Failure is a Friend — A talk by Madelon Bolling (July 9, 2023)

Posted by on Jul 19, 2023 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Failure is a Friend — A talk by Madelon Bolling (July 9, 2023)

Hakuin Zenji said, “They translated prajna as wisdom. All people have it. No one’s excepted. It’s faultlessly perfect in each one of us…” [Dokugyo Shingyo: Acid comments on the Heart Sutra]

We go to extraordinary lengths to arrange our lives around this practice. We come to the zendo and sit, hear the Dharma as recorded and passed down for centuries. But it all comes down to this: this inexplicable thing we are looking for – It… is… here. Not just in this building or this room or in the presence of this group, but wherever you are, at any time of day or night, in the midst of any activity, no matter how old you are, how smart or dumb you are, no matter at all – it’s the here that matters: the practice of perceiving and acting from this . . . presence that is before thinking and before – or rather, right in the midst of – “things.” Everything we try that misses this view just keeps us stuck, striving and dissatisfied, looking for something else. Something – “else”! The first definition of “else” in the dictionary is “other.” That’s why the Coincidence of Opposites says, “Don’t meet another in the darkness . . . don’t observe another in the light.” No “other,” no “else.” In actuality there is no other to find. And this is why failure is a friend.

What kind of failure? Having run into the unsatisfactory, unreliable, transitory nature of everything, it makes sense to start out looking for something other, doesn’t it? After all, we are mature people and we’ve seen it all: Love, laughter, birth, sickness, death, outrage, tragedy, betrayal, satisfaction and dissatisfaction, accomplishment, humiliation, beauty and ugliness – and more varieties of injustice, pain and horror than we can stand.

We have heard about something called “enlightenment” that is said to be beyond all life’s dissatisfactions. It does sound completely unlike our usual experience: clarity; silence; transforming of suffering and distress; beyond words … and then there are all those reports of transcendent joy, and a sense of home: warmth, light, safety, completeness, intimacy – and oh, the uproarious relief of seeing clearly that there is no such thing as self. My, who wouldn’t want a little of that?

So we go looking for it, for that other thing that meets these descriptions. We come here to sit and pour energy into looking furiously for some thing that is utterly beyond ordinary experience, something different. I don’t know about you, but my experience in the last 50 years is that over and over I’ve failed to find it. I looked for peace and couldn’t find it. I looked for transcendence and couldn’t find it. I looked for a magical sense of warmth and light and couldn’t find it. I looked for a path that would lead to a sense of oneness and couldn’t find it. I even tried to try so hard that it would knock me out of myself, and failed to do it. Of course then I criticized myself for failing – oh, my mind is too scattered; I just can’t concentrate, etc. In the presence of this failure, the mind naturally wants to offer relief and seductively draws us back into its comfort zone: solving smaller, more manageable problems, planning doable tasks, imagining a perfect house/society/marriage/garden – so there we are, off in scattered thinking-land again.

I’ve heard lots of people complain about this pattern, saying their mind is too busy, that it won’t settle, that they are swept away in planning, musing, arguing, worrying, strategizing, remodeling the basement, transplanting shrubs in the garden… implying  that there’s something fundamentally wrong with this busy mind. But that’s not so. The mind is just doing its job.

Thinking is not us, and thinking is not the boss of us. It’s rather like having the TV on. If we are glued to the screen, it sweeps us away into stories. If, however, we go into the next room and attend to cooking, cleaning, taxes, bills, we don’t have to follow the TV stories. In real life we can turn the TV off, but it’s not useful to turn thinking off. It’s a protector, like claws on a cat. I’ve seen cats get in trouble with their claws too, literally getting hung up and stuck just like us, though they tend to do it on the draperies and bedspreads. Still, just as cats need claws for climbing, hunting and protection, we need thinking for survival. It’s our most characteristic and useful tool. The problem is that keeping it going all the time is like being in a house where the TV is on to entertain a sick child – of course there’s always a chance that it may broadcast a tsunami warning, so we don’t want to turn it off. Can we carry on doing what we have to do and just let that noise be there in the background? Sure.

