Jumping off the 100 foot pole

On Saturday mornings, the Fresno Zen and Interfaith Meditation Group has been reading Not Always So, by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.  In chapter four, Suzuki talks about a famous Zen Koan, “Stepping off the 100 foot pole.”  This case is in both the Mumonkan (case 46) and the Book of Serenity (case 79).

In the case, you are atop a 100 foot pole.  Your teacher tells you that if you try to stay on top of the pole, it won’t do.  You have to jump off.  But why?  What’s the meaning of the 100 foot pole? Are we all sitting on a 100 foot pole?  Is it the same pole, or does each of us have his/her own pole?  What is my pole?  How do I figure it out?  Why not stay on the pole?  What does it mean to jump?  How do I jump?  Where am I jumping to?  Do I ever get to stop jumping?  The cases in these ancient compendia always raise a host of questions .

In Not Always So, Suzuki Roshi talks about arriving at the top of the pole as metaphor for a spiritual awakening to the essential nature of reality.  He says that if we insist on remaining atop the pole, we’re making a mistake.   Our spiritual practice is incomplete.  Having a profound enlightenment experience is one essential aspect of Zen practice, but we need to be careful not to turn it into a kind of  hiding place.   We have to be engaged in our lives, not withdrawn into a spiritual cocoon.  Engagement, putting our understanding and awakening to use, is the work of our lifetime.  Climbing to the top of the 100 foot pole and jumping off the 100 foot pole are the two sides of spiritual practice.  We go back and forth between the two, deepening our understanding and deepening and implementing our commitment to be of use.  Back and forth.

At the end of our meditation retreat days, we chant this vow: Beings are numberless, I vow to awaken with them.  this is a real commitment to making a difference in the world – the world of the intimate personal relationships in which we’re engaged and the larger world of our community and the world.  We commit to engagement.  If we’ve climbed to the top of the pole, we have to jump off.   This is what makes Zen practice valuable.  Otherwise, it’s just another form of self-indulgence.

It’s not easy.  Sometimes, it’s tempting to check out.  From the top of the pole, I have nice a view.  I’m above the fog.  Mostly.  I see something beautiful.  The top of the pole beckons as a refuge.   But the 100 foot pole is a metaphor for any kind of complacency.  There’s too much work to be done and, most immediately and essentially, there’s the load of work to do on myself: my reactivity, my selfishness, my unconscious habits that cause so much trouble, so much pain, before I even notice what I’ve done.

The bad news about practice is that it doesn’t actually fix anything.   The other night I watched the movie “Defending Your Life.”  The movie is set in a purgatory called Judgment City.  It’s an allegorical film in which people have to explain to a panel why they should be allowed to move ahead, rather than returning to another cycle of earthbound existence – it has a Buddhist feel.  One thread that runs through the drama is that the place is littered with restaurants, every one of which serves spectacular food – no matter what kind: pie, pasta, omelettes, fish, everything – and that you can eat as much as you want, massive portions, without gaining an ounce and always feeling wonderful.

This is the fantasy of practice.  Freedom from consequences.  But real commitment to spiritual practice is just the opposite.  It’s an  experience of “Now what?”  Of “What’s next?”  of “Deeper still!”  That’s the actual experience.  Fortunately, it is a spacious, connected, satisfying life.   Jumping off the pole, you discover you’re buoyant.  You gain courage and jump again and again and you notice you’ve landed atop yet another hundred foot pole.  But you know what you have to do.

Here’s a poem by Gregory Orr that speaks in a very positive way about how life calls for our engagement:

To be alive

By Gregory Orr

To be alive: not just the carcass

But the spark.

That’s crudely put, but…

If we’re not supposed to dance,

Why all this music?