The Three Marks of Existence — a talk by Madelon Bolling (March 13, 2022)

Posted by on Mar 17, 2022 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on The Three Marks of Existence — a talk by Madelon Bolling (March 13, 2022)

In Buddhism, the three marks of existence are Anicca (impermanence: everything changes, nothing lasts), Anatta (non-self: there is no permanent self in living beings and no abiding essence in phenomena), and Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness). It’s hard to wrap our usual mind around this pervasive statement of fact. But it’s no joke: all of existence is marked by Anicca (impermanence), Anatta (no self or abiding essence), and Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness).

Anicca, Anatta, and Dukkha walked into a bar. They didn’t stay for long, had no ID, and didn’t like the vibes much, anyway.

Because we buy the reality of language, we humans act as though things and states of being are permanent, as though there were such a thing as self – and that people and things exist independently and forever. Because of this belief, we are devastated when a beloved companion dies, a cherished thing breaks, a favorite place or tradition changes. You might say this human condition: wanting things to be other than they are—is a symptom of a shared sickness.

Pondering these truths during a time of unexpected change and unthinkable anguish, someone once asked, “Are we responsible for being who we are?” Well, what do you think? Is that the case? Are we responsible for being who we are?

Just saying bluntly, “No. It’s just causes and conditions that made you who you are,” doesn’t really work. Without any context, this could be taken as permission to throw caution to the winds and act with criminal irresponsibility. That would be out of balance, an incomplete view. On the other hand, if I were to say, “Of course, we have to take responsibility for everything we do,” that could well lead to a depressing load of guilt and self-blame. That’s also out of balance, and incomplete since it ignores unavoidable aspects of circumstances.

So, let’s consider a little more carefully. Am I responsible for being 5’2″ tall? Well, no—I’m not going to wear lifts in my shoes or hang upside down to stretch my spine. Am I responsible for the shape of my face? Barring plastic surgery, no. But other people’s reactions to the shape of my face have led me to expect a particular type of “othering,” on occasion. I’d say I’m responsible for interpreting those reactions, and for the behaviors I use to reach a level of comfort in a sometimes-hostile environment. And it strikes me that it’s only fair to accept responsibility for the consequences of my behaviors.

But now, when I say, “I am responsible,” what does that actually mean? According to the dictionary, being responsible means being the primary cause of something and so able to be blamed or credited for it. But is that right? Am I the primary cause of my behaviors? I’d say I might be a proximate cause, but not the sole cause of my actions, because my choice of actions can be traced to prior experience and circumstances not actually under my control. Still, as a friend once said, if I’m responsible it means I am the bag-holder. People can blame me whether I can do anything about the situation or not. So, blame may also function as a social engineering widget.

But that’s not what’s important to us here. Even asking whether I am the cause of my behavior requires an answer to a more fundamental question: what do we mean when we say “I”? And that is why one of the oldest inquiries in Zen practice is to question—What am I? Rather than simply concentrating on those three little words, the great old master Yunmen once gave us the intriguing context of medicine and sickness. In the Blue Cliff Record, case 87:

Yunmen addressed the assembly, saying,
“Medicine and sickness regulate one another.
The whole great earth is medicine.
What is your self?” (BCR case 87)

The whole great earth—the whole world, the whole universe—is medicine. What is your self?

It’s tempting to just say, “well then logically, if the whole great earth is medicine, self must be sickness.” But that is formalist and extreme. Without context, this could justify an intense punitive focus on self. The reasoning might go like this: World is medicine; medicine is good—so self must be sickness, and sickness is bad. If left unexamined, this could lead to the asceticism that Shakyamuni Buddha rejected early in his quest. But wait a second—what about that principle of Anatta, “no self or abiding essence”?

You can see how the black-and-white or binary reasoning that’s built into language fools us. Such thinking is a splendid tool for fast decision-making in dangerous situations. It has shaped our responses and saved lives more often than not. But as Zen students we are in the business of questioning. Questioning everything. But then remember: Yunmen gave us a broad hint when he said that medicine and sickness regulate one another.

