What Are We Really, A Talk by Madelon Bolling

Posted by on May 21, 2024 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on What Are We Really, A Talk by Madelon Bolling

What are we, really?

The Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng said, Good friends! You already possess the prajna wisdom of enlightenment! . . . Buddha nature isn’t different for the ignorant and the wise . . .  (Platform Sutra, section 12)

Now, how can that be? You mean, we ignorant folk have the prajna wisdom of enlightenment? Already? Kodo Sawaki said,

Zazen is becoming a Buddha while you are a deluded person.

So what does that look like? In an online message, Henry Shukman once referred to “A sense of being held by all experience.”

By becoming mindful of the full range of sense-experience going on in any moment, we start to rest into a sense of being held by all experience, then into becoming absorbed in it, and finally dissolving into a selfless space in which all things are present.

“A sense of being held by all experience”—what a lovely thought! Try it on, like a magic blanket . . . a sense of being held by all experience. So, we open our eyes, our hands, the whole vulnerable front and exterior of our bodies, and notice—what is it like, being held by this blanket, this experience?

Wonderful! It is warm, cozy, holding all of me, without exception. Oops!—wait a sec! There are stickery things in this blanket too! But wait! —what is it like being held by this comfy wrap and by these stickery things too? Stickery things (I should say painful or unpleasant things) are part and parcel of our experience. The phrase is, “Being held by all experience.” And the instruction is to become mindful of the full range of sense-experience. Where we get in trouble is from the natural instinct to reject threat—and that comes from a concept of self that is too limited.

Pain: injury, sorrow, sickness and death (not to mention stickers)—pain is an integral part of what we are. We exist beyond the limits and wishes of this skin-bag because our real being is awareness and awareness only. Without awareness there’d be no discomforts, either. Our real being includes all experiencing. Life offers all sorts of adventures and we erroneously and futilely try to pick and choose from these. If we have a steady practice, remaining curious about all experiences, we will become closer to what we have always already been: awareness and awareness only. The way there is paradoxical. Kodo Sawaki put his finger on it when he said,

We don’t practice to attain enlightenment. We practice dragged around by enlightenment.

In our various experiences of meditation, I’ll wager that many of us have found it difficult, effortful, exhausting, puzzling, scary, or intensely boring. As well, there may have been moments of insight, clarity and ease.  But, as Bhikku Santi said,

We hope, nonsensically, that suffering—some part of our suffering during meditation—will end our suffering … and end it for good. That struggling will end our struggle. That misery will end our misery. (Bhikku Santi, Tricycle magazine, Spring 2024)

Somewhere in this mess must be an answer, we think. But where? Well, what if the mess is itself the answer?

In his book, Discovering the True Self, Kodo Sawaki Roshi says: “What is the true self?
. . . it is brilliantly transparent like the blue sky, in which all sentient beings are connected.” (p.115) Transparency and the blue sky—ahh, lovely. These are the types of images that drew us to Zen in the first place, right? “In which all sentient beings are connected.” Hmm—How are we connected in the blue sky? Doesn’t make much sense, or does it?

Blue sky is itself empty even of smoke or clouds. And though we point to a part of it, it is never as limited as objects like trees or mountains. Now, where does sky (our air, the atmosphere) begin being “blue”? Or does the blueness extend as far as the ground? When I pursue blueness, it disappears, yet the empty air stays as it is. The air in here may be blue even, if I only had the eyes to see. Be that as it may, this transparent atmosphere connects all sentient beings. If you think about it, good, evil, dangerous and benign living beings are connected by the air we breathe. (Sawaki Roshi was speaking to us air-breathers, neglecting the sentient beings of the oceans and waters.)

Air, the atmosphere, can be brilliantly transparent. It’s clear that blueness and transparency depend on other elements and one’s point of view. Still, it’s remarkable as a metaphor for the self because it is everywhere (above the watery world) and it is indifferent to the qualities of living beings. This air we breathe has certainly been breathed by wicked people as well as kindly ones, violent or peaceful. And right now, we are connected to every person, every living creature above ground, through the air we (all air-breathing creatures) breathe.

There is something about us that is brilliantly transparent, that sees, before judgment and evaluation.

