Three contemporary voices address an age-old theme.
Real questioning has no methods, no knowing—just wondering freely, vulnerably, what is it that is actually happening inside and out. Not the word, not the idea of it, not the reaction to it, but the simple fact.
—Toni Packer, The Work of This Moment
Who’s Asking the Question?
In my first question to a Buddhist teacher I asked, “What kind of effort is needed to practice zazen?” 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 only answer 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 overcome 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; 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 or 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 them 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, nonreflective 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 bringing my attention back from my preoccupation to investigate. 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 we need 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 that 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 transparent 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 trustfulness, equanimity, and capacity to remain open in all circumstances. And when meditative equanimity is mature, a simple question, or opening to unknown possibilities, can sometimes release the last threads that tie us to the conditioned world and move us toward greater freedom.
A good practice is to ask yourself very sincerely, "Why was I born?" Ask yourself this question three times a day, in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night. As every day.
—Achaan Chah, A still Forest Park
"Who am I?" I amn't; I am. In some senses I am and amn't. What sense is that? Is there any sense? It's all so confusing. I wish someone could just tell me all the answers. But I don't really.
—Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind: The Zen Journals of Maura "Soshin" O'Holloran
Gil Fronsdal is a Vipassana teacher with the Insight Meditation Center of the Mid-Peninsula in Palo Alto and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. He is alos a priest with the San Francisco Zen Center.
"If you're looking to the dharma for answers..."
Each step in the Buddha’s path to freedom is defined by a set of questions. In fact, the questions that the Buddha recommends can be taken as a map to the practice. So, if you’re looking to the dharma for answers, you should first be clear about what questions you’re bringing to it, and check to see if they’re in line with the questions the dharma was meant to address. That way your answers won’t pull you off the path.
To begin, the Buddha suggests that when you visit a teacher, you ask: “What is skillful? What is unskillful? What, if I do it, will be for my long-term harm and suffering? Or what, if I do it, will be for my long-term well-being and happiness?” These preliminary questions form the basis for everything the Buddha taught.
His answers to them read like a course in wilderness survival. First come the do’s and don’ts. A wilderness instructor will tell you: “If a moose charges you, run. If a bear charges you, don’t.” The Buddha’s corresponding do’s and don’ts are ten guidelines dealing with body, speech, and mind. The guidelines for the body are: Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t engage in illicit sex. For speech: Don’t tell lies, don’t speak divisively, don’t speak abusively, don’t engage in idle chatter. And for the mind: abandon greed, abandon ill will, cultivate right views. These are the Buddha’s basic ground rules for the survival of your happiness.
But as any wilderness instructor will tell you, survival requires more than simple rules of thumb. You have to be alert to the gaps not covered by the rules. The same holds true with the Buddha’s teachings: In addition to following the do’s and don’ts, you have to learn how to dig out the roots of unskillful behavior so that you can become adept in all areas of your life, including the areas where the do’s and don’ts don’t apply.
This involves learning to ask the right questions. Each time before you act, ask yourself: “This action that I want to do: Would it lead to self-harm, to the harm of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful action, with painful consequences, painful results?” If you foresee harm, don’t follow through with it. If not, go ahead and act. While acting, ask yourself if there are any unexpected bad consequences arising. If there are, stop. If there aren’t, continue with what you’re doing. When the action is done, look into its actual short- and long-term consequences. If an action in word or deed has ended up causing harm, inform an experienced fellow-practitioner on the path (this is why the Buddha established the sangha) and listen to that person’s advice. If the mistaken action was purely an act of the mind, try to develop distaste for that kind of thinking. In both cases, resolve never to make the same mistake again, and use your ingenuity to make the resolve stick. If, however, the long-term consequences of the original action were harmless, take joy and satisfaction in being on the right path and continue your training.
