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What is this?
In one often practices asking the hwadu “What is this?”. “What is this?” comes from an encounter between the Sixth Patriarch Huineng and a young monk who became one of his foremost disciples, Huaijang.
Huaijang entered the room and bowed to Huineng. Huineng asked: “Where do you come from?”. “I came from MountSung”, replied Huaijang. “What is this and how did it get here?” demanded Huineng. Huaijang could not answer and remained speechless. He practised 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 gongan and the question itself “What is this?” the hwadu. One sits in meditation and asks again and again “What is this? What is this?”. What is it that moves, thinks, or speaks? Even more, before we think, move, or speak, what is this? We are not asking about external object: what is the carpet, the cup of tea, the sound of a bird? We turn the light back onto ourselves: what is this in this moment?
We have to be very careful because this is not an intellectual enquiry. We are not speculating with our mind. We are trying to become one with the question. The most important part of the question is not the meaning of the words themselves but the question mark ‘?’. We are asking unconditionally “What is this?” without looking for an answer, without expecting an answer. We are questioning for its own sake.
We are trying to develop a sensation of openness or wonderment. As we throw out the question “What is this?”, we are opening ourselves to the mysterious nature of this moment. We are letting go of our need for knowledge and security. There is no place where we can rest. Our body and mind become a question.
At the level of concentration, we are returning to the question again and again. The question anchors us and brings us back to this moment. But we are not repeating the question like a mantra. These are not sacred words and it does not matter how many times we repeat them. What is important is that the questioning is alive, that the question is fresh each time we ask “What is this?” We are asking because we do not know. It is similar to when we lose some keys. We look and look and look and we have no idea where they are. We think ‘keys’ and we don’t know and are left with this sensation of questioning.
There are several ways to ask the question. At the beginning especially we can connect the question with the breath. We breathe in, as we breathe out, we ask “What is this?”. Otherwise we can try to make the questioning like a circle, we ask gently but steadily, as soon as one “What is this?” stops another “What is this?” starts. Once our concentration is firmer, we can just ask the question time to time and stay with the sensation of questioning it evokes. As soon as the sensation of questioning dissipates we raise the question using the words vividly again.