Extract | The Thousand-foot Cliff
If I could only have that one thing, then I will be happy – when these kinds of feelings come up, we have a prime opportunity for awakening.
A man has lost his footing on a thousand-foot cliff; as he begins to slither down, one hand happens to grab a stout root. There he now hangs holding onto the root with one hand, the other and his feet dangling over the yawning abyss.
Can he let go?
This is a famous Zen question. It is included in this collection because it points out a perennial problem - and its solution.
A proverb states, ‘A healthy man has a thousand wishes, the sick man has one only.’ And so it is with all of us. Even if not clearly formulated, we all have a thousand wants, likes, preferences, etc. But occasionally, and not necessarily due to illness, all these seem to come together into one, and we feel that if only I could have this one - whatever ‘this one’ might be - I would be satisfied, not mind anything else; ‘if only’ I had my health again, or my lost love, or whatever I long for.
This is hanging on the thousand-foot cliff, clutching the stout root. If only! Life hangs us onto that cliff at least a few times, but we do not recognize it. Frantically struggling, we somehow manage to scramble back up again, and so here we are once more, complete with our thousand wishes. As a consequence we become ever more demanding and nothing, neither reason nor principles, bids a halt to our unbridled wants, rights or opinions. The result is increasing pollution, impoverished environment, and an overpopulation that ensures things will become worse, for it is obvious that the more of us there are the less the individual gets or counts.
So what should be done? Life hangs us onto that thousand-foot cliff; and yet amazingly, the more spoilt we are, the more childishly and selfishly demanding we become. Even ‘unselfish demanding’ is selfish and can carry us away completely by its irresistible fascination. Repetitions of this process then become more frequent with the demands growing ever more unreasonable.
The tragedy is that we do not know what that cliff or the root is; so we do not know what to do and can only struggle back, tooth and nail, to the clifftop.
But what happens if the hand opens and lets go? Does that suggest suicide? It is unlikely that we physically will be in that situation. Now, I do not actually hang on such a cliff. Yet I may feel exactly as if I were when I desperately feel, ‘I must have, or I’ll die’. One wish only - that is the root. What happens if I relinquish that, let go of it? Try! A surprise awaits me: I cannot. It seems that root is me; everything else I’ll give, let go, have given - this one I cannot be without! And without it I cannot be.
That is what needs to be broken, the attachment to ‘I’, identified as my wish/want. Life itself seems to have a vested interest in just that, so it hangs us onto the cliff. Religion and the principles of our cultural background suggest what is to be done, their teachings provide examples of it, and adherence to their precepts and principles develops the strength to actually bring it off, to open that clutching fist/heart and to plummet down.
The new life that is then found is a wider, fuller one - free of the anxiety of ‘I must have or I’ll die’, free of ‘I must get rid of or I can’t live’, free, in short, of all the ‘I’ -manifestations and ‘’I’ - machinations that make life a long, suffering drudge. And then there is also much more time available to lend a helping hand or listening ear, to give a kind word or smile - not in some grand and abstract cause to come off sometime in the future, but here, now, with you, my neighbour and friend.
Look and See: Buddhist Teaching Stories with Commentaries by the Venerable Myokyo-ni, pub. The Buddhist Society, 2017
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