On Being Left To Our Own Devices – by Madelon Bolling (July 8, 2018)

Posted by on Jul 8, 2018 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on On Being Left To Our Own Devices – by Madelon Bolling (July 8, 2018)

A monk asked Hui-hai, “By what means can the gateway of our school be entered?”
Hui-hai said, “By means of the Dana Paramita.” . . . [some conversation ensued and then] The monk asked, “Why is it called the Dana Paramita?”
Hui-hai said, “‘Dana’ means ‘relinquishment.'”
The monk asked, “Relinquishment of what?”

Hui-hai said, “Relinquishment of the dualism of opposites, which means relinquishment of ideas as to the dual nature of good and bad, being and non-being, void and non-void, pure and impure, and so on.” (Aitken, Practice of Perfection, pp. 6-7)

Our hope in offering this supported personal retreat is to provide time and place for each of us to find and deepen our commitment to practice by loosening some of the formal requirements of zenkai. At first glance this looks like fun. But I for one quickly contact the reality of how supportive the regular form is, how my habits of contemplation have come to rely on and to be shaped by the familiar: cushions, chants, bells and clappers; everyone standing together, turning together, walking in a measured way.

Then suddenly, being thrown back on my own resources, being given the freedom to choose how I will spend some time in spiritual endeavor, I’m at a loss. Yipes! Now what? What in the world spurs this hunger for retreat, for sitting? what brings depth to my experience? what makes this all worthwhile?

I can talk about my experience—yours is likely to be entirely different. Still, this is all I have to offer really as encouragement.

What brings me here is the unexplained. And most of the unexplained lies exactly in things I take for granted. Seeing, for instance – there is a cat, and the computer keyboard. This – is called seeing, so readily taken for granted that I mostly zoom past it into stories about “things seen.” It sounds kind of simple, but for me, seeing only takes place when there’s something seen. I know there’s “seeing” because there’s the coffee cup, the cat, the computer. Anyway we call that “seeing.” But what is it really? And I don’t want to go into physics and physiology—wave lengths of light and sensory neurons for an answer, because these too are “something seen.” To explain the being of objects in terms of relationships with other objects is unsatisfactory. Leaves me cold. But the Diamond Sutra does something different.

In the Diamond Sutra, Subhuti says…

What the Tathagata says is a speck of dust, … the Tathagata says is no speck. Thus it is called a ‘speck of dust.’ And what the Tathagata says is a world-system, the Tathagata says is no system. Thus it is called a ‘world-system.'”

That works better for me, to question the nature of terms and referents so thoroughly that both disappear—that’s closer to experience.

When I was young—about 10, I saw paradoxical things and wondered about them. How is it that the busy freeway and its noise can sound utterly silent? or that a person is sometimes not stuck in a body? How is it that sometimes the electric outlet is not different from the wall? or that a stack of folding chairs is not at all different from the music stand or the floor?

I asked my dad about it once. He said, “Have you done your chores?” so I promised myself I’d look into it when I had grown enough to support myself and had proven to the world (and myself) that I wasn’t crazy. One thing led to another and eventually I ended up as a monastic in a Vedanta convent. The paradoxical perceptions recurred irregularly. A teacher I asked about the non-difference of various objects listened kindly and said, “That is pure consciousness.” So that was validating but nobody could offer a method that would produce those perceptions.  There’s a reason for that, it turns out.

The matter of is and is not just wouldn’t be answered. I looked to my own experience—not past experience, but this experience right now, in frustration and curiosity and a stubborn spirit of inquiry. What other people said or thought didn’t matter, I was fed up and unsatisfied, and I would see whatever I could—but it would have to be right here and right now, before anyone’s rules or definitions. And so I contacted/was contacted by the emptiness or non-separation of objects and perception.

Everywhere was the advice to practice, practice, practice. Meditate, meditate. Don’t stop no matter what.

