Case number 46 of the Gateless Gate (a collection of Zen koans or puzzles) challenges us:
“Master Sekiso said, ‘From the top of a pole one hundred feet high, how do you step forward?’ An ancient Master also said that one sitting at the top of a pole one hundred feet high, even if he has attained ‘it’, has not yet been truly enlightened. He must step forward from the top of the pole one hundred feet high and manifest his whole body in the ten directions.”
Imagine climbing a pole that is as tall as a 10-storey building (better yet, check out this video of a worker climbing to the top of a 1768 foot transmission tower! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e335kbl9YWc). It’s a little bit (read very!) scary. There’s not a lot to hold onto, the pole sways as you climb and when you look down — Did I tell you? Don’t look down! — the ground shifts and wavers. Finally you reach the top… whew! You breathe a sigh of relief. You made it. Congratulations! Now what?
Sometimes life takes us to the top of that 100-foot pole. We strive, we struggle, we climb. Sometimes we slip, but little, through our diligent effort, we find ourselves at the top. We have succeeded. At least we think we have. Or sometimes, we don’t know how, we find ourselves at a point in our life where we have nowhere else to go. No matter how hard we look, we can’t see our way forward (or backward, or upward or down).
A billboard at a church (advertising the ‘Alpha Course’, a course in Christianity, described as “an opportunity to discuss the meaning of life in a relaxed, friendly setting – for more information go to http://www.alpha.org) depicts a climber, at the top of a peak, looking out over the earth below, and into the sky above, arms spread wide. The caption reads, “Is there more to life than this?”
How, then, are we to proceed? How do we step from the top of a hundred-foot pole. How are we to live when we have reached the pinnacle (or indeed the bottom of the abyss)?
Lao Tzu said, “To hold, you must first open your hand. Let go!”
Rumi says, “Close your eyes and surrender and find yourself in the City of God.”
At my brother’s home there is a painting over the mantelpiece that shows the outstretched arms, the shoulders, and the head of a diver seen from above, surrounded by an enormous ocean of blue. The painting is called, “Trust”.
Richard Lang, in a video entitled, “Stepping into the Void”, (http://www.headless.org/stepping-into-void-video.htm) tells a moving story of a woman in one of his workshops, who, when posed with this question of reaching the top of the pole replied, “Keep going.”
I’ll leave you with my response, in the form of a short poem:
“How do you step from the top
Of a hundred-foot pole?
Look up at the clouds
With arms and eyes and heart wide open
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.