Layman Pang was once selling bamboo baskets. Coming down off a bridge, he stumbled and fell. When his daughter, Lingzhao, saw this she ran to her father’s side and threw herself down.
“What are you doing?” cried the Layman.
“I saw Daddy fall to the ground, so I’m helping,” replied Lingzhao.
“Luckily no one was looking,” remarked the Layman.
This is a koan that comes from the Zen famous Pang family. Layman Pang, husband and father, penned the famous enlightenment verse:
What I do everyday \
Is nothing special:
I simply stumble around.
What I do is not thought out,
Where I go is unplanned.
No matter who tries to leave their mark,
The hills and dales are not impressed.
Collecting firewood and carrying water
Are prayers that reach the gods.
Similarly the whole family was in step with the flow of things, the Dao. The koan for today which begins with Pang stumbling and falling off a bridge is fun as it plumbs the depths of our human experience. This koan is marked by people falling. First, Pang then his daughter. Sitting with this koan reminds me of the times I have fallen in life.
We All Fall Down
I remember as a young child standing in a circle holding hands reciting,
Ring around the rosie
Pockets full of posies
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
We all fall down. One thing that I have noticed about this falling is that it is always a surprise. When I lived on the east coast black ice was a feature of winter. Black ice is another name for freezing rain. Freezing rain falls as liquid water freezing when it hits the cold ground. When it freezes on sidewalks and driveways it looks wet, not necessarily frozen. One morning, I am bounding out the front door on my way to school, only to find myself on the ground, a broken coccyx. That is what it is to be caught by surprise as we fall to the ground. I think of the times in my life when I have encountered a fall, when it seems that my life is going one direction as I bound my way through things, only to find myself in free fall, only the ground to break my fall. In life there is the flow. When we think we know where we are going, things turn, and surprise, we fall.
It is easy to judge the fall. Just as we believe Pang falling off the bridge, baskets flying, can’t be a good thing, when I think of a fall, I first recall the hard landing, the difficult fall. But we fall into all sorts of things. We fall in love, surprised by heart’s warming; we can fall into happiness, waking up one morning finding our world all together, alive. Even the things that we think of as difficult can surprise us as they too are filled with humor and light. Yet, always I am surprised - by the hard landings, by the transcendent bliss. I awaken to what previously was unknown to me.
In his poem, Dark Night of the Soul, John of the Cross speaks of this slipping into the unknown, and cries out, “O Exquisite Risk.” We risk ourselves to life, standing on the edge of uncertainty. We could fall at any time. We try not to, and then Bam! down we go as we fall into what we do not know and cannot predict.
We Fall Down Together
We fall down together. Pang’s daughter falls down next to her father. Interesting here is that she does not help him get up and put himself back together. She does not fix the situation. She helps him fall. She falls right next to him. That is how it is, we fall down together, Falling teaches us something: that life is uncertain, unknowable, unpredictable. This is the water we swim in, always. Sometimes I fool myself and say that I know where this is going, but that is mostly my fantasy as my illusions of control fall away and life rises to meet me, just as it is, not as I expect or want it to be. As the illusions fall away isn’t it wonderful that there are those who are willing to fall into the not known and uncertain with us? As Lingzhao helps her father fall, as she falls with him, there is no fixing, there is no illusion substitution. No, theirs is an intimate fall, a fall into awakening, an assent to the flow of life. So, it is no wonder that the Layman exclaims, “Lucky no one was looking.”