Nothing to Attain – a talk by Madelon Bolling

Posted by on May 7, 2021 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Nothing to Attain – a talk by Madelon Bolling

Case 19, The Gateless Barrier

Zhaozhou asked Nanquan, “What is the Dao?”
Nanquan said, “Ordinary mind is the Dao.”

Zhaozhou asked, “Should I direct myself toward it or not?”
Nanquan said, “If you try to direct yourself you turn against it.”

Zhaozhou asked, “How can I know the Dao if I do not direct myself?”
Nanquan said, “The Dao is not subject to knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is blankness. When you really reach the Dao beyond doubt, it is as vast and boundless as space. How could affirmation and negation persist?”

At these words, Zhaozhou suddenly awoke.

The Friday morning group has been keeping company with this koan for the last several weeks.
We’ve considered ordinary mind at the hand of daily experiences and daily experiences at the hand of ordinary mind. At one point the last line: “At these words, Zhaozhou suddenly awoke” evoked a poignant despair. Koans often include reference to great awakening, realization, or deep insight. Still, sincere students find themselves thinking, “Well, I’ve been practicing for donkey’s years and I’m just the same as ever. Maybe fleeting glimpses of something here and there, but I’ll never have great awakening, insight or realization.” Then, breathing a heavy sigh, they return to practice.

Why do we practice, anyway, if we’re convinced that we’re such hopeless cases? Maybe we doggedly hold to aspirations to help others, to save all beings, to do something to make a change for the better. I once asked myself why I practice, and the response (I won’t call it an answer) came rather out of left field: the tips of the strap-leaved yellow flag, a water’s-edge plant—leaves waving at the edge of a little ground-spring . . . the waving leaves beckoned, called to me without sound. Every cell of my awareness wanted to go there. That’s why I continue to sit Zen, or more exactly, continue to sit among Zen practitioners—in spite of feeling hopeless, unqualified, without any notion of what I’m doing, how I got here or what’s going on, let alone not knowing what I might say or do to help others.

Zen teacher Joan Sutherland once wrote, “enlightenment is our true nature and our home, but the complexities of human life cause us to forget.” She wrote that practice is a matter of making ourselves available, not just to the creatures around us, but to the unknown and always-present fact of our true nature. That is to say, doing Zen practice in order to become a better person, to become enlightened, to become compassionate, to become—well, anything we think are not—is a profound mistake. What if there is no such thing as a worthy or unworthy self?

What if right now, exactly as we are in this moment is a pure expression of true, enlightened nature? What if we paused the underlying assumption that constant striving to achieve is the only way to be, and inquired into what is just right here, before editing, before correcting, before any aspiration to change for the better? Part of my mind, being all too familiar with my flaws and tendencies, says, “Oh, that is ridiculous!”  OK, but then this derogatory comment too must be part of that unknown but always-present reality of true nature.

Oh my—and what does “unknown but always-present reality” mean? It is not something that can be named—in fact it has no real name, no name that catches and transmits the whole of the mystery at the heart of life, appearing as life and all the surroundings that go with it. It cannot be caught by a name, because that would be to ‘know’ it. But by its very nature it already includes both the act of naming and the illusion of having ‘grasped’ something by naming it. “Unknown but always-present reality” points to something like:

An immense presence in the form of a few strap-leaved water plants beckoning in the breeze from the margins of a little freshwater spring just as I am leaving the dreamworld. It speaks directly to the heart, to the child/animal sense that saves us when we’re in danger and comforts us, when there is good food and benign surroundings. In another year and another place, this nameless presence radiated from wild trees one afternoon, addressing and comforting my fears, without words.

Now once again in my practice I’ve run up against a koan I simply cannot respond to properly. I may as well be a sheep bleating outside a barbed-wire fence, where the rest of the flock—friends and family—are on the other side. Baa-a-a-a, baa-a-a-a. Nobody opens the gate. As though I were six again, playing tag with the neighbor kids on the gravelly path of an unpaved alley—every response I offer is met with kids yelling, “not it! not it!” and the chase is on.

But then, as you probably know, any effort to do, to answer or make sense of koans, fails. Koans are a technology that leads or tricks us into stepping out of our usual beliefs, encourages us to respond from a remembrance or fleeting shadow of our lost home, a home that is never really lost: the place without a second, the undivided whole. That being so, any response that is based in or acted from duality, no matter how exquisite the reasoning, is not what the koan is crafted to open for us.

A hundred years or so after Nanquan lived, a monk asked,

“How should one act during every hour of the day such that the ancestors are not   betrayed?”
Yunmen said, “Give up your effort.”

