Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Mumonkan - Case 5: Kyogen's "Man Up a Tree"

The Case:

Kyõgen Oshõ said, "It is like a man up in a tree hanging from a branch with his mouth; his hands grasp no bough, his feet rest on no limb. Someone appears under the tree and asks him, 'What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?' If he does not answer, he fails to respond to the question. If he does answer, he will lose his life. What would you do in such a situation?"

Mumon's Comment: 

Even if your eloquence flows like a river, it is of no avail. Though you can expound the whole of Buddhist literature, it is of no use. If you solve this problem, you will give life to the way that has been dead until this moment and destroy the way that has been alive up to now. Otherwise you must wait for Maitreya Buddha and ask him.

Mumon's Verse:  

Kyõgen is truly thoughtless;
His vice and poison are endless.
He stops up the mouths of the monks, 
And devil's eyes sprout from their bodies.

My Analysis:  

"What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?" is roughly equivalent to Zen's "what is the meaning of life?"  It isn't asking for a meaning to existence specifically, but it is asking "what is the heart of zen; what is the ultimate truth?"  It is the sort of question students ask their teachers hoping to gain insight.  It's the kind of question teachers ask their students to test them.  Here you are asked to consider, presented with this question, in a situation where answering it will kill you, what do you do?

If you choose to answer, you die.  If you choose not to answer, you fail the asker's need.  What do you do?  When faced with the situation our minds immediately want to compare the options.  "Answering the question is the most selfless option," you might think.  Or perhaps "the truth can't be transmitted via words, so nothing I say would help him anyway; I'd do better to hold on."  

By now it should be clear that this is no simple either-or situation as laid out.  To present an either-or question as though it has an answer is a logic trap; a theme common in koans.  Joshu, who was featured in our first koan, and will show up in more later, is known to have said "The great way is not difficult; it simply avoids choosing."  To be clear, it avoids judging actions and circumstances in the scope of "better" and "worse."  The person of Zen is free of such distinctions; he (or she) has no need to let his thoughts and actions be bound by previously acquired knowledge, or relativistic morality; he is perfectly free to respond to this situation in any way he sees fit. 

It is a freedom every person has, but many close themselves off from it under the delusion that one way is "better" than the other.  Most of us are mentally trained to solve problems, and here is a presented problem that seems like it must have a solution. But there is no choice to make between answering and falling; you either freely fall, or you freely hang.  Believing that one choice or the other is "better" is the delusion binds that freedom. 

Mumon's verse is especially telling here.  He accuses Kyogen of being thoughtless (jokingly; Mumon likes to poke fun at the subjects of his cases), poisoning the minds of Monks in such a way that it "stops up their mouths" and causes "devil eyes to sprout from their bodies."  By presenting the fundamental question, the question of reality or truth itself, he is presenting a lofty challenge, and one that an eager student would love to rise to.  But it's a fake goal, one that draws the attention away from trap of choosing, which sidles in and sucker-punches any attempt to rise to that tempting challenge.  The student who tries to grasp the choice finds that he has no answer, and that his perception of the problem is delusional--his mouth stopped up, and his perception governed by devil's eyes.  

1 comment:

  1. You are going to die anyways...

    Why not help the student?