(Trust) – a Talk by Madelon Bolling

Posted by on Dec 2, 2022 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on (Trust) – a Talk by Madelon Bolling

Raven took his perch on the Assembly Oak and
addressed a special meeting of the Tallspruce
community, saying, “It’s time for me to be to moving on.” [snip]

A hush fell over the circle. Grouse could be heard
sniffling. At last, Porcupine asked, “Do you have any
last words for us?”

Raven said, “Trust.” (Aitken, Zen Master Raven. p.201)

How is it that trust would be the last word, the encompassing summary of Zen master Raven’s life work, his legacy to the sangha?

Life is puzzling: unsatisfactory, painful. Sometimes we glimpse something just out of sight—a notion comes up that there is more to life than meets the eye. What is hidden to us is so important that people we respect like Zen Master Raven, have directed all their energies to exploring it. We pursue Zen study to have somewhere to admit our longing and follow wherever it may lead, even if that is nowhere.

By their nature, phenomena are impermanent: All things pass quickly away . . . I used to hear this as a demand: Get a wiggle on! Make the most of what’s available: Go! Go! But driven achievement is as susceptible as anything else to loss, accident, change of circumstance, and sudden irrelevance. All things pass quickly away . . . In the end, as in the beginning, all we have is now, here.
Can you get a glimpse of it?

One of the hardest things about this work is coming to terms with the fact that there is nothing to attain. We are told that the awakened mind, the ultimate, is manifesting like this, right here, now, just as we are: this . . . is it. How could that be? Everything we’ve ever worked for—our identifiable goals—required massive time and effort to reach. We naturally assume that this much more valuable endeavor of Zen practice will take even more goal-oriented work. It’s well-documented that life is inescapably unsatisfactory, so of course we want out . . . the question is, how?

But Nanquan said, “If you try to direct yourself (toward the Way) you turn against it.” (Mumonkan #19)

This doesn’t mean we can sit back, twiddle our thumbs and ignore the issue altogether. You can’t achieve “nothing to achieve.” It’s just that the effort, the nature of the endeavor, has a completely different character from all our usual kinds of undertaking. Instead of gaining skill, expertise, experience, this effort is more like deliberate loss. Continual letting go is required—letting go of preconceptions, to begin with, letting go of everything we think we know: every thing, even the notion of “enlightenment,” the notion of “being human,” and the absurd desire for recognizable states of freedom or transcendence. If we direct effort toward reaching a recognizable state, we have missed the question from the get-go. Why? Because Zen invites, requires, tricks us into stepping back and considering the act of seeing, itself. “Seeing” here is shorthand for sensory experience of all kinds. Thus the koan “Who hears?” is offered as one entry. This koan, among others, questions the foundation of experiencing, the sensory realm that we take for granted.

Now, especially here, where we practice something as impossible as letting go of preconceptions, it is automatic to be painfully aware of our shortcomings and to wrestle with them. But Linji said:

What ails you? Lack of faith in yourself is what ails you. If you lack faith in yourself, you’ll keep on tumbling along, following in bewilderment after all kinds of circumstances and being taken by them through transformation after transformation without ever attaining freedom.   (Discourse X. Sasaki/Kirchner)

“Lack of faith in yourself.” It sounds like a description of my inner architecture. A notion appears, an observation, maybe calling for some action, such as: that empty jar shouldn’t be on the counter there; it belongs down in the basement closet. But there’s a voice in my head, experienced as though someone outside myself were speaking. It says—wait! don’t go haring off down to the basement—you have to cut up the daikon and onions first. Heeding that, I return to the cutting board. Then I glance at the empty jar, and the voice says—Nope, not now, it’s not that important. First you better compile that list of debts for the probate attorney. After making the salad for lunch, that is. And, better call the nurse about your sister. This is certainly an experience of:

tumbling along, following in bewilderment after all kinds of circumstances
. . . (loc. cit.)

Though the example is trivial, it’s still searching outside oneself for guidance, for approval. And not trusting.

Now occasionally on seeing an empty jar, I escort it to the proper place without a second thought. Other odds and ends also fall into place along the way: a bookshelf is straightened, wastebasket emptied, a few cobwebs removed. Ever so much more gets done that way! Perhaps it’s a glimmer of the “faith in myself” that Linji advises. There are various translations of this passage from the Record of Linji, and one of them (Broughton/Watanabe) is, “lack of self-confidence” is what ails you. Confidence literally means “with faith,” or “having faith.”

