Koan: The teacher asked, “How do you step from the top of the hundred foot pole?”
This Life is For You
This life is for you; you in the midst, life continuously as-it-is. The flowers, the trees, the chickens in the yard, the cows in the field, the smile on your co-worker as he greets you, the “Good Mornings,” and the “How are yous?” Someone holds the door for you as you walk into the room and there is that person with whom you argued yesterday. After work you make a trip to the doctor to hear that your blood pressure is too high and that trimming a few pounds might help. You remember your father who died young — sudden heart attack, a “widow maker” the doctor called it. Your dog welcomes you home when you remember that you forgot-a common occurrence -what is it this time?- nothing here to eat – to stop at the store on the way home. Ugh, and you would rather not go out again. This is life and your life is for you — the utter chaos, the whole mess, the ecstasy and the agony, the heaven and hell. This life is for you. You live it, day to day, ups and downs, groups of people, the animals that keep you company. You are disappointed, elated, held accountable, reckless – last year you fell in love. There is a vastness to life, it is always changing, and as you awaken you discover that while nothing is holy, life, as-it-is, with all of this, is beautiful. Sometimes it makes you cry.
Beautiful, Find Me a Place to Hide!
That’s what it is to see into the heart of things, everything is as-it-is and as-it-is, is just so and you are in it all, steeped and at-one. Zhaozhou, put it like this, “It’s alive, it’s alive!” Right there. That is all. This is to awaken, to see into your essential nature, your Buddha nature, the Kingdom of God, whatever you might want to call it. What can one do with such a thing? One could do what the early Christian pillar-saints, the Stylites did — stay there, try to hold onto the experience, make something out of it, declare it meaningful and grand, holy, the utmost and the highest. After all, that is a pretty good place to hide. Hide? Or perhaps there is a more excellent way. But first, Hide!
The Agony of the Ecstasy
Yes, the beauty, the vastness, the change, all of it can be scary and overwhelming. Our experience of life in the ecstasy (derived from the old French lestaise”in a frenzy or stupor, fearful, excited.”) and the agony (old French as well, “contest”) stops us. As we awaken to the beauty we also discover that all this, the whole shebang, the frenzy and the contest, is beyond our control. So whichever metaphor you might use for a hiding place —atop a pole, head in the sand, pillar, behind the walls of a fortress, enclosed within the house, whatever, awakening, as we take it and shape it to our delusions of mastery and control, becomes a sort of agoraphobia, a fear of getting out. We can’t control it on the outside so we will make an inside where we can. We want to stay atop the pole, the pillar, build a house, exchanging what we don’t know for what we do. The teacher’s challenge, “Take a step,” out of the house, off the top of the pole, from what you know into what you don’t, life as-it-is.
The Ecstasy of the Agony – Can I Get a Witness?
Life in its ecstasy and in its misery is agonizing, a contest. In other words, life comes forward to meet you, calls. This is Guan Yin in all her guises – love, hate, kindness, sadness, anger, grief, and on and on. Life’s call beckons response, a step off the pole. The teacher, echoing life itself, asks, “how do you step from the top of the hundred foot pole?” So through this piece I have been playing the etymology game, a sort of archeological dig into the language. Let’s step that up a bit: the word contest derives from the Latin, com- “together” + testari “to bear witness,” to together bear witness — the life in me and the life outside me gives way to the discovery that life is one, with no inside or outside. This One Life bears witness to the great love in all. From together witness to together action — this is the Bodhisattva Way. Life responds to life and we live our awakening in the midst of it all.