What if our Ordinary Experience is all that matters?

by Stephen Batchelor
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Stephen Batchelor poses the classical Zen question, “What is this?” The answer, he says, is right in front of us.

Each time I sit down on a cushion and pay attention to what is happening, I find myself utterly incapable of putting whatever it is I’m experiencing into words. There’s something about the practice of meditation, be it Seon or any exercise in which we are asked just to pay attention to what is happening, in which we find ourselves confronted with what philosophers call the sheer facticity of our existence.

This is the inescapable fact of being this being that I am.

When I look inside, or say to myself, “I’m looking inside,” whatever that might mean, I seem to hit up against something that is intimately present to me but impossible to define. It always strikes me in the first instance as a particular sensation in the body, in the chest or stomach somewhere. It depends. I was reminded a few days ago of a passage by William James, who said:

[I]t maybe truly said that…the “Self of selves,” when carefully examined, is found to consist mainly of the collection of these peculiar motions in the head or between the head and throat…[I]t would follow that our entire feeling of spiritual activity, or what commonly passes by that name, is really a feeling of bodily activities whose exact nature is by most men overlooked.

Anyone who has spent time doing such introspection, whether in meditation or just out of curiosity about who you are, can probably recognize what James was on about. It’s curious that in pursuing such “deep” questions about the nature of who I am, in the end, if I’m utterly honest with myself, what presents itself is a completely banal physical sensation.

Some years ago I spent a couple of days in Nagi Gompa, a nunnery up in the hills above Kathmandu in Nepal, where I went to study Dzogchen with a teacher called Urgyen Tulku. From him I received the “pointing-out instruction” in which the teacher points out to you the nature of your mind, or—even more than that—the nature of rigpa, a primordial, pristine awareness that is more than your ordinary, everyday mind. But the problem was that no matter how much Urgyen Tulku tried to point this out to me, what I found myself actually aware of was a physical sensation somewhere in my body.

When I told him this, he said, “No! Look! It is without form, without shape, without color, without sensation,” and so on. But however much I was told what rigpa was, I could not get beyond a physical sensation somewhere in my body. Before I could think of mind or consciousness or awareness I felt this strange, indefinable sensation—like William James’ funny sensations in the back of the throat. I wasn’t cut out to be a Dzogchen practitioner. I experience exactly the same thing when doing mindfulness or any meditative practice that supposedly brings one into a greater understanding of one’s mind or mental states. In my Seon training in Korea, my teacher Kusan Sunim was very keen on what he called shin (or maum in colloquial Korean), which is the Chinese/Korean/Japanese word for the Pali word citta—“mind,” or “heart–mind” if you wish—but in his teaching it was really not very different from the rigpa of Dzogchen. When Kusan Sunim taught us to ask “What is this?” for him the “this” meant shin.

He made it very clear that shin was not our ordinary, everyday consciousness or awareness. Shin, like rigpa, was somehow far more. It lay behind the scenes, hidden from view, and the purpose of meditative inquiry was to break through to it, to experience it directly. And such would be—in my teacher’s understanding—the experience of enlightenment. But from the beginning of my training I found myself highly skeptical of this language. I was resistant to the idea of there being something more, something beyond what we can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and know with our ordinary mind.

There is a tension in the Seon tradition between an emphasis on the everyday specificity of experience—all the talk about cypress trees in the courtyard, pounds of flax, and so on—and a rather mystical teaching about a transcendent or universal mind or consciousness, similar to what you might find in Advaita Vedanta: the notion of some nondual awareness. As much as I’ve tried to figure out what my teacher meant by shin, I’m still just as confused about it as I was on day one. I’m not at all persuaded that it is a useful way of presenting this practice.

By “this practice” I don’t just mean the particular meditation we do on retreat, but practice in the wider sense of trying to be fully human, to lead a life in which I’m completely honest with myself— a practice in which I’m cautious about taking on trust claims about the nature of some transcendent awareness or reality that I consistently fail to have any immediate sense of in my life.

