Ten Zen Questions

by Susan Blackmore

How I set about asking the questions
(excerpt from the introduction)

The questions arose in various ways and I tackled them at different times and in different places. Some of them had largely intellectual roots and emerged from my scientific studies. For example the first question “Am I conscious now?” is an obvious starting point when you are battling intellectually with the mystery of consciousness. Yet even this simple question starts to have odd effects if you keep asking it.

The second, “What was in my consciousness a moment ago?” was inspired by the effect of that first question on the students who took my consciousness course. To get them looking into their own experience as well as studying theory, I gave them a series of questions as weekly exercises. They had to ask themselves the questions many times a day, all week, and I did the same. Their explorations and difficulties inspired me greatly, and I worked on these questions again and again in the years to come.

By contrast some of the questions are classic Buddhist ones. One comes from the Mahamudra tradition of Tibetan Buddhism; that is “What is the difference between the mind resting in tranquillity and the mind moving in thought”, along with the related question “How does thought arise?”. Over the years I have done three formal Mahamudra retreats with John Crook at Maenllwyd, and this question is one of a series he uses. I found these questions haunting me and so one year I decided to tackle the Mahamudra series again on my own.

Maenllwyd Retreat Centre

I did this on solitary retreat at Maenllwyd. I had long been finding the formal retreats irksome, with so many people around, and so little sleep allowed. I wanted to meditate all alone in the mountains, in my own time, even if the prospect was a bit scary. By this time I knew John well. We had run university courses together, formed a group of academics interested in Buddhism, and I had been to Maenllwyd many times. So, on several occasions, John let me use the house on my own. I took enough food and other provisions, and spent five or six days there completely alone. I always went in summer so that I didn’t have to struggle with oil lamps, or risk burning the place down with untended candles. I have had a temperamental kitchen range myself and so was able to cope with the vagaries of the ancient Rayburn. I kept milk and yogurt in the stream, other provisions in the mouse-proof boxes, and managed quite well. Maenllwyd Retreat Centre

Before I went I drew up a daily routine, mostly of half-hour sitting periods with short breaks between, but I also took a walk in the afternoon so that I could go up into the hills, and breaks for meals and doing jobs for John, such as cutting the long grass or chopping wood. I took no reading materials apart from the few pages of Mahamudra text, and tried to be mindful as much as I could. I should say that this is a somewhat daunting experience, out in the mountains completely alone, but it makes for very intense practice.

The final two questions are classic Zen koans. There is a long tradition in Zen of koan stories; often tales of strange interactions between masters and monks, with perplexing endings or intellectually nonsensical twists. In a classic example the master Huìnéng asks a monk “Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born”. In one of my favourites, an exhausted monk arrives at a monastery gate, after long travels through the mountains, to be met with a pointing finger and the question “What is this thing and how did it get here?”.

Koans are used to help shake the student out of attachment or complacency, to inspire insight, or to motivate the ‘great doubt’. John’s own teacher, Sheng Yen stresses “Great faith, great doubt, and great angry determination’ as the basis of Zen practice. Koans can inspire all of these, as I learned on a series of koan retreats, where you work on the same question for a whole week. I found the koans very powerful, which may be why they have survived through many centuries and can still be helpful to people like you and me, in vastly different cultures from that in which they were first conceived.

Some of the other questions have obsessed me for a long time; whether they came out of my scientific work or arose in meditation. One day I decided to have a systematic go at them, and push them as far as I could in a limited time. So I gave myself a week’s solitary retreat at home.

We have a fairly big garden, with vegetables, a small orchard, a greenhouse and a wooden “summerhouse”; really more like a fancy garden shed. It’s lined with old and faded velvet curtains; and with the addition of a mat, cushion, meditation stool and a few other things, was easily turned into a meditation hut. It was mid-winter at the time and I didn’t want to freeze, so I also took a kettle, tea things, a hot water bottle, and a few other comforts. Although I slept indoors, I determinedly avoided the phone, email, post and any other distractions when I went indoors at night, and otherwise I just stayed out there in the garden all day.

I set myself a simple routine of half hour sitting periods interspersed with short breaks, or periods of working mindfully in the garden. I spent the first day just calming the mind, and then set myself one question each day. In a day, consisting of about six hours of meditation, I could make considerable progress with one of these questions and record what happened. I had, of course, been working on them in various ways for many years before, but it was helpful to concentrate my efforts this way. When I was writing the book I several times went back out to the shed for a day or more to have another go at the questions.

Although the questions and the situations differed widely, I have found myself settling into a method of inquiry that (although it may not suit others) seems to let my science and Zen practice illuminate each other.

In most cases the method I used is something like this. Having chosen the question to work on, I forget all about it, and just sit and let the mind calm down a little. Once thoughts have slowed (after perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes) I begin to apply a little pressure; concentrating harder on the present moment, for example. I then sit for a while, letting this stabilise into an alert and open state. I am awake, able to concentrate, but with few distractions. It is certainly possible to have an absolutely clear mind, with no thoughts at all, but I am still not very good at this and, happily, it is not entirely necessary for this sort of thinking. As long as the mind is open, spacious, calm and steady – and any distractions are easily dropped – then I’m ready for the question.

Just how this comes about I don’t know, but at some point the question just pops up. It has been stored away there, waiting to be asked, and now jumps in. So I begin tackling it, and I do so in a thoroughly systematic way. Some questions lead to a vast branching tree of demanding possibilities. For example, “There is no time; what is memory?” is just seven words and yet opens up a whole world of possible lines to explore. You can agree with the statement and ask the question; disagree with the statement and ask the question; explore time; explore memory; or use the whole as an opening to timelessness. I usually mentally set out the obvious tasks first, commit the plan to memory, and then start on the branches one by one. Each then leads to more, and it requires considerable practice (though very little time) to keep a plan of the route in mind while exploring the branches. But this is the fun of thinking, and I love it.

Other questions require less planning and more direct experience. For example, “What is the difference between the mind resting in tranquillity and the mind moving in thought?” is a real killer (presumably this is why it is used in Mahamudra training). It sounds, at first reading, like a question that might have an answer, but then you realise that to answer it you must be familiar with the mind resting in tranquillity – not easy. Then you must be able to observe the mind moving in thought – tricky in a totally different way. Then you, presumably, have to compare them. By this time the question itself seems unimportant and the exploration of the groundwork far more so.

I said that asking the questions both requires and encourages a calm mind, and these examples explain why. A calm mind is necessary for the sort of determined, systematic thinking that I am talking about; otherwise you just get distracted and lose track. But then the questions themselves often provoke further calming – not because thinking is calming; it isn’t; but because of the subject matter. A question such as “Where is this experience?” requires a steady experience to look into. Those such as “Who is asking the question?” or “Am I conscious now?” can defeat all logical thought and hurl the mind into emptiness.

I am explaining this partly to show how I set about the ten questions, but partly to make it clear that my approach is not that advocated in most Zen training. Indeed in Zen one is often reminded that “thought is the enemy” and in general all kinds of thinking are discouraged. I did a lot of thinking because it was the best tool I had available for exploring the ten questions, and because this kind of thinking forms a bridge between my Zen practice and my science.  I have dared to call them “Zen questions” because I believe they all get right to the point of the Zen endeavour; to expose the nature of self and mind, and to realise nonduality.

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