Great doubt, great awakening; no doubt, no awakening!
This week's Zen story is case 15 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Threescore Blows'. And once again we have a mysterious encounter, in which a teacher threatens a student with violence, and apparently this is helpful. But why?
Decoding the koan
The story opens with a student, Dongshan - who we will later see in case 18 as a full-fledged Zen master - coming to train with Master Yunmen, who will also show up several more times in this collection (including next week, in case 16).
In their first meeting, Yunmen asks Dongshan some questions to test his level of understanding. Often, the questions a Zen teacher asks can be interpreted on many levels, from the superficial to the profound, as a way of testing to see whether someone is just starting out, has some level of understanding, or is themselves a master.
In this case, Dongshan takes the questions at face value. 'Where you are from?' is one of the koans used at the Breakthrough to Zen retreats organised by the sangha I belong to, Zenways, and, like all breakthrough koans, it can take us all the way to the experience of kensho, or seeing our true nature. If Dongshan had some experience of this, he might have interpreted the question in a deeper, more existential way, but instead he simply says 'Chadu'. Some scholars interpret this as the name of a forgotten Chinese town, so perhaps he's simply saying the equivalent of 'I'm from Birmingham', but the characters making up the word can (apparently) be interpreted as something like 'the ferry crossing', so perhaps Dongshan was saying 'I just got off the boat.'
At this point, Yunmen may not have been entirely sure whether Dongshan was the total beginner he appeared to be, or whether his answer actually reveals an understanding so deep and profound that it is indistinguishable from ordinariness. Because, as weird as it sounds, the ultimate goal of the Zen path isn't to become magical and mysterious and float off on a cloud - it's to integrate one's wisdom into one's being so completely that no trace of 'specialness' remains.
So Yunmen asks more questions... but Dongshan continues to answer them at face value. The question about the summer is a reference to a traditional 90-day training period, which Dongshan spent at a well-regarded monastery in the heartland of Zen - equivalent to doing a three-month retreat with Pa Auk Sayadaw, perhaps. Yet, despite having had access to this marvellous training environment, Dongshan displays no sign of having learnt anything.
Hence Yunmen's next statement, 'I forgive you threescore blows' - today we might say something like 'I oughtta give you a damn good thrashing.' (In case the term is unfamiliar, threescore is an old-fashioned way of saying sixty.) So Yunmen dismisses Dongshan with this rather ominous threat of violence - giving poor old Dongshan no clue about what he might have done wrong.
And, indeed, Dongshan comes right back the next day with exactly this complaint. 'You said you oughtta give me a damn good thrashing, but I have no idea what I did wrong!' But rather than explain his words, Yunmen blows up at him. 'You rice bag!' - good for nothing but consuming rice. Again, today we might say something like 'You waste of space!' Then Yunmen lists the places that Dongshan has travelled through - we know he spent the summer in Henan province, and Jiangxi is between Henan and Yunmen's monastery. Both were, at the time, considered the strongest Zen training places in all of China. Yunmen is saying 'You've had access to all of this, and you've learnt nothing at all - you're a hopeless case! Get out of here!'
And yet, at that very moment, Dongshan is greatly enlightened. But why?
The role of negative reinforcement
How should one teach? Is it better to praise a student when they do well, and encourage them to continue? Or is it better to withhold your praise and highlight their mistakes, spurring them on to overcome their failings? Should one be kind, or strict? Generous, or severe?
I doubt there's any one right answer - different approaches work for different people, and probably at different times too. Personally, I've never been big on negative reinforcement (goading and criticising students to spur them on to working harder) - when teachers have used that approach on me, it generally just annoys me and makes me want to quit, and as a result I tend not to use the approach myself either. (This is, no doubt, a personal weakness, and a potential area for growth. Nevertheless, it does mean that teachers whose primary style is critical rather than encouraging have not been a good fit for me, and students who need that kind of spur probably won't get it from me.) On the other hand, my Tai Chi teacher is the opposite - he thrives on negative reinforcement, and has told many stories of his own teacher's often contemptuous attitude toward him. He even said one time that he had no idea how to 'encourage' people to train because he'd never either received or needed encouragement from someone else.
Criticism has a tendency to create doubt. 'I thought I was doing OK, but now I'm not so sure.' And this doubt can be a double-edged sword. Harnessed correctly, it becomes a powerful fuel for practice. Misused, it becomes a corrosive force that can totally undermine the practice. So let's take a closer look at these two kinds of doubt and see if we can get clear about the distinction, so that when we experience doubt ourselves, we can tell whether it's ultimately going to help us or get in our way.
Two kinds of doubt
In a previous article I've written about the Five Hindrances - sense desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt. (Often the Hindrance of doubt is called 'sceptical doubt', and that's the term I'll use for the rest of this article, to distinguish it from the second kind of doubt that we'll discuss momentarily, 'Great Doubt'.)
Sceptical doubt is the kind of doubt that says 'I'm not sure about this. I don't know whether I should practise in this way or that way. Nothing seems to be working for me. Maybe I'm just not cut out for this! Look at all those other people, meditating away peacefully while I'm wrestling with my turbulent thoughts. My knees hurt, my back aches, I hate it. I'm not achieving anything here, and even the teacher thinks I'm useless - he told me this morning that he oughtta give me a damn good thrashing, and I don't even know what I did wrong! This is pointless, my Mum was right, I should never have left home to come here, I'm just wasting my time. I'm going to get my things and go home in the morning.'
Sceptical doubt is overcome to some extent when we start to see the effects of our practice. Traditionally, the first stage of awakening (called 'stream entry' in early Buddhism, basically equivalent to the kensho I mentioned earlier) is said to eradicate sceptical doubt forever, and it's certainly true that after you've had a significant shift of perspective it's very difficult to deny that the practice works, because you know it so clearly in your own experience. Nevertheless, and especially if you're prone to self-criticism, the insidious whispers of doubt can still creep back into our practice after a while. 'Maybe that wasn't it after all. Maybe I'm just kidding myself.' Talking to a teacher can be helpful at this stage - provided that teacher isn't the kind who only uses negative reinforcement!
The second kind of doubt, Great Doubt, is seen as central to the Zen path - so much so that there's a popular saying in Zen circles: 'Great Doubt, great awakening. Small Doubt, small awakening. No Doubt, no awakening!'
