Voice of the Bird, A Talk by Madelon Bolling (April 4, 2024)

Posted by on Apr 9, 2024 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Voice of the Bird, A Talk by Madelon Bolling (April 4, 2024)

Voice of the Bird for sesshin, April 2024.

Asan of Shinano lived in Japan in the eighteenth century. She was a sincere student who meditated assiduously. One morning, drifting in and out of sleep and struggling to stay present to her koan, she heard a rooster crow. Her mind suddenly opened, and she exclaimed:


The fields, the  mountains, the flowers, and my body, too, are the voice of the bird. What is left that could be said to hear? [From Dongshan’s Five Ranks (Bolleter), p.101.] PSC


Chinese Zen master Seng-Tsan noted in the 6th century: “To seek Mind with the mind is the greatest of all mistakes.”

We train our minds to deal with the difficulties of living. Seen another way, though, our minds drag us around as they learn how to deal with difficulties of living. And yet so many of the messages of wise people are about quieting the mind, or at the very least, letting it be, letting it go on . . . as though “we” were indifferent to it, as though it were just a little irrelevant. Then, the trick is to notice just what it’s doing—no need to change or improve what it’s doing, just notice.

On the other hand, there are reports very attractive to me, holding that we are not separate from every single thing, including difficulties. If we are not separate, then “dealing with” difficulty seems like cutting off the nose to spite our face. Fighting, fighting, fighting ourselves. Endlessly. Well, that’s the definition of suffering, isn’t it?

What about those times when we somehow step outside of our usual ways? When, for instance, Jack suggests that we get up and go outside in the night, enter the dark part of the 12 hours of the day, and write our impressions down. That reminds me of Asan, drifting in and out of sleep.

We often act as though we differ or are separate from Nature. But when we’re tired, wakened in the middle of the night, maybe we are closer to the way Nature made us: creatures among creatures, part and parcel of the night herself. And so we can listen better at that time when we’re not completely awake—2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. A wonderful thing is—at that time of night, we have little or no expectation of ourselves—no notion of getting anything done, no notion of progress on any task, even if we were up late working on something. What do you hear then? Maybe you’ll hear the silent voice of the tree, with a sense of the depth and patience of its relationship to Earth, and to the creatures that run around on the surface. Maybe you’ll have a sense of the vast expanse of roots. Or maybe you’ll hear the sound of the stars.

. . . a monk once asked National Teacher Dazheng, “What is the mind of the ancient buddhas?” The master said, “Walls, tiles, pebbles.” (Tanahashi, Moon in a Dewdrop pp. 90-91)

This notion of “the mind of the ancient buddhas” has no hint of logic about it, no pointing out of categories, right or wrong. Here there are images like, “the silent voice of the tree,” “the sound of the stars,” when according to the usual logical categories, “the silent voice” or “sound of the stars” are fanciful at best, or just—wrong. Dazheng says the mind of the ancient buddhas is walls, tiles, and pebbles. On the other hand, Dōgen says:

This being so, you should know that the mind of the ancient buddhas is not walls, tiles, and pebbles, and that walls, tiles, and pebbles are not called the mind of the ancient buddhas. The mind of the ancient buddhas is studied in this way. (ibid.)

There you go: evidence that our minds (and our understanding of the world) are not what we assume they are. Right, because they’ve come up with this total contradiction? I mean, is Mind walls, tiles, and pebbles, or isn’t it? We become aware of the mind’s prejudice toward non-contradiction. Things cannot be both something and nothing, can they? Dōgen specifies: “The mind of the ancient buddhas is studied in this way.” There is something vital in these contradictory statements: this is how mind is studied.

Dōgen said:

Now mountains, rivers, earth, the sun, the moon, and stars are mind. At just this moment, what is it that appears directly in front of you? (Shin-Jin Gakudō, in Tanahashi, Moon. p. 88)

So begins the study of the situation. What is it that appears directly in front of you? Let’s see, the computer screen? my hands, feeling for the next letter? After a day of zen sitting, feeling a little tired but wakeful, an experience of mind as walls, tiles, and pebbles (or wood floor, cushion, and wall) may occur. You understand thoroughly your own floorness, cushionness, or wallness. This is evidence that we are not what we assume we are. As Francis Sanzaro notes, “Our body has an intelligence all its own, based on the senses, formed by the senses.” (Let your mind move, March 2024, online)

. . . our parts have been adapted and born in response to wild landscapes over hundreds of thousands of years. our bodies are born of and from the wild — structurally, psychologically, emotionally. (ibid.)

When we let our bodies do what they were was designed to do — process stimuli — they become whole. (ibid.)

Can we, the supposed in-dwellers of this scene, be enough at home to speak as Asan did? Seeing for ourselves and speaking plainly, of what is: crowing, erh-erh erh-erh!? Because when asked who I am, oddly, looking for myself, I cannot say more than “I don’t know.” And if the questioner insists, I can only say the brutal truth: “Ringing in the ears, jet engines, this ache in the seat.” Though if pressed, I might add, “the lingering scent of soup.”

In the Gateless Barrier, case 27:

A monk asked Nan-Ch’üan, “Is there a fundamental truth that has never been expounded for people?” Nan-ch’üan said, “It is not mind; it is not Buddha; it is not beings.”

This, that which is right before us, the raw sensory stimuli of the moment, is our wholeness, moment by moment. We tend to think of ‘object’ and ‘stimulus’ as separate from ourselves, and from the occasion of sensory experience. That’s the logical catch that pops up when we try to put it into words. ‘Object’ and ‘stimulus’ are not separate from what we call our ‘self.’ They are like the petals of a flower—not at all separate from the flower.

Dōgen says:

Mountains, rivers, earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars are mind. . . . Just wholeheartedly accept and trust that to study the Way with mind is this mountains-rivers-and-earth-itself thoroughly engaged in studying the Way. (Shinjin Gakudō)


Aitken, Robert. The Gateless Barrier: the Wu-men Kuan. San Francisco: The Northpoint Press, 1990.

Bolleter, Ross. Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to enlightenment. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2014.

Dōgen, Shin-jin Gakudō; see Tanahashi, Moon in a Dewdrop, p.89.

Sanzaro, Francis, Let your mind move, Tricycle magazine, 19 March, 2024, online.

Tanahashi, Kazuaki, ed. Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dōgen. NY: North Point Press, 1985.