Master Xiangyan said to the sangha, “What if you are hanging by your teeth from a tree on a thousand foot cliff, with no place for your hands to hold or your feet to step on? All of a sudden someone asks you, from below, the meaning of the Ancestor’s coming from India. If you respond, you will lose your life. If you don’t respond, you don’t do justice to the question. At just such a moment, what would you do?”
Then Senior Monastic Hutou came forward and said, “Master, let’s not talk about being in a tree. But tell me, what happens before climbing the tree?”
Xiangyan burst into laughter.
Old Master Xiangyan’s Words are clearly lethal. The only path through this dualistic dilemma is to die the great spiritual death, and realize freedom. How is this accomplished? We should appreciate the fact that the questioner, in asking about the Ancestor’s coming from India, is also “hanging from a tree on a thousand foot cliff.” If you can answer Xiangyan, you will not only free yourself but the questioner as well.
Master Dogen says that, “If we look at this koan with a ‘nonthinking mind,’ we can attain the same real, free samadhi as Xiangyan and grasp its meaning even before he has opened his mouth.” What is this ‘nonthinking mind’? Setting aside Xiangyan, the tree, and the cliff, you tell me, what is the meaning of the Ancestor’s coming from India? If you open your mouth to answer, you have missed it. If you don’t open your mouth, you are a thousand miles away. The Senior Monastic makes it clear. In the tree, below the tree, before the tree, after the tree—it’s all dirt from the same hole.
Where affirmation and negation merge,
there it is, alone and revealed.
On the solitary mystic peak,
the blue mountains have not a speck of dust.
Dharma practice-realization is to be free in the midst of entanglements, to live real, free samadhi, in birth and death and beyond birth and death. Within the Zen tradition, koan practice developed as a skillful means to help us discover this freedom. A koan works because it presses us to transcend our deeply entrenched dualistic mind, to move beyond thought, beyond all of our ideas and beliefs. An old master said, “If you want to realize the truth, you have to discover it by means of what is true.” So while the koan may appear as an entanglement, this entanglement is not outside of our personal mind.
This is a well-known and wonderful koan. Master Xiangyan says, “What if you are hang- ing in a tree by your teeth, your hands can’t touch the branch, your feet can’t touch the trunk, the tree is suspended from a thousand foot cliff.” What does that mean? In such a situation, we might become very concerned with the tree, the branch, the cliff, the distance to the ground; our jaws may begin to ache. We would be concerned with how we got there, with what would happen next. Our biggest concern of all would be getting ourselves out of this situation.
Master Dogen says, “Now quietly examine the words. What if you were hanging by your teeth from a branch on a tree on a thousand foot cliff? What is you? What is the you that is hanging by your teeth?” Master Dogen brings us to the heart of the matter. What is this you? If we want to go beneath the surface of our life, if we want to discover the fundamental truth, then we have to ask the fundamental question: Who am I? Koans are a powerful and spiritually dangerous way of practicing because they use words and language to bring us beyond words and language. Master Xiangyan offers this moment in the tree—one that occurs throughout our lives—as a way of moving beyond all ideas of who we think we are.
To Enter Into This Koan as direct pointing is to be this very person, hanging from this tree by your teeth, suspended on this thousand foot cliff. Now, there are different ways that we can be in such a predicament, different ways of hanging. There is hanging in darkness, with our eyes closed, lacking awareness that we are hanging. This is seeing samsara as true reality, perceiving pain as pleasure, seeing the impermanent as permanent.
There is hanging in the darkness with one eye open—now we are aware that we are hanging, but our awareness is dim, partial. We apprehend some aspects of our situation, but we don’t understand how we got there. It may seem as if others are responsible for making this happen to us. Master Dogen says, “Remember, you climbed up this tree.” “One eye open” means we’re beginning to perceive the situation more clearly, and may want to break the cycle, but are still bound by our habit energies.
We can hang from the tree as two, with distance between ourself and our experience, a distance that breeds fear and alarm. And then there is hanging as one—one undivided activity reaching everywhere and in all directions. There is no hindrance, therefore there is no fear. There is just this. Body and mind are freed of body and mind; no thing is born and no thing can perish. But then all of a sudden, somebody on the ground below looks up and says, “Hey, why did the Ancestor come from India?”
