Posts Tagged ‘what is this’

Original calligraphy by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.

Original calligraphy by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

“Support for NPR,” announced National Public Radio’s Sabrina Farhi during the holiday season, “comes from Pajamagram, makers of matching holiday pajamas for the whole family, including dogs and cats.” After listing several other sponsors, Ms. Farhi concluded with a single declarative sentence:          “This . . . (pause),” said she,  “is NPR.” She might have been delivering a dramatic monologue, so pronounced was her emphasis on this and so protracted the ensuing pause.

Ms. Farhi has since abandoned that mannerism, but its temporary recurrence on Morning Edition, morning after morning, brought to mind the prominence of the word this, similarly isolated, in the Zen tradition. Generally speaking, in Zen practice this refers to undifferentiated reality, prior to the imposition of conceptual thought. “Just this,” a phrase familiar to Zen students, is what we experience when we penetrate the filter created by dualistic concepts, particularly such ego-centered dualities as “self/other,” “I/they,” and “mine/not mine.” To remain in continuous contact with this, while also questioning its nature, is central to Zen practice. And to lose touch with or misconstrue the nature of this is likely to bring suffering upon oneself and others. (more…)

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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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For many people, summer is the season for travel. And for those who practice a contemplative discipline, travel can be a catalyst for spiritual growth. The seventeenth-century poet Basho, master of haiku and author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, believed that “nothing is worth noting that is not seen with fresh eyes”. His extensive travels freshened and enlarged his vision. Thomas Merton had similar experiences in Asia, as recorded in his Asian Journal.

Yet for those whose primary discipline is Zen meditation, travel can also present a formidable challenge. Insofar as the practice of Zen requires us to sit still, and travel requires us to be on the move, Zen and travel appear to be at odds. How might the one support the other? How might the practice of Zen be integrated with the experience of travel?

To begin with, the practice of meditation can alleviate the anxiety of travel. One of my friends told me the story of being in an international airport on a day when many flights had been canceled. People were berating ticket agents, yelling into their cell phones, and experiencing general misery. Then, as it happened, the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh arrived in his brown robes, accompanied by the monks and nuns of Plum Village. Silent, gentle, and slow-moving, their presence transformed their environment. People quieted down.

Not everyone, of course, can be so fortunate as to have a troupe of Zen monastics on hand to relieve the fear of travel. But meditative practice, as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, can calm the fearful mind. As he explains in his book by that title, we can lessen our anxieties not by drugging them with Valium or Johnnie Walker but by honestly acknowledging them and bringing a kind attention to their presence. “Breathing in, I am aware of my anxiety. / Breathing out, I bring kind attention to my anxiety.” Over time, this simple practice can help to diminish the anxiety of travel.

So can the practice of sitting still, even when surrounded by incessant movement. Meditation is often described as a way of “stopping” and “coming home”. By sitting still and following our breathing, we return to the stability of immovable awareness. We restore our equanimity. To be sure, it can be awkward to stop when everyone else is moving or to sit perfectly still in a public place. But we can find ways to sit still without calling attention to ourselves. And more often than not, passers-by are too preoccupied with their own affairs to care whether we are moving or sitting still.

Beyond the maintenance of personal balance, Zen practice can also deepen the experience of travel.  In an earlier column I described the exercise of asking “What is this?” and regarding the things of this world as if we were seeing them for the first time.* When traveling, we really are seeing things for the first time—and quite possibly the last. By asking “What is this?” we become present for whatever we are seeing, be it a glacier in Alaska or a cathedral in Madrid. And the places we see, in turn, become present for us. Later on, we can learn their names and study their histories. But by asking “What is this?” we open ourselves to our immediate experience.

Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Zen, cautioned against unnecessary travel. “It is futile to travel,” he advised, “to dusty countries, thus forsaking your own seat”. But Dogen was hardly one to talk, being himself a traveler who sojourned in dusty China and brought the practice of Chan back to Japan. And for the resourceful practitioner, travel can become a form of “skillful means,” complementary to sitting meditation and consistent with its purpose.

May your travels be safe and your flights on time.


* Column 34, “What is This?”

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If you have been reading this column for a while, you may remember Imre, the rambunctious three-year-old whom I taught to sit still. As his reward, he received a matchbox car.*

Imre is now four, and he recently learned the word forsythia. At the time, we were examining the forsythia bush in our front yard. Its buds were green and about to turn yellow. “Can you say forsythia?” I asked.

Imre could not. So I broke the word into syllables, giving special emphasis to the second, which is difficult to pronounce. For-SITH-ee-uh. Imre practiced the word several times and finally got it—more or less. He seemed pleased with his achievement, though his newly acquired word could not compete with the word stinky, which he relished saying, over and over.

The forsythia plant is named after William Forsyth (1737-1804), a Scottish botanist and a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society. Had it been named after William’s great-grandson, Joseph Forsyth Johnson (1840-1906), the famous gardener and landscape architect, it would been much easier for Imre to pronounce.  But perhaps it deserves the more difficult name, being as it is a foreign import.

