Master Wumen’s Gateless Gate, Case 5
The Main Case
Master Xianyan Zhixian said, “It is like a person up a tree who hangs from a branch by their mouth; their hands can’t grasp a bough, their feet can’t touch the tree. Someone else comes underneath the tree and asks the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West. If the person does not answer, they do not meet the questioner’s need. If they answer, they lose their life. At such a time how should they answer?”
Even though your eloquence flows like a river, it is all to no avail. Even if you can expound the Great Tripitaka, it is also of no use. If you can really answer it, you will revive the dead and kill the living. If, however, you are unable to answer, wait for Maitreya to come and ask him.
Xianyan Zhixian is just gibbering;
How vicious his poison is!
Stopping up the monks’ mouths
He makes their devil’s eyes glare!
How vicious his poison is!
Stopping up the monks’ mouths
He makes their devil’s eyes glare!
We should be able to identify with this person up the tree. There we are, hanging by our mouth, unable to take hold of the branch or trunk, with nothing to secure ourselves. Just at that moment, someone comes and asks for help, “What is the truth of Zen?” They have a need that is great, and only we can respond. If we do, we sacrifice ourselves and fall to our death. If we don’t answer, we put our own interests before another. What are we to do? This is a classic koan that presents us with an impenetrable barrier: either way we choose, something is lost.
Although Xianyan Zhixian’s challenge points to all the dualities of life, we can use it to clarify our understanding of right action, the practice and fulfillment of our bodhisattva vows. One of the dominant currents in Western Buddhism is engaged Buddhism. This has come to be understood as a Buddhism that is involved in social action—environmental issues, helping the homeless, working with people dying of AIDS, or any kind of serious human social problem. Engaged Buddhism should address these problems in a way that is distinctly Buddhist. But what does that mean? Do practitioners of the Dharma, in fact, have something unique to contribute as we respond to the cries of the world?
If we’re to understand what it is to be engaged, then we must understand commitment. This is an important part of Zen training; indeed it is implicit in any spiritual practice. The dictionary defines commitment as “an engagement that restricts one’s choices.” Isn’t this precisely why so many of us do not want to make commitments? Our notion of freedom is to have as many choices as possible. Following this logic, people with the greatest number of choices would be most free.
Yet so often we see that this is not true. In the same vein, people with the fewest opportunities would be least free; that too is often not the case. This idea of freedom as equated with choice has driven our country’s development and attitudes for hundreds of years. Thus, the more choices we have, the harder it is to make a commitment. We don’t want to acknowledge that we can’t have everything.
Look at what happens in Zen training. When we enter the zendo, we’re asked to make a commitment to utterly engage our zazen, and if we can’t make this commitment, we’re not yet ready to enter. Without that commitment there is no zazen. So what is the commitment? It is that once we take our seat, we will not move away from ourselves. We commit to stillness, to silence, to practice whatever arises in our mind while we are sitting.
When we sit at home, most of us, particularly in the beginning of practice, move away when the pain hurts too much. When there is an itch, we scratch it, and when our mind is troubled we may not sit at all. But when we are in the zendo, we are moved to honor a deeper, larger commitment. We find that in restricting our choices, there is freedom. There is a liberation that far exceeds the “freedom” of moving away from ourselves. It seems paradoxical, but we can appreciate the fact that to make a commitment to one thing frees us to engage it completely, whether it be a relationship, our children, a career, or studying our lives. If we do not make that commitment, we are not yet free within that area of our life.
So what is our practice when—like this person up the tree—our choices have been restricted? What is demanded at this point is real, not abstract or theoretical. This person in the tree is asked to make a commitment: to be immersed in life, and yet not to be attached to it. That is the koan. It seems there are two mutually exclusive things being asked of this person, so how can they possibly respond to both? We vow to save all sentient beings, to alleviate their suffering and help bring them to awakening, and to do this for ourselves as well. The koan of the person up the tree is if they save their own life, they forsake the other; if they tend to the needs of the questioner, they lose their life.
There are many situations where we are the person up the tree. An inmate in our prison sangha comes to me about a situation he’s involved in where he’s being threatened and feels he must respond with violence. I say, “No, not with violence. That rakusu around your neck means something. It’s a vow, a commitment to finding another way to respond.” We explore that. He walks away, and I think, "What if he ends up dead because of what I have encouraged him to do?" I am the person up the tree. Do I get involved or not? Do I not get involved or not?
You go in in the evening to sit, hungry to do some zazen, and your child needs some help with their homework. Our best friend, we find out, is unfaithful to their partner who is also our friend. Somebody at work is lying, cheating, or stealing. What do we do? How do we respond? If we respond to our own self-protective needs, we risk neglecting the needs of the other or the situation. If we respond to the other, then what happens to us? Xianyan asks, “What do we do at just such a time?”
