The Man in the Tree

By Duncan Gasson-Gardner

Master Kyogen said, “It is like a man up in a tree who hangs from a branch by his mouth; his hands cannot grasp a bough, his feet cannot touch the tree. Another man comes under the tree and asks him the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West. If he does not answer, he does not meet the questioner’s need. If he answers, he will lose his life. At such a time, how should he answer?”
—Wumen Huikai, The Gateless Gate

It did not take long in my work at the psychiatric hospital to be asked, “Is it okay to commit suicide?” The question hung in the silence of its asking. This is the kind of question that sends me scrambling and scrapping into my thoughts, looking for some certainty, some response equal parts compassionate and wise. If there is a good answer, I don’t have it. When she asked this question, I felt stuck, suspended by a hook. I couldn’t say yes, and I couldn’t say no.

I’ve been asked this question many times in my work. The question depends heavily on context. Consider how the question changes when asked in a whisper with averted eyes about a loved one who has completed suicide.

The question is asked in many ways. Often it is made as a simple statement with a deep shrug of the shoulders. “Chap, I’m just tired of living. I want out,” stated in the voice of someone trudging around with a heavy weight for far too long. And how do I respond?

There is often, though not always, an isolation behind the question. She continues, “I don’t have anyone.” Who could tell someone to fight when there is no one in their corner? Or is that just how it feels; we have all had the experience of feeling lonely even when surrounded by people who love us. Either way, it is real loneliness and isolation.

At times, I have felt myself to be a partner in the hopelessness of my patient. It is such a painful and uncomfortable space to be in; how much more so for the patient themselves. I have a tendency to want to cheer them up. To say, “Look, it can’t possibly be as bad as all that.” That, of course, is patently untrue. It is also the kind of statement that avoids the question altogether and misses the suffering of the person. It’s the kind of band-aid cop-out that we are all inclined to when we can’t stand the suffering of others and would rather not look directly at the wound.

So, how do I respond? How do we respond?

My CPE instructor explained it like this: When someone is in the pit, we don’t throw down a rope. We climb into the pit with them.

A Catholic priest who had lost his faith once confided to me, “Don’t rush the resurrection.”

Master Mumon shares Kyogen’s story of a man stuck in a tree. He comments that it stops up the mouths of monks. It certainly stopped up mine.

In my chaplaincy practice, I have found this space of no-answer to be a vital and precious ground. The people I am with give me a gift over and over again; they show me the reality of this moment. They reveal to me how much I want things to be different than they are. They show me my bias toward wanting practice to be about calm serenity and my misguided thought that enlightenment should be some other, better moment than this one. As if I had been given a promise that life actually begins once I leave this place.

But, of course, this is it. Life has arrived, even if we didn’t want it. Death, too.

Kyogen gives us a koan that would seem to show the impossibility of answering the needs of the questioner. But the man in the tree is answering. He is answering the question in his silent hanging. He invites us into the uncomfortable space of holding the silence and living the answer from our current situation.

Here we are, holding together in the silence after the question.

Duncan Gasson-Gardner, MDiv ’14, is a Zen practitioner and currently serves as a staff chaplain at Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital, a 104-bed acute psychiatric facility in Nashville, Tennessee. He is married to another HDS grad, Lisa, and has two young children, Amos and Arlo. While at HDS, Duncan studied closely with Chris Berlin and took his Compassionate Care of the Dying course.

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