Jeffrey Shugen Arnold said:

In a moment of true liberation, we can’t rely on what we’ve known or done before. We can’t rely on meaning or precedent. We have to break free of them, as well as of our old way of seeing the world. Sometimes we need to be shaken to the core in order to stop. Otherwise, we can just spin and spin.” (Tricycle Daily May 30, 2022)

Well, that’s daunting. Because—well, my experience is built largely on meaning or precedent, on what went before, on what I know, what I’ve experienced. Seeing a family member with whom I had a difficult history, I have a strong tendency to be wary, to be ready for trouble, to expect the worst. Arnold says we need to break free of our old way of seeing the world, so is this hopeless? Perhaps if I were shaken to the core . . .

In Hui-Neng’s Platform Sutra, translator Red Pine explains the term, “enlightenment”:

This refers to the perception of things and dharmas as they really are, as no-things and no-dharmas, as full of light. It is perception without a perceiver or object perceived. There isn’t any other enlightenment. Our enlightenment is the same as every buddha’s.
(p. 127)

Where is this perception of things and dharmas as they really are? They say that it’s right at our fingertips, before thinking. Is that right? Is there such a before? Well, where else would we find things that are no things? Wait a sec: what are things that are no-things?

I say, “I’m typing on my laptop.” What is this really? Sensing the lines of keys, and pushing them to form letters, words. Let’s see, before all that, the slight borders between keys, just evenly divided movable surfaces—and at the same time, what I call “fingertips,” moving around. But these are not different ‘things.’ Fingers tell me there are keys; keys tell me there are fingers, and I may look down using what is called ‘seeing,’ using my eyes to verify the experience. Really, in the moment of experiencing, whether with eyes or not, fingertips-on-keys is one whole experience, not two or many, not separate from me. Nor is what I call “I” or “me” a separate thing that can be pointed out. At least, I sure can’t find it or point to it with certainty. Thus Red Pine refers to “things and dharmas as they really are, no-things and no-dharmas.”

The experience is not even “one.” As Lee said once, there is just the concert of sensations melding touch, sight, sound, and even thought. Plus, there is definitely no “other,”

Buddha nature isn’t different for the ignorant and the wise.

(Platform Sutra, sec. 12)

Do I thus claim ‘enlightenment’ as mine? Oh heck no! No more than every person here, who considers the notion that we are deeply connected with every single thing “out there.” I point to a realm for exploration. An enormous amount of exploration is called for in this endeavor of ours, and constant attention. Really the best way to do this isn’t effortful, because effort is likely to bring with it a sense that “I am” making an effort. But if we play with the notion, play is often more thorough-going than effort. It’s just that “Buddha nature isn’t different for the ignorant and the wise,” so no matter our status or experience, we can explore without knowing ahead of time where we are going, what we’ll see.

After that, we can keep on playing—learning more about day-to-day experiencing and in that moment, letting it go, holding on to no thing. And that process leads to the sense of being held by, or woven seamlessly in to all experience.

Enjoy practicing with this mess itself, rejecting no part of it. And why? If I reject the experience of unpleasant and painful parts of my life, I’m rejecting the truth of my life. Now, this doesn’t mean I have to love and try to repeat painful experiences! Just plain noticing and acknowledging the stickery stuff is enough. Can I simply acknowledge, leaving aside all reactions, particularly the rejecting kind? Doesn’t mean leaving your hand on the stove while “noticing and acknowledging” pain and the scent of charred flesh! The body has natural reflexes. This is just an opportunity to really notice this living being from the inside, as it were, not separating it out from yourself, or isolating its functioning from this moment. “Not separating it out from yourself”  includes experiencing things we’ve formerly rejected—that difficult family member, the bloody reality of genocide, the grievous harm we have done to the environment. I think that was Homeless Kodo’s meaning when he said:

We don’t practice to attain enlightenment. We practice dragged around by enlightenment.

And then,

By becoming mindful of the full range of sense-experience going on in any moment, we start to rest into a sense of being held by all experience, then into becoming absorbed in it, and finally dissolving into a selfless space in which all things are present. (Shukman email 6/13/23)



Bhikkhu Santi Lighten up: Letting go of the difficulty of meditation. Spring 2024 Tricycle mag.

Huineng, 638-713. The Platform Sutra: the Zen teaching of Hui-neng / translation and commentary by Red Pine. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2006.

Jeffrey Shugen Arnold May 30, 2022 (Tricycle Daily)

Kodo Sawaki, Roshi. Discovering the True Self: Kodo Sawaki’s Art of Zen Meditation. Tr. Arthur Braverman. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2020.

Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, and Shohaku Okamura, Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo. Somerville, MA, Wisdom Publications, 2014.