The Teachings of a Whole Lifetime – A Talk by Madelon Bolling (February 11, 2024)

Posted by on Feb 28, 2024 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on The Teachings of a Whole Lifetime – A Talk by Madelon Bolling (February 11, 2024)


A monk asked Yun Men, “What are the teachings of a whole lifetime?”

Yun Men said, “An appropriate statement.” (Blue Cliff Record, Case 14)

                                               *  *  *

There is a reality even prior to Heaven and Earth.
Indeed it has no form, much less a name .
Eyes fail to see it: it has no voice for ears to detect.
. . .
It is Dharma, truly beyond form and sound.
It is Tao, having nothing to do with words. (Dai-O Kokushi: On Zen)

                                               *  *  *

None of us can fix this world. Terrible things are happening here every day. Protests only seem to highlight the problems, rarely making a difference in the experiences of those who are suffering. And sometimes the sheer overwhelming wrongness of it all tempts us to protest in ways that are destructive–just so we can be heard, since what gets the most attention seems to be the horrific.

And yet we don’t want to be loud, irritating, powerless protesters, don’t want to be criminally destructive, nor do we want to be saccharin-sweet unrealists. It just hurts, to be in this world!

As Robert Joshin Althouse Roshi wrote:

It’s easy these days to be dispirited and despair at the problems we face in the world. . . . it’s very common for most of us to feel that we can’t really make any difference. 1

Well, that’s not unrealistic: look back in history. All around the world there have been horrors upon horrors. Given that as a background, how is a person supposed to act? We can scarcely grasp the realities involved.

Althouse Roshi continues:

Perhaps if we knew more, if we were richer, or if we knew the right people, we could make that difference. But what if who you are now, is enough to make a difference? What if you are what is needed to heal the world?2

There is a Jewish teaching about the restoration of the world. In the beginning there was just darkness. We might see it as the unthinkably vast Tao, emptiness beyond understanding, light beyond the notions of light and dark. This shining light was poured into vessels to make the world. But the vessels couldn’t hold the light, and they shattered, scattering sparks of light into everything—everything, even grasses and bricks—and into every person also.

If, from the beginning, by our very nature, we have that unquenchable spark, what should be done with it? Tradition says reconnect it to its original purpose, to the light beyond light and  dark. How? Remember Mazu Daoyi said: From the beginning no creature has ever stepped out of the deep samadhi of Buddha-nature. So we are already connected, already there. Attend! Attend! Whatever your situation at the moment, that . . . is the most important thing in the world. Deal with it right now, with integrity, regardless of how insignificant it may seem. Our human perception of significance cannot possibly reach to explain or judge this. Why? Because there is a reality even prior to heaven and earth. Prior to all oppositions, all dualities. This lies at the heart of our practice, really: attention, simply, your full attention to what is at hand. Don’t worry about how or how well, or even whether it is connected to the great task of shoring up the world.

Althouse Roshi said it this way:

It’s not about doing something grand and dramatic. It’s about proximity. It’s about healing the world that touches you. . . that’s where your power lies hidden.3

The 20th century American historian, playwright and activist, Howard Zinn, said:

If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act.4

What does ‘behaving magnificently’ look like? I despair of having any inkling. But here and there in the news there is sometimes a glimmer. I want to read you three stories. It’s for you to decide whether or not these touch on something magnificent in human nature.

In November of last year, there were pieces in the news from the conflict in Gaza (I’m reading from the report by LA Times reporter Laura King): 5

It wasn’t until 5 p.m. that the family learned the worst: The home of Bilhaa, 75, and Yaakov, 78, who like many of their neighbors were longtime peace activists, had burned to the ground. There were two bodies inside. The Inon family began sitting shiva the very next day.
“There won’t be a burial,” Maoz Inon said. His parents had stated in their will that they wanted their ashes spread on the community’s farmlands — although now, with the Gaza perimeter part of the war zone, it’s not certain when anyone might till that soil again.
“I live by the values they taught us — that we are meant to share this land,” said Inon, who named the hostel chain he co-founded after the biblical Abraham, who is considered the father of three monotheistic faiths.
When he sought to set up his company’s flagship inn in the predominantly Arab northern Israeli town of Nazareth in 2005, the structure’s Palestinian owners were at first deeply mistrustful. But eventually, they became partners and close friends, and the guesthouse is named for the Palestinian family’s late patriarch, Fauzi Azar.
Thirteen days after his parents’ deaths, Inon’s family held a memorial ceremony in Nazareth, and were overwhelmed by the Arab community’s response.
“They came, so very, very many of them, to be together with us, to mourn as they would their own,” he said. “To cry with us.”

The thing that got me with this was to imagine not only the grief for the parents—but also the excruciating pain of sharing that private event with Palestinians, members of the cultural group nominally responsible for the deaths. Both sides, behaving magnificently? (beautiful!)

Grief is rarely uncomplicated, and even stories of shared pain sometimes splinter into angry counternarratives.  . . . as the next story showed:

Israel rejoiced as one when 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz, who had been held hostage for 17 days in Gaza, was released Oct. 23, along with 79-year-old Nurit Cooper, a neighbor abducted from the same kibbutz.
. . . she told of being beaten as she was seized and spirited away by motorcycle, and then led through a network of tunnels she likened to a “spider’s web.”
But there was a national wave of surprise and displeasure after Lifshitz, describing conditions under which she was held, said she was treated “gently” by captors who “fulfilled all of our needs.”
She also offered up a robust critique of the government and military officials who she said had failed to heed multiple warning signs of trouble on the Gaza frontier.
That was enough to get her pilloried on Israeli social media, with some commentators taking angry exception to how the octogenarian, on the moment of her handover to the Red Cross, turned to shake the hand of one of the Hamas fighters and say, “Shalom” — peace.

