A long time ago in China, a Zen student asked if any of the sages had ever fallen into hell. His teacher answered that they are the first to go there! The shocked student asked, “But if they are enlightened, why would they fall into hell?” The teacher looked at the student and with a smile said, “If I didn’t fall into hell, how could I help you?” Do you see what he is doing here? He completely reverses the student’s problem, saying this is not about the student’s idea of purity, but about helping and caring. That is what’s important. He’s saying that you have to get your hands dirty; you have to dig right in. Just as you are, without some special robe or degree or twenty years of meditation practice. Just as you are, you can help.
It doesn’t matter how imperfect we think we are, we still can begin to work. The vulnerability and brokenness that we bring to the task can help others, can encourage them and offer them a space to enter the project. It’s kind of a mysterious thing. When we push ourselves to act, we enter this realm of service and caring, and although it may sometimes feel like hell, it is actually the realm of bodhisattvas (enlightening beings). We become more aware of our interconnectedness, and we share that with others by our actions. Through our willingness to muck around in hell, we are able to give meaning to our lives, to do what it is we can do as living beings, as part of the whole catastrophe.
From Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges by Pat Enkyo O’Hara, page 53