This is an old question that has been used in the Zen tradition to express “What is the real truth?” Xiangyan says if you don’t answer the question, then you are ignoring the needs of this person, and in that selfishness, you miss the truth of the Dharma. If you answer the question, you must let go of the branch and lose your life. What will you do?
Where affirmation and negation merge,
there it is, alone and revealed.
On the solitary mystic peak,
the blue mountains have not a speck of dust.
When it is you hanging in the tree, and another standing on the ground, where is the place that “affirmation and negation merge?” The Faith Mind poem says, “The Way is perfect like vast space, not a speck of excess or lack. It is due to our choosing to grasp or reject that we don’t see the real nature of things.” From within the mind of grasping and rejecting, hanging from this tree is definitely a problem. So take the backward step and go to the “solitary mystic peak” to realize the mind free of hindrances.
When we receive initial instruction in zazen, we are encouraged to not turn away from arising discomfort. This is the begin- ning of the inner revolution. When we give up our attempt to avoid discomfort, we begin to taste real freedom. When we turn toward hanging in the tree with “no hindrance in the mind,” it is not different but not the same. This “hanging in the tree” is our life from the moment our consciousness appears. It is the first noble truth of dukkha; it is Thoreau’s “Most people live lives of quiet desperation”; it is our hesitation in life and our denial of death. It can be a place of deep self concern and clinging. It can be the pivot of our bodhicitta arising.
When this person, a bodhisattva of compassion, comes along and asks for our help, this is every moment when we perceive the duality that creates opposition between myself and yourself, my liberation and your needs, my convenience and the cries of the earth. Aren’t we all hanging from the cliff? Is there anyone who doesn’t find themselves facing such a moment?
The Nature Of All Attachments is to turn what is vast and boundless into something small and confined. In that smallness everything appears to exist as a separate island. I am on my island hanging from the tree, and you are on your island on the ground below. It all seems so real. Yet this is false seeing. If I live in the stream of my attachments–my conceit, my vanity, the things I identify with–those streams only lead in one direction: suffering. Is there another path? A path of real truth?
The Buddha has no fixed form. That’s why the teachings demand that if we want to live freely we must have no abiding attachment to anything. This includes enlightenment. When we try to preserve anything, we are trying to hang on to some sense of solid ground, of permanence, of control, but all the while we are moving through groundlessness, timelessness, spaciousness. When do we feel fear? When we feel distance. Only when we stand apart is there fear. And standing apart has nothing to do with feet or miles; we can be making love with someone and be a thou- sand miles away. We can be a thousand miles away and be completely intimate.
Hanging from this branch, someone asks for help. How do you take care of yourself and take care of the other person? Do you go sit on your cushion, or do you help your child with their homework? Do you turn inwards to develop your own spiritual practice, or do you turn outwards and address the needs of the world? Do you live in the present moment or do you plan for the future? From within the thinking mind, these can appear as conflicts. It appears to us that we are facing a choice between one side and the other. This is what Xiangyan is saying, “If you choose one, you forsake the other.” Who gets forsaken?
The most painful stories in human history are those where one person’s, or one group’s needs are pitted against another’s. In our more selfish and narrow-minded moments, we choose the one who is most like ourselves, who most affirms our sense of self, or gratifies our desires: I am this. This is me. This is mine. We can more easily forsake the one who is not me, or less like me, the one who makes me uncomfortable.
A practitioner might mistakenly see this as a choice between their own awakening and being selflessly compassionate for others. From the realm of dualistic thinking this is a dilemma. That’s why people speak of koans as paradoxes, but they only appear so because of the way our habitual mind sees them. This case also shows how these koans are based in groundless wisdom merged with compassion; they are not abstract or theoretical.
