Since its arrival in the West, the practice of Zen has taken a rich variety of forms, ranging from the most traditional to the most iconoclastic. At one end of the spectrum there is formal Zen, with its incense, bows, and chants. At the other, there is “bare-bones” Zen, void of liturgy, hierarchy, or lineage.
Yet for all their differences, the varieties of Western Zen share a common practice, namely that of radical questioning. As Roshi Philip Kapleau, author of The Three Pillars of Zen, once put it, “the ultimate aim of Zen training is full awakening,” and “to awaken, what is most essential is a questioning mind growing out of a fundamental perplexity, or ‘ball of doubt’.”* That view is echoed by Zoketsu Norman Fischer, a contemporary Soto Zen priest, who defines the “core” of Zen as the “active, powerful, fundamental, relentless, deep and uniquely human act of questioning.”** Hearing these definitive statements, we might ask what “questioning,” as practiced in Zen, is and is not, and how it might be enlisted in everyday life.
To begin with, Zen inquiry is not the questioning born of fear. Any thoughtful person who has gone through a divorce, the foreclosure of a home, or the loss of a job knows the experience of questioning what to do next, whom to blame, and how to survive a traumatic loss. Such questioning is necessary and sometimes productive, but it is not the questioning of Zen.
Second, Zen questioning is not the same as rigorous philosophical inquiry. To be sure, Zen teachings engage metaphysical issues, most prominently the “Great Matter of life and death.” And insofar as they emphasize personal responsibility and freedom of choice, Zen teachings share common ground with existentialist thought. But unlike professional philosophy, Zen eschews definitions, abstract categories, and other components of systematic inquiry. Its way is more immediate, intuitive, personal, and concrete.
And third, Zen questioning is not psychoanalysis. While doing seated meditation, Zen practitioners keep their eyes open. The aim is awareness—full awareness—of whatever is happening in the present moment. If a memory of a deceased parent or an estranged sibling should manifest itself, it may be noted as something to look into at a later time, perhaps with the aid of a therapist. But the aim of the practice is to be mindful of whatever is happening, not to analyze or pursue the images that arise.
Toward that end, Zen questioning focuses less on specific thoughts or feelings than on the conditions that have caused them to arise. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master, urges us to ask the question, “What am I doing?” as a way of awakening awareness of our states of mind. Barry Briggs, a teacher in the Korean Zen tradition, asks himself periodically, “How is it, just now?” By asking such questions, we can become fully aware of the concrete circumstances in which our abstract thoughts are occurring. And we can discern whether the thought we’re having, the remark we’re about to make, or the action we’re about to take is habitual or fresh, reflexive or wisely responsive.
Beyond these practical modes of self-interrogation, Zen questioning is also a process of radical, unmediated inquiry. “Who hears the sound?” asked the fourteenth-century Zen master Bassui Tokusho. It is a question to be asked, over and again, in a spirit of not-knowing, until the truth of the self is revealed with incontrovertible clarity. “What is this?” Bassui also asked, demanding a fearless, unrelenting inquiry into the nature of reality. Norman Fischer has likened such questioning to a torch, which burns away “all the dross and scum of desire and confusion that covers ordinary activities.”
Zen questioning is hard—harder, said Shunryu Suzuki, than giving up smoking. But its aim is a life no longer governed by fear, anger, habit, or forgetfulness, and it is well worth the effort.
*Roshi Philip Kapleau, Zen: Merging of East and West (Anchor 1979), 132.
**Zoketsu Norman Fischer, “On Questioning,” Mountains are Mountains and Rivers are Rivers, ed. Ilana Rabinowitz (Hyperion 1999), 17.
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