The Boat Monk Decheng said to Jiashan, “You’ve let down a thousand-foot line. You’re fishing very deep, but your hook is still shy by three inches. Why don’t you say something?”

—from Zen’s Chinese Heritage by Andy Ferguson

Revisiting this koan, my heart identified with the crushing despair Jiashan must have felt from falling just short of his goal of awakening. For years, he had played out a thousand feet of fish line, but still needed three more inches. What frustration, disappointment, and shame he must have felt, that I have felt, and perhaps you, too. “For twenty years I have suffered bitterly,” writes Xuedou in The Blue Cliff Record, ”How many times have I gone into the cave of the Blue Dragon for you?”

Some years ago, in sesshin, I was close to passing the koan “Zhaozhou’s Dog,” but somehow just could not get there. I was three inches short. A few months later at the next sesshin, I felt dull and filled with tears. In dokusan, the roshi looked at me and said, “If I told you, even now—just 80%.” I realized the Mu dog had run off.

But there was a happy outcome in Jiashan’s encounter with the Boat Monk. As Jiashan was about to speak, Decheng knocked him into the water with his oar. When he clambered back into the boat, Decheng yelled at him, “Speak! Speak!” Jiashan tried to speak, but before he could, Decheng struck him again. Suddenly Jiashan attained great enlightenment. He then nodded his head three times.

What did Jiashan realize? It was that he did not need to lay out any more fishing line. That 1,000 feet was the perfect length; three more inches were unnecessary. For Jiashan to realize that, however, he had to allow the universe to come three inches closer. He had to let the ocean floor, the school of fish, the seaweed and urchins come up to him, just a bit.

This being mid-summer, it is one of the few chances I get to unpack my fly-fishing gear and wade into the Truckee River, casting hand-tied flies on the water, trying to convince the sparse trout that my bugs are real. If you need to catch fish for dinner, forget the flies—use worms, salmon eggs, and spinners, in that order. Usually, in several mornings of fishing, I will get four or five strikes and maybe only one fish on the line.

There are some examples of Zen adepts trying their hand at fishing, but they, too, were not very good at it. Xuedou again writes, “Accustomed to scouring the oceans fishing for whales, I regret to find instead a frog crawling in the muddy sand.” 

And then there was the exiled government official, Ziya, who evidently never took a fishing lesson. King Wen came upon him near the Bowl River, sitting three feet away from the water, dangling a straight hook from his pole. The king thought this strange and asked, “How can you catch a fish with a straight hook?” Ziya said, “I only seek fish who turn away from life.”

Just wading and casting in the Truckee was sufficient for me—feeling the cool, clear water flow around my legs, hearing the twittering ouzel call as it flitted from rock to rock, feeling the warmth of first sun thread through the cliffs of granite and Douglas fir. How could anything be out of place, or short, by even an inch?