A priest said, ‘It is as though you are a person up 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?’
~ Gateless Barrier, Case 5
Predicaments and dilemmas. If at times in our lives these challenges seem endless, it is because they are. Boyfriend stopped calling. Job is looking shaky. Dog is sick. As soon as one dilemma fades away, others step up to take its place. Our practice in Zen is not to find a better boyfriend, better job or a good veterinarian (though we encourage all of those). It is to see that the predicaments themselves are the solution.
There are a number of these kinds of ‘predicament koans’ in our various collections, including chances to save a cat, invitations to step off a 100-foot pole, and opportunities to left your leg to show how strong you are. It is easy to explain these koans as chances to play with problems in a safe environment. But they are much more than that. These koans are our lives themselves.
I have been chewing on Up a Tree myself for the last week, and it has felt like a slow-burning fire throughout my body. Riding the train, drinking coffee, wrestling with it while I sleep at night, there it is for me, I am up a tree. I have lots of predicaments facing me: the kids are going off to college for the first time, I have growing awareness of aging, and I also have concerns of illness in the family. And yet here I am, my teeth locked onto that branch, holding on with all my might, and holding on with all my might, and holding on with all my might…