What Is This?

“What is this?” Recently, I’ve learned that koan practice began in sixth-century China, an answer to a trend toward seeking academic answers.  Stories of monks’ awakenings became a source of questions that would draw the light of inquiry back onto the self and one’s experience in this very moment.  In Korean Zen a classic koan is “What is this?”

The aim of the practice is not intellectual inquiry but questioning itself:  “We are trying to develop a sensation of openness, of wonderment,” write Martine Batchelor , a former Korean nun, in a recent article in Tricycle.  “As we throw out the question What is this? we are opening ourselves to the moment.  There is no place we can rest.  We are letting go of our need for knowledge and security, and our body and mind themselves become a question.”

The words of the koan are repeated like a mantra or a prayer–the words themselves are not sacred:  “They are just the diving board from which you dive into the pool of questioning.  By repeatedly questioning with the energy and interest of someone who has just discovered she lost something, you evoke a brightness in your whole being.  This questioning gives you energy, because there is no place to rest, and it allows for more possibilities and less certainty.”

Lately, I’ve been especially aware of the way the mind and body–at least my mind and body–grasps at certainty, at habit.  I have my beliefs–even a belief in the importance of openness, in inquiry.  I know perfectly well that beliefs have a way of disappearing at close range, yet they come tumbling at the dinner table, on the page, whenever I’m in a state of repose, “on solid ground,” not “at sea.”  I love the Zen ideal of being with a question, being a question right down to the marrow of my bones–but I hate the experience….at least until I get used to being plunged body and mind into that cool pool of inquiry that Batchelor reassures us is refreshing.  The sensation of losing something or someone essential, car keys, and old friend, is stressful, dreadful, the very definition of suffering.  Being in question is voluntary suffering.

Yet  I am old enough to know that certainty and habit are a kind of self-made coffin, a living death. Plus, even if I wanted to cling, it’s no use.  Car keys, dear ones get lost.  A few days ago, my husband and I learned of the sudden death of an old and much loved friend.  Indeed, he was exactly the kind of full-of-life person you couldn’t wait to tell your cherished views and beliefs to just to hear him roar with laughter and knock them all down.  He had a way of egging a person on, urging them to go father.   Once he asked me why I didn’t to open up and explore life and share what I experienced through writing.  Are you try to be spiritually correct? he asked.  Are you waiting until you’re all wise and realized to commit yourself to print? Maybe you’re really just being like a squirrel hoarding nuts, saving up these little stories and insights.  Maybe it’s better to just share them, story in, story out, just nuts, no big deal.

Where did that friend go?  What is this?

As the Zen saying goes:  Great questioning, great awakening; little questioning, little awakening; no questioning, no awakening.

The way I see it now, there really is wisdom in insecurity.

2 thoughts on “What Is This?

  1. “What is this?” also touches on the nature of THE GOOD. Discovery comes from discomfort – wisdom found in insecurity. It would seem that our greatest becomings are not found on the path of our greatest comfort. Yet, we tend to think of “Good” as being on the path of our greatest happiness, our bliss, our comfort. While we are at times surrounded by proof of the contrary (the Bible written during periods of enslavement, artworks produced during manic depressive episodes, our own souls explored and deepened by grief and loss) we often still think of “Good” as being something that makes us happy.

  2. I agree with you. I have come to think that I have come closest to approaching The Good (and my greatest happiness) in those times when life has toppled my certainties, burst the bubble of my hopes and plans. When there has been no solid ground, when the whole dreaming self has seemed insubstantial and ghost-like, I have (rarely and out of sheer exhaustion) felt the relief of surrender. At those moments when I wish for nothing more than to be useful, to take my human place in humanity, I come closest to becoming, well, workable…a candidate for doing at least some small good. And I feel another kind of inner peace and happiness, non-grasping, nothing to lose.

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