A priest said, ’How will you step from the top of a hundred-foot pole?’
~ Gateless Barrier, Case 46
Yes indeed, the how of it. I have come to feel in recent years that awakening is found not in soft practice or hard, in deep quiet or robust activity. I think awakening is found at the frontier between the two. It is in that dynamic space between active and passive, holy and profane, that true change becomes possible. But it does take some courage ~ or at least foolishness ~ to move into that space and step off the hundred-foot pole.
Some years ago I was in a very intense sesshin and was striving mightily for enlightenment: I vowed to not to drop my koan for a single breath and got up every night to sit late (against the rules). I was trying to throw everything I had into it. The retreat went very quickly, and now it was the last day. Still no enlightenment; I was beside myself. The head of practice said ‘We have but a few more minutes remaining in this retreat. If there is anyone who wishes to see the Roshi one more time for any reason whatsoever, go right now!’ The whole zendo of 60 people was absolutely still; only the call of a lone cicada broke the silence.
I wanted so badly to get up and take a step toward the interview room. But I began a narrative: People will notice. What right do I have to keep everyone waiting? Will the teacher be mad at me? A single moment passed, then a few more moments. Then the retreat was over. In my bag of memories, that one goes into the pile of missed opportunities.
But then all of us have had lots of missed opportunities. Words not said, kisses not given, notes unwritten, apologies missed. Ain’t it grand that we get so many chances to stumble, to not step? It is a great thing to do, to screw it up over and over again!
That afternoon long ago, when I did not get up, did not take a step, the fact is I had nothing to show the teacher. Nothing.