Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 3rd, 2017

The man up the tree

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In his remarkable book The Sound of the One Hand, the author Yoel Hoffmann provides a translation and commentary for one of the most famous of all Zen koans, which is usually known as “The Man Up the Tree.” Here’s Hoffmann’s version:

Zen Master Kyōgen said, “Let us suppose that a man climbs up a tree. He grips the branches with his teeth, his hands do not hold onto the tree, and his feet do not touch the ground. A monk below asks him about the meaning of our founder coming from the west. If he does not answer, he will be avoiding the monk’s question. But if he opens his mouth and utters a word, he will fall to his death. Under such circumstances, what should the man do?” A certain monk by the name of Koto said, “Once the man is up the tree, no question should be raised. The man should ask the monk if the latter has anything to say to him before he goes up the tree.” On hearing this, Kyōgen laughed out loud. Later, Master Setchō commented, “It is easy to say it up on the tree. To say it under the tree is difficult. So I shall climb the tree myself. Come, ask me a question!”

A koan is a question traditionally posed by a Zen master to a novice, and according to Hoffmann, there’s a “correct” answer for each one, in the form of a ritual response or gesture: “In some cases, the answer simply consists of a repetition of the essential phrase within the koan. In other cases, it adds a somewhat different variation of what is already implied in the koan. The best answers are those which through an unexpected phrase or action provide a flash of insight into the koan’s meaning.” And I’ll get to the “answer” to this koan in a moment.

I found himself thinking about the man up the tree shortly after yesterday’s horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas. More specifically, it came to mind after I read the comments from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was clearly shaken by the attack, but who also responded to questions about gun control: “There will certainly be a time for that policy discussion to take place, but that’s not the place that we’re in at this moment.” If this rings a bell, it’s because it’s highly reminiscent—as David Dayen of The New Republic has pointed out—of the statement made last month by Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, about the debate over climate change in advance of Hurricane Irma:

To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced…To use time and effort to address it at this point is very, very insensitive to this people in Florida.

I don’t want to overanalyze the political calculation here, which seems both instinctive and fairly obvious—if this isn’t a good time to discuss these issues, it’s because there will never be a good time. But it also left me with the picture of an entire culture hanging over a precipice, afflicted by existential risk and unable to open its mouth to talk about it. As Koto says: “Once the man is up the tree, no question should be raised.” Or as Lisa Friedman of the New York Times wrote more than three weeks ago: “In Washington, where science is increasingly political, the fact that oceans and atmosphere are warming and that the heat is propelling storms into superstorms has become as sensitive as talking about gun control in the wake of a mass shooting.”

A koan isn’t the same thing as an argument, and the image that this one presents isn’t entirely clear. (I’m not even sure who the man in the tree is supposed to be in this scenario. Is it me? The government? All of us? Scott Pruitt?) But it rings true as a commentary on life itself, in which we’re constantly suspended by the teeth. Two months ago, I wrote of the state of perpetual emergency that Jesus saw in the coming of the kingdom of heaven, which the historian Michael Grant insightfully discusses in light of the parable of the unjust steward:

How shocking…to find Jesus actually praising this shady functionary. He praised him because, when confronted with a crisis, he had acted. You, declared Jesus to his audience, are faced with a far graver crisis, a far more urgent need for decision and action. As this relentless emergency approaches you cannot just hit with your hands folded. Keep your eyes open and be totally apart and prepared to act if you want to be among the Remnant who will endure the terrible time.

I quoted these lines in August in response to the violence in Charlottesville, which seemed at the time like the most urgent manifestation so far of our own emergency. Now its memory threatens to fade, effaced by the seemingly endless succession of crises—large, small, and ludicrous—that have followed. It isn’t a political strategy or a run of bad luck, but the way of life that we’ve bought for ourselves. This is how it’s going to feel to be alive for the foreseeable future. And the best image that I’ve found for it is that of the man clinging by his teeth to the branch.

So what’s the answer? Master Setchō says that it’s easier to reply to the question when you’re in the tree than under it. Hoffmann explains: “Setchō’s quasi-paradoxical comment implies that the concrete problem of being caught up in a tree…is not to be confused with abstract speculations.” But it might also mean that it’s exactly in the moment of greatest danger that the best answer is likely to be given, if only we can manage to say it. Meanwhile, here’s the “correct” answer that the student is supposed to offer, which, at first glance, doesn’t seem especially helpful:

The pupil stands up and takes the pose of hanging down from a tree. With certain masters, there are pupils who may stick a finger in the mouth, utter, “Uh…uh”; and, shaking the body slightly, give the pretense of one trying to answer but unable to…The pupil pretends to fall from a tree. Landing on his bottom, he says, “Ouch! That hurt!”

But there’s a message here that I find faintly encouraging. The man falls from the tree—but he doesn’t die. Instead, in a moment of slapstick that recalls the comic hero, he lands on his bottom. It stings, but he’ll recover, which implies that the risks of opening one’s mouth are less hazardous than the alternative. And perhaps Hoffmann gets closest to the truth when he says:

It is plausible to assume that a man who holds onto a tree with his teeth would fall anyway. Answering or not answering the question is not his most urgent problem. What he needs is not philosophy, but somebody who is kind and courageous enough to help him down.

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2017 at 8:03 am

Quote of the Day

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You are good in boats not alone from knowledge, but because water is a part of you, you are easy on it, fear it and like it in such equal parts that you work well in a boat without thinking about it and may even be safer because you don’t need to think too much. That is what we mean by instinct and there is no way to explain an instinct for the theatre, although those who have it recognize each other and a bond is formed between them. The need of theatre instinct may be why so many good writers have been such inferior playwrights—the light that a natural dramatist can see on a dark road is simply not there.

Lillian Hellman, Pentimento

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2017 at 7:30 am

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