Really, 'Doubt' is a bit of a tricky word for this quality, and some modern teachers (e.g. Stephen and Martine Batchelor) prefer to translate it as 'Great Questioning' instead. The whole point of insight meditation (whatever style you like to practise, whether early Buddhist, Zen or something else) is to give us tools to examine our subjective experience and discover the extent to which our conventional way of seeing the world doesn't tell the whole story. In order to progress in insight meditation, we must be able to question everything, no matter how obvious or true it appears to be. To the extent that we're able to do that, we have the potential to break free of our existing views and habits and discover something new. The greater the questioning we can cultivate, the greater the potential breakthrough when the practice matures.
Koans aim to spark Great Doubt quite directly, by giving us what appears at first to be an impenetrable mystery. The teacher tells us that there's great wisdom buried in here somewhere, but from the outside the koan appears totally opaque. As we continue to investigate it, we go through a series of stages of generating deeper and deeper questioning, until finally our Great Doubt shatters and insight arises - when viewed from the 'inside', the koan is seen to be no 'problem' at all.
Great Doubt can be frustrating at times! Sitting down to work on an insight practice for the hundredth time, it can feel like you're banging your head against a brick wall. When is the insight going to come? But - at least on a good day - Great Doubt will be fuelled by a kind of curiosity, a sense of wanting to know what's really going on here, and that curiosity will keep you coming back, whereas sceptical doubt is more likely to lead in the other direction - what's sometimes called the 'rolling up the mat' stage of practice.
Coming back to the koan
So Dongshan arrives at the monastery, fresh-faced, having spent the summer training hard but not really getting anywhere. Yunmen asks him some questions, which he does his best to answer, but then the teacher says 'I oughtta give you a damn good thrashing!' and sends him back to his room. Poor old Dongshan is probably pretty dismayed at this point. He's just arrived at a new place, and somehow he's already pissed off his new teacher - and he doesn't even know what he's done wrong! What kind of hellhole is this new monastery anyway?
But something in Dongshan remains deeply committed to this mysterious Zen path, even if he doesn't yet have the first idea what it's really all about. And so, determined to do better next time, he stays up all night, going over and over that meeting with the teacher, trying to work out where he went wrong. What if he'd said something different? Or was it the way he said it? What was it? What was it?
As Dongshan pours his energy into this questioning, he is cultivating Great Doubt. Given that he's just come off a three-month retreat, his mind is probably pretty focused, which amplifies the power of the whole process - in the space of one night he's able to go deep into the particular kind of samadhi that arises when we focus uninterruptedly on a koan.
The next morning, he goes to see the teacher again, without having resolved his central matter. We might imagine him either so lost in questioning that he's barely even aware of Yunmen in front of him, or alternatively so distressed that he's at breaking point. And at this pivotal moment, when Dongshan is deeply focused on resolving this problem, and far removed from his usual complacent state, the teacher explodes at him, giving him the verbal equivalent of a sudden slap - which shatters Dongshan's Great Doubt and catapults him into awakening.
(Those of you who've been following this series of articles may notice a similarity with the servant boy's awakening when Zen master Judi cuts off his finger in case 3.)
Generating some Great Doubt of your own
If you'd like to explore this theme in your own practice - which I would highly recommend - one way is to take Yunmen's first question to Dongshan, and work with 'Where am I from?' as a koan.
However, there's possibly a better approach if you already have some spiritual matter which is of great interest to you. Zen master Bankei was very critical of the use of koans, feeling that they could lead to the cultivation of an 'inauthentic' Great Doubt in which practitioners were just going through the motions for the sake of tradition. On the other hand, Bankei was himself powerfully motivated to investigate from a very early age when he encountered a striking phrase in a Confucian classic - 'The way of great learning lies in clarifying bright virtue' - and so his life became a mission to discover the meaning of the text.
Bankei didn't need a classical Zen koan because he'd already found something that served the equivalent purpose for him. Maybe you have too - in which case, take it and run with it! But if not, you could do worse than start with 'Where am I from?'
May your doubts be great rather than sceptical!
Escaping the thicket of views
This week we're looking at case 14 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Killing a cat'. And before we go any further, let's get one thing clear: no live cats were harmed in the making of this story.
If taken literally, this story appears to be yet another example of the bizarre cruelty of old men with too much power, killing a cat to make some kind of obscure point - the same kind of men that would cut off a boy's finger if they didn't like what he was doing, or who would hit people with sticks as a way of asserting their dominance.
While there have certainly been spiritual communities both in modern times and throughout history where teachers have exerted an abusive power over their students, there are also many (less headline-worthy) communities where teachers are kind, compassionate and responsible, and do their best to help their students. In this case, I don't think Nanquan really hacked a cat to pieces, any more than Erwin Schrödinger really constructed a feline murder-box for his famous thought experiment. Rather, the cat is symbolic.
OK, so what does the cat symbolise?
The koan begins with a situation all too common: two groups arguing with each other.
In one of the early Buddhist texts, the Book of Eights (which some scholars argue is one of the very earliest teachings from the tradition), there's a discourse called the Kalaha-vivada Sutta (Quarrels and Disputes). It begins as follows:
In other words - we get into disputes because we find things endearing. We become attached to our own point of view, and then when someone else comes along with a different view, we feel the need to defend our own position or attack theirs. Elsewhere, the Buddha spoke of spiritual practitioners trapped in a 'thicket of views', unable to escape. And because of this self-centred habit - my views are obviously better than yours, and now I need to prove it! - we end up quarrelling, disputing, and experiencing lamentation, sorrows, selfishness, conceit, pride and divisiveness. Not bad for a morning's work.
Coming back to the story, and seeing what happens next, it seems very likely that the two groups of monks were arguing over some aspect of the Zen teachings (symbolised in the story by a cat). For example, perhaps one group believed that awakening happens suddenly, while the other group believed in a gradual process of awakening. (I've chosen this example because it's been a subject of great debate for well over a thousand years - a famous and much-beloved cat indeed.)
And so the two groups are arguing back and forth, not really getting anywhere, when the teacher comes to see what all the fuss is about.
When Nanquan speaks, his challenge is a bit cryptic - 'If you can speak, I'll spare the cat.' The koan doesn't say, but it seems likely that at least some of the monks would have been capable of speech - and yet nobody speaks out, even though Nanquan has threatened the life of their beloved cat! Perhaps we might imagine that Nanquan's presence is so imposing that the monks are all frozen - but, honestly, if your beloved cat's life were in danger, wouldn't you at least say something, like 'Please don't kill my cat!'
Again, an overly literal interpretation isn't going to help us make sense of this. Instead, however, if we bear in mind that the cat symbolises some point of Buddhism doctrine that's being debated, we can see that Nanquan is really asking something like 'Well, what was it like for you? Tell me about your awakening! Was it sudden, or gradual? Come on, speak up! You all seem to know so much about the awakening process, so tell me about how it unfolded for you!'
But instead of answering, the monks all stare at their feet. None of them can confidently claim to be awakened. In that moment, they're exposed - they're arguing about something of which they have no direct experience themselves. Suddenly, the certainty with which, just moments ago, they were defending their own position and attacking that of the other group, vanishes in a puff of smoke, and they're confronted directly with their own ignorance. The cat is dead.
The pain of discovering that we don't know what's going on, and the freedom of relinquishing views
Having the rug pulled out from under us like this can be a painful experience. There have certainly been times in my own practice when I've felt a sudden upwelling of dread because I know I'm about to discover a way in which I've been cheerfully deluding myself for decades. To make matters worse, I won't even have a new 'truth' to replace the old one - I'll simply be fully aware that I didn't know as much as I thought I did. (Socrates would surely approve.)
Nevertheless, even though it's uncomfortable to have a cherished belief ripped away from us in this way, in the long run it's actually a good thing - Nanquan is doing a great service for the monks of the eastern and western halls in this story. Indeed, a major theme in the Book of Eights mentioned earlier is the importance of not clinging to views. It might seem like a strange idea for a tradition which lists Right View as the first step of its Eightfold Path! But the Book of Eights emphasises again and again that, although views (including Right View) may be helpful expedients on the path, if we start to cling to those views - perhaps seeing them as superior to the views of others - we are setting ourselves up for quarrels, disputes and suffering.
We see this most directly in a famous and much-debated passage from the discourse to Magandiya in the Book of Eights:
'Sage, you speak
of not grasping
at any theorized judgments.
This "inner peace":
What does it mean?
How is it,
by the enlightened,
'He doesn’t speak of purity
in connection with view,
habit or practice.
Nor is it found by a person
through lack of view,
of habit or practice.
Letting these go, without grasping,
one wouldn’t long for becoming.'
The Buddha here suggests that a sage should orient toward peace, composure and equanimity through non-grasping. We won't get there simply by adopting whatever we think 'Right View' is and arguing with others about whose View is really the Rightest View. If the practice isn't personal and experiential - just as the koan says - then it's no use to us. On the other hand, we can't throw out the baby with the bathwater either - it probably won't help much to discard the teachings and practices entirely because 'there's no Right View anyway, so who cares?' That way will only lead to even more confusion. These practices and this tradition have survived for as long as they have because they're valuable. They work - so long as we don't get too attached to them.
(If you're interested in the Book of Eights, there's an excellent translation and commentary by Gil Fronsdal which I highly recommend. Stephen Batchelor also touches on these themes in his book The Art Of Solitude.)
What about this business with the sandals?
The second part of this koan, in which we meet our old friend Zhaozhou again (familiar to us from case 1, in which he replies 'no' to a question whose answer is clearly 'yes'; case 7, where a new monk asks for a teaching and Zhaozhou instead tells him to go and do the washing up; and case 11, where Zhaozhou asks two hermits the same question, and they both give the same answer, but he approves of one and not the other). This is perhaps earlier in Zhaozhou's life, when he's still living with his teacher Nanquan; but, as we see from his decisive - and mysterious! - answer to Nanquan, he's clearly well on his way to being the cryptic individual we've already seen in those past stories.
Zen koans have a bit of a reputation for being nonsensical, almost Monty Python-esque at times, and 'the one where he puts his sandals on his head' is commonly held up as an example of this type of story. It's certainly pretty bizarre at face value, and if we compare it side-by-side with the simple, sparse, direct language of early Buddhism, there's a clear difference in style. Nevertheless, even these seemingly silly stories contain valuable teachings, if we can wrap our heads around them. ('Unearthing' the buried meaning is part of the challenge of koans, and - at least for me - also part of the fun.)
In this case, we have a similar situation to what we saw last week in case 13, when Zen master Deshan was challenged, and responded not in words but with an action. In many of life's situations, actions speak louder than words, and a key part of Zen practice is learning to embody our wisdom, not merely talk about it. If all we have is fancy words then we're really no different to the monks of the eastern and western halls - it's when our wisdom guides our actions that the practice is truly valuable.
In the present case, Nanquan tells Zhaozhou about what had happened earlier in the day - two groups of monks embroiled in an argument that was purely theoretical for them, with no grounding in experience. Nanquan is almost certainly not just relating gossip to Zhaozhou for the sake of it - rather, it's a test, to see if Zhaozhou will also fall into the trap of words.
But Zhaozhou is too wily for that. Wordlessly, he takes off his sandals and puts them on his head, then walks out. What's that about? Well, normally Zhaozhou would wear the sandals, but now the sandals are wearing Zhaozhou. In a more modern idiom, we might instead do something like go outside, get a horse and cart, then put the cart before the horse, climb in, and start whipping the cart. In both of these situations, things are back to front.
In Zen practice, direct experience has primacy over intellectual knowledge. In comparison with some other traditions, which start with a great deal of study and only gradually introduce meditation practices, Zen likes to throw its students into the practice head-first, and only introduce sutra study after some degree of experiential insight has arisen. Arguing about the finer points of doctrine without the experience to back it up is, for Zhaozhou and Nanquan, putting the cart before the horses.
Wumen, the compiler of the Gateless Barrier koan collection, provides both a prose comment and a verse comment on each koan in the collection. Usually I don't include them because there's enough to chew on with just the main case, but for once I'll include his verse comment, since it neatly illustrates this back-to-front metaphor in yet another way.
Practising with this koan
If you'd like to explore the themes of today's article in your practice, here are a couple of suggested ways to go about it. One is, of course, to work with the koan directly - you could perhaps use a phrase like 'Can I speak?', or - a little more abstractly, and borrowing from Adyashanti, 'What do I know for certain?'
Another approach is to use a practice like Silent Illumination, being alert for those moments when we find ourselves caught once again in the thicket of views. In those moments, we have two opportunities: one, to practise letting go of whatever opinion we're holding, no matter how dear; and two, to notice the peace of mind that arises in the wake of that letting go. In so doing, we both develop the skill of letting go, and teach ourselves on the deepest level that letting go in this way is a smart move.
