Yunmen said, “An old buddha and a pillar embrace. What number is that?”
He himself answered, “It rises as clouds on South Mountain, it falls as rain on North Mountain.”
(Case 83, Blue Cliff Record)
Shishuang asked, “How do you step from the top of a hundred-foot pole?”
(Case 46, The Gateless Barrier)
The world is always inviting us to get down and dirty. It wants us to sink our hands into it, to acknowledge and consummate our connection. My cat stares up at me and meows demandingly. I think I smell a gas leak under the house. My gallbladder symptoms are back. How we respond to these invitations becomes our life.
A homeless woman at the traffic light walks along my row of cars, holding up a crumpled cardboard sign. Until seeing her, I hadn’t realized how hot it was outside, how dry my throat is. I can feel the sunburn on her skin and the hot wind blowing in her long, unwashed hair. She is an envoy from the world of lost things, bearing a familiar crisis: do I give her money or not? Make eye contact or not? What is my obligation here, as a human being? My mind tries to help out by offering opinions, “These people probably aren’t even homeless. They’re making more per hour than I am!” or “Our society is such a mess that people have to live this way.” I am drawn in, but pull away. (What number is this?)
The world reaches out in broader ways as well. A subpoena transcending time and place, it summons us to take a position, and perhaps defend it. The 2016 American presidential election was and is an example of this, drawing millions of women and men from all over the world into the streets in protest and mobilizing many Americans to vote who had previously lain politically dormant. Social media has had a particularly interesting effect on this process, making tangible the connections that before were only subliminal. Facebook and Twitter have become a way for the world to wrap its arms around itself.
A friend from my koan small group told a story about a recent skydiving trip. He talked about the plane ride up, being strapped to another person, how they tell you to tilt your head back and rest it on the other person’s shoulder, then out the door you go, the excitement of being free of the world for a few moments, even as it rushes up to meet you at terminal velocity. Spiritual practice is like this, too—with liftoff comes the relief and exhilaration of rising above the ordinary, a sense of freedom and expanded perspective; and then, as my friend said, it’s time to go whether you’re ready or not. So you might as well go willingly.
But we all resist the invitation of the world in our own ways, some subtler than others. We try to outmaneuver gravity by getting lost in our heads or our emotions, by improving ourselves or others or giving up altogether, by working too much or developing an addiction, by people-pleasing or practicing acceptance or becoming depressed or cynical. Both hedonism and asceticism are Sisyphus-approved recipes for eternal struggle, and one of the important points of the Buddha’s story is that he found both extremes insufficient.
All manner of spiritual paths offer a way out of suffering, promising eternal life and freedom from strife in this life or the next, and Buddhism is no different. This fantasy speaks to the part of us that secretly hopes the plane will just keep going up and up, carrying us away from this uncertain and frightening place. Meditation is often used as an attempt to sever our connection to the world, and in fact, exhausting this possibility is an essential part of the journey.
There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
(Buffalo Springfield, 1966)
Stepping into the world is inherently dangerous and can be confusing at first, since it requires us to leave our usual ways of understanding the world behind. Fortunately, koans make good jump-buddies. There are no guarantees that strapping ourselves to a koan will keep us safe, but guarantees of safety are like any insurance policy anyway: they contain long lists of circumstances that they don’t cover. Koans have a way of nudging us up to the door and pulling us out with them, whether we are ready or not. Not fully committing to the leap when it’s time can be dangerous: there are engines and wings and Earth to collide with, and if we flail around too much we could spin out of control, smashing into others in mid-air. But mistakes are a close relative of enlightenment and consequences may be the only means of navigation we have.
Another Zen person said in response to Shishuang’s question:
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.
I just recently finished grad school. Having operated in the world of adults for several years prior to re-entering school, I’ve been looking forward to returning to the consistency and tangibility of the working world. But instead I feel like I’m in free-fall, surprisingly unsure about my purpose. This is exactly the opposite of what I had expected. I find myself making unnecessarily detailed to-do lists to structure my ample free time: 1. Apply for jobs; 2. Meditate; 3. Read a book; 4. Take a nap (as needed). I emailed my teacher John Tarrant about this and he replied, helpfully:
My mother asked me yesterday what my dream job was. When I tried to answer, a few frustrated sentence fragments sputtered out. It seemed like a pretty innocuous question, but it asked me to step into the world to a degree for which I was unprepared. To have a dream of what we want means to invest something of ourselves in life, and to invest oneself in life means to risk failure, disappointment, death. But there is no real life without the threat of death, no real satisfaction without the threat of disappointment.
To fully take human form, we go all in. We wager our eternal spirit against the chance that we might feel the true substance of our being, which is perhaps what we have simultaneously wanted and feared all along. We love and fight and haggle over prices and struggle with whether or not to take the job or become vegetarian, taking the risk of appearing in the world as ourselves even though there is no way of predicting what will come of it. There is no cure for this condition, but there is a growing appreciation of the squirming in our guts and the feeling of our own weight moving through space. There are cats to pet and medical decisions to be made, and the strange consolation that everything we do has never been done before. And this might be enough.