Observing: A Midsummer Retreat – A talk by Madelon Bolling, (July 9, 2017)

Posted by on Jul 11, 2017 in Uncategorized, Zen Talks | Comments Off on Observing: A Midsummer Retreat – A talk by Madelon Bolling, (July 9, 2017)

The predecessor of this midsummer retreat was called “Ancient Bones.” They say it was discontinued because fewer and fewer people could attend at all. Even with allowances for our limitations, it had become too arduous for those with ancient bones. I bought pre-paid cremation services for my dad a couple weekends ago and we scattered my brother-in-law’s ashes on the Fourth of July. We’re all of us facing death from the instant we are born. We can’t face away from it since it is part of life itself. Death is seen as an end, the ending of everything. No more fun and no more hassles, no more pain, restriction, success, failure, love, hate, shame, terror or joy. No more children, dandelions, seawater, forests, owls, cigarette butts, toads, blackberries or traffic jams. No more experiencing; no more anything whatsoever. Or so the story goes.

But death is not a thing. Irises spring up bright and bold, their soft wrinkly petals shimmering in the sun, expanding… and then little by little the petals wilt, shrivel to the stalk that also browns, drying up–“dying,” we say. Fear of this process is woven into the cells of the body-mind and we all experience it one way or other.

Death is a change, a browning of leaves, drying of sap, softening and melting of solid form. It’s a change of state like mist from the exhalation of trees rising to form clouds, or like the downpour from thunderclouds streaming into pools, torrents, rivers, falling over precipices, forming lakes and seas. We are reluctant to change, to leave what we know. We are reluctant to enter the stream, imagining this morning that we are still the cloud we were yesterday. We identify with concepts, really, thinking we are something without change—though in this world change is the only constant. And then we have a conflict with the natural assumption that there must be some essence of “me” that is, therefore, without change. Knowing the body will die means that the unchanging essence we identify with must be not-body in nature. Many systems of belief and behavior arise from that logic. Thinking by its divisive nature, reifies or solidifies identity, to make it something enduring. But Zen looks at things differently.

To be clear and tranquil about the end of “me” I need to be clear and tranquil about what “me” is, and in general there is a lot of confusion on this point. We often hear teachers say, “you are not what you think you are.” But then what? The mind says, “Oh yeah, yeah—all beings without exception have Buddha nature, I’ve heard. Whatever that means—it’s sort of beyond what I can get.” And it pulls attention back into cloud-identified dreaming.
Our natural wish to end the pain of living sometimes shows up as Hamlet’s cry:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!


So we either wish to not experience death or wish we could just get out of this thing we call “life,” so full of beauty and horror, pain, joy, pain, ambivalence, and pain. But there is a way to melt this too solid flesh and resolve it into a dew without killing.
In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha says:

Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul. (Diamond Sutra, Ch. 3)

Whether we care about being called a bodhisattva or not, it is simply a mistake to hold on to the idea of a self, a living being, a life span or a soul. In the Great Vows we recite: The many beings are numberless; I vow to save them. I don’t think any of us are lying, and having the intention to save all beings is the very definition of bodhisattva.

Yet every day we assume and operate on assumptions that I am a self, I am a living being; I have a life span and an enduring essence. Assuming and operating on those assumptions is exactly the act of creating a perception of a self, a being, a life or a soul.

Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul. (Diamond Sutra, Ch. 3)

We might take the Diamond Sutra statement as an article of faith—but that would be to hold on to an idea, a concept, as distinct from living experience. The sutra is fine as a place to start, but only experience will address and dissolve fears and doubts and show them for what they are—a mistake. This is not a willful or blameworthy mistake, it’s simple error—like swerving to avoid a chuckhole in the road only to discover that it was just a big oil smudge.

What experience could possibly dissolve the deep and ordinary fear of death as well as the deep and ordinary suffering of life? What kind of experience could possibly dissolve the doubt that we can truthfully vow to save all beings? It is not some distant state to be reached only after our knees have given out entirely. It is simply this very experience right now, considered with relentless honesty, neither adding to it nor leaving anything out. How do you know you’re sitting in the zendo? You see cushions, floor, other people sitting, flowers, altar, etc. But how do you know you are here?

Let’s close our eyes for a bit now. What and where is the sense of “me”? Somebody once called this type of exercise “attending to the part of our minds we call a body.” Let’s see—there is the seat pressure, and other various sensations just as they are. Yes, there’s that ache, and the little squiggle around the stomach, maybe? And the changes we call breath, the passing sensations of what we have learned to call hands, face, stomach, shifting clothing; and sounds. But in all honesty can you find “me”? I mean, we have learned to say “my seat, my knees, my whatever,” in referring to these sensations—but don’t the sensations have to be observed from someplace? … and that would be “me” then? Well, that assumption that we have to observe from someplace is a story the thinking mind tells us.

