Last Monday night, I fear that I created more confusion than understanding in my discussion of the 100-foot pole. I'd like to clarify some of that confusion by going back to the underlying koan, as it appears in Case 79 in the Book of Serenity. It also appears in an abbreviated form in Mumon's Gateless Gate (Case 46).
Zen Master Chosa told a monk to go and ask the hermit E Osho, "What was it like before you interviewed Nansen?" The monk asked the hermit as instructed, and E was silent for some time. The monk then asked, "How was it after the interview?" E answered, "Nothing special."The monk went back and told Chosa of this. Chosa said, "There is a man on top of a hundred-foot pole. Though he has a degree of understanding, he's not yet a man of the Way. From the top of the hundred-foot pole he should advance a step further and the ten directions of the world will be his entire body."The monk asked, "How do you advance a step?" Chosa replied, "The mountains of Ro-shu, the waters of Rei-shu." The monk said, "I don't understand." Chosa said, "The Four Seas and the Five Lakes are the transformed King."
Little is known of Master Chosa other than he was a successor of Master Nansen. He's been described as a sort of rolling stone with no fixed abode, preaching when and where it pleased him to do so. He was feared by all other monks and possessed an extremely pointed and aggressive style of instruction. After he literally knocked down Master Kyozan and climbed onto his chest in answer to a question, Kyozan said, "Whoa! Just like a tiger" and Chosa came to be known as Tiger Cen (an abbreviation of one of his dharma names).
E Osho, the hermit, was also a student of Nansen's, and thus also a dharma brother to Chosa. Chosa apparently wanted to test E's understanding and find out whether he had attained enlightenment during his practice with Nansen, so he sent a monk to ask him what it was like before he had met Nansen. E's answer was to remain quiet, an acceptable enough response, but the monk pressed further and asked what it was like after his practice under Nansen. Chosa was critical of E's answer of "Nothing special."
E's answer was correct from the absolute point of view that there is no difference before and after enlightenment, but Chosa felt that E was stuck to the absolute. The non-dual mind dwells neither in the relative nor the absolute, and the relative was nowhere contained in E's absolute answer. His answer should have contained elements of both the relative and the absolute and been lively and life-affirming, not cold and dogmatic. Maybe E should have jumped onto the monk's chest and roared like a tiger.
Chosa's diagnosis was that the hermit had advanced to a stage advanced enough to comprehend the absolute, but that his practice and understanding were now stuck at this point and he needed to progress further. To illustrate his point, Chosa invoked the parable of the man on the hundred foot pole. In Not Always So, Suzuki Roshi talks about arriving at the top of the pole as a metaphor for awakening to the essential nature of our reality. Each one of us is stranded at the top of a 100-foot pole. No matter where we are in our Zen practice or our life, we always seem to be at the top of the pole. Whether we have glimpsed an understanding of the absolute or entered into a life of quiet reflection, we must not rest there. We must step forward into the unknown void in order to experience the boundless life.
Suzuki says that if we insist on remaining stuck to the pole, we’re making a mistake, our spiritual practice is incomplete. Having a profound enlightenment experience is one essential aspect of Zen practice, but we need to be careful not to turn it into a kind of hiding place. We have to be engaged in our lives, not withdrawn like the hermit. Engagement, putting our understanding and awakening to use, is the work of our lifetime. Suzuki writes:
So the secret is just to say "Yes!" and jump off from here. Then there is no problem. It means to be yourself in the present moment, always yourself, without sticking to an old self. You forget all about yourself and are refreshed. You are a new self, and before that self becomes an old self, you say "Yes!" and you walk to the kitchen for breakfast. So the point on each moment is to forget the point and extend your practice. As Dogen Zenji says, "To study Buddhism is to study yourself. To study yourself is to forget yourself on each moment." Then everything will come and help you. Everything will assure your enlightenment.
Imagine you are atop a 100-foot pole and your teacher tells you that it won't do to stay there. You have to advance one step further. Our delusion is not realizing that the pole is in fact endless, and what seems like the top to us is just an illusion. The "top of the pole" is only in our minds, and when we think about it, isn't it a little bit egotistical for us to have imagined that we were at the top of the pole? The teacher sees the continuation of the pole and encourages us to keep climbing, but we remain frozen in fear, clinging in our delusion to our spot on the pole. Because he knows that the pole is infinite, Zen Master Dogen encouraged us to keep climbing despite our concern for our own well being and to let go of even our desire for bodily life.
The hermit E was clinging to the pole of his absolute understanding and his hermetical existence, and Chosa felt that he needed to progress in his understanding, although the same could be said of his engagement with the world.
During a recent dokusan, I heard a young woman express her fear of graduating from college and entering into the working world. She was stuck to her own position on the pole and needed to overcome her attachment to the safety and security of student life. I was reminded of birds in a nest - when the mother bird knows that her babies are ready to fly, she teaches them to fly by pushing them out of the nest. The baby birds are probably terrified, convinced that they will fall to their deaths. "But Mom," they protest, "We only know how to sit in a nest and open our mouths for regurgitated worms. We were never taught to fly." But as they're pushed out and begin to fall, their wings spread apart and flap, and suddenly the baby birds find that they're flying, that they've always knew how to fly. They always had bird nature and did not need to be "taught" anything in order to fly.
When our teacher recognizes our nature and ability and tells us to take one more step beyond the top of the 100-foot pole, we experience the same reaction as the baby birds. We cling to our comfortable spot on the pole and miss realization of our true nature. But if we do let go, we realize our true nature and the continuity of the pole, and we can then experience our selves as the entire world in the ten directions, from the mountains of Ro-shu to the waters of Rei-shu, from the Four Seas to the Five Lakes.
But don't take my word for it. After all, I'm not a teacher (and there's nothing to teach). Here's a short excerpt from a dharma talk by Blanche Hartman, abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, on this very topic: