Reply to a Reader: On Zen and the Use of the “Why?”


Hello Hyon Gak Sunim, I wanted to ask you about the why questions. Up until recently I used to enjoy answering the why questions that would pop-up in my head, during unpleasant emotions and thoughts. When an unpleasant emotion appear, or unpleasant thought would appear, I would ask why. I would get an answer from which I learned a lot about me and a lot of my conditioning and beliefs that controlled my life. Lately I don’t like answering them. Answering is not interesting me. What should I do?


Thank you very much for your letter.

In your letter, you say that you “used to enjoy answering the why questions that would pop up in my head.” You said that, from this way of practicing or watching, you were able to “get an answer from which I learned a lot of my conditioning and the beliefs that controlled my life.” 

So, this kind of practice is a kind of baseline mindfulness practice, a watching. It’s helpful to do this. But it is not Zen. It is an analysis or search for understanding new things about yourself, but it cannot really be said to be the practice of asking “What am I?” It is not full-on deep-question Zen. It will not lead to complete attainment of your True Nature.

Zen is not about understanding. It is not a form of analysis, nor should it produce any kind of better “understanding” about oneself. That understanding which comes is a by-product, if you will, of the search into don’t-know, the limitless, borderless place before “understanding” appears. But Zen is not there: Zen is looking into your before-thinking mind.

So, you can use one knife very different ways, and get very different results. Likewise, the way of looking into this existential “what?” (or, maybe, “why?”) can be used in various ways. Psychotherapy uses the “Why?” to dig at important strata or memory, and relationship, and emotional patterning. Certain forms of counselling also provide “understanding” by peeling away layers of ignorant or one-sided thinking. That’s wonderful.

In Zen, we should not use this “Why?” for understanding the memory-“I” or psychology-“I” or gender-“I” or social-“I”, but to attain our most fundamental nature. To sit there and attain that there is NOT a separate “I” or self, there is also nothing to understand — this is the eventual depth of effort in Zen meditation. “No attainment, with nothing to attain,” as the Heart Sutra says. Everything, right now, is moment: unmoving, eternal moment. This is the place of no-I. This is the point of Zen.

s the ancient kong-an (koan) urges, in Zen we are taking one more step off of a 100-meter flagpole. When one of my senior American monk brothers grew frustrated in a conversation with Dae Soen Sa Nim, and at his own failure to penetrate the master’s teaching, the young monk blurted out, “But I’m just trying to understand your teaching, that’s all.” To which Dae Soen Sa Nim answered, “My teaching is not about understanding. My teaching is only don’t know.”

So, this is a very important point. Perhaps I am overemphasising my own reading of your question, but it seems anyway like an good opportunity to emphasise to others that our practice is not about some search for understanding, the kind that can be bought in books or lectures or videos or through a therapist. Yes, we are all drawn to Dharma because we wish to understand our existence, our life and death, our lightning-flash brief appearance on this speck of dust hurtling through empty space. We practice in order to understand our constantly fractious minds. That is how and why I started.

But, once you begin practice, you have to let go of that wish or search to understand. It is only a habit to wish to understand. There is only, now, constant effort in serious practice. To attain my True Self – NOT to “understand” it, or find a way to describe it through my categories of logic and analysis and memory and comparison, etc., but through practice — to attain that, in truth, there is already nothing to attain: this is the nature of Zen.

So, when some phenomena, appears, we are one with it. When some thought appears, we reflect “back,” we “ask” “Where did that come from?” “What hears that?” “What sees that thought crossing this empty space of moment? What ‘sees’ that?” This is all just a way of keeping the Great Doubt that cuts off thinking and leads straight to don’t know. We reflect back, we “turn the light towards the source of the light.” (Of course, those who come to practice through tragedy or great suffering ordinarily do not need that “nudge” to turn the awareness to the source of awareness: Someone who has just been told that she has only three months to live just does not follow the extraneous thoughts, and rather dwells more reflectively inward. In meditation, we are practicing a kind of “little dying.”) We are returning to silence, ending social contacts and concerns, for a period, letting awareness settle out of the Six Gates [eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, thinking-mind], into don’t know.

