Gateless Gate (Mumonkan, Wumenguan) #5
Xiangyan's Man Up a Tree
Gateless Gate (Mumonkan, Wumenguan) #5
Xiangyan's Man Up a Tree
- XIANGYAN Zhixian (Kyogen Chikan, 798?-898, 11th gen), disciple of Guishan L
- unnamed man in a tree
- Senior Monastic Hutou (Koto)
- DAHUI Zonggao (Daie Sôkô, 1089-1163, 22nd gen), disciple of Yuanwu
- DONGSHAN Huikong (Tozan Eku, 1096-1158), a.k.a. Xuiefeng Huikong (Seppo Eku), disciple of Letan Shanqing of Huanglong line of Linji school
Master Xiangyan said, "It's like a man up the tree, hanging from a branch by his mouth; his hands cannot grasp a branch, his feet won't reach a bough. The version in Dogen's 300 adds that the tree overhangs a one-thousand-foot cliff.
Suppose there is another man under the tree who asks him, 'What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the west?'
If he does not respond, he goes against the wish of the questioner. 
If he answers, he will lose his life. 
At such a time, how should he respond?"
Variation with Prequel (Senzaki)
A monk asked Xiangyan, "Without using either relative or absolute terms, please tell me why Bohdhidharma came to China from India."Continuation in Entangling Vines and Dogen's 300 (Loori)
Xiangyan answered, "You are hanging from a tree by your teeth over a precipice, and your hands grasp no branch and your feet rest on no limb, and you must answer the question. If you do not answer, you are a dismal student of Zen, but if you answer, you fall from the tree and lose your life."
Then Senior Monastic Hutou came out and said, "Master, let's not talk about being in a tree.[6-7] Or "Once the man is up the tree, no question should be raised. The man should ask the monk if the latter has anything to say to him before he goes up the tree." (Hoffmann)
But tell me, what happens before climbing the tree?"
Xiangyan burst into laughter.
 The ancestors all had a way of creating complications where there are none.Xuedou's Comment (included in the case in Entangling Vines) (Hoffmann)
 This may be an old question, but it still needs to be addressed by each generation.
 You and the questioner hang from the same tree.
 Xiangyan makes sure this is indeed a question of life and death.
 If you truly wish to understand the teaching of the Zen school, you need to see into it here.
 He wants to change the subject.
 No. He is not changing the subject, just the hand that holds the sword.
 This amounts to something. He can let go, he can gather in.
It is easy to say it up on the tree. To say it under the tree is difficult. So I shall climb the tree myself. Come, ask me a question!"Wumen's Comment (Yamada)
Even if your eloquence flows like a river, it is of no use. Even if you can expound he whole body of the sutras, it is of no avail. If you can respond to it fittingly, you will give life to those who have been dead, and put to death those who have been alive. If, however, you are unable to do this, wait for Maitreya to come and ask him.Wumen's Verse (Yamada)
Xiangyan is really absurd,  Or "...is just blabbing nonsense" (Aitken); "...is truly inept" (Cleary); "...really has bad taste" (Low); "...is truly thoughtless" (Sekida); "...is truly a fool" (Senzaki); "...is just gibbering" (Shibayama).
His perversity knows no bounds;
He stops up the monks' mouths,
Making his whole body into the glaring eyes of a demon.
 Or "his poisonous intentions are limitless" (Aitken); "Spreading his ego-killing poison" (Senzaki); "How vicious his poison is!" (Shibayama).
 Or "making his whole body a demon eye" (Aitken); "So demon eyes squirt out from all over their bodies" (Cleary); "Frantically they squeeze tears out from their dead eyes" (Low); "And devil's eyes sprout from their bodies" (Sekida); "And causes tears to stream from their dead eyes" (Senzaki); "He makes their devil's eyes glare!" (Shibayama).
