A little while ago I decided to read through The Gateless Barrier - a basic collection of Zen stories and talks. I had pieced around in it the first time, and worked some of the koans with teachers, but Robert Aitken suggests you then read it right through, because his comments build on one another. And I was supposed to be off my feet this week, healing an arthritic flareup.
The last koan I expected to get interested in was "Kyogen's Man up a Tree." I never did like that koan. The basic idea is, You are hanging from a tree by your mouth. You can't reach a branch with your hands or feet. Someone comes by and asks you to tell him about Zen. You have a dilemma: if you speak, you fall and die. If you don't, you are abandoning your responsibility to others. What do you do?
Since I am a language person, I am sometimes struck by a certain word. And my experience is that Zen masters take care to be accurate. I have three translations of this collection, and Aitken is the only one who introduces the word dilemma. I recognized that prefix, di (two, as in dualism) and thought, There's a clue in this, so I looked it up.
In a dilemma, you have two choices, and neither one is good. That applied to the little puzzle. Then Aitken helped me out by telling us straightforwardly that what we have to truly hang there in that dilemma, be with it all the way. This is not so natural, is it? Can't you picture yourself writhing around, trying to make your way down the branch, kicking out, making throaty protests (without letting go the clamp on the branch that is definitely hard on the TMJs)? That is in fact what we do with our dilemmas. Sometimes it's not obvious; we may feel we are in despair over some event, a chronic illness or a lost love, but are in fact trekking from one healer to another or one bar to another, trying to find someone who can get us out of our fix. And there are always lots of people who think they can. They are even more deluded than the weary seeker, and they end up burnt out.
The first time I encountered the idea of giving over to your unhappiness or depression was in Parker Palmer's little book, Let Your Life Speak. There he recounted his own long clinical depression, and how he sank into a virtually immobile state, and slowly came to realize that he had a spiritual problem called despair, that his life was telling him, What you're doing is not working for you. He had been refusing to listen. He published this article before the recent vogue in confessional memoirs; it was a courageous act, and he has survived the stigma of mental illness to be an admired teacher and speaker.
What you do with a koan is just carry it, and I wasn't inspired enough by this one to get caught up in figuring it out. But I knew the koan was working on me this morning when I woke up to the thought, I've got to get more facts about kidney transplant. I've been on a waiting list for a year, grateful every single day that I haven't declined to the point of needing dialysis again. It's no picnic. Neither is transplant. Both carry all sorts of medical risks and uncertainty. But I hadn't been really hanging with the decision, but in the land of hope - hoping my kidneys would keep holding on until something else killed me, that I would never have to answer that phone call Yes or No (you have one hour to respond). In other words, I was really avoiding my dilemma with the mental tricks that we are best at. Maybe I'll never have to decide. (Maybe I'll win the lottery.) We are lucky when something or someone nudges us out of a delusion like that. Life is much easier when we open our eyes.