Commentary on Hyang Eom's "Up a Tree"

Adapted from a talk given at Chogye International Zen Center of New York on April 1, 1990. This kong-an presents a very interesting situation. The rather dramatic image of the man up a tree is a vivid portrayal of two existential situations or issues that we all have to face. First, what does it really mean to stay alive, or be alive? And the second issue is about responsiveness. someone under the tree is calling out, "Help me out here. Tell me something. Give me something." This raises questions about relationship and correct situation and responsibility. Responsibility, in this sense, means the ability to respond. How is one to respond in such a situation?

There's a similar Zen story in which a man is being chased by a tiger, and he's running for his life. He gets to the edge of a cliff and can't go any further, but he sees a vine going over the cliff, so he grabs hold of it, swings over, and is hanging there. Down below, he sees another tiger - waiting. The man is hanging there with one tiger above and another below. Then, a field mouse begins to gnaw at the vine right above him Just at that moment, this man sees one wild strawberry growing on the vine right near him, and without holding back anything he bites the strawberry. What a taste!

This story is about the first issue of the kong-an only. It's about life and death and what it really means to be alive or dead. But there's no element of relationship in the story. There's no one calling to the person to respond. But both stories portray people pushed to the limit.

We have already seen how Hyang Eom's training and his struggle were very intense. lie was pushed to the limit. So the kong-an that he made to test his students is also of a very intense kind. A man is up a tree hanging from a branch by his teeth. And everything is tied. This state of being tied means he can't hold onto any conception, anymore. Also, his feet have no resting place - he can't find support in the usual ways that he was used to finding support. At that time, someone calls to him, "Please help me." How does he stay alive?

Jesus addressed the question of being truly alive in his saying, "It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven." In many spiritual traditions, there is the notion that one only really becomes alive when one strips away everything. This is variously referred to as renunciation, non-attachment, letting go of ideas, conceptions, opinions, frames of reference, and one's orientation towards oneself and the world. If one lets go of it all, one becomes really poor - has nothing.

There's another story, a favorite of mine, also from the New Testament that speaks in a different way to this issue of what it really means to stay alive. After the Last Supper, Christ tells his disciples, "You will all fall away because of me this night," and they all say, "No, no, no, no." His main disciple, Peter, whose name means "the rock," says, "Master, I would never deny you." And Jesus says to him, "Peter, before the cock crows this very morning, you will have denied knowing me three times."

Jesus is then arrested and Peter goes and stands outside of where they have taken Jesus into captivity. When he is asked if he is one of Jesus' followers, he says, "No, no, no - I don't know the man." Three times - "No, no, no - I don't know." Now that's a very interesting point. He denies knowing his master, whom he loves dearly, three times. Yet he goes on after Jesus' death to become the organizing force in the Christian movement, the first pope.

That's the Bodhisattva way, just try - over and over and over again. We sometimes say, "Try, try, try for ten thousand years non-stop." The story of Peter may seem extreme, but it is instructive nevertheless. As another Zen saying goes, "If you fall down seven times, get up eight times."

Facing our failings and our weakness and yet still again rousing up that energy of "try" is very much connected to our view of what it really means to be alive, to enliven our environment, to enliven our relationship and to be able to really be responsible and responsive.