What often creeps into Buddhism, including Seon, is the notion that there is something more than this experience that we’re having right now, that we need to break through into this something else. It’s a seductive idea, one that’s characteristic of most traditions that would consider themselves to be “mystical.” Whether they speak in terms of God, the Absolute, or the Unconditioned, there’s often an underlying assumption that what we’re experiencing now is somehow not enough, it’s inadequate, at best only a tiny bit of something far vaster. The practices taught in these traditions provide us with a methodology that, if we follow it, enables us to reach this “something else.”

I’m reminded here of the Sabba Sutta (sabba means “everything” or “the all”). Gotama says: Mendicants, I will teach you the all. Listen to this. And what is the all? The eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and odors, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile sensations, the mind and dharmas. This is called the all. If anyone, mendicants, should speak thus: “Having rejected this all, I shall make known another all,” that would be a mere empty boast on their part. If they were questioned they would not be able to reply and, further, they would meet with vexation. For what reason? Because, monks, that all would not be within their domain.

You find a similar approach in the writings of Nagarjuna and Madh-yamaka philosophy, where there’s also a deep suspicion of the idea that the purpose of practice is to lead us to something outside of what we can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and know within our own moment-to-moment, ordinary consciousness. It’s this, I feel, that characterizes the early Seon tradition. My sense is that Seon started life in China as an explicit rejection of a grandiose mysticism that had begun seeping into Buddhism. The early Seon masters had no time at all for notions of an ultimate truth that lies beyond our ordinary experience. Instead, they sought to recover the simplicity and the primacy of the experience we’re having in this body, in these senses, in this flesh, right now. That’s where we begin.

The legend of the Buddha himself points to the same thing. It was by waking up to the existential facts of his own life that he was prompted to embark on his quest. The fact of birth, the fact of sickness, the fact of aging, and the fact of death became questions for him. These experiences are utterly of this breathing, feeling body. That’s where we begin too. That’s what we come back to, again and again and again when our minds wander off into the past, into the future, or simply into unstructured threads of associated thought. We come back to the dull, blunt immediacy that is intimate but inarticulate—in other words, what we are experiencing right now.

When I ask myself the question “What is this?” by “this” I don’t mean some sort of mystical citta, or shin, or rigpa. I mean the totality of what you’re experiencing in this moment right now, whatever that might be.

To try and understand better what Kusan Sunim meant by shin as the object of “What is this?” I went back to the Ming edition of the Chinese text of the Platform Sutra, where the account of the story behind “What is this?” is found. I discovered that the text makes no mention at all of shin or mind. It simply speaks of this “thing”—bulgon, in Korean. The question “What is this?” is presented as “What is this thing?” I like the word “thing.” It has a kind of gritty immediacy to it. It’s one of those words we use all the time, but rarely stop to consider what it means. What is a thing? It’s a difficult question, just as hard to answer as “What is consciousness?” or “What is the mind?”

So what is a thing? What is this thing? What is this thing in all of its stripped-bare vulnerability, ineffability, banality? What is that? What is this thing that was thrust into the world at birth—this thing that will get sick, that will get old, that will die? What is it?

As far as possible, let go of any ideas about this that you may have acquired, whether they be Buddhist or Seon doctrines or other theories or beliefs you may have picked up from different religious or philosophical traditions. Just try to put all of that stuff out of your mind, particularly transcendent or mystical ideas to which you might have become attached.

After three or four years of training in Tibetan Buddhism in India, I had one of those experiences that come upon you out of the blue. I was walking through the woods above McLeod Ganj, lugging a bucket of water, and all of a sudden I found myself stopped in my tracks, simply overwhelmed by the utter strangeness of what was happening—the incredible weirdness of just being there, of standing in that forest with a bucket of water hanging from my right arm. This experience has informed pretty much everything else I’ve done in my practice, my writing work, and my teaching since. It struck me very strongly then—long before I knew anything much about Seon—that this must be the primary questioning and wonder that give rise to philosophy or religion in the first place. If we are open to it, we realize that life itself in its gritty simplicity is profoundly and overwhelmingly mysterious.