Related Case: Dahui's "Up a Tree" (Kirchner, Entangling Vines, #19-2)
Dahui Zonggao asked Dongshan Huikong, "What is the meaning of Xiangyan's 'Up a Tree'?" "The partridge is a southern Chinese bird that symbolizes feelings of homesickness. Here 'partridge' refers to the title of a song, about which a famous Tang poem says, 'If guests from South of the River are present, do not sing 'Partridge' to the spring breeze,' since the song causes melancholy in people from that region. Dongshan's reply is based on this line, though it expresses the same feeling in a paradoxical fashion. Some masters interpret this line to mean, 'Dongshan replied, "Wonderful! Xiangyan sang 'Partridge' to the spring breeze!"'" (Kirchner)
Dongshan replied, "Let's sing 'Partridge' to the spring breeze!"
When Xiangyan was studying under Guishan, Guishan asked him, "Let me have your view as to your own being before your parents were born." Xiangyan couldn't respond. He retired to his room and looked through all his notes of Baizhang's teishos, but he could not find anything suitable. Returning to Guishan he said, "I have failed to find a response to your question. Please teach me the essential point."Aitken's Comment
Guishan said, "I really have nothing to teach you. And if I tried to express something, later you would revile me. Besides, whatever understanding I have is my own and will never by yours."
Xiangyan thereupon burned his notes and determined that he would be just "a rice-gruel monk" and face Guishan's profound question moment by moment, rather than trying to resolve it by means of intellectual research. Hearing that the tomb of National Teacher Nanyang Huizhong (675?-775) was being neglected, he asked Guishan's permission to go there and serve as caretaker. Guishan approved, so Xiangyan built a small hut near the tomb and spent his days cleaning the grounds, absorbed in his koan.
One day while sweeping up fallen leaves, his bamboo broom caught a stone, and it sailed through the air and hit a stalk of bamboo with a little sound Tock! With that tock! he was awakened.
Hurrying to his hut, he bathed and then offered incense and bowed in the direction of Guishan's temple, crying out aloud, "Your kindness is greater than that of my parents. If you had explained it to me, I would never have known this joy." Xiangyan composed this verse:
One tock! has made me forget all my previous knowledge.Later, Xiangyan wrote:
No artificial discipline is needed at all.
In every movement, I uphold the ancient Way
and never fall into the rut of mere quietism.
Wherever I walk, no traces are left,
and my senses are not fettered by rules of conduct.
Everywhere those who have found this truth
all declare it to be of the highest order.
My poverty last year was not true poverty;Then a third verse:
this year it is the real thing.
Last year a fine gimlet could find a place;
this year even the gimlet is gone.
I have a single potential;Thereafter Xiangyan resumed monastery life, but as an independent teacher.
it can be seen in a solitary twinkle.
If you still don't understand,
call the acolyte and ask him about it.
Xiangyan echoes the Buddha's First Noble Truth, duhkha, the dissatisfaction one feels about the circumstances of life. The most difficult of these circumstances are evanescence and interdependence. Everything passes away, and everything depends upon everything else. Permanence and independence are simply not possible, any more than release from the tree is possible. But duhkha itself can be melted, as the Buddha said, and this is Xiangyan's purpose.Arnold's Comment
We should be able to identify with this person up the tree. There we are, hanging by our mouth, with nothing to secure ourselves. Just at that moment, someone comes and asks for help. They have a need that is great, and only we can respond. If we do, we sacrifice ourselves and fall to our death. If we don’t answer, we put our own interests before another. What are we to do? We vow to save all sentient beings, to alleviate their suffering and help bring them to awakening, and to do this for ourselves as well. You go in in the evening to sit, hungry to do some zazen, and your child needs some help with their homework. Your best friend, you find out, is unfaithful to their partner who is also your friend. Somebody at work is lying, cheating, or stealing. What do we do?Baiyan's Comment (Cleary)
Realizing oneself and alleviating the suffering of others are not two different things. Realizing wisdom and manifesting compassion are not two different things. In healing others, we heal ourselves, in realizing ourselves we realize others. That is why when the Buddha experienced enlightenment he said, “All sentient beings in this moment have attained the way.” When we realize our true nature, the inherent emptiness and interdependence of all things, we realize the cessation of suffering: that all beings are buddhas and that they depend on us. Because there is no longer any obstruction called the self, we are free to respond as Avalokiteshvara, the one who hears the cries of the world. When we offer ourselves to others without any self-consciousness, we manifest the life of a bodhisattva. In each moment you meet one dharma. In each moment you practice one dharma. Isn’t this the nature of our living and dying? So please take care of your practice, because what you do affects us all. Practice as though your life depends on it, because it does.
