Talking Dharma – Talking Questioning
It is often said that the origin of the Zen tradition and its approach can be traced back to a single incident where the Buddha, without saying a word, raised a lotus flower in the air and held it in his hand. It is said within this story that one of his followers realized awakening on the spot within that experience. This may or may not have happened of course and as always we are aware of the need to create stories, myths and legends within the early oral tradition of classical Buddhism. What we do know is that modern day Zen had its origins in China as Chan, but this school was more or less an academic approach to the Dharma based on textual study. It began to move away from that approach when it reached places like Japan and Korea and placed an emphasis on meditation and realizing clarity within this lifetime.
Within Zen, an approach was developed to use a single question as a point of focus within the meditative process as a method to encourage experiential insight. In the Korean school the question is often phrased as “What is this?” This method, we are told, came about following an incident between the Master Huineng and a student sometime around the 6th century. According to the story the Master asked his student “where do you come from”? And the student gave the area where he was born and lived. The Master replied “What is this and how did it get here”? The student could not answer and left in a state of confusion. Apparently he worked on only that question in meditation for a number of years until he had a break through moment and then went back to the Master with his answer for conformation that he had understood. His answer was “To say it is like something is not to the point. But still it can be cultivated.”
With a koan, the whole story is the question. “What is this”? is just the focal point of concentration as in any formal concentrative meditation practice. The practice itself is very simple. Whether you are walking, standing, sitting or lying down, you ask yourself repeatedly “what is this”? There is a need here to be aware that you do not slip into intellectual analysing, for you are not looking to find an intellectual answer. In this practice you are turning the mind of inquiry back onto yourself and your entire experience in each moment. You are not asking “what is this thought, sound, sensation or external thing”? In this practice you are, in effect, asking what is it that is hearing, emoting, thinking? You are not asking “what is the taste of the coffee or the coffee itself”? You are asking “what is it that tastes the coffee”? “What is it before you even taste the coffee”?
Although koans were not the favoured method promoted by my own Master, he did encourage us to explore this approach and I did personally find it very helpful to work in meditation in this way. To try and understand how this works it is helpful to understand that the answer to the question was not a thing, because you could not describe it in terms of physical, emotional or psychological or a combination of those things. It was not no-thing-ness either because no-thing-ness cannot speak. It would not be realized insight because you are not yet awake. It was not the physical body or the source of aliveness, or any other designation, because there are just words and not the actual experience of it. So, you are left with questioning. You ask “what is this”? because you do not know.
I found within this method it became clear that I was not speculating with this thing we call mind. It was more a case of becoming an integral part of the question itself. What I discovered was that the most important part of the question is not the meaning of the words but the actual question mark at the end. This led me to understand that what I was doing was asking a question with no strings attached. It was an unconditioned question, “what is this”? without looking for an answer and without expecting an answer. It was more about questioning for questioning’s own sake. I found it to be a practice of questioning and not answering. It was about developing an awareness of openness and wonderment. As I asked the question “what is this”? I opened myself fully to the experience of that moment. It is a very active practice where there is no place to rest or hide. Within it we are letting go of our need for knowledge and security and allowing the mind/body complex to become a question.
It’s a bit like diving into a swimming pool. The entire mind/body complex is engaged in the act and is refreshed as you surrender yourself entirely to the question. I can only describe what this is like experientially by saying it’s the kind of bewilderment you experience when you have lost something. You are going somewhere, you put your hand in your pocket to grab your keys and they are not there. You search everywhere, returning to check the pocket at least another three times but there is nothing there. Just for a moment, before you try to remember where you’ve left them, you are totally perplexed. You have no idea what might have happened. This is what it is like when working in this form of Zen questioning.
In this form of meditation, concentration and inquiry are brought together. The question becomes the anchor or focal or fixed point and as the mind settles down within the process, calm and spaciousness begins to unfold. This practice is about just being present in the experience and asking “what is this”? and being open to this as it happens to be without wanting it to be anything else. This questioning allows for more possibilities and less certainty. It’s a bit like the mind of a child that meets all experience as it is, a brand new unique experience without any labels. It is an immediacy that is not lost in the past or projecting into the future. Normally, a thought emerges so fast that you are not even aware of its arrival. You just think it and there is a habitual reaction. Practicing in this way develops a sense of ongoing awareness that appears to slow down the process to a speed that highlights more choices that open up the opportunity for a creative response. This approach is not about encouraging or allowing the thinking process to stop as in other awareness practices like the awareness of the breath. It is more about helping you to discover what and how you think.
Practically speaking, I find that linking this practice to the breath is very helpful. You breathe in and as you breathe out you ask the question “what is this”? and then sit back and see what happens. If there is any sense of agitation, confusion or you find yourself analysing or speculating return to the breath and let go into the breathing process until it settles down and then ask the question again. It’s important to remember at all times that you are not trying to find an answer. You are simply giving yourself wholeheartedly to the act of questioning. The answer is actually in the questioning itself. It’s a bit like a child who has never seen snow. You tell them it is white and cold. The image that pops up for them is like a piece of white paper in the fridge. So, you take them to a mountain and point out the top. They say it looks like coconut ice cream. They will only know when they actually touch the snow, experience it, play with it and taste it that they will really know what snow is. It is the same with the question and the tasting is in the questioning itself.
The most important aspect of this practice is for the question to remain alive and for the entire mind/body complex to become a question. There is a saying within Zen that says you have to ask the question with the pores of your skin and the marrow of your bones. Another Zen teaching is: great questioning, great awakening. Little questioning, little awakening. No questioning, no awakening. What follows is a basic guide to the practice, but please bare in mind this practice is not one of the practices that form the basis of meditation instruction within the context of the Dharmadatu Buddhist Order and Sangha.
What is this? Awareness practice
Begin as you always do by gentle preparation, a few deep breaths and a body awareness period.
With the first few breaths, connect the question to the out-breath. As you breathe out, ask, “what is this”? You are not repeating the question like a mantra. You are cultivating a sensation of perplexity, asking unconditionally, “what is this?
This is not an intellectual inquiry. You are not trying to solve this question with speculation or logic. Do not keep the question in your head. Try to ask it from your belly. With the whole of your being, you are asking, what is this? What is this?
The answer is not found in the Buddha, or in a thing, or in empty space, or a designation.
You are asking what is this? because you do not know.
If you become distracted, come back to the question again and again.
The question what is this? is an antidote to distracted thoughts. It is as sharp as a sword. Nothing can remain on the tip of its sharp blade.
By asking this question deeply you are opening yourself to the whole of your experience, with a deep sense of wonderment and awe.
When the session is finished, move your shoulder, back, and legs, and gently get up with a fresh and quiet awareness.
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