Monday April 24, 2006
I thought I would offer a few reflections from my retreat with Stephen and Martine Batchelor at Gaia House. It is hard, in some ways, to write about experiences such as meditation. (Of course, it is hard to write about experience full stop, because experience simply does not reduce down very easily into language or discursive thought…) So perhaps I should not say too much about the experience of being on retreat, and simply offer some thoughts upon the business of inquiry.
Inquiry is central to Buddhism. Whilst the practices of meditative absorption have deep roots in the Indian tradition – the Buddha, before his awakening, learned such techniques of absorption from his two teachers Uddaka Ramaputta and Alara Kalama – it seems as if it is with the element of systematic meditative investigation or inquiry that something new enters the religious or philosophical scene in Indian history. Such inquiry is not discursive thought, nor is it speculative metaphysics, but it is a direct investigation of phenomena. In Pali it is called dhamma-vicaya, and Gil Fronsdal has written an accessible article on it here.
The method of this inquiry we were practising on the retreat was drawn from the Korean Son (Zen) tradition in which both Stephen and Martine have intensively trained: the question “What is this?” This is the question that I was asking all week, moment-by-moment, sitting upon my cushions in the meditation hall.
Although it seems a rather innocuous question, it is actually very interesting. It soon becomes apparent that this is not the kind of question that could reach its terminus in an answer. Crossword puzzles have answers. And once you have finished a crossword puzzle, it is no longer interesting. Life, I suspect (and I hope!) is not like a crossword puzzle. The question “What is this?” seems to lead us not towards a puzzle or set of puzzles awaiting solutions, but instead towards a mystery or set of mysteries demanding responses. This sense of mystery is not any kind of other-worldly metaphysics, but rather a kind of unsettling awareness of the curious nature of being here at all, of the strangeness of this flux of experience, of the complexities and ambiguities that underlie our everyday, common sense, matter-of-fact view of the world.
Not only does it not seem to have any answer, but it also does not seem to have an object. The two may be linked. “How many marbles are in the jar?” has both an object – the marbles – and an answer – say, two hundred and eighty. But “What is this?” although it points to something, does not point to something that can be considered as an object. It is not asking “What is this form/feeling/perception/volition/consciousness?” It is merely asking “What is this?” This refusal to take an object is, I think, a part of the question’s power, as the following example might help make clear.
Say that I am sitting in meditation and fuming with anger at the thought of the injustice that has been done to me by Polly. I sit there and my mind ceaselessly proliferates angry thoughts about what an unreasonable woman Polly is, about how my life would have been so much better had she never been born, about how despite all my Buddhist scruples I would probably be delighted if I heard that she had been swallowed by quicksand. Little by little, I stir myself up into a frenzy of indignation at her many evils, and then I come to my senses. Something is awry. This is not getting me anywhere. I need to investigate what is going on. So I ask myself: What is this anger I am feeling? Now, it may be that this question can help me step out of the circle of my rage, but it may not be the most effective method because, in this question, I have already made two commitments that might prevent me from doing so.
First I am committed to understanding what is happening as anger, and thus I am setting limits upon my inquiry. My meditation, that is to say, becomes about responding to this anger, and as it is about anger, I move within the narrow sphere of my own understanding of what this anger is, what its possible causes and conditions might be, how I might be able to “deal” with it, and so on. My investigation, that is, becomes strongly conditioned by my own ideas about anger. Seeing it as anger rather than recognising the many components of the experience is a loss of subtlety and richness. This leads to a second commitment that I have already made, the commitment to focus upon this anger at the expense of everything else. This focusing exclusively upon the anger can tend to lead me to clench myself around it as if it was the only thing that was happening. So I identify the anger as anger, and I focus upon it to the exclusion of all else.
The question “What is this?” does not make such commitments. It opens out into a broad field of inquiry without any obvious limits. In refusing to be defined by the anger (or by the thoughts about lunch, or by the other 84,000 species of meditative distraction that there are out there in the world), it keeps the question alive, it keeps leading us back into the broad, rich and deep mysteriousness of experience, the strangeness that is hearing, tasting, touching, seeing, smelling, thinking. Or, to put it simply, it leads us back from abstraction into life.
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