On Dealing With “Self” When There Is No Such Thing – A Talk by Madelon Bolling (June 11, 2023)

Posted by on Jun 20, 2023 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on On Dealing With “Self” When There Is No Such Thing – A Talk by Madelon Bolling (June 11, 2023)

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)


Today I want to explore a little more about living and working with thoughts. Thinking is a defining feature of our life, and one that’s often experienced by Zen students as the bane of our existence. In the presence of these thoughts, then,

“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.”

Rarely do koans speak so directly to the question.

All different kinds of spiritual traditions advise us to “let go of ego.” Very clear, direct, simple. But to me anyway, it’s just not clear who or what is being addressed. Who does this speak to? Who is supposed to let go?

This basic instruction seems to contradict itself: if ego lets go of ego, its reality, its validity is affirmed! Right? If “I” am not the ego, but “I” can let go of it, then an “I” still remains. Yah but isn’t that literally, “ego”? It seems to be something: some thing out there, solid and separate.

We’re all familiar with that quirk of language. We can’t easily speak without implying a position from which we speak, traditionally called “I.” When thoughts come up we reflexively hear thoughts blame us for not controlling them, and the whole divisive play of “me and you,” “bad and good,” “ignorant and enlightened,” “lazy and diligent,” is let out of the bag. When we’re exhausted, when we’re just plain fed up with it . . . we may finally (often accidentally) stop long enough to look, and see clearly what is happening when thoughts come up. That’s what Yunmen advises: rather than let go of some identifiable thing like “your effort,” he says, don’t try; don’t even ask how. The implication? Just stop.

Lee and I were talking this over. Neither of us believes that Yunmen was advising monks to relax, lie back on the good old black mats and crack open some beers. The important point is stop. Stopping is not a thing to be done. It’s more like the moment when inbreath changes to outbreath. It’s not a thing, not an action, not a behavior. Just original clarity not interfered with.

Stop long enough to see clearly what is happening when thoughts come up. Usually we listen to the content of thoughts, and respond to that – entanglement and trouble grows from there. To see clearly what is happening means seeing what the thoughts do, when they show up, what they accomplish, rather than just focusing on what they say. For instance, my thoughts say mean things about other people when I’m driving. Usually happens when a nearby car does something unexpected, like crowding, swerving, or cutting in close. “You jerk! Get a clue—hang up and drive!” The mean words showing up are the raised quills of a porcupine or the cat’s fur standing on end.

If we happen to catch thoughts showing up and notice that, honestly, they appear without any urging from us, we may come to acknowledge that they are actually not under our control. Like many of us here, I’ve lived in western US culture my whole life, so I’ve had years – decades — of training in the belief that I must take responsibility for and take control of what I think. But to tell the truth, I could never actually do it. (The next thought appears: Yeah, because you’re a failure.) That thought is automatic. Shows up when I experience discomfort from this and similar stories.

There’s a shadow of blame when we let thoughts run on without trying to end, demolish, change or silence them. Thoughts appear saying, I shouldn’t still be dealing with thoughts, for pity’s sake. Proper Zen students wouldn’t have to do that in the first place.  These evaluations of thoughts create the impression that there “is” a self, an ego that runs the show. (Funny how we tend to say “ego” when we want distance from the event, and to say “self” when events are more agreeable!) Even identifying a behavior as ego-based tends to call forth a defensive response, “I shouldn’t be so self-centered.” This response both forms and defends an illusory construct!

Now on the other hand, if I notice the thought, “I have to get tomato sauce, onions, apples, and baking soda next time I go to the store,” that feels like a thought I made myself, and I am likely to follow through.  Doesn’t that prove that I can control my thoughts and behavior? That I should be able to deal with and eradicate the negative thinking that so clearly goes with those irritating bad moods? Well, not really. “I think” is a story about experience—it’s just one way to look at it. We’ve used the phrase so much that we believe there is an “I” and an action called “thinking.” Check it out. If I’m scrupulously honest, without suppositions about what thinking “is,” there’s talking that goes on most of the time “in my head,” and it repeats itself endlessly. Further, an astonishing percentage of those thoughts start with “I” or “you.”

But thoughts and thinking are not in our power to control — never were, never will be. The notion of  agency – the ability to act or to choose what action to take – is itself a phantom. Thoughts, like this sticky, elusive thing called ego, like the notion of “you” and “I,” are products of the environment, of causes and conditions. But what do I mean by “products of the environment”?

