Why Does It Come to That? – A Talk by Madelon Bolling

Posted by on Mar 12, 2023 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Why Does It Come to That? – A Talk by Madelon Bolling


One time when the Master was washing his bowls, he saw two birds contending over a frog. A monk who also saw this asked, “Why does it come to that?”

The Master replied, “It’s only for your benefit, Acarya.”

                                                                                                (Record of Tung-shan, case 98)


As descendants of generations of colonizers here in this country, we are slowly coming to terms with our deep, personal, and inextricable connections with the natural world. The quality of life we have, the luxury of our day-to-day living damages the planet and threatens the very existence of all living beings. There is a horror in the situation that is hard to approach and agonizing to explore. Many of us have thrown ourselves into raising awareness, teaching composting and recycling, promoting green energy, organic farming, permaculture, mass transit, caring for others, feeding the poor, and the like. After years and years of exhausting work we have to admit that we’ve not made enough change to establish a sustainable version of our own society, let alone encourage change elsewhere around the world. At the end of the day, we still come home to habits of mass production, and systemic assumptions of normality that are far from sustainable.

Many if not all of our efforts toward sustainability come from “top-down” models. That’s just, well—there needs to be change: this is what to do; and here’s how we’ll do it. But clearly, just telling others what to do is based on three flawed assumptions: 1) If everyone would just do as we say; 2) the world would be fixed; and 3) we wouldn’t have to feel as awful as we do. The likelihood of any one of these matching reality is low, so the likelihood of meeting all three at once? Not so much.

What if there were other ways to change, ways that are not controlled so much by reason as by, what shall I say, desperation? I mean, instead of running, hiding, fighting against or covering our flaws, what if we were to approach, to go toward or open up to our fears, terror, pain, and discomfort? I don’t mean taking up sky-diving or alligator wrestling, but training ourselves to become curious about our known and vigorously avoided discomforts.

Zen practitioners, especially those of us who have tried working toward a sustainable society, find out that our practice suggests we do exactly that: approach, allow, explore discomfort. Doesn’t make much logical sense, does it? But then, the world doesn’t all work according to logic.

Our tradition suggests that we apply ourselves to becoming what we really are—becoming what we can’t help being, in fact. There are hints all through the literature that we are not what we think we are. We learn the myth that we are separate, independent, self-regulating identities. Zen practice gradually encourages us to experience interdependence, and non-separation, doubt of fixed identity—bit by bit, over and over, honestly and thoroughly. Our true being is intrinsic to and inseparable from, the unimaginable wholeness of the entire universe.

This move toward becoming what we really are requires some doing, because parts of what we are – features of our actual experience – can barely be admitted to ourselves even in secret. These are traditionally summarized as greed, hatred, and ignorance, or killing, stealing, and lying, and all of the afflictions that go with them. I tend to think that if I can name these things they’ll stay in the box of unwanted, disapproved, don’t-even-go-there, “not-me” behaviors. Unfortunately, that doesn’t protect me from experiencing them.

In the innocent process of becoming good members of society, all of us have worked our whole lives to distance ourselves from greed, hatred, ignorance. How is it possible that our true being includes the dark side and its consequences when we work so hard to distance ourselves from it? Or, as the monk asked, “Why does it come to that?” And how could all of this possibly be considered “for our benefit”? The sages have some ‘splainin’ to do.

I can’t really speak to what your experience is like, so I’ll use mine as example. Right here, just from saying that, there is a subtle discomfort in front of my left shoulder-blade, a tension in my brow, and an urge to apologize for focusing on me. I don’t want to appear selfish, which is a form of stealing – taking attention in this case. But what happens if I don’t apologize? More discomfort, a gaspy feeling. And then – there’s the unexpected recognition that if I apologize, I’d be assuming that you’re going to be critical. That assumption might well be experienced as criticism by others. This is a tiny example of recognizing the world in oneself, and seeing that the very things we desperately want to avoid are not separate from us. Fear and avoidance are facets of criticism, and rightly so. It is painful to be rejected, to be scorned by others, especially those we depend on for survival. It can be life-threatening.

Taking a step back for perspective, it’s clear that patterns like this ensure the continuation of living creatures. It’s painful to watch a frog being torn apart for crows to eat, and we’re not in a position to stop the pain – neither the crows’ hunger, the frog’s agony nor our helpless reaction to watching. Why does it always come to this? I don’t know the definitive answer, but recently I’ve noticed that it reveals an odd thing: I must not be as separate from other living beings as I had assumed. In a sense, that frog is me – hey, you darn birds! ow-ow-ow-ow-yi-i-ichhh!! And the crows as well: hungry! hungry! juicy frog – gotcha! Poor monk, washing his bowls, seeing every action riddled through with consequences. Does he think, “Well, I’m vegetarian, thank goodness”? Or does he wonder, “How many suffered to plant and harvest the rice I ate? This bowl was formed and fired . . . wow, that’s hard, dangerous work.”

But if we are not separate from others, we need to learn to be true to ourselves. Nancy Mujo Baker put it this way: “Becoming is the revealing of what we already are. It’s a discovery not a process. But what we already are needs to be actualized over and over again until we begin to live out of it.” 1

In Genjokoan, or Actualizing the Fundamental Point, Dogen says:

To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by the myriad dharmas. To be enlightened by the myriad dharmas is to cast off body and mind of both oneself and others.2  

What does that mean, “to cast off body and mind”?

