Zen Story: A Flash of Enlightenment

A chalk bag with a piece of paper coming out of it that reads, "Answers."

In the Zen tradition, there are many stories describing students and masters who achieve sudden and profound insights during everyday activities. Much of this blog is inspired or informed by such stories, which I have found usefully collected in the book Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen WritingsThe following is a climbing version of the Zen story, based loosely on a true story my friend recounted to me.

An accomplished climber planned a trip to a beautiful limestone crag with the goal of flashing one of the area’s most intimidating and difficult routes, a 40-meter overhanging face that won the praise of all who attempted it.

To flash is to climb, on the first attempt, from the bottom to the top of a route without falling. One must not make any mistakes, or at least no mistakes that cannot be reversed and corrected, so the climber went to a local master who had completed the route and asked for advice.

“I do not think you need any help from me,” said the master of the man’s request.

“Maybe not, but the route is exceptional. Flashing it has been a goal of mine for many years, and it would mean a lot to me,” the climber pressed.

“If it means so much to you, I will help you — with one condition: you must promise not to look at my instruction unless you absolutely need them.”

“Fine,” conceded the climber, “I promise.” The master then turned and wrote something on a piece of paper. Folding it up, he handed it to the climber, who thanked him profusely.

The next day, when the climber arrived at his objective, he tucked the master’s note into his chalk bag and started up. He climbed slowly and purposefully through most of the route, but very near the top, he encountered a difficult section of climbing and stopped. Tired and worried about the climbing ahead, he dangled from a good rest hold and tried to figure out how  best to proceed.

His belayer, tending the rope from far below, observed the climber fussing with his chalk bag tied around his waist, pulling it around in front of him, then scooting it off to the side and shaking it vigorously.

“What are you doing?” shouted up the belayer.

“I don’t want to blow it; I’m going to see what advice the master gave me!” the climber called down.

Finally, the climber succeeded in extracting the note. With one hand he clung to the rock, unfolding the paper with the other. There before him was a detailed description of all the moves he had already completed on his own, but of the final moves above, the sheet said only:

“Enjoy the good rest and contemplate not blowing it at the final crux.”

With that, he was enlightened.

Running It Out

The author climbing on Paradise Lost

Seventy feet up an overhanging arête known as Paradise Lost, deep in the hollows of Kentucky’s steamy Red River Gorge, I hang from shallow horizontal striations streaking the Corbin sandstone like lines of Morse code. I resist the waves of fatigue slowly overtaking me and look up to the crux above, from which I have fallen so many times already. Then I look down.

I’ve skipped a bolt, and between my shoes my last point of protection feels frightfully far away. The rope bellies out from the wall between each quickdraw. As I follow its line down, it appears to grow thinner, more string than cord. At ground level, my belayer’s little face turns up to greet me.

My adrenal gland does its thing, mainlining fight-or-flight stimulant into my system. My heartbeat accelerates, breathing goes shallow, sweat beads on forehead, hands start to quiver.

Nothing about my circumstances has changed except my awareness of those circumstances. The real risk of my situation is small, but I find it almost impossible to climb with a clear mind. My vision funnels in, and around me the possibilities disappear into a haze. In the words of Samuel Butler, “Fear is static that prevents me from hearing myself.”

How do you climb when a big fall looms beneath you? Do you tighten your grip? Hold your breath? Lock your muscles as if bracing for impact? It’s only natural.

What you’re afraid of in such situations — what we’re all afraid of, by design — is death and injury. Deep down, we’re programmed to respond this way to threats, real or perceived. This response is probably very effective in some circumstances — if you’re being chased by a predator, say — but it’s not very useful in climbing or in many of the scenarios we encounter in modern life. And while fear can inform our decision-making process in important ways, the survival instinct unbridled can lead us to make poor decisions.

Instead of pushing on, trying to climb as calmly and confidently as possible to the next bolt and accepting that I might have to fall, I attempt to down-climb through a difficult sequence. As I reach back, quaking, for a lower hold, I hook the rope behind my calf just as my I lose my grip.

“Falling! Shit!” I bark as I slip into space. The rope zings across the back of my knee, whipping me upside down and leaving a weeping burn. But the fall is clean, and I quickly right myself before my belayer lowers me back to Earth.

A few weeks later, I come across a Zen story, one of the Buddha’s parables:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

Of course, the Zen story is just a vision of life painted in exaggerated colors. Aren’t we all suspended by a metaphorical vine, with no control over when the mice will chew it through? How do we appreciate the smell of fresh spring flowers with a stressful presentation looming on the horizon? How do we enjoy a meal with family, knowing that at some point there will be no more family, no more us?

One answer is that we try to put any undesirable thoughts out of our heads, ignore or otherwise wish them away. But I think we can only ignore things for so long, and so I can only see one reasonable response to our very natural fear of what lies ahead: to commit to the task at hand with all our hearts. To do our best to climb on with clear eyes, resolve, and with joy, despite the promise of a fall gathering in the space below.