Be Yourself, a talk by Madelon Bolling (September 16, 2023)

Posted by on Sep 21, 2023 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Be Yourself, a talk by Madelon Bolling (September 16, 2023)

Nanyue Polishes a Tile  

Nanyue Huairang asked Mazu Daoyi, “Worthy monk, why do you sit in meditation?”

Mazu replied, “I wish to become a buddha.”

Huairang picked up a tile and started to rub it against a stone in front of Mazu’s hermitage. Finally Mazu asked him what he was doing. Huairang replied, “Polishing it to make a mirror.”

   “How can you make a tile into a mirror by polishing it?’ asked Mazu.

        “How can you become a buddha by sitting in meditation?” responded Huairang.

[Case 139 in Entangling Vines]

[PSC] As a kid I came to believe that personal experience was not as important as knowledge. It didn’t matter how I felt—what was important was learning to do things correctly without offending others and to be able to speak kindly and appropriately. Though clearly important, that left blank places. Deep wisdom came my way from time to time, in my dad’s words—which I misinterpreted completely. When I was 10, I gathered the courage to ask about nondual experiences I’d had, and my poor dad was so baffled that he said, “Have you done your chores?” In our context here, today, that might well be a helpful Zen response! But at the time I concluded that interior experience was irrelevant to the adult world, so I’d better not talk about it. On another occasion, we were camping in a favorite place along the Oregon coast. My brother and I were remembering a wonderful breakfast Mom had made once in that very campsite: pancakes with syrup of wild rosehips that she had foraged. Dad said, “Don’t expect anything to be the same again: it never will.” Very true. Nice of him to protect us from disappointment. But I heard something like, “It’s foolish to cherish good times—better just forget them.”

So I was well aware that questions about experience were tricky. Do you like x (school, ballet, music)? Those questions had to be answered to please the adults in the room. They were providing those experiences for us, after all. And skill in pleasing adults helped me survive and thrive through high school. When I started college my folks moved to Idaho and I stayed with Mom’s parents in Portland.

One day I asked my grandfather what his best advice to a young person would be.  I was 17, a year older than he had been when he left his family in Japan and came to live in the US. He said, “Be yourself.”  I (smartass college freshman) said, “But what is the self?” He didn’t blink an eye or say a word. His deafness lent an aura of mystery which spurred me to spend a good part of my life trying to answer that question, “what is the self?” From reading texts on Vedanta philosophy, I’d heard of a real self or true self. Still, being caught in the web of language, I assumed that if there was a word, it was a word for something – some thing out there that was not me, something that needed to be approached, discovered, deciphered, learned. The words of scripture pointed directly toward true or direct experiencing. But inexplicably I tended to believe the word side of things more than embodied experiences, and so remained mired in duality. This is just like polishing away at a tile.

When I decided to speak as truly as possible about being, I could only say what was present: pressure where seat meets chair, a hot sunny afternoon, blue jays carrying on, brother’s hamster tickling my hand with his whiskers. How could that be a good answer to “how or what are you right now?” even though these were in fact the only certainties available? I thought, “Those things are just surroundings anyone could report, right?  So that couldn’t be claimed as ‘me’.” Concepts of “self” were already rejected as answers – if I set forth an idea, it was just an opinion, by definition assuming the existence of a self! So the self must be something entirely other. In this way I created my own exile and alienation.

Recently I ran across Grandpa’s advice again: “Be yourself” – and realized that it was far from a shallow response. Though a veteran of years of sitting, only now have I begun to perceive the value of those words, “Be yourself.” All this time I hadn’t the foggiest notion of what they meant! During most activities I noticed uncomfortable sensations associated with anxiety and unhappiness. Well, that was “just me,” I supposed, doing things in that despicable, perpetually half-assed way. There was nothing that would delete those feelings of anxiety and wrongness, so I kept them at arm’s length, trying to ignore what I couldn’t change. Please note: this was an across-the-board rejection of actual experience.

But amazingly with age and retirement I began to notice times of ease and simple completeness, here and there. Not just during recreation, either. Sometimes it happened during hard work. Such experiences had always been with me, but I assumed they weren’t meaningful because no authority figure had bothered to react to them one way or other. So I didn’t pay much attention if I experienced ease and completeness—some might call it “happiness.” It’s an odd logic, for sure. The end result was that I rejected, ignored, or denied experiences of discomfort, and dismissed experiences of ease and wholeness as irrelevant to the business of getting on with life. Rather bleak, to say the least.