Recently, I Was At A Western Buddhist teacher’s conference, during which we spent time examining two critical issues for sanghas in the U.S., climate change and encouraging greater diversity within our practice com- munities. These are such essential present imperatives of our vow to alleviate the suffer- ing in and of our world. One of the presenters talked about how homo sapiens means know- ing beings, wise beings, and how we need to be cultivating and awakening to homo universalis. In buddhadharma, this is one mind, the mind of all sentient beings, Buddha mind. It’s the mind of rocks and trees. It’s the nondual, nondifferentiation—and non-nondifferentiation—of male and female, of all racial identities, all genders and sexualities, all ways of being. That’s our nature. And if we are not embodying this unity, then we are suffering.
Dogen says, “All of a sudden, someone under the tree asks you, what is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from India? This question may suggest that there is someone under the tree.” It may suggest that. What does he mean? What is you? What is other? He says that, “It may be a person-tree. There is a person under a person. Thus the tree questions the tree. The person questions the person. The entire tree is the entire question.” Dogen is speaking from the mind of homo universalis, from the enlightened, unified, unobstructed mind that is not deceived by the appearance of things as inherently divided and distinct.
The great inner truths are not separate from the outer truths. Issues of equality, of social justice, of climate change, are, at their heart, spiritual matters. As we practice, we begin to see that there is no inner and outer, that self and other are interdependent and non-dual. We recognize the great responsibility we have as human beings, the power that we have to do great good without disregarding anyone or anything?
I Don’t Want To Talk About being in the tree,” senior monastic Hutou says, and asks instead, “What happens before climbing the tree?” Xiangyan bursts into laughter. Before, during and after, Xiangyan is laughing. The meaning of his laughter is not just being cheerful, his “laughter” is not just in his laughter; he’s showing us how to be free in that very moment. Xiangyan is taking care of the one in the tree, the one on the ground— and no one is left out.
The important thing with this koan, as with every koan, is to go to the place where there are no ideas, no interpretations. Let go for the moment of any idea of how to make this work in your life. So that it can truly work in our lives, we need to move beyond all ideas, to allow the personal body-mind to fall away, and then embody this realization in the world. Xingyan’s laughter is not caught in hanging, he’s not caught in answering the person and he is not ignoring the person. He’s not identifying with the person in the tree, with the cliff, or with the space below; he is not being kind, but his selflessness bursts forth with kindness. Do you understand?
When we cling to spiritual practice, we might think that if we meditate and liberate ourselves, that this is liberation. This is not enough. As Buddhists, we can really deceive ourselves here, thinking that we are fulfilling our potential just by seeing deeply into the nature of reality. And so Dogen says we should quietly examine “what we call our- selves.” This means to also examine what we call the world. When we de-value one thing, we de-value everything. When we degrade one place, we degrade everywhere; we can’t contain it. And we have created powerful systems that are based on devaluation and degradation, systems that are complex, sophisticated, deeply entrenched, and relied upon. These are the systems that create the oppression of poverty, class, racism, sexism and all forms of suffering.
The Buddha Realized there is no peace in the world if there is no peace in our hearts. They arise together; they are mutually dependent. We can’t liberate ourselves unless we are helping to liberate everyone. This is not a choice, or something we sign on for or opt out of. This is just the nature of our universe.
How do we practice homo universalis in the many worlds, among the many beings? The whole world is the tree. The whole world is the cliff, and the person asking the question. Master Dogen said, “What Xiangyan means, is that you should dare to respond, and just lose your life.” Just lose your life. Just give up your attachment to the idea of life. Be that daring, that courageous, that loving. That’s why Bodhidharma said that to let go of the self is the greatest act of generosity.
So let us all practice a path that is real and true. Let us be dedicated to that. I encourage all of us to make sure that path includes everything: your wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. If it is a true path, it will challenge you. You will be uncomfortable. But, as Shantideva says, this is like the pain we feel along the way to the season of great peace.
I offer a simple poem:
All here, all now,
all oceanic, all distinct.
All along, no one has deceived you,
All along the troublemaker has been you.
take your bright and burning light
and trouble-make awake
the tree that hangs in your mouth.
Don’t you see?
The whole great earth
rests so perfectly
in your own hands.
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei is the Head of the Mountains and River Order and the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of New York City.
The True Dharma Eye is a modern English translation of Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koan Shobogenzo, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and John Daido Loori Roshi, with Daido Loori’s commentary, capping verse and footnotes.