If medicine is “something that promotes healing when ingested or consumed in some way,” and sickness is “a disordered, weakened, or unsound condition,” what does Yunmen mean by saying, “Medicine and sickness regulate one another”? Other translations of this line say medicine and sickness are in accord with one another, or correspond with one another. Yunmen implies that there is mutual correspondence, a relation of mutual dependence or, dare I say, wholeness, between medicine and sickness, between the whole great earth and the self. Whatever this sickness is, its origin is unknown. Like essential hypertension in the medical world, this condition is “essential.” It just comes with the territory called “being human.”

And since healing comes from a root meaning “to make whole,” the medicine—the whole great earth—may be none other than our self, the whole truth, the way things are. This is a broad, broad hint. Becoming what we can’t help being—is it really so difficult?

Logic can make a situation seem simple and solvable. We just have to do away with what is identified as the cause of a problem, and the problem is solved. Anticipating this move in his commentary on Dōgen’s Genjōkōan, Yasutani Roshi wrote:

Now look. Having gazed out at the phenomenal world and explained that “that is the Buddha way, that is the manifestation of the truth” is not enough. The whole phenomenal world is entirely oneself. Therefore the clouds, the mountains, and the flowers; the sound of a fart and the smell of urine; earthquakes, thunder, and fire are all the original self. Reading sutras and holding services, telling a pack of lies, slander and idle talk, ugliness and cuteness, everything altogether is supreme enlightenment. (Flowers Fall, p.9)

The task, then, the next step in the real work—is to enter the koan with our entire awareness, leaving words behind, leaving negation and assertion, right and wrong behind, and opening eyes, ears, hands, and heart to what we have always been. That is, just sit here with mouse in hand, or fingers moving on the keyboard, the clock ticking on one side, furnace blower roaring on the other side, seat pressing into the cushion, feet on the floor, breathing cool air in, breathing warm air out. Watch a sunbeam turn the table bright gold for a moment, and ask, as the line of typed words blossoms on the page: is there a separate ‘me’ perceiving all this? being careful not to fall into the reflexive “yes” or “no” that tends to pop up in the presence of a question. Instead, let the question soak through each moment of experience. And try to find, right in the midst all this experiencing—try to find or sense that intimate presence, that “me-ness” that we’ve learned and tended, shored up and protected our whole life long, assuming its permanence and separate reality. What does it feel like? Where is it? Can you point to it?

Look at a bright leaf in the sunlight. We say the leaf is “out there.” But is it? Looking at the leaf—what is happening, actually? Only attend to your experience in the moment—we’re stepping outside of scientific explanations for now. In this moment, the best I can say might be “leaf-seeing” is going on. Seeing does not manifest without a thing being seen. Hand rests on the table (or on the cushion, the floor, the knee). We only sense the hand in the moment of contact, the same moment in which we sense the table, the cushion, the floor, the knee . . .  In that moment of contact, do you find twoness, or is the experience singular, complete? We might try Yunmen’s phrasing: hand and table correspond. Similarly, self does not manifest without “not-self” in contrast, whether it be things, ideas, sensations, or persons.

In this way, we may begin to break open, to explore, to deal with what Yasutani Roshi called: “the delusion of having thought from beginningless time that self and others are different, that self and others are in opposition to each other.”

Then, wouldn’t you know, amazingly enough, the distress of the ever-complaining neighbor that irritates me is no other than my own distress. It may actually draw me to change to a more practical response. Instead of pursing my lips and thinking my usual mean comments like, “Oh, just quit complaining and do something for a change,” I find myself helping her figure out how to set up a new computer, or brainstorming ways to discourage the local woodpecker from hammering holes in her house.

I’d like to close—first with a verse by W. S. Merwin:

The Wonder of the Imperfect

Nothing that I do is finished
so I keep returning to it
lured by the notion that I long
to see the whole of it at last
completed and estranged from me

but no the unfinished is what
I return to as it leads me on
I am made whole by what has just
escaped me as it always does
I am made of incompleteness
the words are not there in words

oh gossamer gossamer breath
moment daylight life untouchable
by no name with no beginning

what do we think we recognize
(The Moon Before Morning. Copper Canyon Press, 2014, p.92)

And then with an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s The Wild Geese:

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

(Collected Poems. NY: North Point Press,1985 p.156)


Zen teacher Henry Shukman put it this way: “the shell of our self can crack altogether. Light floods in, light breaks out, and we discover that the two lights, within and without, had been one light from the start.” (Mountain Cloud Newsletter [online] 3/07/2022)