The Gateless Gate, Case 5

The Gateless Gate Case Five: 

The Case (adapted):

Kyogen said,”It is as though you were up a tree, hanging from a branch over a ravine with your teeth; your hands and feet can’t touch any branch.

Someone then appears beneath the tree and asks, “What is the meaning of Bodhidarma’s coming from the west?”

If you do not answer, you evade your responsibility; if you do answer, you lose your life.

What do you do?”


How many people are in this story? It seems there are two, but is that correct?

The metaphor of the tree is significant, quite apart from the obvious reference to the tree that the Buddha sat under at the time of his enlightenment. ‘Trunk’ and ‘Branches’ were a common way for the Chinese to talk about Principle and Phenomena.

Branching streams, as in the Sandokai, is another way of talking about the same thing. 

The man – each of us – is hanging by his teeth. He can’t move closer to the trunk or along the branch or anything else. Why not? Because he’s in his own dharma position. He can’t move along the branch towards the trunk any more than he can move backwards in time towards Buddha. He’s just there in his dharma position now, practicing Zazen. He can move neither forward nor backward and doesn’t require to. He’s hanging over this precipice of emptiness. The effort which he’s making is a complete effort; “anything else” arises within this effort.

It seems to me that the person who asks the question about Bodhidharma is not, in the strict sense, a person different from the person making this whole hearted effort. It’s another aspect of the same person. The second person appears within the first person’s Zazen.

This Case raises a more general question—how do we talk about our practice? 

If we talk about practice with another person who’s unfamiliar with Buddhism and we use language which makes our practice understandable to that person, then it’s likely that what we convey isn’t Zen. If we speak from our heart then we’re like a little bird singing; we make no sense to that person at all. If, to avoid feeling foolish, we say nothing, then we repudiate our vow to save all beings.

The way out of this, I think, is just to see the man hanging from the tree, his total effort in the moment, in itself as complete expression. How we are, not what we say, is a complete expression of our practice. Expression isn’t enunciation: it’s manifestation.

We’re not brought into practice by someone giving us an articulate exposition of Buddhism and then us thinking Aha! I must practice that. We’re brought into practice by random, arbitrary things.

I remember when I started practice I stumbled sleepily and malcontentedly into the Salisbury Centre in Edinburgh for Zazen – which I knew nothing at all about – at about 6.00am into a very, very unfamiliar, ritualised space. I wandered towards the nearest cushion. An elderly French gentleman,who I later learnt was the teacher, just pushed me in the opposite direction. I later found out that I was crossing the front of the altar, which wasn’t allowed, but he didn’t say anything, or smile apologetically; there was none of “I wonder if you’d mind terribly..”: he just pushed me vigorously, without giving any explanation. I was very impressed. Someone else may have thought his behaviour was proof that the whole thing was crazy.

His complete expression pushed me into Zen.