The koan of the 100-foot pole is frequently invoked to expose our ideas and misconceptions about Zen practice, namely the idea that there is some kind of apex that can be reached and from where a great vista can be seen. According to Shunryu Suzuki in this talk featured in the book ‘Not Always So‘, to think of the pole having a top in this way is a misunderstanding, as, in his words, “Actually there is no top of the pole. The pole continues forever, so you cannot stop there.”
Why do we practice Zen when we already have Buddha nature? This was the great question that Dogen Zenji worked on before he went to China and met Tendo Nyojo Zenji. This is not an easy problem, but first of all what does it mean when we say everyone has Buddha nature?
The usual understanding is that Buddha nature is something innate within ourselves, and because of this nature, we do something. If there is a plant, there must be a seed that was there before the plant appeared. Because of their natures, some Rowers are red and some Rowers are yellow. Most of us understand in that way, but that is not Dogen’s understanding. That kind of nature is an idea you have in your mind.
Why would we practice when we already have Buddha nature? We may think that Buddha nature will appear only after we practice and eliminate various selfish desires.
According to Dogen Zenji though, that kind of understanding is based on your unclear observation of things. His understanding is that only when something appears is its Buddha nature reality. Sometimes we say Buddha nature. Sometimes we say enlightenment or bodhi, Buddha or attainment. We call Buddha nature not only by these names, but sometimes we call it “evil desires.” We may say evil desires, but for Buddha, that is Buddha nature.
In the same way some people may think that laypeople and priests are fundamentally different, but actually there is no particular person who is a priest. Each one of you could be a priest, and I could be a layperson. Because I wear a robe I am a priest, and I behave like a priest. That’s all. There is no innate nature that distinguishes priest from layperson.
Whatever you call it, that is another name of one reality. Even though you call it a mountain or a river, that is just another name of the one reality. When we realize this, we are not fooled by words like ‘nature,’ ‘result,’ or ‘Buddhahood.’ We see things themselves with a clear mind. We understand Buddha nature in this way.
“Evil desires” is another name for Buddha nature. When we practice zazen, where would evil desires come from? In zazen there is no place for evil desires. Still we may believe that evil desires should be eliminated. Why is that? You want to eliminate your evil desires in order to reveal your Buddha nature, but where will you throw them away? When we think that evil desires are something we can throw away, that is heretical. Evil desires is just a name we use, but there is no such thing that we can separate out and throw away.
You may feel as if I am fooling you, but it is not so. It is no laughing matter. When we come to this point, it is necessary to understand our practice of shikantaza.
There is a famous koan [in the Book of Serenity] about a man who climbs to the top of a 100-foot pole. If he stays at the top, he may be the enlightened one. How we understand this koan is how we understand our practice. The reason we believe that evil desires should be thrown out is because we stay at the top of the pole. Then we have a problem. Actually there is no top of the pole. The pole continues forever, so you cannot stop there. But when you have some experience of enlightenment, you may think that you can rest there, observing various sights from the top of the pole.
Things are continuously growing or changing into something else. Nothing exists in its own form or color. When you think that “Here is the top,” then you will have the problem of whether or not to jump off. But you cannot jump off from here. That is already a misunderstanding. It is not possible. And even though you try to stop at the top of the pole, you cannot stay there because it is growing continuously.
That is the problem, so forget all about stopping at the top of the pole. To forget about the top of the pole is to be where you are right now. Not to be this way or that way, not to be in the past or the future, but to be right here. Do you understand? This is shikantaza.
Forget this moment and grow into the next. That is the only way.