Shugen Sensei

The Life of a True Person

Dharma Discourse by
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei
Gateless Gate, Case 5
Kyogen's Man Up a Tree

Featured in Mountain Record 31.4, Summer 2013

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei is the abbot of the Zen Center of New York City: Fire Lotus Temple and the Head of the Mountains and Rivers Order.


Once Master Hsiang-yen said, “It is like a person up a tree who hangs from a branch by their mouth; their hands cannot grasp a bough, their feet cannot touch the tree. Another person comes under the tree and asks about the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West. If this person does not answer, they do not meet the questioner’s need. If they do answer, they will lose their life. At such a time, how should they answer?"

The spiritual journey is, in a sense, universal. Although each one of us comes to this path as a person with particular life experiences that have shaped who we are, at a deeper level there is something that we share in common: we are aware of having life, and of the inevitability of death. Thus, we share the questions we call the Great Matter: What is life? What is death? Who am I?

In Zen, the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures are an ancient and traditional collection of verses and portraits that illustrate the path for one practicing the Buddhadharma. Each image depicts a person, the practitioner, in relationship to the ox, a symbol for our true nature. The first few images are concerned with seeking the ox and catching a glimpse of it—in other words, having an insight or direct experience of the self as empty. This happens in the third stage of training, and there are ten stages altogether, so most of the images actually depict what happens after that initial insight. This tells us that there is a great deal of training that must follow in order to deepen, clarify and harmonize one’s life with this understanding.