Like There Is No Tomorrow, A Talk By Madelon Bolling (February 9, 2020)

Posted by on Feb 14, 2020 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Like There Is No Tomorrow, A Talk By Madelon Bolling (February 9, 2020)

Case 32, Shaseki-shu [Collection of Stone and Sand]:

A lord asked Takuan Soho, a Zen teacher, to suggest how he might pass the time. He felt his days very long attending his office and sitting stiffly to receive the homage of others.

Takuan wrote eight Chinese characters and gave them to the man:

Not twice this day
Inch time foot gem.

The translator explains:

This day will not come again.
Each minute is worth a priceless gem.


Not twice this day. It’s a new year—a good year to experience seeing clearly, you might say, 20/20. Last year brought the death of one of my siblings, a serious medical condition in the other. I experience deteriorating capacities myself and encounter dear friends, companion animals and beloved trees in their terminal illness. News of the extinction of insects—surely a death sentence for the rest of us—stuns us into helplessness. Presumed realities that made up the world are turned on their heads: certainties prove to be uncertain. What I assumed was reality—the familiar signs and way-markers of personal history: people, places, things that I orient to day by day, were only stories, and temporary at best. “Temporary” comes from the root tempus-, meaning “of or pertaining to time.” All things pass quickly away echoes from every corner.

I find myself cherishing the most unlikely experiences.

Driving home from visiting my sister on a rainy Friday, I remembered how she used to love growing herbs, collecting and trying out old recipes, making home remedies and clothing from scratch, doing fine beadwork and embroidery. . . But now, having lost husband, house, prized collections, and mental and physical health over the last four years, she lives in a shared room in a Medicaid nursing facility. Subject to seizures, she does not walk unaided, and her fingers no longer grasp small objects with their old surety and skill.

With a jolt, I saw that in mulling over her situation, I was missing something equally irreplaceable: waiting at the stop light on 8th NW and NW 85th under heavy dark grey clouds, the relentless pound and splatter of rain on the car, swish-swish of wipers, engine purr. This might be the very last time that I drive, the very last time that January rain will sound out the shape of a car with me warm and dry in it.

Out of nowhere, a line from the Verse of the Faith-Mind came up: The supreme way is not difficult / if only you do not choose. Really hard to understand! But this was one way it might make sense: I could choose to attend to my sister’s story, to time, place, circumstance that is not here now, not currently available to seeing, hearing, etc.; or I could rest attention on present experience, on what is here and now, before that choice.

How innocently stories from the realm of thought hijack attention, stealing this moment’s irreplaceable experience from us, substituting past and future for now. But past is gone, not here; future is not here, not yet. Life only happens now, and now vanishes continually.

Waking and stumbling to the bathroom, thoughts were: What day is this? Wednesday? If so, there’s a physical therapy appointment—no wait, that was yesterday. This must be Thursday. Meet with the banker and then call the vet. That sort of thing. It’s shocking to find that so many automatic thoughts are about orienting in time. Time, the dubious realm of “no more” and “not yet.”

What is really right here, not what the mind is talking about, but actually right here, now? Sensations called “seeing,” “hearing,” “touching,” etc. occur as forms: chair, flower, bird call, siren, soft cushion, cold floor. Strangely enough, the raw sensations of thinking—words, images and energies—are as much a sensory presence as the ache in my leg and the ringing in my ears. I can be with those raw sensations as they occur, and let them go as the next shape of here-now shows up.

Name an experience and the experience is gone before you finish saying the word for it. Yet we routinely think that if we name something, it has lasting reality. That’s the trickiness of words. In this way, when we buy into the stories, attend to the meanings, relationships and connections of the word-world, we lose contact with impermanence, with the vanishing raw sensory presence of all experiencing, including words and thoughts.

Huang-Po said:

The foolish reject what they see,
Not what they think.

The wise reject what they think,
Not what they see. (Chün-chou Record, par. 21)


This is astonishing! and difficult for those of us raised to rely on thinking above all in every context. Do we have to throw out years of training and struggle to properly follow the values of accuracy, evidence and critique that mark the intellectual path? Tony Hoagland expressed his realization of the limits of the products of thinking wonderfully in his poem called

Among the Intellectuals

[September 2, 2019 New Yorker (print edition)]:

They were a restless tribe.
They did not sit in sunlight, eating grapes together in the afternoon.

Cloud-watching among them was considered a disgusting waste of time.

They passed the days in an activity they called “thought-provoking,”
as if thought were an animal, and they used long sticks

to poke through the bars of its cage,
tormenting and arousing thinking into strange behaviors.

This was their religion.
That and the light shining through the stained-glass ancestors.

They preferred the name of the tree
to the taste of the apple.

