This Moment – A Talk by Madelon Bolling – June 14, 2020

Posted by on Jun 24, 2020 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on This Moment – A Talk by Madelon Bolling – June 14, 2020

A monk asked, “What is the essential meaning of Buddhism?”
Mazu said, “What is the meaning of this moment?”     
(Ferguson, p. 76)    

Our world has changed so radically that ordinary routines don’t work any more or are not available. Like any other living thing, when the old ways don’t work, we try to meet our needs in new ways. Deprived of overhead light, an upright tree will begin reaching sideways, growing a new shape. We talk a lot about sudden radical change and unpredictability under the current threats of death, destruction, disease, and disorder. We talk about how this maps on to Zen study, how it even helps us experience not knowing concretely and presently, rather than just as an abstract notion. But this is just talk.

In the novel Overstory, Richard Powers writes:

The tree is saying things, in words before words.
It says: Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering.
It says: A good answer must be reinvented many times, from scratch.

The tree is saying things, in words before words. The whole world—animate and inanimate—voices Mazu’s question, What is the meaning of this moment? And trees draw us to listen.

When I ask in ordinary language, “What is the meaning of this?” it almost always calls for me to answer, “Where do I fit in this picture?” “What am I, given this? What am I supposed to do?”

In other words, Mazu is asking—How are you being part of this world as it is right now?

In the middle of the 8th century, China was going through civil war, disease and famine so drastic that two-thirds of all the people in China perished. In less than ten years, two out of every three people died. Mazu Daoyi and Shitou Xiqian became Chan teachers around this time. It was under these dire circumstances that Master Ma asked: “What is the meaning of this moment?”

I may sign petitions, donate money, speak up, behave kindly, vote, brainstorm, and protest—trying to do what I can to change the results of many centuries of error, terror, and pain. But it has little effect on the big picture, and my efforts turn quickly to dust and meaninglessness. I am thrown back again and again to this moment and its flavor of futility. But notice where that flavor is coming from. The thinking mind is binary by nature. It splits the world up into “I” and “not-I,” or “everything else.” Did my actions solve this problem or make it even a little better, less pervasive, less painful? Honestly? I don’t know—not noticeably. In that case, the mind says, you failed. It takes a very long time and many people, many lifetimes of constant attention to change patterns of this magnitude. It is not likely to be in the hands of a solitary person. This is where the off-flavor, the taint of futility comes from: persistent dualism and assumptions of isolated individuality.

But Mazu’s contemporary Shitou Xiqian is known for saying, “What meets the eye is the Way.” What I see is me, and the same goes for each of us. What we see, hear, smell, touch, taste, think—whether we like it or not, is what we are. Rather than individuals, we are webs of relationship, woven in, integral to this enormous complexity without beginning or end, variously called “world” or “life” or “universe.”   We are vastly more than solitary beings. To counteract the sense of isolation and powerlessness that rides in the wake of isolation we need to open up to the greater picture, to our place in the incomprehensible whole.

Well that’s a frightening thought, especially when we are mostly aware of the disease, deceit, destruction and disrespect dimensions of the picture. How can we stand to be part of that? The mind cringes and tries to turn away, naturally fleeing back to the familiar, even though it means isolation and despair. But to turn back to the old familiar “way it was” is to turn away from ourselves, away from what we are—from what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think.

We do need rest and restoration when undertaking pervasive change. Our tendency to do more and more as our minds invent infinitely more things to do, will not bring about a new solution. Doing more is logical but only creates more of the old ways that caused problems in the first place. And that leads to burnout. Without rest and renewal this work will wear a person to a nub in no time. Buddhist teacher Mushim Ikeda wrote, “we need to begin establishing a sense of basic trust that being alive means that not everything is destroyed by despair.” (We Can Do This, Lion’s Roar Aug. 1, 2019)

Here are four points toward not being destroyed by despair:

First, acknowledge weariness, fear, and despair. Sink in closer to the aching without trying to push it away. Is this how it is? Yes. Let it be.

Oscar Wilde wrote: Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.

Second, trees live in this world too. Take your ache, futility and weariness to them. Just for fun, listen to what trees are saying before words. It is a wordless, sentient openness, an openness to all that is going on. To listen to a tree is to listen to your vastness.

Third, relax into your whole self just as you are, for no reason. This is the place where you already fit into the whole even as everything seems to be falling apart. We are not separate.

Fourth, listen to your vastness. Discover what you do naturally for the sheer joy of it, without any judgment, without any expectation of utility. Let the unexpected reveal itself. It is likely to be a creative expression of the whole in your form. Is it baking? singing tunelessly? walking in the woods? dancing? making people laugh? savoring the camouflage of owls? trying the flavors of local weeds? making music out of random noises? collecting fragments of robins’ eggs? What is the meaning of such a moment?

Being open to the unexpected is creativity itself. It refreshes our view and our energy. Being open to the unexpected is utterly necessary so we can recognize and dare to try new ways of being in the world. Being open to the unexpected is also the flavor of doing zazen. It is that openness without knowing how or why that allows the cry of the rooster or the sound of rain on maple leaves to become the entirety, dissolving the illusion of individuality.

A monk asked, “What is the essential meaning of Buddhism?”
Mazu said, “What is the meaning of this moment?”