What is This?

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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#1 · Jean

25 April 2006

I really loved this – have been carrying round an – already battered – printout in my bag and taking it out to reread and ponder in quiet moments. Your thoughts on the “what is this?” koan resonate strongly with me and confirm my feeling that I’d very much like one day to do this traditional zen retreat that Martine and Stephen regularly lead at Gaia House – I’ve attended several retreats led by one or both of them, and admire and appreciate them both tremendously.

#2 · Mathias

26 April 2006

This meditation you mention sounds alot like the Advaita method that Sri Ramana Maharshi taught. He called it Self-inquiry (Viccharya) and instead of the question What is this, he told his devotees to ask Who am I? As with your example of anger I would ask myself, who feels anger? (the ego response would say , I), then I will ask myself Who am I?

#3 · Jonathan Maxson

27 April 2006

This is my first time commenting on your blog, so let me first note how much I appreciate the quality of your thoughtful, artfully developed posts.

That said, please forgive me for suggesting that there might, indeed, be a specific answer to the question “What is this?” My own analysis, which involves the use of meditation to refine the faculties of both sense and reason, leads me to conclude that the only conceivable explanation of “this” is that it is a communication from a higher intelligence.

To properly apprehend the truth of “this,” as I see it, is to grasp, through both sense and reason, the necessity of One Mind and Maker at the heart of all creation.

The key is our acknowledgement that “this” is inherently intelligible, inherently communicable, and inherently purposeful. All “this” is a language through which a higher intelligence is attempting to communicate something quite important to our personal and planetary wellbeing. Is it defensible to argue that “this” is anything else?

#4 · Will

27 April 2006

Hi, Folks, and thanks for the comments. Glad that you found this useful, Jean. And as you point out, Mathias, no one tradition has the monopoly on such inquiry.

I really appreciate your kind words on thinkBuddha, Jonathan, although in reponse to your final question – ‘Is it defensible to argue that “this” is anything else?’, I would be inclined to say that my sense of the question is that it doesn’t seem to lead to some metaphysically secured answer, but instead it leads into the heart of perplexity itself. This no doubt calls forth some kind of response – perhaps characterised by attentiveness, care, appreciation and gratitude, but this is not the same thing as an answer.

Of course, in saying this, I can’t know that the question is unanswerable (although I am not even sure what the question actually means). Perhaps the next time I ask it, I will be hit with an answer so evidently ‘right’ that I will not be able to deny its vaildity. Only I doubt it. For the time being I can only go on my own experience and say that so far I have found nothing in the way of an answer, no metaphysical system, that seems adequate to the question.

All the best,


#5 · Jonathan Maxson

28 April 2006

Isn’t it amazing, Will, that you and I, separated as we are by thousands of kilometers, can have a conversation just by tapping our fingers on a keyboard and pondering certain patterns of color on a computer screen?

I can imagine the two of us standing beside a wall. We are noticing various markings on the wall. I suggest that certain properties of the markings prove them to be a form of language.

I think you are disagreeing, but I am not sure what part of my communication you are disagreeing with. Are you countering that the markings, alone, are inscrutable? That the markings are empirically sensible to you, but that my argument for their status as language is inscrutable? Or are you suggesting that reality, in its entirety or essential nature, is inscrutable?

I believe that no matter how deeply I look at “this,” which is to say, at this immediate four-letter word on my computer screen, I must eventually concede that it is an inherently intelligible unit of communication.

I believe I must also concede that the four-letter word “this” is an empirical, sensible reality.

I might attempt to separate the “this” on my computer screen from a “this that has no object;” to separate “this” from the necessity of both an object and a subject; but I consider such an effort an unprofitable metaphysical jump. It is possible to approach the matter another way, by grasping the perfect correspondence between “this” as the first unit of language, and “this” as a total awakening to subject-object interdependence in the present moment.

Perhaps the dharma is an impersonal, inscrutable law. I am inclined, however, to view it as the communication of perfect understanding between minds.

Have I completely misunderstood your argument? Sometimes I miss something very important in what the other person has said.

#6 · Will

28 April 2006

Hello again, Jonathan.

Thanks for your reply once again. I think that I’m probably saying something rather straightforward. It seems to me that attentiveness to what is happening (rather than the weaving of stories about why it is happening, how it came to be like this etc.) is what this practice is about. Instead of being rooted in any ideas about the world, this style of meditative inquiry seems to lead back to this attentivness. It does not seem to be about theory, or the relationship of language to world, or the nature of the dharma is, or anything like that.

Perhaps as an analogy I could take the experience of listening to music. We could have a theoretical understanding of what is going on in a piece of music. We could have differing views about what is going on. We could write and read learned tracts upon these views. We could dispute the virtues of our theories until the cows come home. Or we could simply listen to Sibelius, or to Mahler or to whoever we want to listen to. Our ideas about Sibelius are hardly to the point when we are listening to him, although they may colour our experience…


#7 · Jonathan Maxson

28 April 2006

Thank you, Will, for the follow-up. I have to remember that you are referring to a meditation practice with a very specific use, it seems, and not to a guideline for life in the round. Perhaps there are complementary practices that help us distinguish true statements from false statements, right action from wrong action, and correct use of language from incorrect use of language.

Your music analogy is useful. The irony is that in order for me to listen to a Mahler symphony, it must first be performed. And a performance of Mahler depends on complete agreement, between an orchestra and a conductor, as to the interpretation of a musical text. I am not aware of any musicians who could play Mahler without a precise knowledge of musical language; and I am unaware of any conductor who could effectively lead an orchestra without a sound handle on musical theory.

Whether a knowledge of musical theory enhances, or interferes, with my appreciation of the aesthetic and intellectual merits of Mahler is an interesting question.

At least in the case of the western classical tradition, however, those who actually want to play, it seems, must be prepared to mix a little theory with their practice.

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