Chan master Yeng Shen concludes one of his Dharma talks with this potent story:
In one of the sutras, the Buddha tells a story about a man who was being chased by four bandits who wanted his belongings and his life. As he was running, he came across a well and thought it would be a good place to hide. On the top of the well were some dried-up vines hanging down, so he grabbed hold of one and lowered himself into the well. When the bandits were right past the well without seeing him, the man thought he was safe. But when he looked down, he saw six poisonous snakes writhing at the bottom, so he decided he should climb out of the well. But then he saw that five large rats at the top of the well were gnawing at the brittle vine. If the rats gnawed through the vine, he would fall into the snake pit. So, he thought he’d better climb out quickly, but as he started climbing he heard the bandits coming back. What to do? He could neither climb out of the well nor go back down. (Shattering the Great Doubt 136)
Although Yen tells us that the Buddha had an elaborate allegory in mind (the man’s situation is akin to that of “sentient beings who are not yet established,” the “four bandits symbolize the four elements,” the five rats the five skandhas, and the six snakes the six realms of existence), far better to treat this story as a koan. Therefore, drop the allegory entirely.
You are the man. You run from bandits and hide, only to find snakes beneath you. You try to climb out and just then see that rats are eating away at your vine. You quicken your efforts just as the bandits are returning for you. On all sides, escape has been sealed off. You’re trapped. What, huh, do you do? What do you do right now?
Farfetched? Hardly. Your situation is like this right now. Your vexations are endless. You get rid of one and two arise. Get rid of two and two or four or ten more arise. Just when you thought you were “putting your life back together,” something unforeseen comes out the seams. Doesn’t it always?
Do you throw up your hands and say, “That’s life”? If you do, that too is affliction. Do you deny the existence of your afflictions or seek to minimize them? That too is affliction!
See this: this koan is everywhere, everywhen. It’s in every thought, in every feeling; it’s in your waking life and in your dreams.
Unbeknownst to you, your koan is your best friend.
What do you do right now? What will truly save you?