Kyōgen’s “Man Up a Tree”: A Jukai Reflection on Lineage and the Precepts

I gave this talk on April 8, 2023, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

This is Case 5 in The Gateless Gate:

Master Kyōgen said, “It’s like a man up a tree, hanging from a branch by his mouth; his hands cannot grasp a branch, his feet won’t reach a bough. Suppose there is another person under the tree who asks him, “What is the meaning of Boddhidharma’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 time, how should he respond?

This is one of those koans that has stuck with me over the years. The image of this man up a tree is at once so odd and so relatable. He’s clenching a limb with his teeth, holding onto his life precariously. He must be panicked, painfully aware this is going to end poorly no matter what, even before someone else comes along seeking help.

How much longer could he hold on? Thirty seconds, maybe? A minute? Still, he hesitates to let go of the tree to face the inevitable; hesitates to respond to another soul appealing to him as a Bodhisattva.

I remember feeling so pained for the man up the tree the first time I read this koan. Anguished. I feel for him still. Of course, we are the person up the tree. Which of us hasn’t been stuck before, and felt it?

We’re going to celebrate Jukai this afternoon. Three of our friends here today—Eliot, Kent, and Rebecca—will take up the Bodhisattva Precepts, formally dedicating themselves to the Zen way of life.

This koan is perfect for today, because Jukai also is about a certain tree. During Jukai one receives a scroll tracing a lineage of Zen ancestors from Shakyamuni Buddha to oneself. This lineage traditionally is understood as a family tree—a new family tree. Many Asian cultures, including those of China and Japan, which sequentially formed the Zen tradition as we initially received it, place great emphasis on ancestry—upon one’s identification with and location within a community conceptualized in terms of kinship through time.

It can be a bit hard for us Westerners to fully imbibe what this means to many Asians even today, in all its complex valences that entail both benefit and burden. But for many this sense of lineage is deeply felt. Many people in parts of Asia still deeply appreciate and honor this attention to lineage. That’s not to say this strong identification with ancestral lineage doesn’t feel limiting and otherwise burdensome at times. For example, tensions between the old and the new, and between the individual and the community, are prominent themes in Chinese poetry, prose, and proverb throughout history.

In Jukai, as in rituals in other traditions in which one affirms one’s commitment to an intentional way of life, one receives a new name. This happened to me—and, I think, some others in this room—when I participated in the Catholic rite of Confirmation many years ago. Today, Eliot, Kent, and Rebecca each will receive a Dharma name. In Japan to this day, Zen monks, and likely also some non-monastics, actually change their name in the civil legal records after taking the precepts. This is no small matter in that cultural context. Symbolically and practically, they’re saying they’ve jumped from one family tree to another.

How do we make sense of all this today, from our cultural perspectives and for our purposes? How can and should we think about lineage when focusing so much on ancestry seems foreign and anachronistic to us; when the traditional lineage we depict in Zen draws attention to some people to the neglect of countless others; and when some of the people depicted were disappointing (or worse) in some ways, however insightful and helpful they may have been in other ways. Viewed from one angle, our Zen tree looks pretty gnarly, even rotten or hollow in places.

The people listed on the traditional scroll our Jukai participants will receive are mostly men, and almost all of these men were monks. Eliot, Kent, and Rebecca also will receive a chart tracing the lineage of some prominent women and non-monastic ancestors as a way to begin to acknowledge and honor the fact that this tree has long been sustained by a much more diverse community of people committed to the Zen way than has been formally recognized, including people like us living ordinary lives.

Some people listed on the traditional charts, whether in my White Plum lineage or other lineages, transgressed one of more of the Ten Grave Precepts in some grave way. Some did so repeatedly.

Perhaps a bit like the man in Kyogen’s koan, we find ourselves up a tree that we discover to be gnarly and rotten or hollow in some places. We find ourselves out on a limb. What a precarious position. Should we hold on? Can we hold on? What is there to hold onto? What will we be avoiding or neglecting if we continue to hold on by our teeth?

Perhaps the best place for the man in the tree to be at this time is exactly where he’s afraid to be—on the ground. Perhaps things won’t end as he fears if he lets go of the branch on which he’s found himself, and to which he’s clinging. With a view from the ground, balanced on his own two feet, perhaps he will be able to see the whole tree more clearly; discern and appreciate the parts that seem more solid and secure; get some distance from and perspective on the parts that seem less so.

Perhaps falling from the tree branch to which one has been clinging can be more like Alice’s experience falling down a rabbit hole (much as I hesitate to use that term in this age of social media-fueled partisanship). Down the rabbit hole, Alice became larger than other things at times. If we can think of our Zen lineage tree depicted on the traditional chart as something smaller, like a bonsai tree, our perspective on it may shift.

In the art of bonsai, we both take the tree as we find it and we actively shape the tree. We need to think of our Zen tree this way. We are not only shaped by it; we can shape it; we must shape it. Even now, Zen adepts across the globe are reshaping the Zen tradition in myriad ways, opening it to people who have been excluded or marginalized, altering old forms and creating new ones.

Our sangha has been questioning the traditional forms and structures for the past few years, as well it should. We are looking at how what we’ve received has shaped us and how we want to shape this tradition and our practice within it going forward. We’re becoming more like the bonsai artist than the man up the tree.

I’d like to mix metaphors for a moment as I wrap up this talk to touch on the other primary element of Jukai, the precepts themselves. I want to relate them to lineage and, as I do, try to refigure both. Instead of thinking of lineage only, or even primarily, in the traditional way—as a line traced through a succession of formally recognized teachers—I see it more fundamentally as Indra’s Net, another Buddhist metaphor. Indra’s Net includes each of us. We’re all jewels in this net.

It’s easy—too easy—to focus on the jewels in this image, but the rope that connects the jewels to one another is equally important. In fact, in a real net, the jewels, or nodes, are literally formed with the rope. Each jewel is a meeting of beginning-less rope; each jewel is constituted by encounter.

I see the ropes in Indra’s Net as the precepts. They’re what connects us; binds us; in a very real sense, forms and constitutes us. The precepts show us how to be in right relation with one another. How to manifest together as the clear, colorful, bright, and variously shaped jewels we are.

Conceived this way, as a net, our lineage chart doesn’t trace in a single, temporal line of successive generations of teachers. The lines, or ropes, of Indra’s Net extend and crisscross in all directions through space and time, connecting each of us. Each and every node in the net is the net’s center. Many centers, none of them primary.

Many of the traditional forms we’ve inherited communicate these ideas poorly, but I choose to see them in this other way, too. This is part of the logic behind inviting people to create a personal lineage chart for Jukai. I also want to encourage anyone who has taken Jukai to have others in and beyond our sangha place a mark on the back of their rakusu, in addition to the inscription and stamp a teacher has made.

Each of us is an heir to and custodian of the gnarly, wonderful, living tree that is the Zen tradition. It needs constant shaping and tending. Let’s not relate to it like the man up the tree, clinging to it for dear life with our teeth. Let’s tend and shape it well together.