A Reality Even Prior . . . A Talk by Madelon Bolling

Posted by on Dec 1, 2021 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on A Reality Even Prior . . . A Talk by Madelon Bolling

Blue Cliff Record, case 43

A monk asked Dongshan,

“When cold and heat visit us, how should we avoid them?”
Dongshan said, “Why not go where there is neither cold nor heat?”
The monk asked, “Where is there neither cold nor heat?”
Dongshan said, “When it is cold, the cold kills you. When it is hot, the heat kills you.”

This is the start of a new year, our first zenkai in 2022. It’s so strange that even here, in this gathering dedicated to seeing through delusion, our most casual language casts a magical network of delicately nuanced delusion around us so cleverly, so gently, that we accept the results as reality.

My mind says: Wait a minute – what do you mean by “delusion”? I mean, yada yada yada, delusion is bad, so what? I’ve heard it all before. Bo-ring. It’s a new year – there should be something new to offer. Besides, to me the word delusion means I have screwed up – I’m such a fool: caught in delusion and suffering from it in spite of supposedly knowing better, in spite of having studied with wise teachers for years. Just what do you mean by “delusion,” anyway?

Okay, then. We tend to say, for instance, “This is the start of a new year,” as though there were something called “a year” out there, and that we perceive “a start” to it, as though there were currently existing old years and new years, each with beginning, middle, and end. Even to say “the first zenkai” quietly sets in motion a whole fantastical world where “zenkai” and “years” are stable, known entities with expected occurrences and features. But everything – everything – is subject to change – like the location of today’s retreat. We have surely seen enough startling change in institutions and experiences on a world-wide scale over the last couple years to support such a broad statement. Everything is subject to change.

And, though our experience shows us impermanence at every turn, language leads us to believe in permanence, in the unchanging existence of named phenomena. Just because the name is the same as always, we expect the manifestation, the actual experience, to be the same. Think of your experience of the recent holidays. Of New Year’s. Or of Mom and Dad. America. Sesshin at Indianola. Liberty and justice for all. Everything is changing, and we are likely to become disheartened, annoyed, irritated, disoriented, frightened, and angry when we encounter changes.

Even saying “everything is subject to change” is misleading, because I said “everything,” but ultimately there is no such thing as a thing, an independently existing entity. There is only experience, literally that which we go through. From speaking of it we naturally tend to infer that there are separate, distinct, unchanging realities.

However, we cannot perceive, cannot see, hear, or touch unless there is change – tiny shifts in phenomena. The shifts may seem to occur either on the sensing side or in the object being sensed, but in reality, there are not two sides to experience. There is only this moment of experiencing, of awareness, and the moment of contact is the change. Both subject and object are inferred appearances.

If there is no change, no movement, we lose the capacity to detect sensation and so lose contact with what we call the object. It’s called ‘sensory adaptation’ by physiologists, but for our purposes, we’re attending to the experience – the phenomenological aspects of contact with the world. Because to top it all off, “subject” and “object” themselves are mental constructs – “subject” literally means ‘that which is thrown under’ and object means ‘that which is thrown outward’. Both are abstractions from undivided experiencing rather than distinct free-standing entities.

So subject and object are ways of understanding, sorting and codifying that liveliness, that fact that I’m calling ‘undivided experiencing’. There really are no separate things to be classified as subject and object. These are mental categories, and mental categories only. All right – if there is no such thing as a subject or an object, what in the world does that leave?

There’s a fascinating entry on Change in the International Encyclopaedia of Buddhism. The following quote from that entry sums it up neatly:

In truth there is no doer but a doing, no feeler but a feeling, and no actor but an acting.
(Vol. 4, p. 117)

Though experiencing is indivisible, language leads us to believe in the separation of subject and object. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s simply the human condition, a way of navigating the passing situation we call life. It is in fact totally necessary for the business of navigating our lives! But how can I keep from getting tangled in this web of misleading notions?

We all know first-hand that there is suffering and we’ve been told it is due to delusion. That’s the sticky part. If there is no doer, no feeler, and no actor, wouldn’t suffering just be out of the picture? It won’t do to just say, “there’s no such thing as suffering.” After all, the first Noble Truth is “there is suffering.” Suffering is distinguished from pain in Buddhist literature: it is resistance to pain, to unwanted conditions or situations – resistance that causes suffering.

What do I mean by resistance? Well, just a bit ago, I said, “Everything is changing, and we become disheartened, annoyed, irritated, disoriented, frightened, angry.” We can’t help feeling these unhappy states, but then we glom onto stories about them, and those stories tend to emphasize how we shouldn’t have to feel the way we do. Resistance is like that. It extends our contact with painful experience. And that’s called suffering. What would it be like if we felt disheartened, annoyed, irritated, etc., and just attended to that while it was occurring?  “This is the experience called ‘irritated’; what are the sensations that led me to call it ‘irritated’?” Let’s see: scrunching face, pursed lips, tightness in my middle, short, noisy breaths – and racing thoughts. Can we allow ourselves to be fully present with that experience for as long as it lasts without trying to change it? Huh. Interesting.

