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How Do You Step Into a 4-Foot Hole?

Shih-Shuang famously asked, “How do you step from a 100-foot pole?”[1]

This is one of the koans I have been working on and talking about for years.

There is a related koan which I had never come across before. Apparently, on another occasion, Shih-Shuang asked the assembly, “How do you step into a 4-foot hole?”


On the last Wednesday of October, there were early morning chores that needed doing in the neighborhood. The weather was good. I figured that I would walk. I’d get in some extra steps. I hadn’t gotten far, heading up Oakland Avenue toward Forest Avenue, when I stepped on a manhole cover in the sidewalk.

There was a moment in which I realized that the cover was unstable, in which it seemed that, suspended in mid-air, I could still regain firm footing. And then I dropped.

When I landed, I was standing in half an inch of water in the drain sewer. The swinging manhole cover hit me in the chest. Unable to believe what happened, I was shocked and embarrassed that I couldn’t lift myself out. My chest was hurting but I seemed otherwise ok. The manhole cover was still there, hanging vertically in front of me.

At first I couldn’t budge it. It was wedged too tight, but I wiggled it free and was finally able to push it off onto the sidewalk. I still couldn’t get out. I called 911. They would send the fire department.

I called Dee. She couldn’t believe what I was saying. She would be right there.

Can Anyone Help?

I was shouting for help. On this residential block, one guy came out. He had a badly disfigured arm, likely a birth defect. He couldn’t help. He tried calling neighbors. One came out. “Bad back, sorry,” he said.

The first guy asked, “Where are all the neighbors?”

The second guy didn’t answer.

Then the fire fighters arrived.

Two reached down, grabbing my belt from the back, and with their help, I was able to crawl out. Slowly, I was able to stand but I was unstable. One of the firefighters steadied me, making sure that I didn’t step backwards into the hole. An ambulance arrived. The EMT’s would examine me. As the firefighters were helping me up the steps, Dee arrived. The EMT’s were checking me out. My blood pressure was perfect, 120/80 — it has been my big health worry since my carotid artery surgery four years ago.

I felt ok, soreness in my chest. “You should go to the ER to be checked out.” I never want to go to the ER. Dee insisted. We were in the ER until mid-afternoon. I got x-rayed up and down, CT scans. The chest soreness was getting a bit worse. Every hour or so, I discovered new scrapes and bruises, mostly on my legs.

As they helped me up into the ambulance, I had joked with the fire fighters, “This isn’t too bad. The last time you had to carry me out of the house on a stretcher.” I was remembering the time fourteen years ago when a disk in my spine collapsed.

Just an Advil

In the ER, I joked with the nurses.

I told Dee I was channeling my inner Ronald Reagan. I was not a big Reagan fan, but that moment when he was being wheeled into surgery following the assassination attempt, when he joked to the surgical team, “I hope you guys are Republicans,” that was a display of courage that I have always admired.

No broken bones, no internal injuries. I didn’t need painkillers. I was managing with the discomfort. Over the next few days, the soreness worsened, waking me at night whenever I rolled over. One Advil did the trick. I only needed it for a few days.

Why had this happened?

This story of Master Ichu has been retold many times. Here’s Joko Beck’s version.

There’s an old Zen story: a student said to Master Ichu, “Please write for me something of great wisdom.” Master Ichu picked up his brush and wrote one word: “Attention.” The student said, “Is that all?” The master wrote, “Attention. Attention.” The student became irritable. “That doesn’t seem profound or subtle to me.” In response, Master Ichu wrote simply, “Attention. Attention. Attention.” In frustration, the student demanded, “What does this word ‘attention’ mean?” Master Ichu replied, “Attention means attention.” [2]

Attention! Attention!


I have been recognizing my attachment to ICS, the network of charter schools that I helped build on Staten Island. I retired as President at the end of June, but I had been going in two days a week to help with on-boarding my successor. The transition period was coming to an end. That Wednesday, the last Wednesday in October, was to be my last day. I was ambivalent about this final ending, thinking as I walked up Oakland Avenue on the way to those early morning chores, is there a way that it might be helpful for me to stay on for even an hour or two a week as a sounding board for the new guy?

Attention! Attention!

I stepped on the manhole cover, dropped four feet. I never made it into the office for my final meeting.

Attention! Attention!

The message is clear to me. Is it so clear to anyone else?

“Move on.”

This is not a bump in the road. The message is not, “Pick yourself up and keep going.” I hear the Universe talking: “What is the matter with you, Ken? Do you need to be dropped in a 10-foot hole?”

Why are you hesitating?

I realize that in a way I had been postponing retirement, clinging to this 100-foot pole. Yes, I have been making changes. I have been walking much more since retirement. That’s good. And I have been much more relaxed with Dee and Morri. That’s good too.

But working two days a week hasn’t left me much time for writing. And that’s where my anxiety is.

Can I really allow myself the time to write? Is it too frightening to find out what might or might not come out?

My wonderful retirement party had been a period on a great sentence. Now:

Attention! Attention!

“Listen, Ken. Do you need to be dropped in a 10-foot hole?”

Exclamation point.

[1] Case 46, The Gateless Gate. [2]

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