Koan: withered tree

 

In ancient days an old woman made offering to a hermit over a period of twenty years, and one day she sent her sixteen-year-old niece to take food to the hermit, telling her to make advances to him and to see what he would do. So the girl lay her head on the hermits lap and said, how is this?

The hermit said: The withered tree is rooted in an ancient rock in bitter cold during winter months. There is no warmth, no life.

The girl reported this to her aunt, and the old woman said: That vulgarian! How outrageous! To think that I have made offerings to him for twenty years!

So she drove the hermit away and burnt down his cottage.

Zen, in my limited experience, is of course about awakening in the traditional sense, the realization of no I with an Other. But it is equally much about becoming more fully human, and how the practice before awakening, and the awakening itself, allows us to be more fully, deeply and richly human.

In the beginning, and depending on what teachings we are exposed to and practices we engage in, it can appear as the two are somehow in conflict. But after a while, and even right away with the right teachings and practices, we can see very clearly how they are not only aligned, but support each other. When we deepen into one, we can deepen further into the other.

Including both not only makes the path much more enjoyable, and allows us to get something out of it even if there is not a stable awakening of Big Mind, but it also allows Big Mind – however clearly it has awakened to itself – to express itself more fully, richly and fluidly through our human self.

It helps who we take ourselves to be, before awakening. And it helps what we find ourselves to always be to express itself more fully and richly, following awakening. (Big Mind always expresses itself fully and perfectly, whether it is awake to itself or not, and no matter what shape the human self is in, but there is still a difference in how maturely, richly and fluidly it is expressed through our human self.)

To use God language, we can say that all is God, no matter what, and it is all God expressing and exploring itself. But there is a difference in whether it is awake to itself or not. And there is a difference in how healed, mature and developed the human self is that it is awake (or not) to itself through. Why focus on just one?

In this case, the test was not only how attached the monk still was to beliefs and identities, which is the awakening aspect, but also how fluidly any awakening and release from beliefs and identities was expressed. The monk failed in both respects.

As with any koan, this one must be resolved by living it. It is never resolved by insight alone, however clever, even if it comes from a clear and stable awakening.

Ikkyu, that crazy monk, knew this:

The old woman was bighearted enough
To elevate the pure monk with a girl to wed.
Tonight if a beauty were to embrace me
My withered old willow branch would sprout a new shoot!

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