Zen Practice: What About Thinking? – a talk by Madelon Bolling

Posted by on Jun 19, 2017 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Zen Practice: What About Thinking? – a talk by Madelon Bolling

Zen Practice: What About Thinking?

In Zazen Universally Recommended, Dogen says:

Think without thoughts. How do you think without thoughts?
Nonthinking. This is the essential art of zazen.

I am assuming that at least some here besides me wrestle with this unwieldy thing called thinking? If not, please just enjoy the story.

Some years ago there was a gathering here at Dharma Gate where we were invited to ask practice questions. At last! I thought, and I asked how to deal with thoughts when sitting zazen. One of the senior students, triumphantly quoted Dogen: “Think without thoughts.” I said, “But how?” “Non-thinking!” he replied, with a knowing grin. People chuckled appreciatively and the discussion moved on. But I still needed to know how, because this phrase “non-thinking” was meaningless to me. I thought it meant—just don’t think, you silly bean! If I’d had any notion at all of what “non-thinking” meant or how to do it– would I have asked? But nobody answered. I figured that everyone except me knew what Dogen meant, and that I was definitely an outsider, apparently too green to know the most simple thing about “the essential art of zazen.”

And I was very disappointed. I just wanted some relief from the constant harrassment of thoughts, day and night, sitting or working, indoors or out. Even when not wrestling oppressively and compulsively with crises or problems—there that thinker voice was, repeating random things:

Nice house. That shrub—Pieris or Choisya? How startling—looks tropical. Spiral trajectory of a maple seed. Ace Hardware might have that kind of floor wax. Ought to back up my computer—bootable backup or not? Should ask the repair guy. Avoid acidic beverages. Sounds like Hasidic beverages. Eeuu don’t pick your nose like that!

Multiply this by a hundred and run it every waking hour, right? Or if meditating, the range of topics might be narrowed, maybe the tempo slowed a bit—but still, thinking continues ceaselessly. Yet everywhere in our literature and practices there are references to thinking and the possibility of taming it or at least not being bossed around by it.

If you desire to listen to the thunderous voice of the Dharma,
exhaust your words, empty your thoughts,
for then you may come to recognize this one essence.
(Dai-O Kokushi, On Zen)

That notion waves tantalizingly out of reach.

Seung Sahn Zen Master’s dharma heir Mu Deung Sunim (Ko Bong ZM) always responded to logical analyses of koans with, “Your understanding will not help you.” That was helpful, actually, baffling as it was. What is life without understanding? But the hint was there—a little puzzling, just out of reach. So I looked up “understanding.” The dictionary equates it to “intelligence,” which is defined as “the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge; the faculty of thought and reason.” Oh. Thinking again. Thinking will not help you.

We assume that thinking directs or controls our experience because in our day-to-day usage we say things like, “Think about an ice cream cone. Now think about what it feels like to lick the ice cream, to taste it, to swallow it.” We are able to remember and re-construct past experience this way. And then if we each had that ice cream cone here we might say, “think about what it feels like,” but really we would mean, “notice what it feels like” or better yet, “enjoy the bright, cold, sweet creaminess.” There’s a huge difference between “think about (something)” and “notice or enjoy (something).” With “think about what it feels like,” we’d still be sitting here holding a cone, thinking—while it melts and drips all over the place.

We naturally confuse thinking with actual attention this way and it’s the source of a lot of dissatisfaction. I used to have two 15-pound dumbbells on my back porch, thinking I could pick them up and carry them around for a few minutes whenever I passed them on my way to or from the basement, getting in a bit of grip strength and core fitness practice each time. Cool idea! In fact I thought of them this way 2 or 3 times every single day. For years. But the only time I actually touched those weights was when I moved them to tend the houseplants or to wipe off the surface where they sat.

But maybe – what would life be like without understanding, without thinking? Sort of feels familiar, like what’s going on right now… Seung Sahn always urged us to keep what he called “Don’t-know mind.” Well, here we are, sitting right in the middle of it. And what happens? The thinking mind says, “So? Now what?” Well, consider the source.

Still struggling to get what Dogen intends by saying “non-thinking,” my antennae were alert for clues. Translators are careful to note that non-thinking is entirely different from not thinking. There is thinking (shiryo) and there is the absence of thinking (fushiryo), but non-thinking (hishiryo) is something else entirely. In encouraging a response to koans, Seung Sahn Zen master used to insist, “Before thinking!” Hmm.

Various translators render Dogen’s “non-thinking” as “beneath” or “beyond” thinking. All of these—before, beneath, beyond—point us toward a broader dimension than just the presence or absence of thinking. And then I once saw a translation that said the answer to “How do you think without thoughts?” was, “Be before thinking.” (1) That is, don’t just think “before thinking,” (remember the dumbbells!) but be before thinking. Throw your whole self into that place. This turned out to be very useful. Contrary to all our instincts, there is just no way to do non-thinking.

If I can identify thinking and even understanding as objects, they logically stand out (exist) in a context, an environment, a time and place, within some surroundings that are bigger and beyond “thinking” or “understanding” themselves. Just as when I think “apple,” it includes non-apple like this: I (not-apple) see apple on a tree (tree is not-apple, not-me), apple on a table (table is not-apple, not-me), apple in a salad (salad is not-apple, not-me); the notion includes time as well, implying that there is space or location or circumstance before apple and after apple and all around apple, too, but it is other than apple. The same must be true of the concept “thinking.” So slowing down a little bit I wondered, what if there is something, some “space” that holds thinking and makes it possible but is not controlled or affected by thinking? What if thinking is not the boss of everything?