Because we’ve come to treat the world as other, we have overemphasized distinctions between sentient and non-sentient, distinctions between “my” body, “your” body, and “their” bodies. In overvaluing identification with this body, we build wherever we want, take anything and everything and form it to our desires without considering consequences for ourselves, let alone consequences for “others.” What if we could change our view of the world and how we fit into it? What if we considered the natural world and other beings as worthy of respect, as much a part of ourselves as any of our loved ones?

Then we’d need to consider at each juncture: how am I acting, not just as this body-mind but as a relative, as aspect of the one being, inextricably indebted to the infinitely giving trees, birds, ants, grasses, forbs, dogs, spiders, cows, rocks, weeds, worms, soils, waters, mosses, mollusks, moles? Radical interdependence is well-documented, so – if that’s the case, what is our proper relationship?

The phrase proper relationship has me thinking of meeting external expectations, dependent on meeting standards presented/enforced by authority, the judgment of another. But that’s not what I mean by proper relationship. Around the 11th century, the word proper meant, “one’s own, particular to itself.” Evidence of the more judgmental meaning, “socially appropriate, decent, respectable” was not recorded until 1704. I mean proper here in the older sense.  

In Zen circles we hear stories of liberation, astonishing responses to difficulty, experiences of freedom and naturally-occurring examples of great generosity and kindness. Yet the actions leading to those experiences depend on strict tradition, arduous practices, and minutely restrictive rules of behavior. Seems highly illogical, like producing milk from stone. How could our intrinsic nature be “brought forth” through extrinsic actions? It can’t. In the Mumonkan, Nanquan said, “If you try to direct yourself toward it, you turn against it.” [case #19]

Further, in entering the way of practice, we take refuge in the three treasures. But as Nancy Mujo Baker observes,

To take refuge in is to treat [Buddha, dharma, and sangha] as separate from . . . what I imagine myself to be. But really what Buddhism is about is discovering that one is the Buddha, the dharma, the sangha . . .  I am the not-knowing. I am the bearing witness. I am the loving action. So I am the Buddha, I am the dharma, I am the sangha.

Becoming is the revealing of what we already are. It’s a discovery not a process. But what we already are needs to be actualized over and over again until we begin to live out of it.1

How is it that sitting practice helps? At first glance, it doesn’t make much sense. But in practice, we work to stay present in the given reality right here, now, before language. We acknowledge with Dai-O Kokushi that there is a reality even prior to heaven and earth, prior to good and evil, to yes and no—a reality prior to the realm of words.

In his underground classic How to Catch a Mole, Marc Hamer writes:

Words have a different existence to the things they name:
they live in different places, have different lives.
(p. 50)

Facts do not set you free, they trap you into a constructed view of reality
that is final. The only truth is here, and here, and here in the three seconds
before it becomes a reconstruction. Really I want to forget. Forgetting is
freedom and forgiveness but more than anything it is a process of immersing myself in what is happening now.

Forgetting is freedom? After all our training in remembering, from pre-school to grad school to the exercises given to older folk struggling with age?! Tilopa, the 10th-11th century Indian Kagyu monk and teacher of Naropa, gave meditators Six Words of Advice.5 These are valuable hints no matter what tradition we may follow:

Don’t recall. Let go of what has passed.
Don’t imagine. Let go of what may come.
Don’t think. Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t examine. Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t control. Don’t try to make anything happen.
Rest. Relax, right now, and rest.

[trans. Ken McLeod)

This was Hamer’s process of immersing myself in what is happening now. Do we dare try it?

I’ll close with some words from How to Catch a Mole.4

Having been kicked out of his father’s house as a teen, the author took to wandering on foot for long distances, spending only for food, having completely lost what we consider ordinary motivations and wishes. He wrote:

The nature of my life has become the nature of the rocks and the trees and the muddy water and the rain that falls in it. These things consume me, and to live as if they were not there is unthinkable. (p.65)

I cannot choose to stay the same; change is all there is – it just happens. (p.77)

We try to create an illusion of permanence, but there is none. (p. 62)

As we continue now with kinhin, let go into breath, into the sensations of placing one foot on the ground, and the other foot on the ground. Become immersed in what is happening now, and you may meet the wandering gardener as you become  

. . . just a movement in the air. The sound of a falling stone on the path. (p. 94)




  1. Tricycle Magazine. Tricycle Talks Episode #84 with Nancy Mujo Baker. Feb. 8, 2023.
  2. Yasutani, H. (1996). Flowers Fall: A Commentary on Dogen’s Genjokoan. Boston: Shambala.
  3. “proper (adj.)” Online Etymology Dictionary updated Dec. 11, 2020. www.etymonline.com/word/proper, accessed March 6, 2023.
  4. Hamer, M. (2019). How to Catch a Mole. Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books Ltd..
  5. von Bujdoss, J. “Tilopa’s Six Nails” Tricycle Magazine Spring 2018. tricycle.org/magazine/tilopas-six-nails/