Lately I’ve suspected that these sensations of ease and wholeness may be exactly times when I am “most myself.” So I dare to attend a little more closely to experiencing when I’m not trying to accomplish anything, or you might even say “unimportant” times. When weeding in the yard, I stand, stretch, and glance up at black walnut leaves waving gently against blue sky. The great thing about this is that it is nothing: literally “not a thing.” Further, it’s also true that it can’t be repeated—it’s new and whole each time, even though it may be just a moment long.

Sometimes it happens looking out the window at trees backlit in late afternoon sun, leaves moving slightly in a breeze—for a few moments, all is well, as it has been and will ever be. And though that experience of scenery is pleasurable in the ordinary sense, rightness also appears when I’m digging weeds, watering, cleaning up a spill on the floor or tending to an overgrown shrub.

Now sometimes, noting interior experiencing also happens when things go wrong. These are exactly the feelings I habitually deny, ignore, and push away. “How is this for you?” I ask myself. The answers are not logical. Rather they evoke something like, “Oh! Like this,” indicating a sensation or a shifting color, or a movement, as of water.  There are many times during the day when ordinary experience is like this! By not attending to full experience exactly as it may be in the moment, I’ve missed out on much of this thing called life.

At such times, Grandpa’s advice, “Be yourself” has an experiential context. I no longer need to worry about “What is the self?” In fact, the question is irrelevant.

In her book on the precepts, Opening to Oneness, Nancy Mujo Baker sets the question out with refreshing clarity. “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” (Matthew 11:15) Baker writes:

What exactly is this I ? What is revealed on close inspection is that the I is never conceptualizable and can never be an object. (p. 170)

“The I is never conceptualizable and can never be an object.” I wish I’d had that clue, all those decades ago! Instead, I was so stuck on finding a self that I assumed I was just too stupid—couldn’t even formulate a usable definition of “self” with which to start a search. Oh well!

(Baker continues): The only way to know the I is to be it 100 percent and this . . . is no subject-object knowing. When I am 100 percent myself, there is no self-consciousness. I am I, no longer bifurcated into an I and a me.

This brings to mind a koan:

Master Yunmen once seized his staff, banged it down on the seat and said, “All sounds are the Buddha’s voice, and all forms are the Buddha’s shape. Yet when you hold your bowl and eat your food, you hold a ‘bowl-view’; when you walk, you hold a ‘walk-view’; and when you sit you have a ‘sit-view.’ The whole bunch of you behaves this way!”  

section 171 of Master Yunmen:  His life and essential sayings 1994/2018 Urs App

. . . and waving his staff he chased them all away. The language is a little puzzling—bowl-view, sit-view, and walk-view all refer to self-consciousness, awareness of self as object, a “me.” As Zen students we are exposed to this issue from the start. It is ironic that the very act of following the forms of practice—how we enter the zendo, how we bow, our posture, our kinhin, our chanting, eating, etc., automatically triggers self-consciousness, especially when we’re new to it. And self-consciousness is by definition separation from ourselves. Amazing, isn’t it? Separation, the notion of “twoness”—it’s the whole problem in a nutshell.

Lee once said, “What is the quality of experience already here, that needs no words of explanation?” That is the question.

In our Friday morning work with Nanyue’s strange act of polishing a tile, we are invited to turn toward sensations themselves, to allow and explore qualities before they are named. These are the very landscape of experience, the actual color, size, shape, weight and rhythm of the unique present moment. Notice that these are qualities of experience. “Quality” is an exact translation of “suchness.” That always amazes me. Once again, we are invited to turn toward present sensations themselves (quality: not quantity, not identity!), to allow and explore qualities before they are named.

Often there are layers or dimensions of pain that we have learned to deny or ignore, for safety or sanity. But in practice here we are among friends, in the same boat, and supported in allowing this moment to be as it is, and allowing ourselves to contact it directly.

As we proceed with our practice here, rather than taking a “bowl view” or a “sit view”—rather than worrying about what others might see or think of our performance, what happens if we ask interiorly, “How is this for you right here, now?” No two moments are the same, so what does the body say this time? Notice sensations, the qualities as they show up, and let them go. By nature they shift and change constantly. They cannot be stopped or grasped.

This is far from polishing a tile: it is accepting, opening to and entering the experience of the actual tile in hand, just as it is.