Yet as creatures who have been designed by biology and evolution to survive, we’re not, I think, really prepared to experience things this way. I suspect such moments as these are an unintended consequence of having evolved brains sufficiently complex for the emergence of language and self-reflexive awareness to emerge. Unlike other animals, we are conscious of the fact that we will die. As a byproduct of a consciousness that may have evolved for entirely different reasons, we have acquired the capacity to become questions for ourselves.

And this practice of Seon—in fact the practice of the dharma, period—is a practice of coming to terms with the question of who and what we are. This requires that we allow ourselves to be a mystery for ourselves rather than a set of more or less interesting facts. I suspect most human beings at certain moments in their lives experience something similar. It might come about through being in nature, through art, through falling in love, through studying philosophy, or when coming close to death—any moment when we are suddenly overwhelmed by the fact that we are here at all, rather than not here.

In the Western tradition, this way of thinking goes back at least to Socrates, who said that “wonder is the beginning of philosophy.” Leibnitz, and then later Heidegger, pondered the question “Why is there anything at all, rather than just nothing?” That question has always functioned for me as a kongan (Jpn., koan). It may not have the same effect for everyone, but when I first read this question, it sent a shiver up my spine. This is very similar, I think, to what in Seon is called “cultivating the sensation of doubt.” There’s something physical about it, something that reverberates through one’s body. We’re not talking here of a purely mental or spiritual experience. We’re talking about something that is palpably somatic.

In The Gateless Gate, the compiler Wumen Huikai says that you must question with your entire body, “making the 360 bones and joints and 84,000 pores into a solid lump of doubt.” Of course, that’s not meant literally, but we probably all know what he means. It’s that kind of questioning that goes beyond intellectual curiosity or puzzlement and has become a vital, embodied perplexity in which we can no longer meaningfully distinguish between body and mind. It feels as though the whole of us, every cell of our body, is seized with this sense of doubt.

What I also like about the early teachings of the Seon tradition is their repeated emphasis on the specific details of ordinary life. You are probably familiar with some of these kongans:

“Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?”

Zhaozhou answers: “The cypress tree in the courtyard.”

“What is the Buddha?”

Dongshan said: “Three pounds of flax.”

“What is the teaching that goes beyond everything the Buddhas and the Patriarchs ever said?”

To which Yunmen replies: “Cake.”

If you think these are answers to those questions, you completely miss the point. They’re shock tactics, ways of jolting the student’s attention away from those kinds of questions altogether and bringing it back to what is right before her eyes, to whatever is visibly, tangibly present at the moment she asked the question.

“The cypress tree in the courtyard”—I can only imagine that this took place in a room, outside of which there stood a cypress tree. By getting drawn into speculative questions about Bodhidharma’s motives for coming to China from India, which could no doubt lead to some fascinating discussions, we are taken away, in increasingly rarefied steps of abstraction, from the actual situation at hand so that we don’t even see the cypress tree in the courtyard anymore. We’ve gone off into the land of metaphysics and doctrine and theory. Terribly interesting, but we’ve lost sight of the tree.

As for the business of the three pounds of flax, I imagine the monks sorting through the flax that they had harvested that day in the monastery’s fields. One of them asks the teacher Dongshan a question about the Buddha. But the teacher abruptly turns the monks’ attention away from such theorizing and back to what they’re doing there and then. They’re sorting flax.

And I imagine Yunmen sitting on a chair or platform, with a low table in front of him. As is often the case in those monasteries, there would be a cup of tea, a plate of cakes—in this case, probably pounded rice cakes of some kind. But rather than get drawn into the question that’s being asked about some special, esoteric teaching, Yunmen turns the monk’s attention to a lump of rice cake.

I think all these stories—of which there are many—are basically doing the same thing. They cut through a particular habit of the human mind. As soon as the student gets drawn into questions about truth, the meaning of life, philosophy, and religion, the teacher bluntly and abruptly severs the tendency to speculate and points to the immediacy of what’s actually at hand. What is at hand is what is truly mysterious and worthy of questioning: a piece of cake, a pile of flax, a cypress tree.

