In sixth-century China, the Buddhist schools were quite scholastic and focused on the scriptures. To move away from this academic direction and toward the Buddha’s original teaching of practicing meditation and realizing awakening in this very life, the Zen school developed its koan practice, in which stories of monks’ awakenings became a starting point for meditative inquiry. By asking and focusing on a single question as a meditative method, Zen practitioners aimed to develop a rich experiential wisdom.

In the Korean Zen tradition, one generally meditates on the koan, What is this? This question derives from an encounter between the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng (638–713 C.E.), and a young monk, Huaijang, who became one of his foremost disciples:

Huaijang entered the room and bowed to Huineng. Huineng asked: “Where do you come from?” “I came from Mount Sung,” replied Huaijang. “What is this and how did it get here?” demanded Huineng. Huaijang could not answer and remained speechless. He practiced for many years until he understood. He went to see Huineng to tell him about his breakthrough. Huineng asked: “What is this?” Huaijang replied: “To say it is like something is not to the point. But still it can be cultivated.”

The whole story is considered the koan, and the question itself, “What is this?” is the central point—hwadu in Korean, or huatou in Chinese. 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?

My own teacher, Master Kusan (1909–1983), used to try to help us by pointing out that the answer to the question was not an object, because you could not describe it as long or short, this or that color. It was not empty space either, because empty space cannot speak. It was not the Buddha, because you have not yet awakened to your Buddha-nature. It was not the master of the body, the source of consciousness, or any other designation, because those are mere words and not the actual experience of it. So you are left with questioning. You ask, What is this? because you do not know.

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