The Practice of Questioning
by tendo zenji
Dharma Talk from the April 25th, 2020 Day of Practice at Tahoma Zen Monastery
The last few weeks in our talks we have been investigating the triune intertwined approach of : Being in the body, Being Outside and Being in Silence each with its many attendant practices. These practices are ones that we can do on our own with positive results. We should always check any insights with a genuine teacher, but in these times when we have no choice but to practice more on our own, this approach has an even greater vitality.
Once one is able to truly Be in Silence than this is the ground from which one can do inquiry, whether it be huatou (wato), Koan Study, or Self-Inquiry. Of these practices only Self-Inquiry can be pursued on one’s own. The core part of this sort of self-directed practice is to never be satisfied, always look again, always go deeper.
A Natural Practice
In an essay entitled The Seven Tongues of God Timothy Leary postulated that there are seven essential questions that define the religious experience: what is reality, what is life, who is man, what is awareness, who am I, what do our emotions mean and is there life after death .
“Religion is a social system which has evolved its roles, rules, rituals, values, language, space-time locations to further the pursuit for the same goals, to answer these questions subjectively through the revelatory experience. […] A religion which fails to provide direct experiential answers to these spiritual questions becomes secular, political, and tends to oppose the individual revelatory confrontation.”
– Timothy Leary, from The Seven Tongues of God in Politics of Ecstasy p. 13
Religions seem to always begin with the direct revelatory exploration of these questions and then over time codify into a set of prepackaged answers and intermediaries to that direct experience. The history of many religions seems to be one of constant schisms based on eliminating the intermediaries only to over time build them up again. Leary on the other hand stated that not only could you discover the answer to these questions yourself but that it was our fundamental purpose do so.
Find out for yourself. Seeking. I codified this as looking into ‘What is really going on’. That is what is happening at an absolutely fundamental level. In essence I was exploring one of the essential Self-Inqurey questions: What is this?
Many people develop these burning questions on their own and pursue them to awakening, even without any practice framework or understanding at all. But combined with a genuine practice it can be a lot more powerful.
After I began formal Zen Practice I was listening to Dharma talks from numerous sources and from Roshi Bodhin of the Rochester Zen Center I heard a teisho from Mud and Water: The Teachings of Zen Master Bassui. Bassui felt one had to see into ones true nature before one could engage in Koan Study or other practices. From his youth he was driven question ‘Who is the Master” and strove hard until he answered this and had it verified by a genuine Master. From Braverman’s Introduction to Mud and Water:
When Bassui asks, “Who is the master?” as he did of himself during his own training, and demands that his students pursue this enquiry to its core, not stopping even at realization, but rather, “…throwing out [realization], returning to the one who realizes…” (Kana hōgo), Bassui is pointing to the nature of the Self, which can be understood when one truly learns the nature of “he” who makes decisions, he who moves the arms and legs…. In the words of Rinzai, “…you must recognize the one who manipulates these reflections. He is the primal source of all the Buddhas and every place is home to which the follower of the Way returns.”
In bringing people back to the “master who hears, sees…” Bassui, like Rinzai, is steering students away from the feeling, “I know.”
– Arthur Braverman, from Mud and Water, (pp. 18-19).
In the below talk we delve deep into the core of Bassui’s inquiry based teaching and his rigor and fidelity to the practice. Lin-Chi (Rinzai) throughout his talks would persistently ask of the assembly of ‘Who is listening to the dharma right now? This question, ‘Who is listening, right now’, Bassui asked himself incessantly until he truly knew. Thought his teaching career he would bring students constantly back to seeing into their own minds, to answering for themselves “who is listening?”
The Practice of Self-Inquiry
“To relax your body, first relax your eyes, your facial muscles, and your head. Then, make sure your shoulders and arms are relaxed, then your chest, back, and lower back. While maintaining an erect posture, be sure your lower abdomen is also relaxed. If you can maintain these basic points of a relaxed body, your breath will be smooth and unhindered. However if any part of your body is tense, your breath will be short and constricted. If you relax your body in the manner I just said, your breath will naturally be smooth and unhindered; you will experience the rise and fall of your abdomen, and the breath will naturally sink down.”
– Ch’an Master Sheng Yen, Shattering the Great Doubt:, p. 8
Settle into the body, placing ones attention on anything tense and exhale, until totally relaxed. From here turn your attention upon itself, or upon the totality of the body, or simply stop placing your attention anywhere. Abide in awareness. If thoughts arise, let them arise and fall. If sensations arise, let them rise and fall. If you follow them, notice then and then return simply being in awareness. If you get too distracted, return to the body scan and relax where is tense. Conclude this with resting your attention in the tanden for a few breaths. Then place your awareness upon itself. From here you can begin inquiry.
In Ch’an practices are three core forms of inquiry:
Huatou (wato) is an unceasing questioning of the mind leading to ‘Apprehension and Anxiety’ the “Great Ball of Doubt” which one shatters, revealing our true nature.
Koan study looks at things through numerous angles to get to a root question. While there are koans oriented around breakthrough there are numerous other aspects of practice that is being investigated.
Self-Inquiry is asking the question into the calm tranquility of the mind and listening for the response. It can be more thought of setting the ground, the orientation for abiding in awareness.
There are numerous question one can inquiry into What is This? Who Am I? are the most fundamental and virtually all others resolve into this. They are of course two sides of the same coin. But other inquiries can be useful for cutting though our own specific conditioning for getting past attachments. What is real? What is True? Who is listening? What am I? What is most essential? and so on.
Question the self to see what comes up. Then this must be questioned. Questioning must continue until there is only our true nature remains. This process is why this is such a fruitful practice to engage in in self-directed practice. There is no endpoint, we always can keep question, going deeper. When available, like Bassui, we verify any deep insight with a genuine teacher. But otherwise we continue the questioning, always finding more.
In the talk from this day all of this and more is explored in greater depth.
Mud and Water: The Teachings of Zen Master Bassui
by Bassui Tokusho, Translated by Arthur Braverman
Wisdom Publications; Revised, Expanded edition (October 2002)
Shattering the Great Doubt: The Chan Practice of Huatou
Ch’an Master Sheng Yen
The Seven Tongues of God, Politics of Ecstasy
Ronin Publishing; 4th edition (September 4, 1998)