Hazy Moon – A Talk by Madelon Bolling

Posted by on Jul 17, 2019 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Hazy Moon – A Talk by Madelon Bolling

July 14, 2019

Case #6 of the Denkoroku is the story of the sixth patriarch in India, named Micchaka. Keizan’s closing verse to this story goes like this:

Though we find clear waters raging to the vast blue sky in autumn;
How can it compare with the hazy moon on a spring night?
Most people want to have it pure white,
But sweep as you will, you cannot empty the mind.

(Aitken & Yamada translation)


“Clear waters” here refers to purity. And in this translation, the third line is Most people want to have it pure white. Pure white is a metaphor for emptiness or formlessness.

But sweep as you will, you cannot empty the mind.

Well, it’s true: all the hassles and reversals of life leave us longing for uninterrupted peace, undisturbed quiet, some changeless state where everything is OK. This longing probably brings people to try Zen in hopes of experiencing freedom from thinking. Although Zen practice helps us be less urgently disturbed by thoughts, still, you cannot empty the mind. It is possible with practice to create a changeless mental state that appears to be emptiness, but it’s an artifice. Like being stuck at the top of a 100-foot pole, controlling phenomena by perceiving only the undifferentiated side of emptiness like this is a magnificent achievement! Amazing! And incomplete, one-sided. And as Micchaka’s teacher told him, being tied to the effort of controlling phenomena by seeing only formlessness is like being dragged with a rope—hanging onto it only perpetuates anguish.

How can it compare with the hazy moon on a spring night?

How can formless purity be favored over the many flavors and subtleties of the natural world, over appearances just as they are?

The other day a therapist friend of mine ruefully reported that all her life she had assumed without question that pretty soon she would have a handle on things, she would get it figured out, straightened up, cleared out, made neat and tidy—things would function the way they’re supposed to. She would be all right at last. She’d be prepared for the curveballs that Fate throws, she’d be there with the right response, every time; she’d be reliable and competent at long last. She wouldn’t be caught unprepared ever again.

And now in her mid-70’s my friend saw clearly that she had been fooling herself: this assumption was a myth, a mindset that perpetuated the very suffering she was striving so hard to avoid or escape.

To one degree or other, we all have this underlying assumption: we’re working on it, we’re almost there, we’re getting better . . . and then I’ll have a tidy house, a neat desk, a beautiful yard, a fit body, distinctive and pleasing style of dressing, speaking, acting; checkbook will balance, bills will be paid on time, I’ll commemorate all significant occasions, and come up with just the right gift when a gift is called for. And now we’re Zen practitioners, so it extends to deep and ultimate matters—I’ll give the answer to the koan, I’ll get enlightened, I’ll be in tune with the universe, I’ll meet all circumstances with equanimity, kindness will flow from my words and actions, compassion will mark my every interaction, I’ll not make any more mistakes of form in the zendo, I’ll have all the chants memorized, I’ll practice unfailingly—I’ll be a better person!

This instinctive striving for improvement is built into the human being. It is an affliction that will follow us all our life long. But in the Platform Sutra the Sixth Zen Patriarch, Hui-neng, said “Good friends, affliction is enlightenment.” [PS section 26; Red Pine, p. 21] Oh, no—wait a minute! What? Affliction—pain and suffering, or the cause of pain and suffering—is enlightenment? That’s what it says. Page 21.

Well then, enlightenment’s probably not what I’d hoped it was, either—bliss and the absence of pain and suffering? Certainly, I won’t be experiencing bliss, pain and suffering or the absence of pain and suffering, because there is no “I” there in the awakened state. Though it can’t really be conveyed in words, the experience called enlightenment is spoken of as perceiving without a perceiver and without an object. That is, for instance, perceiving pain without “I am . . . (hurting, in agony)” and without “it is . . . (deep, sharp, throbbing, consuming)”—there is only Ohhhhyyy, the naked experience itself, with or without sound, and without judging, evaluating, comparing, or scheming to fix.