Xiangyan made the whole earth into a glowing furnace, its fierce flames reaching through the sky: even iron and steel melt at once.Fenyang's Verse (Cleary)
Xiangyan grips the tree with his teeth, showing many people:Yuelin's Verse (Cleary)
He wants to lead his peers to the fundamental reality.
Try to deliberate, and you are grasping from words;
Countless are those who have lost their lives.
I will open a way through the confusion for you:
When the clouds have dispersed in the eternal sky, sun and moon are new.
Xiangyan climbs a tree --Cleary's Comment
Stop, stop, stop, stop!
If you try to ask about --
Complications and cliches.
The man holding onto a tree branch with his teeth symbolizes the attachment of a conditioned mind to the fragment of reality perceptible through the worldview to which the mind is habituated by personal and cultural history. Enlightenment requires standing apart from the mind-set to which one has been conditioned, yet without warping the mind's capacity for constructive organization.Hoffmann's Comment
It is plausible to assume that a man who holds onto a tree with his teeth would fall away. Answering or not answering the question is not his most urgent problem. What he needs is not philosophy, but somebody who is kind and courageous enough to help him down. Commentaries by later masters are either: (1) criticisms of the koan or of the personalities appearing in the koan; (2) attempts to clarify the koan's meaning; or (3) in some cases simply implications of the mood of the later masters in relation to the koan. Xuedou's quasi-paradoxical comment implies that the concrete problem of being caught up in a tree (i.e., being in danger) is not to be confused with abstract speculations about "the meaning fo the founder of Zen (Bodhidharma) coming to China" (i.e., the meaning of Zen) Answer #1 (for Xuedou's "on the tree"): The pupil stands up and takes the pose of hanging down from a tree. With certain masters, there are pupils who may stick a finger in the mouth; utter "Uh...uh"; and, shaking the body slightly, give the pretense of one trying to answer but unable to. Answer #2 (for Xuedou's "under the tree"): The pupil pretends to fall from a tree. Landing on his bottom, he says, "Ouch! That hurt!"Loori's Comment
Old master Xiangyan's words are clearly lethal. The only path through this dualistic dilemma is to die the great death and realize real freedom. How is this accomplished? We should appreciate the fact that the questioner, in asking about the Ancestor's coming from India, is also "hanging from a tree on a one-thousand-foot cliff." If you can answer Xiangyan, you will free not only yourself but the questioner as well. Dogen says, "If we look at this koan with a 'nonthinking mind,' we can attain the same real, free samadhi as Xiangyan and grasp its meaning even before he has opened his mouth." What is this "nonthinking mind"? Setting aside Xiangyan, the tree, and the cliff, you tell me, what is the meaning of the Ancestor's coming from India? If you open your mouth to answer, you have missed it. If you don't open your mouth, you are a thousand miles from the truth. Senior Monastic Hutou makes it clear. In the tree, below the tree, before the tree, after the tree -- it's all dirt from the same hole.Low's Comment
Xiangyan in this koan exactly expresses the dilemma: if I say what it is, then that is not it. If he doesn't answer, he evades his duty. If he answers, he will lose his life. It is like a Zen master cautioned, "If you advance one step, you lose sight of the principle. If you retreat one step you fail to keep abreast of things. If you neither advance nor retreat you would be as insensible as stone." So how does one avoid being insensible? "Advance one step and at the same time retreat one step." Xiangyan was faced, as we all are, with the ultimate dilemma: I know and I must speak, but if I speak I lose what I know and so therefore cannot say it.Sekida's Comment