(No matter how you decide to practise with the koan, please don't hurt any cats - unless they're purely symbolic...)
Discovering yourself in stories a thousand years old
This week, we're looking at case 13 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Deshan Carrying His Bowl'. It's one of my favourites, for reasons that I'll explain later. First, a brief aside, and then we'll get into the story.
Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra
For some reason, the title of this koan always makes me think of the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'Darmok'. Captain Picard ends up stranded on a planet with Dathon, a member of an unfamiliar alien race. Picard tries to communicate with Dathon, but it appears that the Universal Translator is broken - Dathon's speech is composed entirely of cryptic statements like 'Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra' and 'Shaka, when the walls fell'.
As the episode goes on, we figure out that Dathon's people have developed a way of speaking which is almost entirely based around references to well-known past stories. Everyone knows the story of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra - which symbolises cooperation - and so by invoking the story, Dathon intends to convey that he and Picard need to cooperate to get out of their situation. But, of course, Picard doesn't know the story of Darmok and Jalad, and so the reference is meaningless to him. (One might imagine the historians of the future trying to make sense of an episode of South Park or The Simpsons.)
In many ways, we have the same issue with koans. At first glance, they're meaningless - many times, even when the story is translated into English, it relies on cultural concepts and references which are totally unfamiliar to us. For example, a classic way to begin a koan is for a monk to ask 'Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?' - which would have been a well-understood way of asking for a teaching in Tang dynasty China, but is totally opaque and mysterious for a modern reader until we know Bodhidharma (the founder of the Zen tradition in China) and the significance of his coming from the West (his journey from India to China to bring a form of Buddhism based primarily around meditation as opposed to scholarly study).
So a good first step in approaching a new koan is simply to decipher its meaning at face value - to find out who Darmok and Jalad are, and what they were doing at Tanagra. We don't stop there, of course - more on that later - but it's a good place to start. So on that note, let's meet this koan's equivalents of Darmok and Jalad.
The cast of characters
Most koans are encounters between two practitioners, but this time we have three.
First, we have Zen master Deshan, who is presumably the head of the temple where this story takes place. He's explicitly established as a Zen master - someone who knows what's what. He's senior enough to have received full transmission from his own teacher, and is the leader of this practice community.
Next, we meet Xuefeng, a monk at the temple. Reading between the lines, we can infer that Xuefeng is more junior in status. He takes his responsibilities seriously, but has a way to go in terms of his practice.
The third character is Yantou, who is most likely a senior of Xuefeng, but junior to the Zen master.
The interplay between these three is quite important to getting a grip on the koan, so make sure you've got the names straight before continuing, or come back here if you lose track of who's who. (The first time I encountered this koan I lost track almost immediately and got hopelessly confused, so don't be like me!)
Right, into the story.
Zen master Deshan makes an oopsie
The story begins with the Zen master screwing up - which may be shocking if you have the idea that Zen master should be fully enlightened, and that being fully enlightened means never doing anything wrong ever again. Sadly, the available evidence seems to point to the contrary. It's certainly possible for people to go so far in the practice to transform themselves in radical ways, but becoming totally perfect? I'm not convinced. Even the historical Buddha is recorded as having made mistakes. In modern times we have ample evidence of senior practitioners who are still evidently capable of serious errors of judgement, and in some cases of ethics - it's easy to say 'Ah well, they weren't really enlightened then,' but I think it's more realistic to acknowledge that, while enlightenment is unquestionably a good and helpful thing, it doesn't magically make you invulnerable to error.
In any case, here we have a portrait of a Zen master who is flawed in a very human way. He mistakes the time of day, and leaves the hall carrying his food bowl. But he's stopped in the corridor by the young monk Xuefeng, who points out his mistake quite directly - 'This is the wrong time, where do you think you're going?'
Personally, I think Deshan's response is telling here. Often a Zen master will respond to a question with an action rather than words, and in this case Deshan simply returns to his room right away. It's the wrong time - there's nothing to be gained by continuing to stand there. But when I think about how I might respond in that situation, it's quite different - I'd feel embarrassed for having made the mistake, maybe a little ashamed for having been caught in the act of being mistaken, and I might feel the need to defend myself. 'Oh really? I'm sure I heard the bell go a little while ago. I wonder what it could have been? Perhaps a bird has gotten into the bell tower again - someone should check that out.'
Honestly, if the koan stopped here, I'd be satisfied with it. I've found it very useful to reflect on when I've been in situations like this - when I should simply return to my room, but instead I feel the need to stand in a corridor trying to cover my embarrassment. Or, more generally, times when there's nothing going on, but rather than simply returning to rest peacefully, I've felt the need to make something interesting happen - reaching for my phone, turning on a computer, whatever it might be.
Nevertheless, the classical koan is far from done at this point. Let's see what happens next.
Xuefeng tells Yantou that the teacher screwed up
So now Xuefeng is feeling pretty good. He's wrong-footed the Zen master - caught him out in a mistake, and called him on it. The teacher didn't even have a reply! He just ran away. So Xuefeng runs to his senior Yantou and says 'Hey, guess what happened? Our crazy old teacher was wandering the halls with his food bowl in the middle of the morning! The old coot has totally lost it!'
There's a great temptation in poking holes in those above us in the social hierarchy, especially nowadays - we just love to tear people down and expose them as 'only human after all'. I remember with great embarrassment the first time I asked one of my teachers a question that he didn't have an answer for right away, and I felt a nasty little surge of pride - 'I've caught him out!' I even told some of my friends about it, just like Xuefeng is doing here.
This is a tricky moment. Xuefeng is in danger of losing respect for his teacher. That's a problem, because often a Zen teacher will ask a student to do something they don't want to do - persist with a difficult practice, explore a painful topic - and it really helps if the student is able to say 'Well, I don't want to, but my teacher says I should, so I'd better do it.' Now, even as I'm writing these words I'm thinking of the ways that that kind of relationship could be abused, and for the avoidance of doubt I'm not talking about the kind of warped power dynamic where students are abused or forced to do unhealthy things against their will. Rather, what I'm pointing to is the kind of Solomon Effect I mentioned in last week's article - a third party, such as a teacher, can often see much more clearly what's going on with you than you can, and a good teacher will sometimes encourage you to keep going when the going gets tough, because it'll be for your great benefit in the long run.
