How do you answer such questions as "Who am I?", "When is this?" or "What am I doing?". Well - there's the conventional way of using the intellect - talking, thinking, arguing with others, doing scientific work or philosophy. Then there is meditation. My book "Ten Zen Questions" is all about how I spent years, and many solitary retreats, grappling with such questions on my own. The answers (if answers there are) are not what I had expected.
In the next weeks I'll be posting some stories of how I struggled with my self-imposed investigations, but first - how did I set about it?
The questions arose in various ways. Some had largely intellectual roots and came out of 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. (Do try - ask it now - and then again after you've read a few more lines).
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. I got them to ask themselves the questions many times a day, all week, and I did the same. This had weird effects on us all and even changed their lives in deep ways and together we worked on the questions again and again.
By contrast some of the questions are classic Buddhist ones, such as "How does thought arise?". Over the years I tackled this one during three formal Mahamudra retreats, but eventually I decided to tackle it again on my own. I wanted to meditate all alone in the mountains, in my own time, even if the prospect was a bit scary. So I drove up into the Welsh mountain to the Maenllwyd on my own, taking enough food and other provisions for five or six days in the old farmhouse with its temperamental kitchen range, and no gas, electricity or phone reception. I kept milk and yogurt in the stream, other provisions in the mouse-proof boxes, and managed quite well.
Before I went I drew up a daily routine, mostly of half-hour sitting periods with short breaks between. I took no reading materials apart from the few pages of Mahamudra text, and tried to be mindful as much as I could. For several days I never saw another human being or heard any voice or music or human sounds.
This is nothing compared to the countless sages who have spent years in freezing mountain caves, but it's a start.
The final two questions are classic Zen koans. There are many Zen tales of strange interactions between masters and monks, with perplexing endings or intellectually nonsensical twists. 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.
Finally, I tackled some of the questions on solitary retreats 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, doing about six hours of meditation a day, with short breaks.
This is what I did. First I spent a few hours just calming the mind. Then I would find the question just popping up on its own. and I'd begin tackling it systematically. Some questions lend themselves to a branching tree of possibilities - others almost immediately throw one into 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 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.
Over the next few weeks I'll be posting my struggles with these questions. You might like to start yourself on the journey I and so many of my students have undertaken.
Are you conscious now? I look forward to hearing how you get on.