Poking around in Dogen’s vast and perplexing writings, I found an essay on Space (Koku) where he says:

Thinking is realized, and not thinking is realized, through the medium of space. (2)

A different translation puts it this way:

(T)hinking is to be realized by means of empty space and not-thinking is to be realized by means of empty space  (3)

So empty space here is other than thinking and other than not thinking, both. It’s slippery because with words I’m pointing to what we experience all the time and can only refer to by what it is not. I haven’t escaped the dualism of thinking—thinking is still running this show, insisting that its presence and even its absence is important! Still, “empty space” might mean the context in which objects are separated out by thinking, the context that holds everything and makes thinking possible but is not controlled by and not responsive to, thinking. I have heard it compared to a mirror or to a blank screen on which movies are shown. Movies can’t be shown without a screen or a blank wall. Even though it is essential to the appearance of movies the screen is unaffected by the presence or absence of movies or by the nature of the stories they tell.

The cool thing is, if this is making no sense, I can assure you—you aren’t missing anything. Are you sitting comfortably? Good!

Well, my head hurts and I feel left out. Abstraction after hair-splitting abstraction—how can this possibly help anybody?  Why even bother mentioning thinking, non-thinking, space, for pity’s sake? Where is the tastiness that drew us to this practice in the first place?

In the opening sentence of  Dogen’s essay on Space (Koku), he says

Because “this place is where something ineffable exists,” it is through the realization of these words that Buddhist patriarchs are caused to be. (2)

And though I might add “matriarchs” there, this being the 21st century rather than the 13th . . . nonetheless, this place is where something ineffable exists. Right here. Right now. And just for  clarity, ineffable is defined as “not to be expressed in words.” OK then, that’s the mystery: you’ve got my attention. This is why there’s all that fuss about thinking.

We are all in touch with the empty space around thinking, the empty space around experiencing, all the time. It is here, now, just waiting . . . We were completely OK with it when we were infants, before we learned to speak. To be fair, I have to admit that when I say “empty space” it’s misleading, because our language—our thinking—makes it into something like the inside of an empty box, but what I intend is more like “undifferentiated, just plain being or awareness.” Undifferentiated because the specialty of thinking is to differentiate: to point out, create and solidify differences, distinctions, to separate one part of awareness from other parts, like in the “apple” example. So just plain being (before thinking) is a rich and nuanced experience, not an empty blank void. Dan Leighton said it neatly in reference to Dogen’s essay: “Space is not just the air between things; space is things themselves.” (5) And then recently I saw a translation of this essay rendering “space” as “the unbounded,” not limited or shaped even by the edges of things. (6) This whole talk is in fact a musing on emptiness, in the full sense of the word.

Noticing or attending, what I called “just plain being” is actually, prior to thinking. There is no person doing the noticing. Awareness is the movie screen for displaying thinking-stories. When we say “I’ll think about it,” we direct awareness to thinking, to the contents, the story of the movie where thinking makes or picks out objects, measuring, comparing and judging them. But the fact of noticing, the fact of awareness-as-things, is the fundamental fact.

This place is where something ineffable exists. Right now, can we step into this place? Or rather, can we be, can we rest here at home where we have always been, before thinking?

Try pretending that language is irrelevant. What is it like to sit here as you might have decades ago, before you had any inkling of what talking was, except maybe sounds that happen when raw comfort is experienced as relaxing of the body or sounds that happen when raw scariness is experienced as riled-up body? Just stop for a few seconds. What is it like to notice just plain undifferentiated being, to just notice this? As you well know, being and awareness are not two … we are hampered by the use of language which separates them. So settle or open into this (bird song, siren, slanting light, aching knee, breeze/ stuffiness in the room . . .). Allowing all of this to flow through and characterize you here now is just plain being, before thinking, with no need to derive meaning. Just this is the essential art of zazen. It, the great mystery, is always already here. This is why Jack often directs us, saying “Enjoy,” or “Do less.” Here we are urged to give up thinking, to stop measuring and comparing, judging and fixing, altogether.

So, to get a break from the torturous demands of thinking I’ve found it useful to shift attention from the particular (the topic of thinking, details of problems and solutions, comparison and judgement)—from the particular to the unbounded, to BE before thinking, the fully nuanced space all around us—including difficult circumstances, problems, solutions, comparisons, judgments and all—from the particular to this place, the ineffable, that which cannot be expressed in words, and that is always already here, waiting . . . waiting for you. As a reminder or cue when things get uncomfortable with thinkiness, my code word is “throw your mind out.” I don’t mean “look for the cosmic wastebasket,” but something more like, throw your mind out from thinking to just plain being, the limitless, unspeakable presence: this place, already here, just waiting for you.

In the dark before dawn
robin shouting at the waning moon!

Then two, call and response.
Waiting for someone
who doesn’t show up.

A solitary bird commenting
tee tee, dee dee…
tee tee, dee dee…

Indoors, sitting as usual
birdsong stirring, shaping the quiet
like kneading bread.

Letting it rest then
as the sun shoulders its way
bringing a pale almost . . .
and then definite:
                                (Untitled, March 2014)


(1) Yasuda, Joshu and Anzan, Hoshin, trans. Fukanzazengi, in Progress into the Ordinary: Root Teachings of Zen Master Dogen. White Wind Zen Community, 2nd edition, 1986.

(2) Nishijima and Cross, Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo Bk. 4, p. 47ff.

(3) Davis, Kampu Brett W. The enlightening practice of non-thinking: Unfolding Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, chapter 20 in Engaging Dogen’s Zen, p.199.

(4) American Heritage Dictionary: New College Edition.

(5) Leighton, Taigen Dan. Dogen’s cosmology of space and the practice of self-fulfillment. Excerpted from “Pacific World” journal, 2004.

(6) Shasta Abbey translation, online.