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Xiangyan’s man up a tree

Mumonkan, case 5

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Sep 12, 2007
In topic: Koan Studies
Mumonkan, case 5

 

This talk is available in Spanish translation. See Mumonkan, caso 5: El hombre colgado del árbol de Xiangyan

Case:

Xiangyan said: `It’s like a man hanging in a tree by his teeth over a
precipice. His hands grasp no branch, his feet rest on no limb, and at the
bottom of the tree someone stands and asks him: `What is the meaning of
Bodhidharma’s coming from the West ?'
`If the man in the tree does not
answer, he fails in his responsibility to the person below; and if he does
answer, he falls and loses his life. Now what shall he do?'



Mumon's comment:

In such a predicament the most talented eloquence is no use.
Even if you have memorized all the sutras, you cannot use them. When you can
respond correctly, you give life to those who are dead, and kill those who
have been alive. But if you cannot respond correctly, you should wait and ask
the Buddha, Maitreya.



Mumon’s verse:

Xiangyan is truly a fool
Spreading that unlimited
ego-killing poison
He closes up his pupils' mouths
And covers their
whole body with demon eyes.


In connection with this case the story of Xiangyan’s awakening is always told. It seems that like a lot of Zen adepts, Xiangyan, was an intellectual: a student of the sutras. It’s interesting that in Zen such scripture specialists are usually made fun of but the fact of the matter is most of the great Zen masters past and present were highly literate people. And even though it is repeated over and over that you need to have real concrete experience, the fact is that insofar as Zen practice centers on the understanding of Zen literature, which it certainly does to some great extent, Zen is a very literary religious tradition.

In these stories usually the literary person exhausts his or her intellectual abilities and out of frustration burns his library and goes off in despair. That’s the typical Zen trope, and it is exactly what happens in the story of Xiangyan. He is asked by his teacher to express his understanding, and he racks his brain and searches his notes but he cannot answer the question, “Who were you before your parents were born?” He says to Guishan, his teacher, I have no answer to this, please teach me; but Guyishan says, I have nothing to teach you, and even if I had, if I explained it to you you would hate me for it later. Besides, whatever understanding I might have is my own, it will never be yours.

Well this is a pretty good response from the teacher, I think. And it is not a joke or a pedagogical technique, it is literally the case. The fruit of practice isn't the conceptual understanding of something, or an experience of something; it’s a feeling we have for life; a way we live our life; and even though zen is zen and we all come to see the same thing about our life through the practice, it really is unique for each one of us because each of us is living out a different dilemma. So we have something to share- but also each of us has to find out for himself. It’s unusual for a teacher to be clear about this, so I admire Guishan for his response.

So Xiangyan goes off and burns his sutra texts and notes and goes to take care of the gravesite of an eminent teacher. He just works there every day quietly sweeping up and clearing the grounds. A nice job, I think, and probably a great relief to Xiangyan. Wittgenstein worked at a Catholic monastery as a gardener toward the end of his life, I think, and I always thought that was wonderful. It’s harder to do such a thing now though- somehow there isn't social support for grave keepers or gardeners. You have to own the cemetery or the landscape business to be able to survive. Being a menial laborer is less possible as an option than it once was. That’s too bad. Anyway, one day Xiangyan was sweeping and a stone skipped up and struck a hallow bamboo- tock!- and with that sound he was awakened. He ran to his hut, took a bath, got all dressed up, and offered incense in gratitude to his teacher for not telling him anything.

I would like to make a few points about this story. First, how do we study and think about things? Well my idea is that we have to do that as poets. I think Zen practice- and I would extend that and say religious practice in general- has a poetic approach. By that I mean that the style of thinking and studying isn't logical or cumulative, emphasizing reasoning or the amassing of data; rather it’s experiential, and whatever connections are made are made by feel, and according to what one knows deeply within one’s heart, rather than by sticking to some sort of scholasticism or following some thread of reasoning about doctrine. Of course all religions including Zen have scholastic traditions that involve logic and the accumulation of data and so on, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s interesting. But the real juice of any tradition, it’s transformative pivot point, can never be scholastic. It’s always about some poetic turn of mind or heart, some epiphany. So it’s ok to study and read. It’s not that you should become an illiterate. It’s good to study and read.