As you stay with this line of questioning you become more sensitive to your actions and respectful of their effects, both in the present and over time. Unlike the child who says, “It was already broken when I stepped on it,” you are aware of when you break things—physical or mental—and when you don’t. And you get better and better at handling things without breaking them. This in turn fosters a healthy sense of “self” based on competence and skill. Your sense of self becomes good-humored enough to freely admit mistakes, quick enough to notice the immediate effects of your actions, and patient enough to strive for long-term goals.
These two results—sensitivity to the effects of your own actions and a competent sense of self—enable you to settle into a level of mental concentration that’s solid and nourishing. As this centered focus develops, an interesting thing happens: your sensitivity to actions and your sense of self come face to face. “Who’s been doing this?” you ask, “And who’s asking these questions?”
This is where the Buddha’s teaching of not-self comes into play, and where it’s especially important to understand what question the teaching was meant to address. At first glance, it seems to be an answer to two of the most frequently asked questions in the history of serious thought: “Who am I?” and “Do I have a true self?” Yet when the Buddha was asked point-blank if there is a self, he refused to answer. An answer of Yes would lead to attachment: you’d keep clinging to a sense of self however you defined it. A No would lead to bewilderment and alienation, for you’d feel that your innermost sense of intrinsic worth had been denied.
As for the question, “Who am I?” the Buddha included it in a list of dead-end questions that lead to “a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion, a writhing, a fetter of views” that blocks the path to true freedom.
So what question does the doctrine of not-self answer? The next refinement in the question of skillfulness: “Is self-identification skillful?” And the answer is: “Only up to a point.” In the areas where you need a healthy sense of self to act skillfully, it’s wise to maintain that sense of self. But eventually you come to see self-identification not as a thing but as an activity, a process of “I-making” and “my-making” that repeatedly creates and re-creates a sense of who you are; and you begin to notice that it inevitably results in stress.
Why? Because any sense of “I” or “mine” involves clinging—even when your concentration tunes into a sense of universal self—and all clinging produces stress. So to develop the ultimate degree of skillfulness, you have to unlearn the habit of I-making and my-making.
And to do this, another set of questions is required.
These are the questions that introduce the concept of not-self as a strategy. The Buddha recommends that you focus on anything that you think of as “me” or “mine,” and ask a series of questions, starting with: “Is this constant or inconstant?” If you focus on the body, for instance, you’ll see that it grows hungry and thirsty, that it’s aging, destined to grow ill and die. Look at any attempt to find a stable happiness based on the body, and see how stressful it is. “And is it fitting to regard what’s inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: "This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am?’”
Pursue this line of inquiry inward, through layer after layer of physical and mental events, until you zero in on the high command: the self that’s managing not only the stability of your concentration but also your internal dialogue of questions and answers. Fortified with the stable calm that comes with strong concentration, you can start deconstructing that self with no anxiety about what will happen when it’s gone. And when the intentions making up that self are deconstructed, a strange thing happens. It’s as if you had pulled out a strategic thread holding a tapestry together, and now the whole thing unravels on its own. Everything you could cling to falls away. What remains is total, absolute freedom—free from time and space, from both self and not-self.
Even when you’ve had only a first, humbling taste of this freedom, you can appreciate how adroitly the Buddha’s questions got you there, and why he recommended putting the question of “Who am I?” aside. The one question still concerning you is how to dig out the remaining roots of unskillfulness still latent in the mind. Once they’re dug up, there’s no remaining delusion to shape the hole of a burning question, and no greed or aversion to give it teeth. The only remaining questions are bonus ones: how best to take whatever skills you’ve developed along the way and use them purely for the benefit of the world.
And what more could you possibly ask?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu is abbot of Metta Forest Monastery in Valley Center, California, and author of several books including Wings to Awakening and The Mind Like Fire Unbound.
Narayan Liebenson Grady
Student: I have been asking and asking, “Who am I?” until I feel there is just no answer to this question.
Roshi: You won’t find an entity called “I.”
Student [heatedly]: Then why am I asking the question!
Roshi: Because in your present state you can’t help yourself. The ordinary person is forever asking, “Why?” or “What?” or “Who?”