But do not let the “questioning” get verbal or conceptual. Don’t use it to stir up memories or ideas for how to solve this or that “new” understanding that gets churned up. Do not weigh or compare anything that appears in your mind with anything else. All of this may provide refreshing feelings of insight, but they are all only temporary jewels. These little understandings about some aspect of ourself  pixilate and float away in minutes or hours or days, at most. They are not the real thing, but a flabby substitute. They are insights that come and go: it’s not taking you to don’t know, the ultimate ground. Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, “If it shakes, it’s not muscle.” If something moves in your mind, or comes and goes in your mind, it ain’t don’t know. It’s not your True Self.

You write, “Lately I don’t like answering [the questions]. Answering is not interesting to me.” That’s it! If you ask after understanding, it inevitably becomes tasteless, it is cheap and it does not remain or even repair anything significantly in your life.

But looking into “don’t know” is infinitely interesting. It never becomes “boring,” or something “repetitious” or rote. It is what is, and there is this immensity to it that is just impossible to put into words. It is very new, and yet absolutely the most familiar “thing”, even older than my understanding. You know it when you feel it. As I heard the American monk Su Bong Sunim once say, “Don’t-know recognizes don’t-know.”

Looking inward, “reflecting mind’s light back to the source,” simply don’t pause at things you might newly “understand” about yourself. Don’t touch anything; don’t hold anything. Just abide in this not-knowing, this “place” before thinking arises.

This is how we practice, this is how we look, this is how we question. This is how we attain our True Nature.

Parallel Universes 1

Today, while enjoying a double espresso in the cold morning outside the coffee shop by the back door of the Zen Center, standing at a table, this crippled homeless man was seen out of the corner of the eye asking people for money on the street. He wasn’t having much success. I gave him a long look, and our eyes met. I wanted that. I smiled weakly, and he limped over.

I had only brought a 10-Euro bill downstairs for the coffee, so, there were only coins in my pocket — the change from the coffee. I reached into my pocket, scooped it all up, and put it in his hand. If I could spend a few euros so easily on a double espresso to enjoy in the early-morning cool while dictating replies to emails through my phone, he could better use whatever is left over for food — and I would still be in a moral deficit. It was a total no-brainer.

He accepted the money, and checked the amount in his open palm. Then, he pointed to my half-finished espresso, and motioned the cup figuratively to his lips. Reflexively, I motioned him towards the open door of the coffee shop, like, “It’s in there.“ Despite perhaps a faint letting go of some minor attachment, some coins, clearly it was not possible to be completely unattached.

After depositing the coins in his pocket, he extended his hand weakly toward me. The skin was rough and chipped, dirt around his nails and in the cracks of his fingers on parched skin. It looked like the hand of someone who had just come from fixing bicycles or working in the garden. But he was crippled, leaning on a stick, one of his feet turned sharply in, and it was anyway way too early in the morning for bicycle repair – – these hands had not become that way from fixing bicycles or working in any garden. 

Shaking his hand warmly, and holding for a few seconds longer, I regarded deeply the sadness and defeat in his eyes. What parallel universes we live in – – a “begging monk” stands drinking espresso doing temple office work on his phone, and a handicapped man begging for food is passed over by well-to-do people busy with getting on with getting to work and going out for coffee.

He glanced at the iPhone, parked and idling in my other hand, waiting for its customary attention. I think he looked at it mournfully. 

But maybe that’s over-reading something – – perhaps I was just perceiving my own shamefulness, this symbol of my inattentiveness and my station, which has become so necessary for coordinating the multi-country effort to “save all beings from suffering.” It would certainly require him many many many weeks of begging to obtain such a thing, and only if he forswore using the accumulated coinage for food during that entire period!

He motioned to the phone and made a picture-taking gesture with his fingers. Perhaps as if to say, “Remember me. Please, let them SEE me.” I didn’t know what he meant, or if that’s really what he meant.

Then, he ambled slowly back to his customary spot, moving with great difficulty over his curled-up foot. Turning around on his spot, he resumed extending his baseball cap out for other donations. People continued passing right in front of them, not a single one of them even acknowledging his being there. I had done this, too, many more times than it is good to remember, in many more cities.

His eyes met mine again. He looked at my phone. He nodded his head down with intention, to my phone-relationship, it seemed, as if to send a signal. I got it then.

“Remember me. Please, let them SEE me.“

I clicked a photo, and he smiled a wan, done smile.

The parallel universes we inhabit. A “begging monk” stands drinking espresso doing temple office work on his phone, and a handicapped man begging for food is passed over by well-to-do people busy with getting on with getting to work and going out for coffee. 

The remaining half of my double espresso was by now cold. It felt eerie in the mouth.

“Remember me.”