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'What is this?' by Jeremy Lander



The contemplation of things as they are, without substitution or imposture, without error or confusion is, in itself, a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.

Francis Bacon 1561-1626


I came across this quote in an architectural journal of all places, where a pundit was extolling the virtues of ‘craft’ over the kind of heady intellectualism common in some architectural schools.


Bacon was sometimes called the father of Empiricism and empiricism was associated with the "blank slate" concept (tabula rasa), according to which the human mind is "blank" at birth and develops its thoughts only through experience.


Empiricism holds that evidence, especially that which is gathered through experiments, is the foundation of science. We take this for granted now but it was not always thus. It was thought you could arrive at a scientific conclusion through intuition, debate, or even divine revelation. Now we accept that hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world. We don’t just inject ourselves with bleach because someone powerful told us it would protect us against a virus. At least I hope not.

This reminded me of a meditation practice where you ask yourself the question ‘what is this’ over and over.


One of our favourite teachers Stephen Batchelor describes how this practice began in a formal way after an encounter between a Zen Master and a young monk in 8th century Korea:


"The young monk entered the room and bowed to the Master. The master asked: “Where do you come from?” “I came from Mount Sung” replied the monk. “What is this and how did it get here?” demanded the Master. The monk could not answer and remained speechless. He practised for many years until he understood. He went to see the Master to tell him about his breakthrough. The Master asked: “What is this?” and the monk replied: “To say it is like something is not to the point. But still it can be cultivated”.


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 an 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?


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.”

In a previous blog I talked about ‘Doubt’ as one of the Five Hindrances, but this mediation seems to be cultivating doubt. Or is curiosity (surely a good thing) simply another aspect of doubt? Perhaps through repeated practice we can turn doubt, through curiosity, into true insight.


As Francis Bacon might have said, if you think you already know the answer how are you going to ask the question, let alone find the answer?

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