The classical advice is to stop identifying with perceptions. Unfortunately, this can’t be done just by understanding the principle and saying, “Oh! Well, I just don’t identify with perceptions”! No – this move is a practice: it has to be enacted anew, constantly – and experienced live in the moment each time. Otherwise, language shortcuts will take over, and before you know it, you’re identifying with perceptions again. Let’s explore.

There is experience in the form of sensations. What is that experience before words, before thought? That is, what is there – what is it like before even the crude labels of pleasant or unpleasant, pleasurable or painful?? This exploration can be done playfully. Playfulness allows us to experiment rather than just follow rules. To say, “I see icicles” posits a subject (I) and object (icicles). We report on perceptions (which are a form or view of sensations). This report seems to make two things: I and icicles. But what is this experience really? Look for the sensations, get closer to the feeling, the lived actuality of the sensory experience. What does it feel like in the body? Oh! This is called seeing icicles: moving cautiously past icy front steps, frozen cheeks and fingers, slippery footing, there’s a bright startle of light in the corner – dripping daggers on the eaves. Don’t bother with further associations, memories, comparisons or to-do lists outside of the moment of this experience.

Try observing impersonally, so instead of saying “I am making rhubarb crisp” notice hefting heavy red-green stalks; pot-pot-pot when knife strikes the cutting board; gritty feel of blending brown sugar and butter, light scent of oatmeal flakes; checking the oven temp. Instead of “I am cold,” try “cold is happening,” or “this (shivering, goosebumps, numb fingers) is called cold,” and the like. Deliberately leave the words “I,” “me,” and “mine” out of the statement. What happens when you try it? It may draw attention deeper into the actual moment, the process of micro-events, into experiencing itself. Does this seem less true than the standard way of talking? These personal pronouns are a useful habit – a necessary shortcut for day-to-day communication. But aside from solidifying the notion of a person, an identity, a doer, I think you’ll find that this personal-pronoun quirk of language doesn’t make the experience more real, or vivid. Rather, it draws attention away from experience.

A handy shortcut is this: they say this is called “being cold,” but what is it really, before words? They say this is called “giving a talk” – but what is it really? Hmm, what’s going on here? To the extent that there is attention to experiencing in the moment – before words, before thought – awareness is moving away from mental constructs and resting more fully in living experience. Sometimes we refer to it as bodily or physical experiencing, but even that is based on the inference that there is “a physical body.”

This is what Dongshan was pointing toward when he advised, “kill yourself with cold.”

A monk asked Dongshan,

“When cold and heat visit us, how should we avoid them?”
Dongshan said, “Why not go where there is neither cold nor heat?”
The monk asked, “Where is there neither cold nor heat?”
Dongshan said, “When it is cold, the cold kills you. When it is hot, the heat kills you.”

This complete experiencing of cold doesn’t literally kill your body. Rather, it prevents a “you” from forming, where “you” means, a freestanding, independently existing, solid, unchanging entity. When you become just experiencing, that is the instant totality – everything is gone except cold. And you are integral to the unknown, unimaginable, all-embracing whole.

The experience of touching, or seeing, or hearing is complete in itself – it is the whole thing, the entirety with no future and no past, no self and no object of perception.

The statement, “I see a snowy lawn” creates the verbal illusion that there is a separate I, a separate act called seeing, and a separate perception called a snowy lawn. Really there is only this: momentary awareness in the form of a snowy lawn, chill rash of goosebumps, small gasp of surprise: hey, it snowed! Beyond this there is no I, no snowy lawn, no separate seeing: there is only a complete, vivid, simple form of awareness: singular, inclusive, momentary, replete with change.

Does this mean everything else goes blank? Not at all! That’s why the Heart Sutra says there is no ignorance and also no ending of ignorance; no old age and death and also no ending of old age and death. As this singular, inclusive, momentary awareness, we are connected with and woven into all phenomena of the whole world, the whole universe, moment by moment.

Koan are designed to help us step into a completely different experience of who or what we are, of what life is, of what and how the world is. Attending to moment-by-moment experiencing and giving a rest to the compulsive, fixed “I” reference can be a step into a perspective that cannot be quantified, really, or described, except maybe as jewel-like glimmers of experience like the following, where, you may notice, the location and function of “I” has changed:

Miscellaneous Koans, # 11

With hands of emptiness
I take hold of the plow.

  While walking
I ride the water buffalo.

    As I pass over the bridge,
the bridge flows,

      the water is still.

In closing, here’s an excerpt from a poem by Dr. Belinda Fu, a physician at UW, improv actor, teacher and friend:

There is only one moment to be counted

It is the one in which I find myself

Over and over

The wren flicks to another sudden branch

The spaniel sighs

A drop of water rolls off the icicle’s tip

Now and now and now again

In this new year I strive

To accumulate only this moment

Again and again


This very one.