On a gloomy night, in a remote monastery on the open fields, the Zen Master posed a problem to his student over tea: “You are in a hole — how do you get out?”
The student answered with haste, “I climb out.”
The Zen Master replied, “You cannot.”
The student inquired, “How deep is the hole?”
The Zen Master replied, “Several body lengths deep.”
“I yell out for help.”
“Nobody comes to your aid.”
“Am I carrying anything I can use to dig?”
“No. Besides, at this depth, the earth is hard like rock.”
“How did I come to be in this hole?”
“It was a regular day like any other. You were travelling alone in the open fields and you landed in it.”
“Am I injured?”
The student took pause and wracked his brain at the problem. He stayed on the path of the simplest solution.
The student inquired, “Are there any gaps or crevasses in the wall that I can use to climb out?”
“Nothing that will aid you.”
“What is the nature of the hole?”
“It is a hole like any other.”
The student began to feel frustrated, “But why is the hole here? Who dug it? Why in this spot? Is there anyone nearby?”
“There is no one nearby.”
The student began to feel helpless, “If I am stuck here for too long, will I die? Where is my family? Where are my friends? Why hasn’t anyone come to find me yet?” He looked at the Zen Master resiliently and stated, “I yell as loud as I possibly can, for as long as I possibly can.”
The Zen Master replied, “No one hears you.”
The student began to feel anxious, sitting directly in front of someone whom he greatly respected, unable to solve the problem. He knew he was an able student and could solve the conundrum.
Feeding into the narrative, he thought about survival.
“Am I in a well? Is there a bucket and pulley I can reach? A ladder? Is there water at my feet?”
“There is no bucket, pulley, or ladder. On one half of the hole there is a very shallow, running stream of groundwater at your feet. It runs in and out of small cracks that only appear around the bottom edge of the hole. The other side of the hole is dry.”
“For now, I will lap up the water to survive. Then I will rest and think upon my predicament.”
The student bid goodnight to his master and returned the next day to continue. He felt disheartened that overnight he had been unable to come up with a solution. He wanted to prove himself to his master but needed more time. Desperate to prolong his experience in the hole, he considered hunger as an obstacle of time. He asked, “Is there anything I can eat in the hole? Bugs or worms in the earth?”
The Zen Master replied, “There are worms.”
“Then I shall eat the worms to survive.”
The problem plagued the student for days. Each night he returned to his master, inquiring upon his existence in the hole, but unable to process a solution. Over time, he felt empty and depressed. This led to bitter disappoint within himself. He felt he was a bad student, and beat himself up in his own mind.
Despite all this, he did not resign himself and concede to the master for a solution. Nor did he ask for a hint, nor any sliver of help from his fellow students. In fact, he did not even ask any other student if they had faced the same problem, for fear that they may embarrass him by admitting they had solved it on the first day.
He took the problem upon himself alone.
One night, dejected, the student poured out his feelings to the master. “I could live here forever, eating the meagre worms and lapping at the shallow groundwater every day, but I asked myself, Would I be happy? Is this how I wish to live my life? Is it how I should live my life? Perhaps I don’t have any choice in the matter and I should simply resign myself to this existence. I have considered it as a solution.”
The student paused and reflected. It could be the solution he was looking for, but he was paralysed by indecision. He knew that if he chose this solution, it would be his final answer. After spending so long trying to figure out the problem, he felt the crushing fear of failure if he made the wrong decision and ultimately failed the task.
There was a long silence.
The Zen Master, ever patient, inquired, “Is that what you wish to do?”
The student did not reply immediately. He took pause and continued to weigh the possibility. Instead of replying, he continued to pour out his feelings. “If I did so, I would miss my family, my friends. Would they miss me? Why hadn’t they come to find me yet? Why don’t they know I’m here? I don’t understand…”
The Zen Master saw the pain in his student’s eyes, and in that moment shared his sadness. Yet, he knew that he could not give his student the answer, nor could any other fellow student. He knew that the student must discover the answer for himself, or he would never learn the truth. Furthermore, he knew that one student’s truth was not always the same as another student’s truth. Thus, the master remained resilient. He sat before the student patiently, as always, listening to the student and answering his questions.
The student inquired, “Am I very far from home?”
The Zen Master replied, “Yes.”
“After this long, am I still missed by those that love me?”
“Of course, you are.”
“Might I outlive my parents in this hole?”
“Has anyone ever passed by the opening to the hole while I’ve been here?”
“None that you’ve noticed.”
“Will I ever be rescued?”
“There is no way to tell.”
The student paused. In the deepest, darkest pit of his thoughts, he was struck by a moment of sudden clarity.
The student asked, “Am I really in a hole?”
The Zen Master contemplated the question, having noticed a change in his student’s eyes. He replied, “Yes, but not everything is as it appears.”
The student probed his mind, clearly. Finally, he asked, “Who am I? Am I human?”
The Zen Master replied, “You are not.”
“Do I have wings? Can I fly?”
The student was irritated at first, feeling he had been cheated, that the answer was out of his reach all along. Then he realised where he was and where he had been all along. He felt a sense of relief wash over him. He realised the irony of the riddle and it’s true meaning.
The student stated, “I fly out of the hole.”
The Zen Master smiled.