We see this in early Buddhism too, in the Pali texts. I think something similar is going on. In Indian tradition there’s a general tendency—why, I don’t know—to avoid referring to specific objects in the world, like a piece of cake, a pile of flax, or a particular tree. Instead, the emphasis tends to be placed more on subjective states of consciousness. Yet when the Buddha speaks of meditation in the early texts—for example, in the Satipatthana Sutta—he does not instruct his monks and followers to meditate on the nature of mind, the experience of emptiness, or anything abstract and transcendent like God. Instead, he says: go into a forest, sit cross-legged at the foot of a tree, and when you know you’re breathing in, know that you’re breathing in, and when you know you’re breathing out, know that you’re breathing out.

That is a shocking thing to say—it goes completely against the stream of metaphysical thinking that is so characteristic of Indian religion and philosophy, which emphasize realization of Brahman, God, atman, the true self. In order to experience such transcendent things, one is instructed to disassociate oneself from the physical and phenomenal world. Then this teacher comes along and says, “No! Just sit down at the foot of a tree and when you breathe in know that you’re breathing in, and when you breathe out know that you’re breathing out.” Again, as in Seon, it’s a shock tactic that brings us back to what is immediately at hand.

The Satipatthana Sutta goes even further, telling the meditator to then contemplate all the different parts of the body: the hair on the head, the brain, the eyes, the skin, the flesh, the mucus, the lymph, the urine, the feces, and so on. Sometimes these reflections are explained as a way of putting the monks and nuns off sex or having sexual fantasies, but I think that’s missing the point. It’s about coming back to the sheer facticity of our physical existence, in its most basic and irreducible sense. Our guts, our shit, our skin, our sweat, our blood—that’s where we focus attention.

Only from there do we go into feelings, but again, feelings that are triggered by our encounters with the physical world. Then perceptions, the way that we make sense of that. Then impulses, and so on, until we arrive at what Gotama simply calls sabbe dhamma—all things. And all things are, as we’ve seen, what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel. For many “spiritual” people, to turn attention away from mystical truths back to the brute simplicity of where we are in our bodies, in this moment, right now, is deeply counterintuitive.

Nowhere is this more beautifully expressed than in the Epicurean poem “The Nature of Things” by the Roman poet Lucretius. This is how it appears in A. E. Stallings’ translation:

Behold the pure blue of heavens, and all that they possess,
The roving stars, the moon, the sun’s light, brilliant and sublime—
Imagine if these were shown to men now for the first time,
Suddenly and with no warning. What could be declared
More wondrous than these miracles no one before had dared
Believe could even exist? Nothing. Nothing could be quite
As remarkable as this, so wonderful would be the sight.
Now, however, people hardly bother to lift their eyes
To the glittering heavens, they are so accustomed to the skies.

Lucretius could just as well have spoken of a cypress tree, a pile of flax, or a rice cake. It makes no difference. If you had never seen any such things before and were suddenly shown them, it would have the same shock effect as seeing the night sky for the first time.

This is what the Seon tradition does—it’s about recovering the primary experience that we are encountering in this very moment right now, the stuff that feels somehow dull, inert, maybe a bit boring, overly familiar. But that’s where we begin, and—I would argue—that’s also where we end. Except we end up discovering how what we look upon as ordinary is, in fact, utterly extraordinary. There’s nothing I can think of that is stranger than just being here now—nothing more mysterious, nothing more transcendent. The problem is that we get stuck in a kind of thinking that denigrates ordinary life as somehow inferior, somehow just a pale shadow of reality.

This goes back all the way to Plato. In Plato’s parable of the cave, people find themselves in a dark cavern; there is just a little fire burning that throws shadows onto the walls, and people think that that’s the nature of reality. “But no!” some smart person says. “You can get out of this cave! And then you will get to another realm altogether, with brilliant sunlight and colors. What you see in this cave is at best just a very poor copy.” This kind of idealism, I think, has characterized much of our Western tradition in philosophy and theology—the idea that there’s a truer world somewhere else.