So Yantou could simply say something like 'Don't talk about our teacher that way! Have some respect.' And maybe that would work, but maybe not - maybe that would just cement Xuefeng's arrogance, because now he can think 'Not only have I caught out the teacher, but even my senior doesn't see it!'
So instead Yantou comes up with a scheme. He says 'Yep, the old man's losing it, all right. Calls himself a Zen master, but even he doesn't know what's what. He's missing something - if he were really fully enlightened he wouldn't make such a silly mistake!'
The master calls
Well, Zen master Deshan isn't going to take that lying down. He gets word that Yantou has been talking about him behind his back, and not in complimentary terms. This is probably pretty out of character for Yantou, so Deshan summons him and asks him what's going on.
The koan is a bit coy here, and simply says 'Yantou secretly revealed his intention, and Deshan dropped the subject.' As a result of this coyness, it's possible to overlook what's going on in the story - but we'll come back to that later.
Either way, Yantou and Deshan have a conversation, and we aren't let in on the details. (We could perhaps see this as Xuefeng's perspective - the arrogant young monk knows that a conversation has taken place, but not what exactly what discussed.)
But clearly something important happens in that conversation, because the next day, everything is different...
Deshan gets the last word
Whatever was discussed in that private audience, it seems to have had a significant effect on Deshan. The next lecture he gives is totally different - and it appears to impress Yantou, who previously agreed with Xuefeng's criticism of him. After this new lecture, Yantou makes a point of telling everyone that Deshan now seems to have 'got it' at last - he finally understands the 'last word', whatever that might be, and after this nobody will be able to touch him. Whatever Deshan does from now on is clearly an expression of enlightened wisdom, no matter how mysterious it might seem at the time.
And here the koan ends.
Wait, what just happened?
As I mentioned at the beginning, this koan is one of my favourites, at least partly because when I first read it, I made the exact same mistake as Xuefeng.
From Xuefeng's perspective, he finds a flaw in his teacher Deshan, and his senior confirms that Deshan hasn't gone all the way yet. Then a mysterious conversation takes place behind closed doors, after which Deshan's teaching is totally different. What final secret did Deshan realise? What's the secret teaching? What's the difference between 'nearly fully enlightened' and 'fully enlightened'? And how do we get the magic beans ourselves?
If we take a step back, however, the whole thing was one giant ruse, designed to have exactly this effect on Xuefeng (and, as it turns out, on me!). When Xuefeng goes to speak to Yantou, rather than simply telling him off for being disrespectful, Yantou decides to redirect Xuefeng's arrogance in a way that will ultimately benefit him, a kind of psychological aikido move. Yantou appears to agree with Xuefeng's criticism, then, when summoned to see the master, Yantou secretly tells him what's up. 'Master, I meant no disrespect. But Xuefeng is starting to get too big for his straw sandals - he thinks you're a daft old man who doesn't know what's going on. Maybe you could do something differently tomorrow, and then we can tell him that you're now fully enlightened - so he won't be able to criticise you any more!' And so the next day Deshan gives a teaching in a totally different style, and Yantou seizes the moment to say 'Look! From this point on, everything Deshan does is a deep and secret teaching, no matter how it seems on the surface!'
This is doubly clever, because it both capitalises on Xuefeng's fondness for secrets - he enjoyed one-upping the Zen master, and so will presumably be attracted to the idea of a secret, closed-door teaching that finally elevates Deshan to full enlightenment - and also reframes all of Deshan's future actions as sources of profound esoteric wisdom as opposed to the kind of simple mistakes that we make every day. Xuefeng will now be watching like a hawk, hoping to learn from Deshan rather than continue to undermine him.
Finding meaning in koans
As I said at the beginning of the article, we usually need to start our work with any new koan by simply deciphering the names and references involved - but if we stop there, we're making a mistake. Really, the worst outcome from any kind of koan study is to come away feeling that we now 'understand the koan' because the story makes sense on a superficial level: 'Oh, this story is about a monk who asked too many questions, so Zhaozhou is cutting him off to get him to go and meditate instead of thinking all the time.' That kind of understanding may be intellectually satisfying, but is of no practical value.
Instead, as we spend more time with a koan, we gradually find that layers of meaning will start to emerge - sometimes, these layers can even give rise to totally different interpretations of the story, as is readily apparent comparing any two commentaries on a given koan. We can see this for ourselves very clearly when coming back after some period of time to a koan that we previously felt we 'understood'. As we bring different eyes to it, we notice details we hadn't seen before, or find a new allegory buried in the story.
For my money, koans become most useful when we 'find ourselves in the story'. Perhaps we have the same question or issue as the koan's protagonist; perhaps we see how the teacher's reply can be applied to our own situation; perhaps we remember an incident from our own lives that played out exactly like part of the koan - or that perhaps could have played out that way, if we'd had more presence of mind.
In the present case, the koan made a profound impact on me when I found myself in Xuefeng - the same attitude, the same mistakes, the same arrogance. Once I began to see myself as Xuefeng, I could reflect on the times when I've treated my own teachers poorly, and began to imagine some of the work they've put in on my behalf to try to help me move forward in my own practice - work that, just like the closed-door meeting between Yantou and Deshan, I haven't been privy to, and in some cases might not even have been aware of. Reflecting on this, I was struck by the profound kindness that my own teachers have shown me, patiently taking the time to answer my questions and objections over and over, repeatedly having to watch me ignore their instructions and do my own thing because of course I know better. And at the end of it all, what is the 'secret' that I'm looking for? It was right there at the start of the story - Deshan immediately returned to his room. Perfect ordinariness, in a sense - but an extraordinary ordinariness that I'm certainly not capable of most of the time.
However, that's what I take from his koan. Someone else might get a totally different read from it. A student contacted me recently with a different take on case 8, The Wheelmaker, pointing out an aspect of the story that my own analysis totally overlooked. His own interpretation was very good, seeing the overly-fancy hundred-spoked wheels as a symbol of our greed for unnecessary things, cutting right to the heart of the Three Poisons of Buddhism (greed, hatred and delusion). But does that mean that his interpretation is what the koan is really about, and that my emptiness-based explanation was wrong? Or vice versa? I would say no - both interpretations are valid and useful.