The forsythia is a genus in the olive family, with eleven species, all but one of them native to eastern Asia. Forsythia is an integral component of Chinese medicine and is sometimes used in Chinese cooking. In Korea, a stringed instrument called the ajaeng is played with a stick of forsythia wood. The stick is scraped across the strings, producing a deep and raspy sound.

Given its exotic origins, the forsythia might be regarded in Western New York as a prized plant, worthy of infinite care. As it happens, it is more often viewed as a common shrub, whose chief function is to announce, in bright yellow hues, the end of another winter. By some, the forsythia is seen as a nuisance, requiring frequent pruning if it is not to become a monster. To a four-year-old child, a forsythia bush is something new and even exciting. But is it possible for conditioned adults like ourselves to see it afresh?

According to one school of Zen thinking, the name itself presents an obstacle. In a four-line poem fundamental to the Zen tradition, the First Zen Ancestor,  Bodhidharma, describes Zen as a practice of “direct seeing, not dependent on words and letters”. Following Bodhidharma’s lead, Zen teachers sometimes view language with suspicion and regard words as impediments to fresh seeing. The word forsythia is one thing, the shrub another. Proud of knowing the name, we may fail to see the object at all.

That point is well taken, but  knowing the name of a plant or tree can sometimes help us to notice it.  And beyond that, the name can provide access to its “suchness”—its unique and transient presence.

If  you would like to experience this for yourself, sit in a comfortable, upright position, following your breathing. Choose an object in your surroundings, and while looking at that object, contemplate its name. Repeat the word slowly, listening to its consonants and vowels. As you continue to intone the name, notice how its meaning gradually dissolves, leaving a succession of syllables or merely a gauze of sound. At that point, ask the question “What is this?” Let the question resonate in silence. Then ask it again, and yet again, and see where it leads you.

First propounded by the fourteenth-century Zen master Bassui Tokushō, the question “What is this?” is sometimes followed, in Zen practice, with the statement “I don’t know.” Practiced with diligence, Bassui’s koan can reveal the limitations of our knowledge and our language. It can remove our mental cataracts and restore our sense of wonder. And it can refresh a world “sicklied o’er,” as Hamlet put it, “with the pale cast of thought”.


See #   8     Sitting without goals

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In the sometimes cryptic utterances of the Zen masters two plain words are often to be heard. Considered singly, they define two distinct aspects of Zen meditation. Considered together, they point to the core of the practice.

The first of these words is just, as in the Zen saying, “When you walk, just walk. When you eat, just eat.”

In its most common adverbial usage, just means “no more than,” and it serves to limit its object. “That’s just George being George,” we might say of an eccentric uncle. “Oh, that’s just my arthritis acting up again,” we might say to ourselves.

As used in Zen practice, just conveys a similar meaning, but it also connotes a wholehearted, one-pointed concentration. When you walk, just walk, giving full attention to your walking. When you eat, do the same. In contrast to so-called multi-tasking, the word just exhorts us to do one thing at a time, and to give undivided attention to whatever we are doing. A person washing the dishes just to wash the dishes is cultivating this quality of attention. A person watching CNN while walking on the treadmill is doing the very opposite.

No less than just, the pronoun this holds a promiment place in the lexicon of Zen. This is everywhere,” we read in the Diamond Sutra, “without differentiation or degree.” “Zen is this,”writes Roshi Bernie Glassman, “this moment, this stick, this thisness.” The word may also be found in the Zen slogan “This is it” and the Zen koan “What is this?” In all of these instances, this adverts to whatever is present, right here, right now. More specifically, it refers to undifferentiated reality, prior to the imposition of concepts, opinions, or dualistic thinking generally.

Stepping outdoors in early March, we feel the heat of the sun. We may go on to check the thermometer, or describe the day as unseasonably warm, or attribute the unseasonable weather to global warming. But before any of that occurs, we feel the heat of the sun. By saying “this is it,” we remind ourselves to be present for that transitory experience. And by asking “what is this?” (followed, in Zen training, with “I don’t know”), we challenge our preconceptions and open ourselves to the depth of our experience.

Taken separately, just and this represent the two main components of meditative practice, which are often described as “stopping” (samatha) and “looking” (vipassana). Taken together, they form the slogan “just this,” which, as James Austin observes in his Zen-Brain Reflections, offers a key to understanding and a practical tool for meditation. Practicing with just, we gather our energies; practicing with this, we bring our gathered energies to the penetration of reality. If the first trains us to focus on the one thing we are doing, the second invites us to look deeply into the present moment.*

If you would like to try this practice, seat yourself in a comfortable, upright posture. Place your mind on your breathing. With your in-breath, say just silently to yourself. With your out-breath, say this. As you breathe in, feel the concentration of your energies; as you breathe out, surrender yourself to whatever you’re experiencing. Continue this practice for several minutes, encountering this, this, this, just as it is.


*James H. Austin, Zen-Brain Reflections (MIT Press, 2006), 33-37.

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