—The Three Pillars of Zen
Most of the time we don’t see our life questions as an opportunity for practice; we see them as personal problems that need to be fixed or controlled. Our tendency then, of course, is to try to get rid of these problems. We are always trying to figure things out, which is often a way of avoiding being present with the question. Although taking time to reflect on important life questions is essential, this intellectual inquiry isn’t enough. In fact, trying to find out what needs to change so that it won’t happen again can be a form of aversion.
Real transformation arises from nonverbal attention. When we are fully present and able to pay attention in a sustained way to our experience we can begin to see directly, uncolored by our ideas and concepts. Placing our trust more in loving attention and less in analyzing the story can allow space for a new way of holding the question. But this trust does not come easily and takes practice. Sometimes we worry a question to death. We give it too much attention and ignore other aspects of life. When this happens it is often a sign that we are too attached to finding an answer.
Instead of narrowly focusing on finding an answer or on resolving the problem we need to examine our process of investigation itself. When we examine our approach to problem-solving in life, do we find that we are usually looking outside ourselves for the answer? Unfortunately, always looking outside ourselves keeps us from understanding more deeply the nature of our suffering. For example, we may find ourselves continually disappointed in relationships with others. We blame others and want them to change. Instead, can we calmly observe the feelings of disappointment and begin to look at our expectations? Can we turn the investigation toward our feelings of resentment and disappointment instead of being attached to others acting in a certain way? When we are willing to investigate, with loving attention, the difficult feelings that come up in relationship to others, our happiness or unhappiness is less conditioned by how others behave.
When we are in touch with actual experience, the way it is without any interpretation, our investigation becomes quite direct and we begin to see underlying truths. We can begin to see the changing nature of all experiences, whether painful or pleasant. This understanding of the changing nature of all experience leads to a fearlessness and willingness to face difficulties more openheartedly. We are sometimes afraid to feel certain painful emotions because we don’t think they will change. But through paying attention when we are in pain, instead of trying to avoid the pain, quite naturally the truth of change is revealed. Instead of clinging to changing pleasant experiences, we open to them fully, yet we continue to pay attention and we see them change and we let go. This investigation and seeing of change leads to the freedom of equanimity.
When we are willing to hold our life questions as mysteries rather than as problems that have to be fixed or solved, we become more comfortable with the creative energy of not knowing. With this particular approach to life questions one has to learn patience and discover faith.
When I was a child I experienced intense fear at night.
I would ask myself, “Am I afraid of something that is outside of me or something that is inside of me?” This particular question about the nature of fear continued to be my koan for years. Though I can’t say why or how, I do know that this specific fear has dissolved over time. I never found an answer to this question, but in the open space of questioning and not knowing, something that seemed at the time to be very solid and overwhelming dissipated.
When our assumptions of what is true turn, instead, to questioning through openhearted attention, then other possibilities arise. Freshness enters in, and with that freshness freedom is possible.
A man is hit in the chest by an arrow and collapses. Gravely wounded, he is on the brink of death, so a doctor is summoned to remove the arrowhead. But the man will not let him do this. First, he wants to know from what kind of wood the arrow shaft is made: then he wants to find out what sort of poison had been put on its tip; and what kind of feathers were attached to its end; were they goose feathers or hawk feathers? He wants to know what the arrowhead is made of, and who shot the arrow at him, and from what distance, and why? Naturally, by the time he finds all that out he dies. The story [from the Culamalunkya Sutta—Ed.] represents our tendency to ask questions about all sorts of important details instead of practicing those things that will lead us out of dukkha.
—Ayya Khema, Who Is My Self?
Narayan Liebenson Grady is a guiding teacher at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, where she has taught since 1985. She is the author of When Singing, Just Singing: Life As Meditation.
Image 1: Meditation, Yoong Bae, silk screen, ink and colors on paper, 1991. Courtesy Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. The Avery Brundage Collection, Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, 1994.70.