It is one thing to look at this question in terms of the interpersonal relationships between ourselves and others, but when we look at the larger global, environmental, community, and national issues, it is very easy to become paralyzed. Do you reach for the branch or do you respond to the person? While you are sitting there frantically trying to figure it out in your mind, the person walks away disappointed, without being helped. We have to respond without neglecting a single being. This is the incredible beauty of the bodhisattva vow. Yet how can we possibly do this?
Look at the three pure precepts. They begin with not creating evil. But it’s not enough just to stop creating evil. It’s not enough to enter into the stillness and solitude of the mountain. Thus the next pure precept drives us further and says we also must do good. You have to do something, and it needs to be nourishing. Yet even that is not enough. You have to make sure that the good you are doing is for others. Someone else must be the beneficiary of your action.
Most often we have to make choices which seem to leave someone or something out. It seems to be an either/or situation. Realizing oneself and alleviating the suffering of others are not two different things. Realizing wisdom and manifesting compassion are not two different things. How are they the same? How can this person up a tree realize that? How can the response completely fulfill both demands? That is what we’ve got to see. We need to see that in healing others, we heal ourselves, in realizing ourselves we realize others. That is why when the Buddha experienced enlightenment he said, “All sentient beings in this moment have attained the way.”
When we realize our true nature, the inherent emptiness and interdependence of all things, we realize the cessation of suffering: that all beings are buddhas and that they depend on us. Because there is no longer any obstruction called the self, we are free to respond as Avalokiteshvara, the one who hears the cries of the world. When we offer ourselves to others without any self-consciousness, we manifest the life of a bodhisattva.
To the extent we are not able to give freely, we can see how the idea of a separate self constricts us. As long as we are attached to the self, how do we know what we are hearing? Am I hearing your cry? Or am I only hearing what I think you’re saying, what I think you should be saying given your situation? In other words, if I am seeing through my own conditioning, I am not seeing you at all. I am not hearing you at all. I may respond, but will it be true compassion?
It is a very different response when we hear the cry through the ears of the one who is crying, when we see suffering through the eyes of the one who is suffering. Then the response is entirely natural. It is healing yourself through healing others. That’s why when we talk about engaged Buddhism, it’s essential that our activity comes forth from this experience of “I and all beings thus attain the Way.” In a sense, the whole notion of engaged Buddhism is redundant. If we are not engaged, then what kind of Buddhism is it? Not Zen. Not Mahayana. Not the raising of the bodhi mind and practice of the bodhisattva path.
So, the word “engaged” is really extra. We could just say “Buddhism.” Implicit in this is the compassionate activity of utter engagement. Or we could just say "engaged." Totally engaged in the sense Master Dogen was talking about: “In life, totally immersed in life without attachment. In death, totally immersed in death without attachment.”
Of course, this easily breaks down when you are the one in the tree. Wumen in his commentary to this koan says, Even though your eloquence flows like a river it is all to no avail. Even if you can expound the Great Tripitaka it is of no use. In other words, even if you respond with the most eloquent Dharma or a beautiful analysis of the situation, it doesn’t matter. It hasn’t solved the problem. Why? Because in that moment intellectual understanding doesn’t help the person in the tree.
However, If you can really answer it, you will revive the dead and kill the living. Those stuck in the tree are liberated, and those lost in the mountains can suddenly hear their neighbor’s cry. Wumen says: But if, however, you are unable to answer, wait for Maitreya to come. Maitreya is the Buddha of the future who will come to your aid aeons into the future. Wumen sticks our faces in our inability to respond. Are we willing to wait for help, or will we clarify this right now?
In Wumen’s poem he says, Xianyan Zhixian is just gibbering, how vicious his poison is. Stopping up the monks’ mouths, he makes their devils eyes glare. Xianyan Zhixian shows how much he cares through his willingness to create great discomfort in the minds and hearts of those he is teaching. He knows how painful our situation is because he has been there. He has been the one up the tree. He also knows that there is only one way through. That is the koan.
When we go into dokusan and are tested on the koan, what we are being tested on is our ability to respond to reality. It is not a game. It is not a performance. Wumen offers us this poison and asks us to take it in, to be affected by it, to allow ourselves to feel the extreme discomfort of our delusion. Perhaps our disease will move us to stop talking and thinking for just a moment, and see through into the place that is free of you and I. There we see the one who hears the cries and responds without knowing. We realize that being Buddhist and being engaged are the same thing, that wisdom and responding to our lives freely are one and the same.
In each moment you meet one dharma. In each moment you practice one dharma. Isn’t this the nature of our living and dying? So please take care of your practice, because what you do affects us all. Practice as though your life depends on it, because it does.