Ultimately, koan study is 'just' another insight practice - another way of examining our experience carefully, looking to see how we deceive ourselves, how we fall into patterns of reactivity and suffering again and again, and how we might become free. Reading a koan on the intellectual level, as a story about something that happened in China a thousand years ago, perhaps interesting as a historical artefact but not particularly relevant to our lives today, is ultimately a missed opportunity. Finding ourselves in the stories, though - wherever and however we do that - is when this practice really comes alive, and really shines a light onto our own situation in a way that can be transformative.
So I suggest you now go back and spend some time with this koan - in meditation, as a contemplation, talking about it with a friend, whatever you'd like to do. And then come back tomorrow, and the next day, and keep going, until it starts to connect with you on a more direct, visceral level - until you find yourself in it. And when that does happen, really explore its implications. What can you learn? What can you apply in your own life?
Maybe what you'll ultimately take from this koan has nothing whatsoever to do with any of my commentary above - and that's fine! Whatever you find, may it be of true and lasting value for you.
This week we're looking at case 12 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Calling the Master', in which we meet Zen Master Ruiyan, who talks to himself every day. A lot of us do! But what he has to say to himself is quite interesting - there's a lot packed into just a few words here, so over the course of this article we're going to take it line by line and see what's going on.
The value of daily practice
The koan starts with the words 'Every day' - this isn't just a one-off, unlike most koans, which are records of specific noteworthy encounters. Rather, Ruiyan has something of a practice here - a daily custom of calling to himself in this way.
Practice is powerful. One of the first books about meditation that I ever read contained a line that I've never forgotten: 'Consistency is more important than intensity or sincerity.' Ultimately, as Buddhism constantly reminds us, everything is impermanent. If we practise for a while, we gain a little skill; but if we stop, that skill tends to fall off again. If we're interested in a breakthrough in our meditation practice, the stream entry of Early Buddhism or kensho of Zen, consistency is even more important - we need to build up a head of steam before we go anywhere.
Generally speaking, the 'right' amount of practice to do is the amount that you actually do - it's much better to meditate for ten minutes three times a week than to intend to practise an hour a day but actually never get around to it. That said, having a daily practice is something that I find psychologically very helpful. When I do something every day, it becomes routine, just a part of who I am; if I do something a couple of times a week, it's something that I do from time to time, when I can fit it in, and it often falls by the wayside when I'm busy. So establishing a daily meditation practice (alongside a daily movement practice in my case) and sticking to it has been tremendously helpful over the years - it's kept me practising at times when I really haven't wanted to, and in retrospect it's been hugely supportive to keep it going in those hard times.
My Zen teacher Daizan likes to say that you're in a good place when your practice has become like brushing your teeth - you know the world won't end if you miss a day, but you feel a bit icky, and you want to get back to it as soon as you can. I think that's pretty good advice.
Calling the Master
So having established that Ruiyan has a daily practice, what is it that he actually does?
He starts by calling to himself - 'Master?' - and responding - 'Yes?' This format of call-and-response may look familiar, especially if you've read my article on case 10, 'Alone and Poor', in which we saw exactly the same pattern. The difference is that in case 10, Caoshan was calling and Qingshui was responding, but in this case Ruiyan is calling to himself - or is he?
Specifically, Ruiyan is calling 'Master?' Sometimes in Zen, the imagery of master and servant is used, or equivalently 'host' and 'guest' (using the model of a roadside guest house). Servants come and go, doing the bidding of the master; guests come and go, partaking of the hospitality of the host. In our own experience, all kinds of things come and go - sights, sounds, feelings, thoughts, impulses, even consciousness - but the true nature of our experience, our Buddha Nature, what Zen Master Bankei called our Unborn Buddha-Mind, is beyond coming and going. When we learn to recognise the distinction between what comes and goes and who we really are, we can rest in the Unborn Buddha-Mind, free from suffering. And, over time, we can learn to live from that place, going out into the world and being of value to those around us.
The trouble is that it's easy to forget that we have this capacity for resting in Buddha Nature. So Ruiyan has made a practise of reminding himself, every day, by calling to his Unborn Buddha-Mind and allowing it to respond naturally, spontaneously and immediately, in just the same way that Qingshui responded to Caoshan's call in case 10. Ruiyan knows, on some level, that he has this capacity within himself - but a daily reminder doesn't hurt!
Be awake! Be alert!
A central term in Buddhism is 'awakening' (also known as enlightenment, but 'awakening' suits today's purposes better). 'But I'm already awake - I've been awake for hours!' you might protest. Well, maybe. But how fully awake are you?
The historical Buddha observed that much of our lives is driven by habitual emotional reactivity. We find ourselves in a situation that isn't quite what we'd like it to be, and reactivity rises up within us, as it tends to do in situations like this one. If we're not careful, we can be swept away by the ensuing tide of thoughts and emotions, and in severe cases only recognise hours or days later what's happened. The Buddha likened this playing-out of patterns of reactivity to being dead - in a certain sense, when a reactive pattern has taken over and is playing out, you aren't fully alive in that moment. You've lost your agency, your ability to make meaningful choices. Someone pushed one of your buttons and now you're acting out a pre-written script.
So a central part of all forms of Buddhist practice is the cultivation of presence - mindfulness, clear comprehension of what's going on. We train ourselves, over and over, to come back to the here and now, putting down the seductive trains of thought or emotional fantasies that pull us away. This simple practice is the core of the modern secular Mindfulness movement, and is also at the heart of Early Buddhism, whose Satipatthana Sutta presents four ways of establishing mindfulness, using the body, vedana (our categorisation of sensations as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), mind states, and mental phenomena.
The third of these 'establishments' of mindfulness is particularly relevant for today's purposes. The Buddha invites us to watch the state of our mind - to see whether it's focused or distracted, contracted or expansive, deluded or clearly aware. Using the mind to watch the mind in this way develops a skill sometimes called 'metacognitive awareness' - using our own cognition to track that very cognition, and thus enabling us to notice when we are starting to drift away from our awake alertness.
Coming back to Ruiyan, his daily practice starts by connecting with his Buddha Nature, calling the master and listening for the response. Next, he forms the intention to be awake, and remain alert in the face of the day's comings and goings - to maintain metacognitive awareness throughout the day. Connecting with one's Buddha Nature is a good start, but the habitual patterns of the mind can easily obscure it again if we aren't careful. So Ruiyan is instructing himself to remain grounded in his Buddha Nature, and resist the lure of reactivity to draw him out of it, invoking his keen self-observational skills to keep himself on track.