Xiangyan is driving you here into the same predicament he found himself in with Guishan. Guishan deprived Xiangyan of all his clever learning by asking he question, "What is your real self -- the self that existed before you came out of your mother's womb?" -- before you had learned anything at all. Xiangyan's books gave him no answer -- he had no foothold or handhold. If he can make a no-answer with a truly empty mind, then even if he cannot utter a word he is making a great answer. However eloquently he speaks, without an empty mind he is a dead man. Once lose your life as Xiangyan did. Let go the branch, and a whole new life opens up before you.Senzaki's Comment
Xiangyan here is not giving his opinion about Zen. If he were, he would have to use a relative term. He is not pointing at Zen through postulation. If he were, he would have to use an absolute term. He addresses through his question the very being of the monk, the questioner himself. Why does the monk have to worry about Bodhidharma? It does not matter whether Bodhidharma came from the West to the East, or from the East to the West. The concern of the moment is to see his own true self the moment he acts.Shibayama's Comment
Xiangyan wanted to teach the monk the thrift of Zen, and thus he stopped the use of his hands and feet; he required the monk to be enlightened before he opened his mouth and fell from the tree into the precipice. It is the same trick as cutting off the finger of the imitator in GG3. The kindness of such an unkind action is to block off the road of thinking. Zen never says, "Try this method, and then you will be enlightened." It only demands that action which is enlightenment itself.
Truly, a life controlled by its dualistic intellect may be likened to the man in this strange koan. How can he break through the barrier of this great dilemma? Unless one faces the inescapable crisis and has once had the experience of dying, one will not have true freedom. Xiangyan says in the koan "at such a time." This means "just as he is," with no thought working, no consciousness moving. If he hangs from a tree, just as he is hanging, the essence of Zen is alive and manifest there. If one has fallen from the tree, just as he has fallen, the essence of Zen should be alive and manifest there. Here and now, just as it is -- this is "it." What other answer can be possible? What is essential in Zen is "to cast away one's discriminating mind." When this is done, for the first time one can transcend yes and no, good and evil, and can declare that everything, everywhere is "it." One can then truly grasp Xiangyan's Zen.Yamada's Comment
Koans bring us to a land abounding in contradictions of ideas and concepts. Thee is no other way of freeing ourselves from this confusion than by cutting through it as though it were the Gordian knot. This cannot be done by rational thinking or logical reasoning. It can only be accomplished factually. What is a fact in Zen? It is the manifestation of essential nature by an action such as standing up, sitting own, eating, drinking, crying, or laughing. In the case of Zhaozhou's Mu (GG1), Mu is the fact. In the case of Jinhua's finger (GG3), raising a finger is the fact. In this case, the fact is some action of the man in the tree.Loori's Verse
Where affirmation and negation merge,Hotetsu's Verse
there it is, alone and revealed.
On the solitary mystic peak,
the blue mountains have not a speck of dust.
Hanging by Your Teeth from a Tree When the Question Comes
It's a question about meaning,
It's a request for direction,
It's a classmate copying your answers.
It's swords or pistols?
It's the plea deal offered,
It's your false teeth slipping,
It's the taste of bark,
It's grieving what's lost,
It's the victory party,
It's how time and being are each other.
It's the absent friend,
It's the hungry carnivore,
It's the telephone.
It's a generous pauper,
It's the weight you don't want,
It's the craving of craving.
It's making a fashion statement,
Or using language,
It's not knowing what you said
It's a question about meaning.
It's your false teeth slipping,
It's the taste of bark.