Some of the phrases we use in Practice seem inconsequential, but within the phrase is an exquisite teaching. Here is one of my favorites.
“How would it help you to know that?”
You might hear this phrase for any number of reasons. For example
- in response to a note you post to the Guestmaster asking why something is the way it is
- in Group if you inquire too closely into the antecedents or the personal life experience of your facilitator
- if you write the registration office to inquire if the Guide is facilitating a retreat so that you can decide whether or not to sign up
All these requests for information seem perfectly “normal,” even “intelligent,” but the response from Practice indicates otherwise!
“How would it help you to know that?” as a Teaching
Zen has no business with ideas. - D.T. Suzuki
In Practice, a question in answer to a question is a koan in disguise. It’s a signal to pay attention. It’s meant to catapult the practitioner from the realm of content to the realm of process. It’s a pointer to look at “what’s” asking, serving as a reminder that we are not practicing to perpetuate conditioned thinking but to transcend it.
Because ours is a practice of Zen, if the question provokes, offends, or disturbs the ego, if it challenges a conditioned way of thinking, if it puts us in touch with a boiling rage or a simmering resentment, it’s the most compassionate rejoinder possible! Our job when that happens is to learn to watch ego squirm and then chuckle at its antics.
The Why Question…
For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them. - Thích Nhat Hanh
“Why” is lauded in the world of conditioned mind as a “gateway to understanding.” “Why” supposedly reveals those really important things, such as causality, purpose, meaning… The prevailing assumption is that there’s utility in figuring something out.
Yes, “why” contains the seeds of curiosity, but it can also cleverly conceal a movement into the abstract, into theories and hypotheses, into positions, preferences and beliefs. It takes us away from the throbbing intuition of direct experience to the ossified “certainty” of knowledge.
The spiritual journey is into the mystery of Emptiness, and in that endeavor “why” is not only not helpful, it can be a downright detriment. It’s the first step away from what is, simply because it is. This is why the Buddha never answered “why” questions.
Practice gently reminds us when we ask why that asking why is never helpful!
The “Who” Question!
When you know your own definition, flee from it,
that you may attain to the One that cannot be defined,
O sifter of the dust. -Rumi
Have you noticed the conditioned propensity to “get to know a person”? It’s the currency of connection to discover the antecedents, history, and narrative of the personality. Intimacy appears to come from knowing about someone – what they do, what they think, what they feel, what they prefer, their views, beliefs, positions. When we extend that conditioning into the context of spiritual work, we are programmed to believe that knowledge of “who” someone is and how they have become “who” they are is helpful to “me” if I want to become what “you” are.
When we question the Guide about her past for example, or a facilitator about his or her spiritual history, if we compliment a monk for their service, attention turns to the “personality.”
We practice in the privileged environment precisely because it is constructed to keep out the personality. In this most holy of practice “spaces,” identity is irrelevant. It’s not that we are asked not to ask questions or are discouraged from showing appreciation. But it’s the role of Practice to compassionately recall us to what we are doing.
When we unconsciously wander into the territory of ego’s preoccupation with itself, we are recalled to the teaching “all things are without a self.”
“How would it help you to know that?” points to paying attention to whether or not our attention is on “knowing” the self or transcending it!
The “Me” Question
When we pay attention, everything enlightens. -Zen Proverb
Yes! There are many variables to consider when deciding to come on retreat. It’s after all “my” money, “my” time, “my” immortal soul. Really? Who is this “me” that “decides”? Ego always has a preference for the optimal conditions under which we should practice. But Practice reminds us that there is always only one decision: we are either practicing to end suffering or not.
Showing up to practice is making a choice for the Unconditional, unconditionally.
Showing up, no matter what, for a practice event is to move from an orientation of consumer to contributor. It’s one of the most important spiritual movements we make. It’s a movement to surrender the “self” lost in the self-hating conversation that believes it has nothing to give. It’s cultivating the humility to recognize that every node of life is Intelligence waking up to itself and can be our teacher.
When the registration office poses the question “How would it help you to know that?” when we ask who is leading a retreat, we are being invited to consider the value of practicing unconditionally. The question invites us to the perspective that what we seek is “what we are,” and ultimately that realization is something we have to arrive at for ourselves through practice.
As you go about your day, consider how the question “ How is it helpful for you to know that?” is your teacher. R/L