The monk said, “How should I give up my effort?”
Yunmen said, “Give up the words you just uttered.”
[Ferguson, p.287]

That is, give up that traditional well-worn “next step” in doing something: figuring out how. But if I give up asking how? If I don’t know how, I feel lost, disoriented, clueless, like a sheep stuck outside the fence. Not a comfortable place to be, something we ordinarily avoid by distracting ourselves, by doing something, anything, to change or escape that feeling. And yet here it is again.

In the Gateless Barrier case 19,

Nanquan said, “Ordinary mind is the Dao.”
Zhaozhou asked, “Should I direct myself toward it or not?”
Nanquan said, “If you try to direct yourself you turn against it.”

Clearly, the one who said, “How should I give up my effort?” is exactly trying to direct themselves toward it, toward the Dao. But that assumes that the Way, the Dao, or Buddha-nature is not here, is different from you and me, different from this experience, this reality just as it is right now.

Unfortunately, giving up effort or not directing ourselves toward our idea of the Dao doesn’t mean just sitting back on the zafu and giving in to daydreams. Instead, I need to find out what happens if I stay in the subtle discomfort of not knowing, experience it thoroughly, become familiar with it and see what it does, where it goes—but do nothing about it. Not trying to change it, explain it, or justify it, but remaining open to it. The stuck places are where we may learn if we stay with them. Allowing ourselves to experience them without blame or any need to justify, rectify, or excuse—in other words, without the need to become unstuck—is something entirely different. This is the intensity of Zen practice, staying awake in the present moment, without knowing what I’m awake to, or even why I’m doing it.

Aitken Roshi and Suzuki Roshi are both said to have remarked that Zen experience is like an accident, and that the practice therefore is a matter of making oneself accident-prone. There’s no way of knowing what we’re looking for. Since deliberate action fails, we have to make ourselves available without having a clue.

Of course, the problem-solving mind immediately says, “But how? How do I make myself accident-prone?” That’s not an attainable quality or skill. I don’t think it means actually endangering ourselves—it’s more like staying present to everything, expected or unexpected, whether we like what’s happening or not. It’s like really experiencing events whether they’re frightening, ordinary, or beautiful, right as they happen—being open, alert to each change in what’s happening, alert to any needed action.

Kind of like this: Have you ever got into a tub of hot water after a hard day’s work, sinking back into the encompassing relief of liquid heat on sore muscles—but then there’s a speck of lint or maybe a tiny piece of dead leaf floating around in the water? Without thinking, you reach to get it out, right? And when you try to pick it up it squirts away? Again and again, chasing it around the tub, trying to pick it up—whoof! It’s impossible to catch! But if you carefully position a hand below the speck, quietly open the fingers wide, and slowly raise the flattened hand toward the surface, the water gradually drains around the opened fingers, and the speck of leaf or lint may be left clinging to your palm when the water drains away. This might sound like a “how”—but it’s mostly a direction to do less, to let go, to open up and let be—to become part of a larger process that’s not under conscious control.

I said, “become” part of a larger process, but really it’s “not interfering with” the larger process that we already are, the larger process that is the universe and everything in it, all of its ways and creatures, dark and light, swift and slow, plant, animal, mineral—the interwoven multiplicity that gives rise to us, that creates and sustains us moment by moment. In our literature this is referred to as emptiness—the admission or realization that everything is radically interconnected. Nothing can exist separate from everything else. Persons are not independent entities. ‘Self’ and ‘other’ are arbitrary designations, not actually separate “things.” That’s why Suzuki Roshi said,

There are, strictly speaking, no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity.

This is not easy. It asks us to pull away from duality’s basic rules and admit that we are intimately connected even with everything we’ve been trained to avoid. Emptiness allows everything to be, brings everything into being, both what we know as “good” and what we know as “evil”—and evil is an integral part of the whole. That is hard to approach when we are conditioned to see everything in terms of good and bad, is and is not, yes and no, right and wrong. So, when we observe something in ourselves that we don’t approve of—a thought or behavior such as something considered “selfish,” “lazy,” or “untruthful,” it’s worthwhile to stop. Attend to sensations in the body and the conditions that led to the occurrence of those sensations:

  A monk asked Shitou, “What am I supposed to do?” 

“Why are you asking me?” said Shitou.

“Where else can I find what I’m looking for?” said the monk.

Shitou replied, “Are you sure you lost it?”

It’s worthwhile to start with the discomforts that show up in us here and there from the moment we get up to the moment we go to sleep. What if you are completely OK exactly as you are right now? What if you have not lost it when you wish you could be out in the Spring sunshine instead of stuck indoors? Basho wrote:

Whether drifting through life on a boat or
Climbing toward old age leading a horse, each
day is a journey and the journey itself is home.