Though the notions of faith and trust are related and sometimes the terms are used inter-changeably, how exactly does trust, Raven’s last word, fit in to this picture? You notice that Raven did not offer “Faith” as his last word. Faith has a cognitive side, such as a statement of belief, direction, or expectation. But that cognitive stance is not enough. For faith to operate fully, it has to be supported by—and characterized by—trust: a visceral openness to what is. And that visceral openness is the stuff of Zen practice. You can’t achieve nothing to achieve. Therefore trust is the way and trust is the means.

Our weekday morning sitting practice has offered me acquaintance with gut-level openness, just because time and again as I start the Zoom meeting, I’ve set myself the task of offering words. But I am not awake enough to have a coherent thought, let alone anything that might encourage others. I enter this situation, settle into the seat, and remember with this breath that the totality, the all of it, the mystery, is right here. Opening to that possibility, I take comfort in remembering that it’s beyond the reach of understanding. Clearly, it is not in a mood to fool with words. Sinking then into the restful place before words, or what I call deep presence, it is clear that there’s no place where it can be left out. Sometimes it’s a distant siren, or rain, or the cat’s soft snore. Most often it’s edgeless dark: silent, available. It feels as though it’s breathing me.

Trust is characterized by a physical sensation like opening or loosening a constraint, allowing us to reach out, open, and rest in and as simple reality. It is a move before words, like a cat or a child surrendering to your arms. Trust itself is one of the faces of deep presence, where there is no other. You might say it is the verb form of deep presence, it is deep presencing. There’s no need to worry about who trusts whom, or whether I am separate or not. Certainly, though these words may sound like instructions, there is no how. And the clock says it’s time to speak. So far, anyway, words have managed to show up at the appointed times. There may be an instance when totally inappropriate words, or no words at all will show. We’ll deal with that when it happens.

In a study-group message, Jack once wrote:

To stay with your one and only practice (breath-counting, MU or Who Hears) opens you. It allows you to be available to what until now was impossible.

In his Introduction to Zen Koans, James Ishmael Ford describes our practice:

. . . it is all about entrusting ourselves to and within unfolding reality. There is a quality of our taking our fate in our hands, but also there is a quality of surrender into mysterious reality. (pp. 42-43)

If we give up picking and choosing, trying to make everything go our way, it requires “trusting the world to give what is needed, no matter how painful it is.” (Leighton, 2004.)

All we need do is acquiesce, and return to our place.

This giving up of everything we know flies in the face of basic instincts like avoiding pain. Contrary to long years of life experience, we find through practice that we are not separate individuals. Rather, we are intrinsically an aspect of mysterious reality. Picking and choosing flies in the face of that greater perspective. That’s why trusting the world to provide what is needed includes allowing that what is needed may be painful. We feel joy in a child’s development, but push away the fact that the tiny sweet baby is gone, utterly gone, forever. We experience loss in many ways and at many junctures. Sorrow, grief, loss—are some of the flavors of love. If we can allow or even savor loss, rather than resisting or armoring ourselves against it, then we needn’t carry around the extra baggage of armor, of tension ready to resist. We’d only be resisting ourselves, anyway.

We exist because of and in the realm of causes and conditions. We are simply intrinsic to appearances, to the whole phenomenal “world.” What we see is us; what we hear is us; what we touch is us. We are integral to all appearances: deeply, radically interdependent, woven in and of  appearances. And so, we are never alone.

In an email excerpt from words written to the Spokane Mind of Clover study group, Jack said:

Please . . . stop continually making subject, object and activity where there is none. Trust. Trust that consciousness is disorderly and there is nothing to rely on. Hold your practice lightly and enter the wild ground that is right below your feet … ready to surprise you and show ways that cannot be imagined with any type of consciousness . . .

A hush fell over the circle. Grouse could be heard
sniffling. . . .
Porcupine asked, “Do you have any last words for us?”

Raven said, “Trust.” 

(Aitken, loc. cit.)


Aitken, Robert. Zen Master Raven. Boston, Tuttle, 2002.

Ford, James Ishmael. Introduction to Zen Koans, Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2018.

Leighton, Taigen Dan. Dōgen’s Cosmology of Space and the Practice of Self-Fulfillment Excerpted from “Pacific World” journal, 2004. (online)

[Linji Lu.] The record of Linji, translation and commentary by Ruth Fuller Sasaki. Thomas Yuho Kirchner, ed. University of Hawai’i Press, 2009.

The record of Linji: a new translation in the light of ten Japanese Zen commentaries. Jeffrey L Broughton with Elise Yoko Watanabe. NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.