Staying Home–What’s the Point? — a talk by Madelon Bolling (April 6, 2020)

Posted by on Apr 28, 2020 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Staying Home–What’s the Point? — a talk by Madelon Bolling (April 6, 2020)

This talk was given during Windblown Plum.

In these strange and confusing days when we have to isolate ourselves to stay healthy and alive, many have lost a sense of fitting in, of belonging. We cannot visit friends and neighbors in person, cannot experience the usual give-and-take with others the way we always have. Amid our loneliness, the question arises: so who am I? Why am I here? I’m no good to anybody just knocking around the house this way. “Staying safe”– what’s the point?

This week I was charmed into reading Dogen’s chapter on The Four Virtues of a Bodhisattva. Nishijima and Cross translate the title: Four Elements of a Bodhisattva’s Social Relations, and somehow, “social relations” brought our condition of “social distancing” to mind.

Returning to Tanahashi’s translation, the four elements are: Giving, kind speech, beneficial action, and cooperation. I’d always dismissed these as truisms and yet more aspirations that I will fail to attain. But current events have made them poignant and intriguing.

“To give” is to present voluntarily and without expecting compensation.

People lament being isolated from others. We cannot give in our accustomed ways: sharing meals, hugs, objects and actions person to person.

Dogen says: . . . to give to yourself is a part of giving. To give to your family is also giving.

So today staying at home to protect our health and the health of others is itself giving.

Dogen continues: “Kind speech” means that when you see sentient beings you arouse the mind of compassion and offer words of loving care. It is contrary to cruel or violent speech. Kind speech is the basis for reconciling rulers and subduing enemies. . . . kind speech . . . has the power to turn the destiny of the nation.

These days we are constantly bombarded with painfully unkind, cruel, and brutal speech from children, adults, and politicians. Yet those who speak firmly and gently from scientific evidence for instance, have been seen to influence policy for the good of all. Lately, being aware that a deadly, invisible virus lives among us, have you found yourself pausing and saying a kind word here and there where ordinarily a cutting remark might have seemed natural? If you dare to contact the fact that this moment could be your very last, the current situation can call forth kind speech.

“Beneficial action” is skillfully to benefit all classes of sentient beings, that is, to care about their distant and near future, and to help them by using skillful means. Beneficial action is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together . . . friend and enemy equally.

Staying at home, giving up our accustomed ways of interacting is surely a practice of beneficial action these days.

Dogen continues: If you have this mind, even beneficial action for the sake of grasses, trees, wind, and water is spontaneous and unremitting.

We are emerging from long blindness these days, and begin to see what some other cultures have always maintained: that the health of the earth and its incredibly varied trees, plants and animal life is no other than our own health. Beneficial action for the sake of grasses, trees, wind, and water sometimes involves making massive changes—and sometimes involves just stepping back respectfully.

The fourth element, co-operation, means nondifference. . . When we know co-operation, others and self are not two. Co-operation means concrete behavior performed with a dignified attitude in a real situation.

If you have this mind, Dogen wrote, beneficial action is spontaneous and unremitting. “Spontaneous and unremitting.” This is a critical point. Earlier, the text says “Kind speech” means that when you see sentient beings you arouse the mind of compassion and offer words of loving care. This wording implies that the virtues of a bodhisattva can and should be performed by an effort of individual will—the polar opposite of spontaneous and unremitting! Acts of individual will occur for a reason, in order to achieve or obtain something. But as Lee said yesterday:

When making coffee, grinding beans is for no purpose but grinding. Water in the coffee maker has no purpose beyond the action itself. There is no eventual cup of coffee, just pouring water.

The four elements of a bodhisattva’s social relations are descriptive, not prescriptive. They describe the spontaneous result of daring to see, attend to, experience what is really right here, without giving up. It takes courage to grind beans like this for no purpose but grinding; courage to face all things including pain, inadequacy, fear, and resistance for no purpose and without trying to get rid of them or change them. Practicing this way brings out in us a gentle face, the face that sees it all. The four virtues of a bodhisattva describe the actions of living without notions of self and other. Attention. Attention.