But there are many ways to read: you can read with your mind or with your belly or with your breath or with your heart. The way we ought to read is all those ways. I often advise people- read a little bit after you sit. Maybe for ten or fifteen minutes. Just read a few paragraphs. Let the words sink in. If they float out of your head, fine. If they stay in your gut even better. If you come to something that seems important, stop there and just breathe with the words. If it is really important write it down and put the words on your altar and breathe with them during the day. This is reading with the lungs and spleen. So in the old stories when it says the monk burned his books, or when it talks about illiterate masters, like the 6th ancestor, I think it is not telling us to stop studying; I think it is pointing to a particular way to study.

The second point I want to make about this story is that it seems to involve a crisis- as Zen stories often do. It seems as if some sort of actual crisis is necessary in spiritual practice in order to finally see what you need to see. Not a hoked up crisis created for the sake of enlightenment, but a real crisis, a real dark night of the soul.

I have several friends who are going through such crises. It’s an interesting thing. All of them are very successful, they have achieved much in their careers, they are happily married, their children are in great shape, their health is good, and nothing particularly challenging is going on in their lives. And yet all of them- each one in a different way-are going through a really difficult time- a life and death time. It’s hard to explain- it is something inside that they may not talk about much, and I am sure most of the people who know them have no idea that this is going on. And yet, these crises are very real.

You come to a point in your life I think where you realize you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You realize that you are holding onto something and you can’t let it go and you know you have to let it go. This becomes something immense and you can’t seem to find any way to let it go even though the misery it is causing you becomes very intense.

That’s what happens to Xiangyan in this story. And he does what I would do in such a case: he abandons his life and makes things very very simple, very quiet. He just devotes himself to some simple work. Now I realize that for my friends it isn't possible to abandon their families and careers and go take care of a graveyard. In some cases such a thing might actually be possible; but mostly even if it were possible it would be some kind of romantic flight, a way of running away from the problem. Still, though, my friends can find a way of making themselves internally quiet. Of recognizing the nature of the crisis and turning toward that, of letting go as much as possible of extra things and frivolous things. Of evaluating everything they do and asking, is this really necessary or is it just one more thing I am doing automatically, without really needing to. And then even the things they do need to do they can do more slowly, and with a sense of renunciation. Renunciation- the recognition that everything must be given up in the end- and even now must be given up- is already given up- this is what they need to get used to. This is the solution to the crisis. It’s what Xiangyan does, he renounces his big interesting literary Ch’an and sweeps graveyard paths.

And then tock!- very dramatically it becomes clear to him. So this is a story, yes? Our own solutions might not sound so dramatic or so clear. But they might, and in any case within the context of our own lives they will certainly be as dramatic.

The interesting thing I want to note about this is that in Zen stories such moments never come about in meditation practice. They always occur in moments of relationship. Usually it’s an exchange between two monks. It might also be, oddly enough,when hearing something read or recited. And sometimes, like here, it is with an act of perception- the ear organ meeting the heard object. And this is what brings it about- a meeting.

Lately I have been reading Martin Buber’s “I and Thou,” and I have been astounded at how much it reminds me of this Zen experience. Buber says that all real living, all deep living, is only meeting, true meeting. A relationship that is so intimate that the two utterly alter each other in the process. A relationship, he says, that only takes places in the radical present moment- and only lasts that long. In such a relationship there is no time and no space, and such relationships are not experiences. He is insistent on this point- they are not experiences. They occur but they are not experiences. It’s not that the two merge- there is still I and there is still you. But both are created in that moment by virtue of the giving up of everything that occurs on that moment of relationship.

In this story Xiangyan relates to the world- he actually relates to the fact of hearing something; he hears something for the first time and he is created all over again as a person. When you actually hear something the whole world is in your ear. Your life is changed forever. What could you be looking for at a time like that? How could you feel incomplete? I think when Xiangyan heard that tock! he didn't care whether he lived or died and all his accomplishments and failures, all his happiness or sadness, was entirely unimportant. The story doesn't go on past what I have told you but I am sure that after this Xiangyan felt like going out and meeting the world on all occasions. As in the tenth ox herding picture, he was ready now to go out with his big bag of goodies trying to have fun with everyone he met, and to help out a little if he could. Maybe he did that in the graveyard, I don’t know. But I am sure that was his feeling.