From time to time, life lands us in situations that force us to see differently. While caring for my younger brother during his last three weeks, I was suddenly in a spot where there is no time to think or make excuses, no time to argue, explain, or justify actions—no time to learn skills I lacked. Once in the middle of the night there was a kerthumping crash in the living room where he was staying. I got up and glanced around the corner. He had tried to get up and let the cats in as usual when he heard them at the front door, not realizing that his body couldn’t follow through. He didn’t appear to be hurt. I opened the door, let the cats in, and managed to pick him up and slide the man back into bed. As I turned to go back to bed myself, I heard more rustling. He had sat up again and was trying to stand, saying he needed more practice. I held him up for a couple steps away from the bed and a couple more back, got him tucked in once more, and headed for the bedroom. On the way, I heard more rustling . . .

Scenes like this (without the falling) usually happened at least twice each night during the first two weeks. Some were more bizarre than others. Each instance took from one to three hours to resolve. There was no reasoning with my brother—his illness and various pain medications gave him a radically different sense of reality. Day and night were reversed for him, so any pleas on my part to let me sleep simply did not compute. Sleep deprivation also kept me unwilling and sometimes unable to use words effectively. Something happened? Deal with it. Don’t know how? Improvise . . . the nurse will come in the morning.

Each time I lifted his seriously swollen and immobile legs back up on the bed—many times in any given day—I started seeing how much we take for granted. It was no longer a commonplace to stand, to see, to move my legs, to hear, to be able to balance and take a step. These were privileges, miracles that my brother could no longer experience.

On days when I went to work, nothing much of the regular world made sense. Important tasks there at work, the business of researching and documenting amid the unrelentingly commercial atmosphere of our culture seemed pointless. Aspirations, accomplishments, amazing life stories seemed pointless. Astronauts, entertainers, entrepreneurs, politicians, poets, philosophers, actors, athletes, artists, writers, and ordinary people died. Every day. Ongoing arguments about wearing high heels or about the predictive power of one kind of statistics over another now looked trivial.

What remained was clear: the weather was cloudy or sunny. Light on the bellflowers and daylilies, light through the leaves of the tree in the front yard—changed quality as the sun moved. Then temperatures were cooler. This was all that was left of my little brother. In the last week, when he could no longer even try to get out of bed, my duties were just to give him pain meds and try to keep him clean and comfortable, try to let him know that we loved him. He could barely speak, and that speech was mostly incoherent. We couldn’t understand him. He was speaking from whatever dream world he was in. Some very sweet things happened.

There was no time, no energy for thoughts about how badly I was doing. When turning him or changing his position, he groaned—he had pain everywhere and I was hurting him. One day he mumbled, “You’re doing the best you can,” and it brought tears to my eyes. It helped, though. I felt sad and so sorry, and still went ahead and did what seemed necessary.

Though usually I hear self-berating thoughts, that universal affliction among people in our culture, this time I didn’t. There was no energy left to berate myself for incompetence. Moving around, doing what I could, feeling exhausted, mostly not knowing how to make anything better, but responding as best I could to my brother’s discomfort when I saw it. Every little thing stood forth in those days, seeming more present, more real, more dear, unique, and unrepeatable than ever before: a crumpled tissue, a rose, the ticking of a clock, the call of the crow, a cat nudging my ankle, my brother’s way of holding the edge of a blanket and biting it precisely, as though he were stripping insulation from an electrical wire. This was my affliction: affliction at the hand of impermanence, no less.

Now, what in the world did Hui-neng mean when he said, “Good friends, affliction is enlightenment”?

The self and the world are not two things. There is nothing that is not this way. If there is affliction, it is us: it is manifest reality. If we don’t see things that way it is because we buy into thinking, the explaining, story-telling function of mind that splits the world up into contrasting and conflicting camps. Thinking itself is manifest reality, a form of awareness moving and changing constantly. Can we see thinking without buying its stories? Can we allow whatever appears in awareness to be as it is? Can we act appropriately in response to that manifestation and then let go without having to justify, explain, defend?

Here, every moment is complete—nothing lacking and nothing in excess, just:

    . . . the hazy moon on a spring night.