Nagarjuna wrote:

You are not the same as or different from
Conditions on which you depend;
You are neither severed from
Nor forever fused with them—
This is the deathless teaching
Of buddhas who care for the world.

(Stephen Batchelor, trans. , 2001)

Joko Beck spoke of self as a whirlpool – the kind that forms momentarily among currents at the edge of a river. Someone else spoke of self as a waterfall. (I couldn’t find that reference, unfortunately.) My image of self was a small (3- to 6-inch) standing wave forming at the edge of a sandy beach where two incoming currents cross paths at an angle. These watery images help me remember the notion of self as a passing phenomenon. They show causes and conditions that form what we call wave, whirlpool, waterfall, person . . . names of temporary patterns in the natural world. We might name a wave or whirlpool in a fit of whimsy or affection. And it is short-lived. Waterfalls are more challenging because they’re generally longer-lived. But they still change constantly. They are made of change: water moving over obstacles, pulled by gravity, shaped by currents. Features of the surroundings (logs, boulders and shelves of stone) directly affect the appearance and behavior of the waterfall. We name waterfalls: Niagara, Angel, Multnomah, Granite, etc. and they are no more permanent than we are.

We are made of change. Viewing my causes and conditions – my history, that is – helps me step back and see that I-The-Waterfall didn’t cause that pesky westernmost channel of flow to be so huge or tiny or rough or smooth. Causes (a lot of rain, gravity affecting a flowing liquid) and conditions (stony, precipitous mountains – my whole history, the surrounding human environment) formed and continue at the moment to maintain this waterfall. There’s no part of the “identity” of a waterfall or the shape, speed and depth of a whirlpool or the appearance of a standing wave – no part of the individual phenomenon that exists separately from the surrounding environment.

How does this help when we’re dealing with thoughts? There is no part of our identity or our experience of being including what we call ‘time’ and ‘thoughts’ – no part that exists apart from the whole world of phenomena surrounding and permeating it. We are woven into and woven of, the whole world, the entire universe.

But if there is no control, no agency, why do zazen? And who is doing zazen, anyway? What is all this practicing about?

Dogen was bothered by this question, too. If humans are enlightened by nature, why seek enlightenment, why do spiritual practice? The upshot of his years of trouble and study is this: we don’t practice to attain enlightenment: practice is enlightenment. So, why do zazen? True zazen: just stop, just attend – is getting out of our own way, adding nothing and subtracting nothing. Just this: seeing clearly.

So, OK, not as easy as lying back and chugging a couple beers! A more radical interpretation of “just stop,” Yunmen’s “Give up the words you just uttered” points exactly to the place that is no place, that’s already here, now.

Consider closely any simple concrete experience, like seeing a yellow leaf on the grape vine in autumn. How do I know it’s there? I see it. Sounds like there are three things in that moment, then: grape leaf, eyes, seeing. Maybe four things, if you add in the inference that “I” am seeing. But there is always a stance, a place, a moment before words when the experience is not yet broken into pieces: a golden grape leaf glowing in the morning sunlight. That moment is unbroken: glowing-yellow-grape-leaf. That’s all. There is no seer, no object, no act of seeing. Awareness is not outside of objects. Objects do not exist, do not stand forth without awareness. That is true of our entire experience. We are awareness-standing-forth, woven into and woven of the whole, the entirety. From this view, there is no “who,” just the world, the universe appearing, the apparent multiplicity of this.

Now allowing all these words to fade, let’s stop and dare to attend to what’s really right here. Wendell Berry offers encouragement in his poem, The Hidden Singer: (2)

The gods are less

for their love of praise.

Above and below them all

is a spirit that needs

nothing but its own


its health and ours.

It has made all things

by dividing itself.

It will be whole again.

To its joy we come

together–the seer

and the seen, the eater

and the eaten, the lover

and the loved.

In our joining it knows

itself.  It is with us then,

not as the gods

whose names crest

in unearthly fire,

but as a little bird

hidden in the leaves

who sings quietly

and waits

and sings.


  1. Stephen Batchelor, trans. —Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime, NY: Riverhead Books, 2001.
  2. Wendell Berry. Collected Poems, NY: North Point Press, 1984.