The priest Xiangyan (Kyogen) said, “It is as though you were up in 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 Gate, Case Five (Boundless Way Zen In-house Translation)
Out of the forty-eight stories about ancient Chinese Zen masters in the classic known in Japanese as the Mumonkan, or “Gateless Gate” — which is used as a textbook for “koan training” in many Zen temples in Japan — my favorite is the fifth one, known as the 11th Zen Patriarch’s “Story of the Man-Up-A-Tree.” That quaint English translation always makes me laugh, even though it is accurate, because in this story “up a tree” really does mean much more than just a man sitting in a tree! This is the story that in some ways is the one I live by, or try to. Rather than repeat it here in one of its many translations, I feel like giving the account that’s in my heart, the one that keeps me in line (and cannot be found anywhere else.)
Once there was a baby born without arms and legs. His parents loved him dearly, and taught him everything they knew about the world. They were his arms and legs, but when they died there was nobody to care for him. He learned to scoot around on the ground just by twisting and rolling his body around from one place to another. Outside his house he had to watch out for animals that could harm him and children who teased him and used him for their own amusement. But he drank water from a nearby spring and ate enough wild plants to keep himself alive. Every night he had vivid dreams about all sorts of things.
His situation may have made him have to learn everything about everything for himself. In any case, people began to come around to ask him questions about life in general. They began to help him do everyday things and in return he helped them understand every mystery. Everyone in the village loved him very much. Everything was going well, but as time went by, and he grew old, he became even more helpless. One night some drunks came to his house and decided it would be fun to torture him a little bit. They took turns rolling him down a nearby hill, and laughed when he made grunting sounds and loud cries as he bounced against rocks on his way down.
Finally, one of them had the idea of seeing what he would do if they took him up a very steep hill and hung him with a rope around his body from a tree that was growing out of the side of a cliff. When they grew tired of that, one of them had the bright idea of seeing how long the armless legless man could hang from the tree limb just by his teeth. After awhile they decided he might be able to hang on forever, so they ran into the village and told everyone to come and watch. A crowd of people gathered at the foot of the cliff looking up at the spectacle.
So what the hell did he say? I guess we all have to ask ourselves the same question. What did the armless legless man say on the way down? (Now we’re really up a tree!) If you try to answer in his voice (as any Zen teacher will expect you to do), you will quickly conclude that there is not much you can say that will not offend or please someone. Offending and pleasing are not the same things, however, when you are talking about real life and death matters. This koan, therefore, is one of the best. Good luck!
Note: Zen koans recorded in texts were systematically illustrated by priest-painters in East Asia for at least 900 years. Many of them are in museums and private collections. But apparently none of the ones illustrating Case Five have survived. Based on my own efforts at calligraphy and painting, I have tried for at least two decades to render this koan in an ink painting myself. Nothing I’ve done so far satisfies me. But you better believe I’m still trying. I’ve just about run out of time realizing the man-up-a-tree koan in my own life. That’s an on-going failure.
Glenn Taylor Webb is an American Obaku Zen priest and scholar. He earned is doctorate in East Asian Cultural History at the University of Chicago. He served in a number of academic positions, retiring as director of the Institute for the Study of Asian Culture at Pepperdine University. In 2011 Webb Osho received the Order of the Rising Sun for his many contributions toward mutual understanding and friendship between Japan and the United States.
This talk is reprinted with the permission of Dr Webb.