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Kyogen's "Man Up A Tree"

The Gateless Barrier

The priest Hsiang-yen said, " It is as though you were up in a tree, hanging from a branch with your teeth. Your hands and feet can't touch any branch. Someone appears beneath the tree and asks, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?" If you do not answer you evade your responsibility. If you do answer you lose your life. What do you do?"

Wu-men's Comment

Even if your eloquence flows like a river, it is all in vain. Even if you can expound cogently the whole body of Buddhist literature, that too is useless. If you can respond to this dilemna properly, you give life to those who have been dead and kill those who have been alive. If you can't respond, you must wait and ask Maitreya about it.

Wu-men's Verse

  • Hsiang-yen is just blabbing nonsense
    his poisonous intentions are limitless
    He stops up the monks' mouths
    making his whole body a demon eye.

We often say here that practice is about how we face difficulty in our lives, and in this case Kyogen presents us with a parable of unsolvable difficulty which he nonetheless asks us to somehow respond to. The man under the tree asks, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the West,?" but he might as well ask, what is the meaning of your predicament? And like Bodhidharma's coming, it has no meaning, it just is where we find ourselves, but nonetheless we have to face it, respond to it.

Kyogen's own life story is quite dramatic and is usually included in the commentaries on this case. Apparently as a young monk he had quite a reputation as a scholar, and was very proud of his intellectual understanding of the Buddhist scriptures. This seems to have gone over reasonably well with his first teacher, but when that teacher died he went to study with Isan, who wasn't so impressed. Isan asked him to ask the koan, "What was your original face before the birth of your parents?" We might say "who are you really, before you started reading all those books?" And Kyogen had no answer. Isan's question posed an insoluble problem for him, and he realized that the thing he was most proud of, that he identified himself most completely with , his scholarship, had completely failed him. And in desperation, he asked Isan to tell him the answer. But Isan said "Really I have nothing at all to teach you. And in any case, any understanding I have will always be mine, and can never be yours." Isan is telling him, "Don't ask to borrow my face, you've got your own." But Kyogen still didn't know what to say. Any feeling that he had failed as a monk, he left, and took a job as the caretaker in an old neglected cemetery. All his self-respect as a scholar died. He burned his books, and for years simply did the manual labor of cleaning and sweeping the cemetery and temple grounds. But one day, his broom swept up a little stone that flew up in the air and hit the fence with a loud "tock," and hearing that sound, all of a sudden Kyogen's original face was immediately apparent to him, and he wrote this poem to express what he saw.

It is easy for me to identify with the young Kyogen, all full of pride about this intellectual achievements, and a dozen or so years back, I had to confront a similar moment when all of that failed me. I had just published my first psychoanalytic articles and was invited to give a lecture at a conference along with some rather authors, all of which went straight to my head. But when my bi moment came, and I got up to read my paper to this distinguished audience, I managed to read only a page or two and then I fainted! And the whole self-important self-image I was trying to cultivate came crashing down & I was completely humiliated in front of a hundred or so psychoanalysts, who let me tell you, all had plenty of theories and opinions & diagnoses about why it happened. But what an incident like that can do, and what it did for Kyogen, is restore us to being ordinary, shattering our fantasies of specialness. And our original face turns out to be something very ordinary, right here and now, though all the time we've imagined it to be something very special and esoteric. We imagine that some special quality, or insight or enlightenment experience is going to make us immune from problems once and for all, and sometimes the only thing that finally convinces us of the utter futility of that fantasy is a death, or a serious illness or some personal failure. But we still have to face our life, and we must respond to what it asks of us, even though we learn that no response can free us from simply being human.

As we sit here today, perhaps as the day goes on, sitting here with emotional and physical pain, we can all ask what it is we cling to so tightly, what about ourselves we think we can't let go of at any cost. But in another sense, there is no way to let go of life, short of dying. We sit, we can't move, we're in pain, and inevitably we ask ourselves, what is the meaning of our coming here?


How will you answer?