The priest Shih-shuang said, “How do you step from the top of a hundred-foot pole?”
Another eminent master of former times said:
You who sit on the top of a hundred-foot pole,
although you have entered the Way, it is not yet genuine.
Take a step from the top of the pole
and worlds of the Ten Directions are your total body.
A friend of mine tried skydiving years ago. At 10,000 feet, the instructor opened the door, barked an order over the din of the wind and engines, and gave the hand signal my friend had been told to expect. People started filing out of the plane, becoming little specks that disappeared to the right in an ocean of sky.
When the others had leapt, my friend stepped cautiously to the door and looked down. A long moment passed as his heart rate, and the sound of the instructor’s voice, rose rapidly.
After another half-minute of standing paralyzed in the doorway, my friend realized his fear wasn’t going away. If he was going to jump, he had to jump into his fear.
He stepped through the hatch.
I don’t know what possessed my friend to go up in that plane and take that step. He climbed Mt. McKinley around the same time, so I do think he was searching for the heights in his own way.
Many of us – perhaps most of us – do the same. This is one of Zen’s foundational insights. Dissatisfied with our experience, we try to get above or beyond it all. We try to find a new vantage point on life.
Some of us turn to religion looking for that “above and beyond” experience, for the heaven-on-earth we imagine. (There are endless alternatives, of course: thrill seeking, as we’ve seen; alcohol and other drugs; social climbing. You name it.) Most religions, including Zen, do tempt us with at least hints at the possibility of an ultimately different perspective, an ultimately different experience.
Falling images and metaphors have real power for me, both positive and negative.
When I was 15, I was present as one of my closest friends died in a mountain climbing accident. We were part of a search and rescue team, and were out practicing that day. My friend’s death was a horrific thing to witness, and a profoundly sad moment for nearly everyone in the little mountain town in Colorado where we spent part of my youth.
I was plagued by falling dreams for weeks. They finally stopped when I let one play out to its logical conclusion: I visualized my own death.
I saw at that age how there’s no pain more extreme than the pain of losing a child. An aunt and uncle experienced that pain a few years later, when a cousin my age died in a car accident.
As I learned in the decades following my friend’s death, it’s possible to be on top of a 100-foot pole that’s inside a 200-foot pit. Some of us also cling to experiences of hurt and loss, as I did in various ways. Making too much of spiritual pursuits, experiences and insight – even privately – can be a strategy for turning away from our own suffering.
In fact, we’re avoiding something else when we’re up that pole: genuine happiness. We have to embrace our vulnerability to be truly happy.
At the moment things changed for him, the person we now call the Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, supposedly asked himself, “Am I prepared to accept this happiness?” Whether or not he said or thought this, there’s ample evidence he understood what true vulnerability offers, what true happiness requires.
I insulated myself from that sort of happiness for years. The defenses I developed in response to witnessing my friend’s death no doubt were a factor, and now I see that the searching – spiritual and otherwise – I did in my 20’s and beyond was, in part, an effort to find an escape route from the pit I was in.
I felt this insulation – this isolation – most profoundly in the realm of another falling experience we all know can be as terrifying as it can be joyful: falling in love.
My own subtle technique for avoiding intimacy was – and still is – clinging to ideals of what love and life should be, rather than loving the real person or situation right here in front of me. Looking for love on top of that pole, rather than down here on the ground, where there’s room for others and real engagement is possible.
I never felt satisfied in relationships – never allowed myself to be satisfied in relationships that might have been satisfying – and sometimes I found myself in relationships that were bound to be unsatisfying for one reason or another, even though the woman in my company was perfectly lovely and deserving of a more satisfying relationship than we were destined to have. I sometimes caused real hurt, which I deeply regret.
Fortunately, it’s also possible to fall from the depths, so to speak – to develop a new relationship to the emotions, impulses and thoughts that keep us searching for a way out. Over the years I slowly came to understand that I wasn’t exactly honoring my friend’s life and memory by relating to my own childhood experience of loss in a way that kept me from loving and being loved.
I met my wife, Esther, as this realization was beginning to dawn, and I experienced our courtship as “falling in love” in all the most wonderful senses of that phrase. Twelve years later, we have two fantastic kids who rule the roost. My family is an immense source of joy – a joy I could not have experienced to the same extent earlier in life, in part, for fear of losing them. This joy requires us to accept that we are “of the nature to die,” that everyone dear to us is “of the nature of change,” and that we can’t “avoid being separated from them” – facts many Buddhists remind themselves of when reciting the Five Remembrances.
