What is this?

Martine Batchelor often talks about a practice she learned while living as a nun in a Korean Zen monastery, the practice of asking "What is this?" Here's a clip from Then and Now (session 9) where Ken McLeod and a student engage this very question:

What is this (from TAN09: Then and Now (class) 00:27:03.00 - 00:36:05.00)

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Student: Going back to the first one about taking experience as fact. I'm struggling a little bit with something I've heard mentioned earlier, that all one really knows is that one is experiencing something. And yet the idea that this is a dream isn't quite right because if one listens carefully it's often said that this is like a dream but not a dream. So the subtlety between--well it isn't really a fact and it's not quite a dream is lost on me. And I know I'm going to regret this. [Laughter] So then, what is this?

Ken: What is this experience?

Student: Yes.

Ken: You've been over to my place a few times haven't you?

Student: Yes.

Ken: Have you ever noticed a calligraphy?

Student: Yes.

Ken: What does it say?

Student: What is this? or What is it?

Ken: What is this actually. It's in both Chinese and English. It says What is this? It's a mystery, isn't it?

Student: [silence]

Ken: If we take this to be real--if we take what appears to be actually how things are, how's life?

Student: [Laughs]

Ken: Full of struggle.

Student: At the moment, concrete and bleak.

Ken: Well, ok, it's full of struggle. It's not bleak for everybody. Some people have a good time but they're still struggling. But what if we take the attitude that none of this is real.

Student: Trivial and meaningless.

Ken. Well not only that. It also doesn't work because--what is it Mencken said? Something about the unknowable--we do all this stuff, but there it is calmly licking its chops. [Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops. H. L. Mencken]

Things happen and we can't just say well it's not real because there's concrete consequences to the experiences. So it's not one; it's not the other. What do you do?

Now, we have the idea that if we could answer the question, "What is this?" then everything would be fine. And there have been untold numbers of philosophers and spiritual people who have tried to describe what this is, and actually it's not helped a single person. What does help?

Student: For me, it is opening up to the experience of it.

Ken: Yeah. So if instead of trying to figure out what this is, so we can put it in this nice box--that just hasn't worked for anybody over centuries. But what you say is, "If I learn how to relate to my experience skilfully then everything is kind of okay." And this is exactly what Buddhism teaches. It's not, if I can use some philosophical terms, it's not concerned with ontology. What is this? It's about--we have this experience--how do we interact with this experience? How do we live with the awareness there in a way that isn't a struggle for ourselves or others. So in this sense it is really, really pragmatically oriented and with the idea of developing a kind of skill in life.

Now what we find is that when we regard things as existing as such, then we are led into ways of acting unskilfully. In order to have full range to skilfull action we have to let go of the idea that things are just as they appear. Then all kinds of other possibilities open up. Just as I was describing, if you regard emotions--and most people experience emotions as fact. Then things become very restricted because there's not a lot of room to maneuver. And very solid, and one can end up getting cornered and struggling and things like that. And if we can go, "Okay, this is a feeling and it causes me to see the world a certain way but none of that is actually true, it's just how I'm seeing it and I can experience this feeling." And then a lot of things change and we find ourselves actually much more capable of interacting with that situation in a way which doesn't cause struggle for our selves and others.

That's what Buddhism is actually doing, and I had this discussion with somebody the other day--this is a very experienced practitioner--and she was saying, "But there has to be somthing other than just ending suffering." And so we had several discussions on this but she hasn't been able to say what it is. Does this help?

Student: Yes

Ken: Do you regret this?

Student: No.

Ken: Damn, I didn't do my job.

Student: So would it be fair to say just within the confines of this discussion that just because something is real does't mean it's a fact?

Ken: Just because we experience something doesn't mean it's a fact. Okay? The word real--it's a very problematic word. And I could look at it in a lot of different ways, but when we talk about something being real, we are in effect saying, this is something that is independent of the framework--a way of looking at things. But the fact is, however we look at the world, we're always looking at it through some kind of framework. And so taking the term real--to say this is what's real means we can ignore the framework--that's not a good idea because the framework causes us to see things a certain way.

So if the framework is financial then money becomes real and we forget what money actually is. It's a means of trading, exchanging life energy in a certain sense. Or if we look at it from a sociological point of view then networks and relationships are what is real, but that leads to a whole different thing. What are those networks and relationships? When you get right down to it they get very intangible too. So everything that the framework says is real is actually a way of looking at things. There isn't some thing there.