I was young and I wanted to prove myself,

but the words I learned from them transmuted me.
By the time I noticed, the change had already occurred.

It is impossible to say if this was bad.

Inevitably, you find out you are lost, really lost;
blind, really blind;
stupid, really stupid;
dry, really dry;
hungry, really hungry;
and you go on from there.

But then you also find
you can’t stop thinking, thinking, thinking;

tormenting, and talking to yourself.

—Tony Hoagland (1953-2018)


This was among the last poems he wrote. And yes, for all its pretences and shortcomings It is impossible to say if our thinking nature is bad.

My brother’s dying weeks taught the first lesson toward learning Huang-Po’s advice to reject what I think, not what I see because I was completely baffled by the situation. Could not understand it, could not explain it. Thinking was no help at all. The best it could do was criticize whatever I did. I had no training at all in being with a loved one who was dying. Nothing made sense and yet here it was. Trying to keep him clean and comfortable at any time of day or night, trying to negotiate with him in a hallucinatory state taxed me to the limit. I didn’t dip into the bottomless well of criticism—pretty sure that voice had no more experience with the situation than I did: namely, zero. But what I saw was real enough: floor was wet—wipe it dry; blanket was jumbled—straighten it; restless movements in his sleep?—get the pain meds. If he slept during the day, I gazed out the window, saw the plants and flowers he saw when he declared, “Beautiful! So much beauty . . . ” and then the untidy living room and its scarred oak floor too, also appeared—beautiful. Fleeting, beautiful.

The presence of those moments was quiet, its vanishing rarity astonishing, having a quality I could only call ‘beauty’. I’ve wondered ever since if maybe the actual present is necessarily shot through with grief. Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult for us to stay immersed in it. It’s almost easier to choose thinking, easier to mull over a devastating, embarrassing error as if it might be resolved, than to acquiesce to the unavoidable, unending presence of grief and loss, the inarguable fact of impermanence. But then again, grief may not be what we think it is. In a piece called “Invisible Ceremonies,” Zen teacher Joan Sutherland suggests that tears “are a small ceremony keeping us close to the world.” And that small ceremony, those tears, embodies the intimacy, the fleeting nature of beauty.

When Takuan was asked how to pass the time—really, how to tolerate endless irritation and boredom in the presence of human pettiness and foibles, he responded

Not twice this day
Inch time foot gem.

We could paraphrase this: Live like there is no tomorrow—not in the sense of throwing prudence to the winds, cussing out your enemy, eating all the potato chips in the world and skydiving without a parachute. Rather, live like there is no tomorrow! Because tomorrow never actually comes—not only that, today (this moment) disappears continually. You miss its richness if you’re not really there.

Each moment is unique, shot through with its own grief. We only need courage, we only need take heart to see that appearance is at the same time disappearance, and irreplaceable: this day, this moment will not come again. A small bit of time is a huge amount of wealth.

In “To A Skylark,” the poet Shelley caught the trickiness of thinking taking attention away from what is, and the poignancy of grief within joy:

We look before and after,

And pine for what is not:

Our sincerest laughter

With some pain is fraught;

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.


On the other hand, if we dare to simply stay present there’s a tendency for habitual thinking to intrude with judgmental commentary . . . you are too presumptuous—you think this is what Huang-Po means? Get a clue, dummy—you’re never going to understand the old masters. How could you? You’re not Chinese, never even studied the language or culture, etc., etc. Buying into the import, the story, of that judgmental commentary distracts from the present fact: even if completely mistaken, I am here, now, seeing, hearing and feeling the keyboard, hearing the varied ticking of two clocks, a passing car, ringing in my ears, the sound of talking in my head, and the gentle snoring of Fisher the cat. All of this: me, the house, the laptop, the angle of lamplight, the sound of clocks, a car going by, the voice in my head—all of this is momentary, fleeting, no longer what it was when I started typing this sentence. The same is true of the mental commentary about my competence: the commentary was simply a true feature of that particular moment.

In the practice of staying naked to the present moment is hidden the realization that we are doing the best we can. It’s just that this is all there is right now. To be completely present in the moment as it appears, we have to be completely present just as we are, warts and all. This, exactly this, is all there is right now. Can we try something for a minute? Gently consider what is present to you, as you, right now.

The forms that the senses reveal and in turn reveal the senses; the forms that thoughts reveal and in turn reveal thinking . . . are present with you, as you, exactly as you are right now. There is nothing to fix. There is nothing to improve.

This is our experience: the time of embodiment as the embodiment of time. It follows that you cannot waste time. It’s just that we spend time: we embody time in various ways.

Not twice this day
Inch time foot gem.

This day, this moment will not come again.
Each small bit of time is uncountable, irreproducible
. . . wealth.