The Issue at Hand

The Issue at Hand

Chapter 31: Questioning as Practice

Attentiveness is the path to the Deathless.
Inattentiveness the path to death.
The attentive do not die,
The inattentive are as if dead. 
                     – Dhammapada 21

In my first question to a Buddhist teacher I asked, “What kind of effort is needed to practice Zen meditation?” He questioned back, “Who is it that makes the effort?” His response made no sense to me; the conversation came to an immediate end. As I mulled over this exchange, I concluded that I would have to answer both my own question and his counter-question for myself. In doing so I discovered that there are certain spiritual questions that we answer only through our own direct experience.

Over the years, a series of such questions have motivated and directed my practice. A question of this kind propelled my early Zen practice: “How can I be alone in the company of others?” In other words, how can I interact socially without fear and ego? This question loomed in importance after a period of solitude in which I discovered a freedom and peace that was unsurpassed by anything I had experienced before. Rather than turning toward solitude as a solution to my difficulties in the world, the question prodded me to keep exploring and practicing in social life.

Later, another question directed my Zen practice: “How do I participate most fully with the issue at hand?” Or, how do I over- come the tendency to hold back and feel separated from whatever I am doing, whether it is breath meditation or chopping vegetables? This proved to be a very useful line of exploration, because it kept my practice focused on what was happening rather than on ideals, hopes or self-preoccupations. I didn’t look to my teachers to answer these questions. Nor were these questions that called for pat answers. They were to be answered anew in each situation.

Richard Baker-Roshi, one of my first Zen teachers, encouraged his students to reflect at length on our concerns and questions until we found their “kernel.” Many of us tended to conjure up long narratives from our lives and personal relationships as preludes to asking for advice. Or, we would ask abstract questions about Buddhist philosophy. As an alternative to such questions, Baker-Roshi directed us to refine the question down to the core of the identity, intention, or viewpoint upon which it rested. For example, when I was kitchen supervisor in the monastery I had difficult relationships with my crew. I didn’t rush off to a teacher to describe the difficulties and ask for advice. Instead, I lingered with my inner tensions until I realized that my contribution to these tensions was a fear-driven desire to be liked by everyone, in all circumstances. Realizing this I found it more productive to come to terms with the need to be liked rather than to “fix” the external relationships. And in attempting to do so, questions eventually focused the inquiry: “Who is the self that wants to be liked?” and “Who is this self that is afraid?” At the time, I did not know how to answer. However, much like that first counter- question – “Who is it that makes the effort?” – these questions provided motivation to continue my practice.

Often, the greater the meditative stillness that holds an essential question, the more likely a resolution will well up from within. I experienced this when I faced the question of whether to begin graduate school or to enter a Buddhist monastery. When I gave mindful, non-reflective room to my inner sense of struggle and discomfort, I was surprised that a remarkably clear decision arose to enter the monastery.

Later in Burma, key questions continued to propel my practice of intensive Vipassana meditation. One was “What is it to be thorough in the practice?” Another was the classic, “What is the Self?” – a distilled version of “Who is it that makes the effort?” and “Who is this self that is afraid?” With wills almost of their own, these questions spurred me to keep drawing attention away from my preoccupations and back to investigation. My Vipassana teacher, Sayadaw U Pandita, reinforced this approach. He was strict in directing his students to investigate their direct experience instead of asking abstract existential questions. He had a tremendous confidence and insistence that if we looked deeply and clearly enough we could discover whatever is needed for becoming more awake and free. The only question that seemed appropriate and universal was “What is this?” We were to cultivate an unbroken and relaxed investigation, to continue seeing ever more deeply into the particulars of the present moment’s experience.

In practicing mindfulness in this way, I found it useful to turn the question, “What is this?” back toward the quality of the awareness that knows or is investigating. Such turning of attention back on itself can have a number of fruits. It can highlight any grasping, aversion, or complacency that has become mixed in with how we practice. Perhaps more profoundly, it can reveal the clearly insubstantial nature of our self-concepts, that is, of all concepts of a self, of a knower that experiences.

The ultimate value of inquiry within Buddhist practice lies with strengthening our trust, equanimity and capacity to remain open in all circumstances. And when meditative equanimity is mature, a simple question, an opening to unknown possibilities, can sometimes release the last threads that tie us to the conditioned world, moving us toward greater freedom.