Intention is a powerful thing. Having a clearly held intention for our meditation practice is hugely helpful for getting us where we want to go - and, conversely, having a vague or muddled intention is a good setup for going nowhere fast. Similarly, forming intentions for our lives outside of practice is a powerful thing to do, and all the more so if that intention is formed when the mind is focused, perhaps as the result of samadhi practice. So, by taking time each day to set a strong intention for his practice, Ruiyan is increasing the power and effectiveness of his practice significantly.
From now on, don't be fooled by anyone!
In his excellent series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, John Vervaeke talks about 'internalising Socrates' - developing a kind of inner version of the great philosopher, so that the wisdom of Socrates is available to us throughout the day. (You might have encountered another version of this practice in the form of 'What would Jesus do?')
Socrates can come across as a bit of an unsympathetic figure at times, constantly haranguing people and picking apart their arguments without offering anything constructive in return. But what Socrates is really trying to do is to show us our capacity for self-deception - for fooling ourselves into thinking that we know more than we do, or that we understand something that we actually don't. Socrates challenges us to explain how we know what we claim to know - and, in the course of that examination, it often rapidly becomes clear that we aren't as sure as we thought we were.
Like Socrates, Buddhism also suggests that we don't see what's going on as clearly as we might. Buddhism talks about suffering as arising from three 'poisons' or 'fires' - greed, hatred and delusion. Furthermore, greed and hatred are sometimes said to arise dependent upon delusion - so if we can deal with delusion once and for all, that's the whole thing taken care of. Easier said than done! But the invitation here is to examine our experience with great care and caution, looking closely to see how much of what we 'know' to be true is actually true.
This is a hard thing to do. We have all kinds of insight practices and koans to help us to see through what's going on, but on the other hand we're surrounded by reminders of the conventional (and, Buddhism claims, deluded) world view. Unless we live in a community of highly enlightened people, almost everyone around us sees the world in a way that we're trying to see beyond, and thinks, speaks and acts accordingly. Even our architecture reinforces our standard world view - we construct buildings with hard lines and flat surfaces, imposing linear geometric shapes onto the world, and regarding them as successful if they change as little as possible over time. Take a walk in nature, on the other hand, and everything is non-linear, in constant motion, changing, growing and dying. Personally, I think the practitioners of the Thai Forest tradition are onto something by practising out in nature rather than in an urban centre. For those of us who do live in towns and cities (like me), we need to be extra careful!
So Ruiyan is reminding himself that the people 'out there' can't necessarily be trusted to embody the kind of way of life that Ruiyan is seeking for himself. Rather, Ruiyan needs to rely on his 'inner master' - his internalised Socrates, his Buddha Nature and metacognitive awareness - to steer him clear of self-deception.
In some ways, talking to one's 'inner Socrates' as if it's a different person is a pretty smart move. Anything we can do to reduce our identification with me and mine tends to be helpful. One of my first technology mentors used to get me to explain my problems to a stuffed teddy bear if he was too busy to speak to me himself. As ridiculous as it felt to do that, it was actually remarkably helpful - almost always, simply articulating the problem in detail was enough to organise my thoughts sufficiently that a next step would suggest itself. I'm grateful to that bear! There's also a well-known phenomenon, called the Solomon Effect or Solomon Paradox, in which people make much wiser decisions in regard to other people's problems compared to their own. By asking our inner Socrates what he might do in our position, we can potentially engage this Solomon Effect by inviting ourselves to look at what's going on from a dispassionate third-person perspective, rather than the ever-tricky first person, which may be mired in greed, hatred or delusion.
Bringing it all together
We can combine all of the features of Ruiyan's practice into a simple insight meditation practice, using the breathing as our object of focus. We'll start by setting a clear intention, then explore the master/servant relationship in our minds, using metacognitive awareness to keep track of when we're straying away from the practice, and exploring a couple of aspects of reality by bringing in some traditional insight ways of looking from Early Buddhism.
First, establish yourself in a comfortable posture, whatever that means for you. Allow yourself to relax, both physically and mentally. You might like to spend a few minutes resting the attention on the body sensations, or cultivating loving kindness, as a way to settle the mind and establish the conditions for practice.
Next, set your intention. You can say to yourself (either silently or out loud) something like: 'May I see my experience clearly. May I notice when my mind has wandered, and return to the practice. May my investigation benefit all beings.'
Now, bring your awareness to the sensations of your breathing. Allow yourself to breathe naturally - there's no need to control the breath at all, although if you can't help it, it doesn't really matter. Either way, your focus should be on the physical sensations of breathing themselves. Notice the breath flowing in and out of the body, and the gaps in between the in- and out-breaths.
Notice that you don't have to do anything in order to be aware of the breath sensations - and, in particular, you don't have to engage the thinking mind at all in order to notice the breath. The breath sensations are just happening, and are immediately and effortlessly known. Although we very often approach our experience from the standpoint of the thinking mind, in fact the thinking mind is the servant here, and the awareness is the master.
Also, notice that thoughts introduce a kind of subtle disturbance into the mind. It's easiest to notice in the immediate moment after a thought has ceased, where we can observe a kind of peace arising in the wake of the vanishing of the thought. Seeing this subtle disturbance many times can help to break our addiction to our thinking processes, allowing us to rest more consistently in the effortless awareness.
Now simply remain with the breathing, noticing the impermanence of the sensations, the 'just-happeningness' of awareness even in the absence of thought, and/or the subtle disturbances caused by thinking. And whenever you notice that your attention has wandered (using your metacognitive awareness), simply return to noticing these qualities of the breath sensations.
Now do this every day!
Little by little, practice accumulates
This week we're look at case 11 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Testing Hermits'. In this week's story we find our old friend Zhaozhou, who you may remember from case 1 and case 7, at it again. What's with this guy? Why does he say all this weird stuff? Couldn't people talk normally in the Tang dynasty?
Meeting people where they are
My day job is in technology, and from time to time I teach courses and give talks at conferences. The kinds of questions that people ask in those situations are generally easy to answer: a request for factual information, or advice on how to approach a concrete technical problem. I've always been blessed with a good memory for that kind of technical knowledge, and one of the functions I've tended to serve throughout my life has been to act as a repository of useful knowledge for the people around me.
By comparison, the questions I get in a meditation context are often quite different. Sure, every now and again someone will have a technical question about a specific meditation practice, or will want to know what's meant by a bit of Zen jargon. But often, when people speak, it's a mixture of confession, exploration out loud of some deep inner conflict, and/or a request for encouragement in the face of an impossible life situation.