Howard Zinn continues:

. . . if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.4

Really what this requires is a focus on the present moment, acting from the heart regardless of consequences. It takes enormous courage. Mrs. Lifshitz surely knew that words of thanks to her captors would spark enmity in the minds of others. She said it anyway. Those might well have been the last words to pass her lips. She said them anyway.
So, “to live now as . . . human beings should live,” cannot be planned or understood in a logical way. Our best thinking falters. “Not understanding in a logical way” requires a loosening of the grip that language has on us, and conversely, loosening the grip that we have on language. Our concretizing of “A is not B” has proven to be deadly. All of the oppositions current in the political scene from grade-school bullying to mass shootings, MAGA-republican rhetoric against a monstrous fantasy of liberalism . . . boil down to this: firm belief in the reality of words. Our practice here is to loosen the grip that language has on us, to help us experience and act from the world before words. This loosening of the grip of language needn’t take place only in the realm of political conflict.
For instance, there was an article on Cable News Network by Thomas Lake, a man6 who was doing a 5K run with his 11-year-old son, something they did quite regularly. Only, the boy didn’t show up at the finish line within his expected time. Dad was frantic and worried, jogging the course in reverse to look for his son.

. . . when we drove into town, my son noticed an insect on the hood of my car. It was neon green, no longer than a fingernail. And it was friendly. This little green thing hopped onto my son’s finger, and walked across my shirt, and then went back to my son’s hand, where it stayed for a long, long time. It stayed so long that we would eventually give it a name: Little Friend.
The walk from the car to the registration table was perhaps a quarter of a mile. Little Friend stayed with my son. We walked back to the car to drop off some stuff. Little Friend stayed with my son. We walked back across the railroad tracks and waited for the race to start. Little Friend rode along.
A few minutes before the race, Little Friend either fell or jumped off my son’s hand and landed on the sidewalk. Maybe it wanted to go free. But this was not a good place for that. Pedestrian traffic was heavy and unpredictable. Little Friend was in danger. So my son knelt and reached out his hand. Little Friend came back.
The race was about to start, and the tiny green insect was in for a wild ride. My son would run fast, and the race would be long, and his arms would swing, and Little Friend would be bounced and jostled and eventually dislodged. I felt compelled to have a talk with the boy.
You will lose Little Friend, I told him. My son nodded, treating the moment with appropriate solemnity. Little Friend perched silently on his wrist.

After the race, the man couldn’t find his boy anywhere.

“And in my stumbling confusion,” he said, “I didn’t even see him crossing the finish line. But there he was, thank God, just ahead of the 45-minute mark.”
And there was Little Friend, riding on the upper crook of his right thumb like a very small captain on a very tall ship.
There was something else (an) entomology professor told me about these snowy tree crickets. Living in trees and shrubs as they do, they are used to feeling the wind blow.
They are good at holding on.
My predictions had been wrong. My son had not run fast, and he had not lost Little Friend, and these two facts seemed somehow related. He blamed a cold he was getting over. I suspected it was more than that, but I didn’t question him too much about it.
A boy has his reasons, some of them unknown even to himself. There is more than one way to win a race.
We walked back to the car, smiling, and found some bushes in the parking lot that seemed like a good place for my son to drop off Little Friend. Their brief, intense friendship had run its course.
“Be free,” my son said, and gently nudged Little Friend. It took some more nudging, but Little Friend finally sprang from his finger and plummeted downward, its bright green body merging with the dark green shrubbery, a fragile creature going out of sight.
Sometimes life gives you something beautiful, a fragile, fleeting treasure that attaches to your hand. There is no need to rush ahead. Treat it gently. Savor each moment. Hold on while you can.

In each of these stories, the people stood in their own place of true experience, not conforming to expectations and generalizations.

In the case of the child who ran a 5K carrying a tree cricket, he did not violate his own fascination with the situation by putting the bug down on a bush so he could run his best time. The experience of the cricket mattered more to him at the moment than his running record. Was this “acting magnificently”? I don’t know. I see it as the shining of the Tao, having nothing to do with words.

We might begin by letting go of our assumptions, expectations, judgments and opinions. And most importantly, letting go of whatever outcome we think should take place.

A monk asked Yun Men, “What are the teachings of a whole lifetime?”

Yun Men said, “An appropriate statement.” (Blue Cliff Record, Case 14)



Notes, references

  1. Althouse, R. Aug. 8 Zen life and meditation center, Chicago, blog: “Restoration of the world”
  2. (
  3. Retrieved January 28, 2024,
  4. Zinn, Howard (2006). “A Power Governments Cannot Suppress,” City Lights            Publishers p.270.
  5. Laura King is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter for the Los Angeles Times. A member of the Foreign/National staff, she primarily covers foreign affairs. She previously served as bureau chief in Jerusalem, Kabul and Cairo.
  6. CNN Senior Writer Thomas Lake.