“What is this?” – the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng (638–713 C.E.)
The practice is very simple. Whether you are walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, you ask repeatedly, What is this? What is this? You have to be careful not to slip into intellectual inquiry, for you are not looking for an intellectual answer. You are turning the light of inquiry back onto yourself and your whole experience in this moment. You are not asking: What is this thought, sound, sensation, or external object? If you need to put it in a meaningful context, you are asking, What is it that is hearing, feeling, thinking? You are not asking, What is the taste of the tea or the tea itself? You are asking, What is it that tastes the tea? What is it before you even taste the tea? – Martine Batchelor – formerly a Zen Buddhist nun in Korea, translator of Kusan Sunim’s The Way of Korean Zen
To live a life of Zen is to ask continually, “What is this?” at a silent level of mind. We must approach life in a manner akin to the look a dog has on his face when he is trying to figure something out. It is the same as when the Koan asks, “Show me your original face,” or Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki refers to “beginner’s mind.” Let go of all preconceptions. They are created by our psycho-social conditioning and the limitations of our human senses and cognitive abilities.
It is the Universe that is this. It is, as Tielhard de Chardin, the genius Jesuit Priest Anthropologist described, “The World is not spirit and matter, it is spirit-matter.” It is the quantum field materialized into a human sipping tea, thinking, “ah, how pleasant” or, “it could use a lump of sugar.” What is this that is hearing, feeling, thinking while the tea is sipped? Many a great mystic has concluded it is the Universe, it is God sipping tea, experiencing tea as a human being.
I like to ask the question, “Why is there God? Why is there the concept God?” We take so many things for granted. It is like the cliché about the child asking, “Why is the sky blue?” We are taken off guard. We are so accustomed to running our little cerebral cortex computer program believing that what we believe is reality. No. It’s only what we believe. It is only the nature of our senses and human brain and the program and society and culture and mom and dad and your 6th grade teacher and the kid who lived down the block when you were a kid and all the other programmers in your life creating this virtual reality. What is this behind the hearing, feeling, thinking? What is it that hears, feels and thinks? What am I? What is anyone?
We think of ourselves as this body, this mind, these circumstances that are our lives. Zen suggests no – we are what has a body, mind and circumstances. We are the experiencer of body, mind and circumstances. And what is that? Where is that? We say, “it is me. It is myself.” And we point at this body. But Buddhism teaches us that when we look, we cannot actually locate this “self.” So we are left with only the asking, “What is this?” What is this life and all that we experience?
I come back to asking the question, why is there God? How is it that every human culture throughout human history has created some face and name that we in this culture call God? Of course we could answer, because there is God. And I am left to ask, what is this that is called God, and where is this God? And you would be unable to locate this God just as you are unable to locate this self. Could it be that this self and this God are in the same place? And could it be that place is unlocatable because it is everywhere and nowhere, for the very idea of somewhere is limited to some place. And what we are really talking about is the Universe as the intelligent source and result of itself. And what I-the-experiencer experience in a given moment is just the Universe experiencing itself as a human being experiencing the Universe as a cup of tea.
Because we have physical bodies and we have senses in these physical bodies and brains in these physical bodies that function as supercomputers, it turns out that we believe we are separate and solid and that what we hear and feel and think is real and solid, and it all confuses us terribly and creates great insecurity that causes us to build great civilizations with great faces of God the Creator to give us comfort. But it does not give us comfort, and Buddhism calls this discomfort dukkha, translated as “suffering” or “unsatisfactoriness.” What is this? It is the human condition, the condition of the Universe experiencing itself as a human being.
These bodies and these minds are tricks of perception that cause us to divide the Universe into this thing and that thing and to set this thing off against that thing, and to want some things and to avoid other things when there is only This, and This is, as the Tao Te Ching says, the No-thing that brings forth the myriad things. And this is why we humans create God – to give form to that which has no form and is all forms and that we feel is real but can only think of as something outside ourself that creates these things of the world including us human beings.
But the Universe is whole and complete in itself and it manifests all things, including the perception of this thing called “me” and this thing called “you.” And if this is confusing it is because we are looking to our mind which only believes in things and even may believe in God as a thing, that is, an idea of God that has certain human-like qualities, when God is that which is looking and hearing and feeling and thinking and drinking a cup of tea disguised as you and me using this body and these eyes and these ears and these hands and this mind to experience itself.
Zen tells us you must not think about these things or believe these things – you must feel them from a deep and silent place where the Universe looks into itself at an intersection of time and space that is a human life, and in that deep and silent place is not confusion, there is, as the Bible says, “peace that surpasseth understanding.” And that is what This is.