Boom of dry lightning
rattles this stony canyon,
where stones shift and slide
as they have for eons.
Layered shape of chaos
shape of heated and cooled
liquid folded into solid,
fractured and split, eroded
and uplifted, cleaved and overturned,
ancient and artless: for this
one sliver of time reborn
in the human mind as a climb.
Through all the creatures whose bodies
have grown, grown cold,
and decomposed in its shadow,
never has this rock meant before.
Is this really the first time the wheel has notched into this position?
Things fall apart; the center won’t hold,
but still the stone remains, a koan: if a boulder sits on a hillside and no one’s left to climb it,
does it have a grade?
I have been climbing nearly a quarter of a century, and sometimes I wonder if I will climb my whole life. Maybe someday I won’t, which seems sad in the way that having a friend move away is sad. Right now, climbing is a tool that fulfills certain needs in my life: the need for an engagement that’s both physical and intellectual, the need to spend time in nature, the need for a routine that’s all my own…
But maybe the time will come when I no longer have these needs, or when climbing no longer fulfills them, or when I have otherwise arrived at a state in which climbing doesn’t make sense for me. In this case it would be only natural to stop climbing, like putting aside a crutch after an injury has healed.
“Delusion is like a stepladder,” writes Shunryu Suzuki in Not Always So, “Without it you can’t climb up, but you don’t stay on the stepladder.” For Suzuki and most Buddhists, this life that we’re so attached to, full of desires, aspirations, doubts, and fears, is the delusion. But these are useful delusions, as it were, which can be used to move us towards enlightenment. When enlightenment is reached, we see the delusions for what they are and cast them aside, push the ladder away. As the poet and essayist Gary Snyder writes, “You must first be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.”
Climbing is my favorite stepladder. When everything happens just right, I don’t think about it or worry about it; I just do it. I feel myself approaching a different state of being, where the day-to-day starts to break down. But when I try to bring this state with me after the climb, it quickly fades, like a dream after waking. The more years I climb, the better I become at holding on to the dream, or so I tell myself. I imagine this is what the Zen student does when she meditates—she stills the mind day after day, for months and years, until she can bring that stillness into the world outside of meditation and, eventually, see meditation for the ladder it is.
A koan is a Zen language puzzle designed to confound logic. Some koan-like Buddhist sayings address the act of climbing directly: “If you want to climb a mountain, begin at the top,” says one. “When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing,” suggests another. These puzzles ask us to reconsider the ideas of challenge and success, internal and external, climber and climbed.
When I can begin a climb at the top, and keep climbing once I’ve arrived there, I think it will be time to give up this old stepladder.
The night before last, I was standing in an empty field just as the full moon rose through the branches of a tree. I took this picture. A grand, pale orange form as it mounted the horizon, the moon appeared to shrink smaller and smaller as it rose, until it hung like a bare bulb in the sky above us. The sight conjured a Zen story from Zen Flesh Zen Bones, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. The lesson, as always, is one of perspective:
The Moon Cannot Be Stolen
Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.
Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you shoud not return emptyhanded. Please take my clothes as a gift.”
The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow, ” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
“Some of these things are so difficult, I have to want it more than anything else in the world. It has to mean so much. But that can work against me…” — Chris Sharma
As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, although the title of this blog comes from a Zen story, I’m no Buddhist. Like a bird building a nest from odd scraps and detritus, I take only the parts of Buddhist philosophy I need and leave the rest. The concept in Buddhism that seems to resonate most with me is the lesson of non-attachment.
In the video above, there’s this exchange between Chris Sharma and “Mindful Living Ambassador” Mark Coleman:
Coleman: You’re balancing the intense desire…to achieve something — but as you say you can’t do that and be tight, because it just contracts everything: body, mind, and your climbing — so how do you balance holding a goal, and at the same time not being attached.
Sharma: It’s a difficult balance, because, if you don’t take it seriously, then why even try so hard?
Here the riddle of greatness is stated clearly. And, of course, the video never actually answers any questions, only identifies the challenge. “It’s a difficult balance,” says Sharma. He probably strikes it more often than most, and yet he cannot express how to strike it. It is something you must seek without seeking. You must care, and work, and try… and then it just happens.
In Zen, similarly, to reach enlightenment is the goal, but the means of reaching it involve not focusing on the goal. Like Zen koans, the logical inconsistency is uncomfortable to the brain, like an Escher print. However, with assiduous practice and constant repetition, one can enter the state of doing without trying.
Many classic Zen stories identify a moment of sudden awakening. For example: a monk is walking through the market and overhears a conversation between butcher and customer. The customer asks which cut of meat is the best. The butcher answers that they are all the best; he carries no cut that is not the best. And with that, the monk is enlightened. (So simple, but what the story doesn’t mention is the many years the monk would have spent in a state of constant effort, trying to understand the nature of existence.)
In my life, I try to hold many goals in mind, but to hold them lightly. A violinist should not clutch his bow, nor a painter her brush. Similarly, to make use of our bodies, we must practice letting go, loosening ourselves until we are pliable like a reed and not stiff like a dry old stick. In climbing, constant tension is the enemy, always defeating us on our way to the top. In life, too, a constant clenching of the mind is self-defeating.
To know this intellectually is simple — just a matter of linking one word to the next. But to live it every moment, now that truly is a difficult balance.