Repotting Unmon's withered tree in the flow of life Barry Magid December 5th 2020

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The Blue Cliff Record, Case 27 Unmon's Complete Manifestation

A monk asked Unmon, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?”
Unmon answered, “Complete manifestation of the golden wind.”

As I suggested in my opening remarks, it can be a necessary part of practice that we pass through a period that feels like disillusionment or discouragement, a time when the curative fantasies that have brought us to practice and that have become inseparable from our practice, come up against the reality of practice and the reality of our lives, and we may have to pass through a period of great frustration or even despair as we recognize the futility of those curative fantasies.

It’s what Joko referred to when she said that it often takes people many years to realize what practice is all about, and when they do, most of them quit, the idea being that we really come to practice wanting to actualize these curative fantasies, not have them go away, because it’s very hard to maintain a faith that there’s going to be something on the other side. So in this case, the monk asks, “What happens when everything drops away?” And Unmon gives him an answer to show what can emerge from that seemingly barren space: the energy and vitality and movement, the golden wind. I think that the image of the withered tree devoid of leaves is itself a complicated one and often represents its own version of a curative fantasy, so this koan is really not that simple or straight-forward when we think about it psychologically.

In many ways it’s reminiscent of that familiar story of the old woman and the monk. The story goes that for many years a devout old woman supported a hermit on her property, a monk who led what seemed to be a very pure and austere life, and the woman supported him by bringing him food every day. One day she thought she would test the depth of his practice. Instead of going herself to bring him his meal, she sent her teenage daughter, a young beautiful woman, and she instructed the girl to test the old monk. So on that day, when she brought him his food, the young girl asked him, “Do you think I’m pretty, Mr. Monk?” And the monk just sat there passively and said, “A dead old tree sitting on the barren side of a mountain doesn’t notice the change of seasons.”

So the young girl went back to her mother, told her what the monk said, and she was just disgusted and said, “I can’t believe I’ve supported that old fraud all these years.” She went out and burned down his hermitage and drove him away. So that gives us a different perspective on the image of the withered tree. There’s a place where we can hide in our so-called spirituality and it becomes its own kind of curative fantasy of being beyond emotion, being beyond any kind of reactivity or dependency, or even feeling, not just sexual feeling but any kind whatsoever.

The old woman rightly saw that this could simply be its own kind of defensive posture, a place where we hide from the reality of interdependence. We can see in that hermit a very clear example of what we might call dissociation, because at the same time that he’s practicing this austerity, this autonomy, this kind of transcendence of being beyond needs and feelings, that whole project is completely dependent on somebody taking care of him, completely dependent on somebody finding his food, preparing it and bringing it to him every day. And yet that whole level of interdependence is dissociated, it is denied. He acts like he’s just an old dead tree on the mountain-side, he needs nothing whatsoever.

But it takes a whole kind of infrastructure to make that kind of fantasy of autonomy possible, and we can see it as a kind of infrastructure that’s often gendered, women taking care of men, and certainly one with economic and class-based roots. What does it take for a certain class of people to live the life of cloistered monastics? Maybe very rarely they actually support themselves as subsistence farmers but much more often they’re dependent on the support of a whole community that enables them to live that kind of life.

So we have to be very cautious about images like this dead tree where the leaves have all dropped off. Yes, it can be a legitimate stage of our practice, when our curative fantasies go through this process of being purged, of dying off, and we have to pass what may feel like a dark night of the soul, when we lose our bearings in our practice, and have to continue without any sense of what we’re doing and where we’re headed. That may be necessary. But it’s also the case that we can use our practice as a way to cultivate a kind of pathological form of detachment, where we try to enact a kind of unfeeling detachment.

Now there’s another cautionary level to this imagery, because sometimes as a teacher I’ll encounter people who seem like that kind of withered tree. And yet what it represents in their life is quite simply a lack of watering, a lack of sun, a lack of nutrition and care, and those seemingly dead trees need to be brought back to life, that there’s a kind of withering that comes from simply the absence of having our basic needs met and we shouldn’t confuse that with a spiritual state of being beyond ego. Often it’s simply a dead end, a resignation, a kind of giving up or hopelessness that cloaks itself in a kind of spirituality that says, If I can’t find love in this life, if I can’t find hope or meaning, I will try to renounce those things. And sometimes what we need most of all is to not pass through that kind of deadness, but be reanimated, and that means a student needs to find a teacher they can trust who will give them attention and recognition, who will acknowledge what’s been missing in their lives and what they’ve been looking for.

And maybe they need a community they can feel part of, a practice they can count on, a discipline that doesn’t stifle them but helps them grow. Now it’s not as if having received that kind of missing attention, those people are thereafter immune from curative fantasies of their own. But before any of those things can be profitably addressed, one has to have, you might say, a secure container, they have to be repotted into good soil, given water, given light, and within that container of a secure attachment, secure community, then the next stages can be gone through.

Sometimes what that’s going to look like is a kind of over-attachment to the teacher or community, the idealization of a teacher in a way that the student can feel that they’ve brought me back to life and I can’t live without them. It becomes a kind of idealized dependency, and that kind of idealization is something that we all need to have at some stage of our life. Certainly children growing up need to idealize parents who provide them with love and security. And if those things have been missing in our lives, we may need to go through a very long stage with a therapist or a teacher who seems to provide those things. But it’s important that we learn how to be dependent intelligently, that we use those attachments and idealizations to grow ourselves into strong individuals who embody and contain the qualities we think we’re dependent on in the other. The strength and insight and love have to become our own, not just something that we’re plugged into from an outside source.

Unmon’s answer, the complete manifestation of the golden wind, should point us in that kind of direction. You see, you could imagine a different kind of teacher when a student asks, What happens when the tree dies and the leaves fall? Since they’re manifesting that, they just mirror it back. Complete obdurate silence, right? Cutting off any last kind of attachment, any idea of getting something from the other. But Unmon goes beyond that to suggest what we have to have happen is to come in contact with the flow and energy and dynamism and movement of life itself.

The golden wind is both the cold wind of autumn that blows away the leaves but it’s also the vitality of life that flows through us. It may be that in our practice we first have to build that secure container of attachment and discipline in order to grow and flourish, and maybe we pass through a phase in which the leaves have to drop off and the new growth comes forward that is less dependent on the specificity of our environment or our teacher. But then we have to really feel ourselves in one with that golden wind, with that flow of life, that it’s something not coming from the outside but something we are always part of.

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