by Asher Walden
What is unique about our style of practice?
Kwan Um is a kind of fusion we get
From a Korean teacher named Seung Sahn
Who really tried to market his tradition
To Western students who were less concerned
With ancient sutras, dogmas, or sectarian feuds.
Instead he mainly taught us how to practice
A certain style of sitting meditation.
There are really a number of techniques
That students in our school will tend to use.
Watching the breath, counting, or using mantras,
But the technique that Soen Sa Nim liked best,
The one that he would talk about most often
Was hwa-tou practice, also called great question.
The Question takes on many different forms,
Often raised by challenging life events
Such as the death of someone close to us.
Or it may be something more prosaic
Uncertainty about your job, or partner
Anxiety about the bills, or children.
A sense of something more, or something less,
Than our expectations for our life.
These kinds of things are often cited as
The motivation for some kind of practice.
The kernal of the teaching of Dae Soensanim
What he often called a ‘don’t-know mind’
Was to channel this rather vague sensation
Into a way to focus your awareness.
Here’s how it works. Pretend the question were this:
What is the thing you always, everywhere, do?
When you’re walking, sitting, eating, or sleeping,
Whether you are aware of it or not,
There’s something else you always do as well.
Can you guess the answer? That’s right, it’s breathing.
Change the question to something somewhat harder:
What is the thing that you are always conscious of?
Whatever else you might be thinking about
No matter if you’re thinking of some dream,
Sensation or a memory, or plan,
Some burden or a thought that brings you peace,
Your posture or a pain inside your knee—
Along with all these other mental events
There’s something else that’s present in your mind,
Or maybe rather something your mind just does
Whenever you are conscious whatsoever.
What is that thing that never goes away?
This is not a riddle that has an answer
That could be said in ordinary language.
That doesn’t mean its something so mysterious.
Neither could you describe a certain color
Or what its like to smell to someone who
Had never had that sense impression themselves.
The questions ‘what am I?’ and ‘what is this?’
Are meant to point to just this aspect of
Your own awareness, in its normal conduct.
Meditation on Great Question means,
Turning your awareness toward itself
So that even as you strengthen and shine
Attention on some object, be that within
Or be it in immediate surroundings,
You are searching, at least at first, for something
That was always there, but was never noticed.
And once you find that aspect of your mind
There’s no doubt that that’s what the question meant.
Then the sense of the question changes in practice
Instead of asking what is being referred to
The question ‘what is this’ is more like asking
About a thing you actually have in hand,
What is this thing, (which is, of course myself).
Asking the question is no longer seeking
For a hidden object in a picture
Its rather scrutinizing this unique
Phenomenon of mind, this consciousness.
Dae Soen Sa Nim refers to this as Don’t-Know
A term that may connote some kind blankness
Or even ignorance, but that’s not it.
It’s just a name he gives to this strange practice
Of focusing awareness on itself
In that moment in between the asking
And the searching for a final result,
For answer that would put to an end,
To the seeking which is the heart of practice.
This phrase ‘don’t know’ is meant to circumvent
That habit where the mind attempts to grasp,
Attach itself to some eternal truth.
This is one respect in which the practice
Of hwa-tou differs from the use of Kong-ans.
Kong-ans are also used to raise the question.
But kong-ans have an answer that you can say.
(Or at least can demonstrate in some way.)
Hwa-tou is in one respect like a question
But in a sense it’s also like an answer.
But more than either it’s a practice of looking,
Of cultivating certain dispositions
Of focused meditation on awareness.