The parable of Plato’s cave reinforces the very habit that Gotama and Seon seek to overcome. It serves to diminish this world in which we actually live. We don’t live in Plato’s cave, we live in this world, which is not a pale copy of some truer reality. Yet both in India and in the West, our traditions of thought have often rendered it as such.

If we could just learn to pay attention to the ordinary things: our breath, our footsteps, the trees around us, the sounds of the rooks in the trees. If we could attend to this mundane world in a different way, with a greater stillness and clarity of mind, and if at the same time we could open our hearts and our minds to just notice what we see, what we hear, what we smell, what we taste, what we touch, how we feel—this, of course, is the practice of mindfulness.

Seon practice injects curiosity into mindfulness. This is a term you don’t really find in the early Buddhist tradition. You have the idea of dhamma vicaya, one of the factors of awakening, which is usually translated as “analysis of things,” but curiosity in Seon has nothing much to do with analysis. In Seon, you hear little about investigating the three marks of being— impermanence, dukkha, and not-self (though such investigation is certainly worthwhile)—but rather the need to valorize and cultivate an innate astonishment or puzzlement, that sense of how odd things are.

In Korean it’s called uisim, which is usually translated as “doubt,” but that doesn’t quite get it. It’s really more like perplexity or puzzlement; we might even say bewilderment or confusion. Kusan Sunim often used to repeat this verse:

Great perplexity, great awakening.
Little perplexity, little awakening.
No perplexity, no awakening.

In other words, the degree to which your practice resonates at a certain pitch of perplexity or doubt is the pitch at which your insight or awakening will also resonate.

If you come to your practice with a mere intellectual curiosity, then, as a correlate, any insight that occurs will likewise be intellectual in nature. But let’s imagine you come to the practice with a deep existential perplexity—an urgent confusion and puzzlement about what it means to have been born, to get sick, to get old, to die. If that’s the pitch at which your practice resonates, then you are allowing the possibility of an insight or an understanding, maybe even a cathartic resolution of that confusion, to emerge at a comparable level of intensity.

Such an insight is unlikely to present itself in doctrinal terms or as a carefully articulated theory. It’s far more likely to be expressed as a physical gesture, a line of verse, a spontaneous brush stroke. Sometimes in Seon texts you have the monk express his understanding as a shout, a yell: “HAK!” At least that’s how it’s transcribed in Korean; in English it might be “Aha!” or “Holy shit!” The trouble is that this quickly gets zenny. These gestures become clichéd and predictable, the exact opposite of the spontaneity they were originally meant to display. There is no point in just aping a kind of language and behavior.

Consider the works of the eighteenth-century Japanese painter Sengai. They are just ink sketches of a frog, a cat, a snail on a leaf, a bereft old man, a laughing monk, or simply a square, a triangle, and a circle, executed with very rapid brushstrokes. Utterly ordinary things. But what Sengai achieved, and what other Seon artists achieve, are great works of art. They may just depict frogs, brooms, and persimmons, but in such a way that enables you to see these things as if for the first time. With simplicity, economy, and spontaneity, they do not merely represent these objects but allow them to echo the specific situations in which they belong. It’s an aesthetic of poignancy that somehow resonates in our bones. We are moved by it; there’s something about the painting that speaks to us at a deep, visceral level and engages our attention. And it brings the mind to a stop. This is true, of course, with great art in all traditions. The arts that come out of Chan or Seon or Zen articulate, I think, an understanding prompted not by some deep insight into the nature of ultimate truth, but by having come into a new relationship with the ordinary objects of our daily life.

I hope that we can practice and learn from some of these examples. When we’re eating, or when we are washing our mug after having had a cup of tea, or while working in the garden or the kitchen, we can incorporate these activities of ordinary life into practice. These are concrete opportunities to deal with the banal objects of the everyday, yet with attention, so that we might experience them in a completely different light.

To experience ourselves—our breath, the sensations in the body, the pain in the knees, the feeling of the wind or the rain on our cheeks—all of this is utterly pertinent to the question I am suggesting you ask: “What is this?” But please remember that “this” refers to what is so close to you that you tend to completely overlook it.