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 Writings. The 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.