Hsiang-yen says it’s like you’re hanging by your teeth from a tree, a thousand feet high on a cliff. Your hands can’t touch the branch, your feet can’t touch the trunk; there’s nothing to hold on to, so you grasp the branch with your teeth. A thousand feet down is your death. Somebody comes along and asks, “What is the meaning of the ancestor coming from India?” This is a way of asking, “What is reality?” or “Please help me.” This is not a trivial thing. There’s something that they need to know. And so just as your life depends on hanging from the tree, their life in this moment depends on your responding to their question. What do you do?
Master Dogen comments, “Now quietly examine the words, ‘What if you were hanging by your teeth from a branch of a tree on a thousand foot cliff.’ What is you?” This is the great question, and Dogen recognizes this is what this koan is actually asking: “What is you?” This is the source of our suffering and our liberation. It’s the question at the very beginning of practice, even though we often don’t recognize this; it’s also the question at each step along the way. In a sense, it becomes more and more important the further along we go. As we see all things returning to the one, and the one manifesting as all things, we should continually ask, “What is this self?” In moments of challenge, in moments of anger or reactivity, we should ask this of ourselves: “Where do I find myself? What is being threatened here? What am I protecting? What is me?” This is genuine practice.
When we believe in a separate self there is a great deal to defend, a great deal to protect. And so on that thousand foot cliff, the clinging self can be utterly consumed with self-preservation. You hear this voice calling up to you and think, “Sorry, man, I’m busy. I’ve got my own problems.” This is the conflict. Is it me or is it you? Who gets taken care of? Whose suffering is more important?
Our tendency is to fall back into the sense of separateness, the belief in our own existence. And countering this tendency is something we have to recognize and practice ceaselessly. Dogen says, by way of offering medicine, “Don’t see a pillar as separate from a stake. Don’t see the wall as separate from the floor.” Don’t see yourself as separate from another. Don’t see heaven as separate from hell.
This is our work, to recognize how the self reaches for solidity and independence over and over. We learn to see the fearfulness that resides in our hearts, and how that breeds anxiety, greed, fear, and hatred. When we see all that fear and what it brings, and begin to practice skillfully, boundaries begin to fall away. When they fall away completely, this is the dharmakaya, the reality body: no boundary. The walls we build in our world are just physical manifestations of the walls we’ve already built in our mind. Skin color. Gender. Sexuality. Religion. Class. When we see these characteristics have no inherent meaning, possess no inherent truth, no inherent goodness or badness, no righteousness or impurity, then we can see the face of the Buddha in self and other. We can find joy in those differences, rather than threat. We can take delight in them and feel grateful our world is so rich and varied and diverse.