Look again.

Sensations seem to recur with variations and the thinking mind begins to form ideas from these approximate regularities: The thinking mind forms stories, images, projections, assumptions and expectations of a solid body, separated out from its surroundings, located in space and time. But “surroundings” as seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted by “the body” are exactly and completely the experience of “body” itself. In fact the notion of “body” is extrapolated from those sensations. Extrapolated! Imagined, approximated, and projected. In our very own experience, vivid as can be, right here and right now, surroundings and body come to awareness as one inseparable moment. Sensation is awareness—there is no perceiver, no “me” outside of this moment’s experiencing.
Our usual habit of referring to these experiences as “my hands,” “my feet,” “my back,” “my head,” “my seat,” and assuming their solid ongoing presence even when not in immediate evidence—this is what the Diamond Sutra means by “creating a perception” of a body. What in fact is the reality of it? just this experiencing, the pressure, the warmth, the changes we call ‘movement’ before thinking separates seat from cushion, skin from clothing, air from lungs, me from you and so forth.

It pays to be careful at this juncture. Experiencing, pressure, warmth, discomfort, changes, movement—all of these are thoughts or mental images too. Without thought, there is just raw sensation—not even “raw sensation” (which is a thought)—just [hit the floor—bam!] without thought-content or meaning. There you go, Hamlet—this too too solid flesh is resolved [bam!].

If you look now at the floor, that is not really a floor. Floor is the seeing experience of this moment. We can’t experience seeing without seeing something. This goes for all the senses and even the experience called “thinking.” The world of things and objects and thought is the phenomenal world of experiencing. Our “self” is not different from, not separate from this manifest world. We are no other than the 10,000 things appearing as awareness.

There is actually no split between awareness and “the world,” between awareness and stuff-and-things. This live, in-the-moment recognition of non-separation, of no split is what is referred to as “emptiness” in Zen terms. You can see why that is confusing. The felt sense of immediate experiencing is anything but empty in the ordinary sense of nothing-there, like the inside of an empty box. And yet it is literally “no thing there.” Instead there is experiencing: awareness that is a rich, varied and ever changing closeness or presence in the living moment. There is no split between awareness and stuff-and-things. Some call this “seamless experiencing.”
But how do we get the impression that “things” are “out there” so vividly that we act on that impression? How does the living sensation-kaleidoscope start behaving as though there are 10,000 separate things opposed to “me”? It’s this curious process called thinking. Thinking tells us the story that we live in a world of separate things. “See, there is the flower arrangement, and here is your body; there is the bird call, and here is talking going on.” And we believe what it says. Sensations themselves, which are our actual unvarnished living experience—sensations do not, cannot convey separation. There is still the flower arrangement as seeing, the body as touching, the bird call and talking as hearing. To free ourselves from the story of solid separateness, to free ourselves from the tyranny of thinking, what is needed? This is kind of funny, kind of a punch-line in the cosmic joke. What’s needed is to notice that even thinking is a phenomenon, an appearance. Thinking itself is a shape that awareness takes.

How does this resolve the fear of ending? It is no good to take my word for it, any more than it would help to memorize the Diamond Sutra. Instead, look closely, listen closely, attend to experiencing. Our task here is to return as often as we can throughout the day to this fundamental fact, to be completely honest in sorting out actual experiencing from stories about it, and not mixing those two realms up.
If awareness appears as this moment, as experiencing, what dies?
I’m going to leave you sort of dangling on that question. It can’t be answered with words, though maybe the question itself is no question. Anyway, in closing, here is a poem that talks about a bird as ordinary and as rare as this angle on experiencing.

Bird-watcher’s Notes
They say the Yellowthroat
is hard to spot the first time.
After that, you start to see it everywhere.

Look up through branches and leaves
gazing neither near nor far
in blue light and shadow light…
Without looking directly
open the sides, the back of your eyes.
Let edges disappear.
It may show up behind
where the line between
sleep and waking vanishes.
Grey, green and even darkness
wake in that bright presence
closer than thought.
You are – that doorway and the neighbor’s
chuckle, a plan for painting,
and a dog’s eager bark.
No doubt the far field,
the sprinkling of deer and geese
show up thus as cheek and shoulder blade,
leaving only laughter.
Is that? Yes! Yellowthroat!