September 17, 2015 § Leave a comment
An ancient Zen Master said, “One who sits on top of the 100 foot pole has attained a certain height but is still not handling Zen freely. That person should proceed on and appear in all directions.”
Master Sekiso said, “You are at the top of the 100 foot high pole. How can you proceed on?”
One can continue or turn freely on top of the pole. Either should be respected. I want to ask you, how will you proceed from the top of that pole? Look out!
One who lacks the third eye of insight
Will cling to the measure of the hundred feet
Such a one will jump from there and kill himself
Like the blind leading the blind.
The Gateless Barrier, is a collection of 49 Zen koans of which the above koan is number 46. The title of the work is apt because koans represent inner blocks or obstacles to obtaining Zen insight into your true nature. They are experienced as points where thinking and action can go no further or, as the title suggests, an encounter with a gateless barrier through which no one can pass.
According to Zen masters, the way to approach the koan “Proceed From the Top of the Pole” is the same as with every koan. You must throw yourself into it with every fiber of your being and think of it day and night. In the words of the Zen masters, you should feel as if a hot iron ball is in your throat that can neither be swallowed nor spit out.
Putting the imagery of the hot iron ball aside for the moment, begin by imagining what it would actually feel like to be at the top of a hundred foot pole. Are you balancing on a ball or a small platform? Are you wondering how you got there? Are there people walking below that are ignoring you or watching you? Do you feel any anxiety in the pit of your stomach brought on by the fear of falling or wide-open spaces?
Over the days the top of the pole will start to represent the times you pulled back from offering your opinion at work or to your partner at home. It’ll be that nagging feeling that you haven’t locked the door. In a dozen different ways you’ll see how your own fear acts as a barrier to your stepping into new or uncomfortable situations. You’ll start to see how the fear of mistakes has you feeling open, exposed and vulnerable. And how you seek safety and security through a strategy of hiding and remaining closed.
As the hundred-foot pole becomes the symbol of your life you’ll wonder how you ever became the one who lacks the third eye of insight who clings to the measure of the hundred feet. The desire to overcome this situation will start to feel like a hot iron ball in your throat that you can neither spit out nor swallow.
Eventually a great wall of doubt will arise, as the Zen masters say, and you will start to question everything. Why, you ask, do you believe that it is unsafe to offer your opinion? Why are you obsessing on whether the door is locked when you know you locked it. What is the nature of these fears that have been holding you back?
As the hot iron ball of doubt begins to consume you a change will commence. The reality of your self-imposed limits and fears will start to dissolve. You’ll find yourself better able to take that next step in situations you formerly found uncomfortable. You’ll start to feel free.
It may take months or years to reach this lofty state where you “turn freely at the top of the pole.” If you go no further you still deserve respect for going so far. But if the hot iron ball continues to burn in your throat, there will come a time when you question whether your fear of “dropping body and mind” hasn’t also been holding you back. Then, without knowing how, body and mind will drop away. The ego-shell is broken. The earth moves, heaven shakes and you appear in all directions.
September 16, 2015 § Leave a comment
September 12, 2015 § 2 Comments
A familiar tale originally told by the Buddha concerns a man confronted by a tiger in the forest. In flight from the beast he falls over a cliff but manages to grab a short tree root to stop his fall. There he hangs suspended, with the hungry tiger above and jagged rocks below. As he dangles, two mice – one white and one black – begin to gnaw on the root. The stage is set for his demise. Just then, he notices a wild strawberry growing along the flat cliff’s edge. Tasting it he says, “How sweet.”
With only 3,200 tigers left in the world today, it is safe to say that most of us will never encounter a tiger. Here in the wilds of British Columbia a fall from a cliff is more likely but this story is not about actual tigers or cliffs. It’s about the tigers and cliffs of mind.
Everyone encounters the tiger of fear in his or her lifetime. At some point everyone feels the jagged rocks of dejection. And everyone knows the gnawing feeling that life is short and time is running out. But aside from this symbolism there are aspects of the Buddha’s story that we should not overlook. Such as how the ordinary mind fixates on what is not real, rather than what is.
The ordinary mind has become so accustomed to thinking that it seldom takes time to touch base with the present moment. Much of this thinking is habitual and repetitive. A lot is based upon fear and desire. It is typically only when this thinking becomes painful that any notice is taken of it. Then the mind looks for a solution within its own thoughts that, long before this point has been reached, have been falsely identified as the self. The ordinary mind then asks, “What is wrong with me? Why do I feel bad? Why am I afraid?”
From my experience, the two most significant factors that block the ordinary mind from finding a way out of thinking and back to the present moment, are the false identification of self with thought and the false belief that thought is real.
One need only look within to see that the mind believes most of what it thinks to be real and true. What is not so easily seen is that when the mind believes these to be its true self, letting them go is felt to be the death of self. Thoughts are then seen as something to which one must cling to preserve one’s own life. That is why even the most painful of thoughts are so hard to release.
Mindfulness, koan study or just sitting, work to bring the mind to a point where the mind can release its tigers and enjoy the fruit of the present moment, as portrayed in the Buddha’s story. This is sometimes called going beyond duality where the mind no longer dwells in right or wrong, good or bad. It is also called no self. But place these esoteric descriptions aside and all that needs to be worked on is the simple realization that thoughts are neither real nor are they “you”. They can be let go and, in letting go, beyond duality and no self arise naturally.