When I first started teaching, I tended to assume that all questions could be dealt with as requests for information, following the same habit that had served me in my life up to that point. But over time I started to notice more and more that that type of answer was missing the mark, and what was needed was something else - to meet the person where they are, and address the hidden motivation behind the explicit question.
I'm not going to claim any great level of skill at this! I get it wrong all the time. Indeed, the ability to meet people exactly where they are seems to be the hallmark of true Zen masters - the classic texts talk about 'two arrows meeting in mid-air' as a poetic description of this level of skill. For me, right now, that's well above my pay grade.
Nevertheless, I try - it's vitally important to do so. I've heard teaching meditation likened to trying to help a blindfolded person walk along a narrow path with danger on both sides. Sometimes you need to say 'go left a bit', and sometimes you need to say 'go right a bit' - it depends on where they are in relation to the path. This can be a little confusing for the other students in the room, who hear me say one thing one week and then the opposite the following week, but that's the nature of the beast. I'm sometimes a little envious of my partner, who is a yoga teacher - I can't help but feel that it would be much easier to teach if one can see clear, visible signs of what's going on with someone's practice, and to be able to demonstrate it oneself in a similarly clear way. Perhaps for the more senior teachers those signs are obvious in themselves and others, but for someone at my level it's a bit of a mystery!
Getting back to the koan
In the story above, Zhaozhou is displaying consummate mastery of this skill. He visits two hermits, and essentially asks them what's going on in their practice. (In Chinese, it's apparently possible to ask a question with only a verb, hence: 'Is there? Is there?' What he's saying is something like 'is there deep realisation?', but without the inconvenient noun that tends toward turning the ongoing process of realisation into a thing.)
Both hermits answer apparently in the same way - by holding up a fist. But in one case, Zhaozhou seems to utter words of criticism, while in the other case he seems to offer praise. How does Zhaozhou know which one to praise and which one to criticise?
In fact, looking at this in terms of praise and blame, rightness and wrongness, is to miss the point. 'Move a little to the left' is just a suggestion to keep someone on the path, not a criticism for having strayed off to the right while blindfolded. Likewise, 'keep going straight on' is also just a suggestion to keep someone on the path, not praise for having stumbled blindly onto the path. In each case, Zhaozhou is saying what the student needs to hear in order to keep them moving in the right direction.
Nevertheless, it's also a mistake to think of both hermits as equal! Zhaozhou's statement to the first hermit is a word of caution: if one's practice is not yet deep, then one is at great risk of falling back into delusion when circumstances become difficult. The encouragement here is to continue to practise, deepening one's insights until they penetrate to the core. By comparison, Zhaozhou's statement to the second hermit indicates that they are free to act in the world from a place rooted in Buddha Nature - and, indeed, that the time is right to do so. Past a certain point, continuing to sit in silent meditation without ever acting in the world is a missed opportunity to express that Buddha Nature throughout the world, for the benefit of all sentient beings. (In fact, if we initially saw Zhaozhou's first statement as a criticism of shallow practice, we could instead see it as encouragement - 'hang in there, keep going, you're doing well but there's further to go' - and if we saw his second statement as praise of a more senior practitioner, we could instead see it as a bit of a spur into action - 'come on, get up off your ass and do something useful'!)
So how do I make enough space for a ship to moor?
Most of us are probably closer to the first hermit than the second! Maybe we've been doing the practice a while, and maybe we've even learnt a lot of the kind of information which is useful for answering those technical questions that I mentioned earlier - we can describe the techniques, the postures, the theory and philosophy. Nevertheless, life still seems to be pretty much the same. When are things going to change?
Our practice tends to pass through a series of stages - and not just once, but many times over, for many different facets of our lives. We begin in a condition of ignorance, or delusion - we think that things are a certain way, but we're mistaken. Over time, and through careful observation, we notice that things are the way we thought they were - we gain the knowledge that our habitual way of seeing things is inaccurate. Nevertheless, the momentum of habit energy is such that we continue to play out the same patterns that we always have - we know we should change our behaviour, but we still act unwisely. At this point, conscious effort is required, to keep reminding ourselves of what we know but have not yet fully absorbed, steering our behaviour in the new direction over and over. This stage can be frustrating, painful and exhausting, but the good news is that it doesn't last forever - eventually, we learn the new habit, and the knowledge we've gained transforms into wisdom. Our behaviour is now automatically aligned with the deeper truth that we've seen, without any need for conscious intervention. In time, we may even forget that we ever needed to use effort - the new behaviour has become so fully part of us, so obvious, that it becomes difficult to remember a time when it was any other way.
It can help to bear this progression of wisdom in mind when doing the same old insight meditation practice for the thousandth time, or trying and failing yet again to enter jhana. I've always been a fan of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and Call of Cthulhu, and one way that helps me is to think of even a failed attempt to enact a new behaviour or a totally uneventful, uninsightful meditation session as having given me one more experience point than I had before. (My notebook from my most recent retreat has many, many entries which contain '+1XP' - I was trying out some new stuff, and failed many many times over before I got anywhere with it, so the sense that I was racking up XP even in my unsuccessful forays was pretty helpful in keeping me motivated.) Eventually, we rack up enough XP to level up our characters and gain those new abilities we've been looking forward to - the only drawback is that we don't know how much XP we have right now, or how much we need to level up! (Honestly, it's a terrible user interface.)
A practice for grinding XP
Let's make this concrete. Here's a simple tweak to the practice from last week's article that you can use to explore the principle of anatta, not-self. As before, take one sense sphere at a time and notice the sensations arising within it, and the vedana associated with those sensations. Now, ask one more question: 'am I making this happen'? Are you, personally, causing those sensory phenomena to arise, or the associated sense of pleasant/unpleasant/neutral? Or are they just happening by themselves? And what's the difference between the two cases - what specifically indicates to you that 'I'm doing this!' versus 'that's just happening'?
Make it a genuine inquiry - there's no right answer here for any individual asking of the question. Over time you'll find a pattern starts to emerge, and as it does it can get quite interesting to look at the occasions when your answer doesn't fit the pattern. But for now, just start asking! Each time you ask, you gain an experience point. You'll probably need a lot of XP to level up, but that's all the more reason to start asking sooner rather than later... So give it a go!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!