So the main case- Xiangyan’s man up a tree- is a fable about this person in the middle of crisis. Hanging onto his life by his teeth, ready to fall to his death below. This is certainly a crisis. And it’s the crisis of every moment of our lives of course. It’s the crisis of time itself. Even if there had been no one asking annoying questions below it would still be a crisis- after all, you can’t hold on up there forever- but I find it interesting that the urgency of the issue comes from the fact that the man in the tree knows he is responsible to others. He is responsible to the person below asking the question. It’s because he is responsible to others that he has to take the situation in hand, that he really has to do something. But, as with the most intimate things in our lives, whatever he does is wrong. There is no solution to his dilemma.

In his commentary to this case, Shibayama-roshi quotes someone who says, “what about when he has fallen from the tree, what is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west then?” And Shibayama adds, “and if he hangs from the tree, just as he is hanging, the essence of Zen is manifest there. Here and now, just as it is, this is it.”

Zen Master Baiyan, commenting on this case, said , “Xiangyan made the whole earth into a glowing furnace, its fierce flames reaching to the sky.”

There is no way out of here: that’s a definition of life. There is no way for us to escape our responsibility to others and there is no way for us to really embrace impermanence. Also there is no way for us to ignore our human problem- we have to go right into it, to hang there in that tree. Of course there’s no solution to this koan, it’s not as if it were a problem with a trick or clever solution, as if your life were a problem with a trick or clever solution. There aren't any solutions, tricky or otherwise, and this is why our life’s issues are only in the end resolved through renunciation, through letting go entirely.

When you let go entirely, and recognize that it is easy to do this since you never really had anything to begin with, including your own life, then you can do the things you need to do. You can hurt someone if there is no way not to hurt them, and you can live with that. You can let someone or something go if that is what you have to do. Also you can enjoy loving someone knowing that each day of that loving them is a precious day, the first and last day of loving them. You are not looking for happy endings. You are not trying to tie up loose ends. You do your best of course but you know there’s really no hope for that. Suffering is endless and all of us are entirely alone in the center of the world.

I am a practical person and I always think- what does any of this that I am saying amount to? Why do I waste my time talking about it? People go about their business anyway, and what does this sort of thing do for anyone?

Well I do feel that if you sit every day and make your sitting into a furnace, burning up your whole life, in other words, if you situate yourself in the middle of your life but not in the middle of your thoughts or emotions or ideas- and you plunge into that very large space, and recognize that this is where we all always live- if you can do that then I think you can also recognize and remind yourself about renunciation all the time, and you can practice it. If you do it will begin to affect your state of mind and also your conduct. You will realize that it makes no sense at all to hold onto yourself and your own desires. You can have a good time, no problem. But don’t hold on. And then it will be possible for you to dangle there, just breathing. If you fall actually it won’t make that much difference- falling and dangling are both forms of dangling anyway.

Mumon's comment:

In such a predicament the most talented eloquence is no use.
Even if you have memorized all the sutras, you cannot use them. When you can
respond correctly, you give life to those who are dead, and kill those who
have been alive. But if you cannot respond correctly, you should wait and ask
the Buddha Maitreya.


“give life to those who are dead,” means yourself as well as others- you wake up for the first time to seeing and hearing and speaking and listening. You can see what’s really at stake in our lives and begin living that out. And when you do that you become an example for others.

“kill those who have been alive” means you don’t any longer have to worry about all the obsessions and confusions that had plagued you before. When they arise you know them for what they are, instances of suffering that have clear causes, and once you see the causes you can let go of them and reduce the suffering. Now your problems are real problems, big problems, not the usual kind.

Mumon’s verse:

Xiangyan is truly a fool
Spreading that unlimited
ego-killing poison
He closes up his pupils' mouths
and covers their
whole body with demon eyes.


The students listing to Xiangyan tell this story were dumbfounded- they couldn’t respond. They were freaking out over this difficult seemingly impossible problem. But the problem is easy- it is their minds that are difficult. They think there’s a solution but the solution is in the letting go of the problem, as is usually the case. If it were me I would have screamed out help! help! help! save me! save me! then would have plunged to my death happily.