False ideals still frequently get the better of me, and I’m grateful when Esther or someone else shines a light on them, even though that can be bitter medicine. There’s falling in love, and then there’s the daily work of sustaining it, making it real.
The late philosopher Robert Nozick supplied the most useful definition of love I’ve ever heard: it’s the decision to stop trying to trade up. To stop searching for that elusive ideal companion, or life experience. For me, this means simply being present to what is, moment by moment; choosing to love who and what is right here, rather than romancing the phantoms that are my own (sometimes completely ridiculous) fantasies about what others, and what life, should be. The real thing is so much better anyway.
There are healthy and appropriately motivating ideals and aspirations, of course, but I’m talking about the perverse ideals – the fantasies – that keep us isolated.
If you’ve stuck with this Zen thing a little while, you likely understand that nirvana – a word we don’t use much within the Boundless Way Zen community of which I’m a part – is not some physical or metaphysical height where all of our fantasies are fulfilled. You probably also see some of your own subtle strategies for continuing to search for that fictitious place anyway. To paraphrase the Heart Sutra, nirvana is right here. This very moment, with all its easiness or uneasiness.
Shih-shuang’s adept on top of the 100-foot pole reminds us how easy it is to get trapped at what we might believe is the apex of Zen practice. Perhaps you’ve entered the Way, developed some insight. If so, the eminent master of former times tells us that setting up camp there is just another strategy for maintaining the illusion of separateness that is the source of all unnecessary suffering. As profound as samadhi and kensho experiences can be, this koan reminds us that insight is not mature until it’s brought down to earth.
Lingering on top of the pole – as if that truly were possible – is not the way out of the pit. The part of us that keeps us stuck in the pit – that adds layers of optional suffering upon the suffering that’s unavoidable in this creaturely life – is the same part of us that keeps searching for pole-tops, and that keeps us up there too long once we think we’ve found one.
But if we keep stepping off that pole, rather than trying to stay on top of it, the pole gets shorter and shorter each time we find ourselves stuck there. Pole-top, pit, and everywhere in-between and all around ultimately collapse into a single point.
A point that is no point, and also you, and me, and this vast universe.
Zen’s open secret – its grand bait-and-switch move, and the family disgrace – is that it can help us cultivate a new and fundamentally different perspective, but it’s the stuff of everyday life we see through that lens. Our extraordinary ordinary existence, with all of its trials and tribulations.
I visited my friend’s family periodically for 20 years or so after his death, though I’ve since lost touch with them. His dad had passed away by the time of our last visit, but I was able to see his mom and two sisters, all of us adults by then. One of the sisters was a bit older than my friend; the other was considerably younger.
My memories of walking into the family’s home right after the accident, of his mom clinging to me, sobbing, pleading for me to say he wasn’t gone, and then collapsing to the floor – they’re still so vivid. In all these later visits, however, she was the joyful, life-affirming person I knew her to be before the accident. His older sister, too.
My friend’s younger sister can’t really remember her brother. She only knows the stories. She knows what a remarkable young man her brother was, and how many people he deeply touched during his brief lifetime. His parents and older sister chose to give the youngest child stories that would not imprison her in the family’s pain, real as the pain was. They suffered, they mourned . . . and they ultimately continued to let life be full of both sorrows and joys, despite their terrible loss.
Do you sometimes find yourself lingering on top of a 100-foot pole? Maybe you find yourself trapped in fixed views of yourself, of others, of life. Maybe you think spiritual practice is about reaching some exalted state of mind or being – and even think you’ve found it.
If so, can you see a pit below?
How might you take a step off the pole – into thin air, into your fear, into the great unknown, where there’s little you can count on, yet no place more solid and secure?
This knife’s edge of living-dying is the only path. There is no better vantage point; no other ground to stand on; no other road to travel.
That’s the practice. We take that step off the pole again, and again, and again – into each new moment, into each new opportunity to be intimate with life and one another, rather than staying in that zone of false comfort on top of the pole.
We take that step over and over, until we must take our final step. Maybe we have both feet on the ground then by virtue of our practice, and so have nowhere to fall.
Despite our fear, there truly is no place to fall. The worlds of the Ten Directions are our total body after all.