Other experiences followed here and there—usually when I was at wit’s end. But none of it was the result of some practice or other. Practice – simple practices of staying present (that is, not going down the mind road) usually calmed and engaged the questing part of me. But experiences only came at odd unexpected times, in the cracks and corners when half-awake in the middle of the night or early morning; or sort of out of left field as I left one room and turned into another. There’s a reason for that, as I said, and that’s this: any time I try to achieve something in this realm, it is wrong-headed, a mistake. Awakening is our very nature already. And the part of us that hungers for answers doesn’t realize that its preconceptions necessarily shut out any discovery of reality. The ancient Zen text translated as The Ceasing of Notions (Morinaga) puts it this way:

If he (a buddha) neither eradicates anything nor attains anything, how then does he differ from an ordinary human being?
He is not like one, because ordinary human beings all erroneously believe they have something to attain. (p. 26)

Only while deluded do we have notions of deviating from the Way. In truth not for a moment are we ever separated from the Way of the Buddha. (p.61)

And yet practice is necessary. Sitting upright being present is necessary—even lying down being present, relieving yourself in the bathroom being present… But this action does not get you anything. It doesn’t get you anything because it can’t: this action is the thing itself: manifest reality. That old saying about realization being an accident and zen practice making one accident-prone is about as close as words can get.

I am partial to musing on edges and intersections, seeing two or more sides to everything we think of as “single.” And so I’m partial to puns—it is a terrible vice, and it is also true to the way things are—packed full of multiple interpretations equally possible and always present. Long ago I played with repeating words and phrases, putting emphasis first on one meaning, and then on another over and over, until the world became as malleable as the meaning. A particularly interesting example is “I am seeing the cat (or the floor, or the flower).” It’s a commonplace as “I” (subject) “am having a visual experience of” (the object). And then as I play with repeating it, it morphs into “I am the same as,” or “I am exactly,” or “I am no more and no less than seeing-the-cat”—”I am seeing-the-cat,” referencing and highlighting the non-separation of subject and object, of seeing and seen. In the interests of full disclosure, let me caution—this is a toy, not a method.

When the world falls apart around us, as it tends to do each time a person close to us dies or meets some calamity and the mind cannot figure out why; each time institutions, objects, land forms, the expected behavior of others, or our own capacities change; each time trees, animals, weather patterns, traditions disappear or are damaged beyond recognition—everything we count on comes into question and we are thrown back on the barest of certainties: this moment as it is, unknown before and unknown thereafter.

This supported personal retreat is an opportunity to explore our discomfort, to let it permeate us fully. The variety of endeavors encouraged on this occasion is an invitation to experience fleetingness or the provisional nature of things wherever it shows up. Less form gives us direct contact with the unknown—we don’t know what’s next, what’s correct or incorrect. All we know is this, which cannot be known because it is instantly gone. Instantly gone. All we are is . . . this, which is already saying too much, making it instantly false. Language fails us. Sometimes it fails us as we speak. Sometimes it fails us as poetry. Sometimes it fails us as sacred writing. Language only gives the false promise of certainty. It presents uncertainty in a particularly sneaky way: with the illusion of certainty, which is partly why we’re so shocked when our certainties in fact disappear.

This being thrown back on our own resources is one of the dimensions of koan study. For example, Case 92 of the Blue Cliff Record goes like this:

One day, the World-Honored One ascended the dais.
Mañjuśri struck his gavel and said, “Clearly regard the Dharma of the King of the Dharma. The Dharma of the King of the Dharma — like this!”
The World-Honored One then got down from the dais.

This is the place of no certainty, when we are left without answers, and our eyes, ears, nose and skin are on high alert.

During this retreat, then, let there be no before and after, no juncture between activities, between sitting and walking, between cleaning a dish and entering the zendo, between walking east and walking west, between eating and washing, between bowing at the entrance and reaching for an orange that fell to the floor, between hearing and sneezing, fixing a numb foot and taking a breath, birdsong and the itchy place on your knee. “This” encompasses and points to it all. But we only meet it in the particular—this Madelon moment, this Lee moment, this Ace moment, this Eva, Aaron, Shelley, Richard, Jennifer, crow, robin moment.

Can we dare continue simply and gladly, not knowing?

In closing, here is a poem, The Law That Marries All Things, by Wendell Berry:
(pp. 136-7, The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, NY, Counterpoint, 1998)

  1. The cloud is free only
    to go with the wind.

The rain is free
only in falling.

The water is free only
in its gathering together,

in its downward courses,
in its rising into air.

  1. In law is rest
    if you love the law,
    if you enter, singing, into it
    as water in its descent.
  2. Or song is truest law,
    and you must enter singing;
    it has no other entrance.

It is the great chorus
of parts. The only outlawry
is in division.

  1. Whatever is singing
    is found, awaiting the return
    of whatever is lost.
  2. Meet us in the air
    over the water,
    sing the swallows.

Meet me, meet me,
the redbird sings,
here here here here.