Thinking is like TV, whether it’s a soap opera or the news, documentaries or ads: true or false, imaginary or actual, all stories of one kind or other and we don’t have to follow it or address it constantly. We have an entire way of being ontologically prior to thinking (Seung Sahn zen master always said: befffore thinking!), that is, underlying and making it possible. That’s why in this practice we’re given the task of attending to the sensations of breathing, coming back from the vagaries of thinking to the full-bodied experience of this moment.

This sounds suspiciously like wiping the mirror of dust or purifying the mind – the issue that Hui-neng had with the prevailing view of his time. But “coming back from the vagaries of thinking to the full-bodied experience of this moment” is neither wiping away nor purifying anything – there is no doing required. It is simply letting go into what is never absent, has never been absent. As Jack always advised: “Do… less.”

When a person has looked for something utterly other and failed to find it, this experience of actual unquestionable failure carries with it a sense of threat, unknown danger, and massive discomfort. I mean, FAILURE – that’s what it feels like. If, maybe just being sick and tired of the same pattern happening over and over again, if a person settles into failure and admits it fully to themselves, holding nothing back, rather than running from the discomfort – if they stay with the experience of it, how it actually is in the body all the way down to the toes, without attending to the alarmed mind that says “We can get away from this, I’m better than that, I know I can do it – look at all the ways I’m a success – let’s solve something – do something useful for pity’s sake!” – if they just stay present in the full experience of “Honestly, I can not do this,” then as it says in the Song of Enlightenment, “in the midst of not gaining, in that condition you gain it.” Hakuin Zenji put it another way when he said, “You never see it until your fingers let go from the edge of the cliff.”

Maybe sitting and walking diligently for hours at a time here we might encounter our wall, our cliff of wanting and not having a clue until we fail entirely and fall into what was always already here. But how are we to carry and extend such an experience to life outside the zendo?

Experience without opinions: That’s a curious rule we can follow here and there throughout the day: experience, notice what it’s like in the body to do this, to see this without formulating it into words or trying to do anything about it apart from participating. Words and stories may appear of course, but there’s no need to pick them up and follow them, just let them go by as you turn attention to experiencing. Now, this is easier to do sitting on the bus, riding home. It’s a lot harder to do in the middle of cooking, when onions are frying and all at once, the phone rings with a robot call, your partner wants you to marvel at something a friend in Taiwan has posted on Facebook, hungry cats are meowing loudly and knocking papers off the desk, a new email says the insurance on Dad’s house was canceled last summer, etc., etc. … you know: real life. Experience that without opinion? What in the world am I suggesting?

Well, opinion is an interesting word, whose root op- means “choose.” Even naming an experience, getting into talking mode at all – takes us out of the fullness of experience. When we name something (like “cup”) we are choosing how we relate to it; it’s an opinion. The Third Patriarch Sengtsan said, “The great way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose.” The thing is, experience often bears with it an element of sensed danger. The root per- right in the middle of the word means “to lead or pass over,” a root which it totally shares with the word “peril” and certain cognates of “fear.”

Our practice here is to continually approach this cliff and our fear (which may masquerade as a minor, fixable discomfort or imperfection), to approach the edge between knowing and not-knowing, between trying to be in control and do the right thing and… not. Sooner or later we reach a moment when we sense the impossibility of it, sense that we are failing utterly. That moment is a friend, not an enemy, though it may feel terrifying. Let opinions go by, let stories tempt you, and stay with that experience of failure, fall over the edge, let it surround and permeate you. Discover for yourself that “the vast inconceivable Source cannot be faced or turned away from.”

Spring-water in the green creek is clear
Moonlight on Cold Mountain is white
Silent knowledge – the spirit is enlightened of itself

from #11 Cold Mountain Poems, Gary Snyder, trans.