Kyogen said: "A man's hanging in a tree only by his teeth. Somebody asked:
'Why did Bodhidharma come to China?' What shall he answer?"
(The Koan-answer is the picture's caption!)
Swinging, falling, screaming, dying.
An explanation of the Koan answer
The master constructs a fictional situation: A man holding himself in a tree with his teeth only . Every Buddhist has to answer questions about the tradition. The man has to answer!
He does and falls to death. That's it. Nothing but that.
The background story of this Koan
This fictional story sounds like a Zen version of a Shakespearian drama. "To be or not to be" that's basically what Hamlet, as well as Kyogen's man in the tree, has to decide.
Master Kyogen said: "Zen is like a man hanging in a tree by his teeth over a precipice. His hands grasp no branch, his feet rest on no limb, and under the tree another person asks him: 'Why did Bodhidharma come to China from India?'"
If the man in the tree does not answer, he fails; and if he does answer, he falls and loses his life. Now what shall he do?"
Hamlets death is a question of honour. Kyogen's man in the tree just dies.
The original Chinese Goang
Xiangyan Up a Tree
Venerable Xiangyan said, "It is like a man up a tree hanging on a tree branch held in his mouth. He can’t use his hands to climb up the branch; his feet cannot step on the tree.
It happens that below the tree a person asks, ‘What is the meaning of the coming from the West?’
To disregard the other who questions is immediately not correct. If on the other hand, you are correct, your body is dead and your destiny is lost.
At that time what is appropriate; what can you put forth for a correct life?”
Traditional Commentaries and .... Poems (Gata)
In such a predicament the most talented eloquence is of no use. If you have memorized all the sutras, you cannot use them. When you can give the right answer, even though your past road was one of death, you open up a new road of life. But if you cannot answer, you should live ages hence and ask the future Buddha, Maitreya.
Even if it happens that you can suspend a river of discernment, you do not manifest the whole use. If you are able to expound the teachings of the one great Buddhist scripture, again you do not manifest the use. If from within you are able to correctly manifest, then alive still follow before the dead road beginning; dead still follow before the alive road beginning. Can’t you possibly be straight like that? Then, wait until the coming and ask Maitreya.
Kyogen is truly a fool
Spreading that ego-killing poison
That closes his pupils' mouths
And lets their tears stream from their dead eyes.
Xiangyan is really sloppy;
His wicked poison hasn’t exhausted its limit;
It still mutes patch-robed monks mouths,
And smooth bodies break out with demon’s eyes.