen was sweeping leaves off a garden path when his broom sent a pebble flying. The pebble struck a thick timber bamboo with a sharp clack!

The sound penetrated Kyogen’s consciousness, and in an instant his mind was unclouded. All the book-learning, all the acquired wisdom, was gone. His realization of the world and his place in it almost caused him to conk out. Instead he laughed until tears ran down his cheeks.

“Of course,” he said aloud. “Of course.” And he bowed in the direction of his former teacher, Isan.

“Distinguished master,” Kyogen said, “I thank you with my entire being. Years ago if you had explained to me the question of what is my real self, the self that existed before I was born your words would have been altogether wasted. Now I know.”

Years later Kyogen posed his koan of a man hanging from a tree branch by his teeth. What does the man do when he’s asked a compelling question?

This was the dilemma in which Kyogen found himself when, with all of his learning, he was unable to answer Isan’s question about his real self. Like the man in the tree, Kyogan had nothing to grab. Books and lecture notes were worthless. Any witty words he might have said would have been inept and would have led to his downfall.

Kyogen composed a verse celebrating his experience:

One clack made me forget my erudition.

What kind of sound was it?

A stone suddenly turned itself into gold.

So, what is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?


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