In Zen meditation, the key factor is to maintain a constant sense of questioning. So, having taken hold of the hwadu (koan) “What is this?,” try to always sustain the questioning: “What is seeing?” “What is hearing” “What is moving these hands and feet?” and so on. Before the initial sense of questioning fades, it is important to give rise to the question again. In this way, the process of questioning can continue uninterrupted with each new question overlapping the previous one. In addition you should try to make this overlapping smooth and regular. But this does not mean that you should just mechanically repeat the question as though it were a mantra. It is useless to just say to yourself day and night, “What is this?” “What is this?”
The key is to sustain the sense of questioning, not the repetition of words. Once this enquiry gets underway, there will be no room for boredom. If the mind remains quiet, the hwadu will not be forgotten, and the sense of questioning will continue unbroken. In this way, awakening will be easy
While meditating, both wisdom and concentration need to be cultivated in unison. If there is wisdom without concentration, then mistaken views will increase. And if there is concentration without wisdom, then ignorance will grow. When inquiring single-pointedly into the hwadu “What is this?” the vividness of the hwadu becomes wisdom, and the cessation of distracted thoughts becomes concentration.
Meditation can be compared to a battle between wandering thoughts and dullness of mind on the one side and the hwadu on the other. The stronger the hwadu becomes, the weaker will become wandering thoughts and dullness.
You are not the first and you will not be the last to tread this path. So do not become discouraged if you find the practice difficult at times. All the previous patriarchs of old as well as the contemporary masters have experienced hardships along the way. Moreover, it is not always the most virtuous or intelligent person who makes the swiftest progress. Sometimes the opposite is true. There are many cases of troublesome and ill-behaved people who, upon turning their attention inward to the practice of meditation, have quickly experienced a breakthrough. So do not feel defeated even before you have really begun.
An ancient master once said that with the passing of days you will see your thoughts becoming identical with the hwadu, and the hwadu becoming identical with your thoughts. This is quite true. In the final analysis, the practice of Zen can be said to be both the easiest as well as the most difficult thing to do. However, do not thereby deceive yourself into thinking that it will be either very simple or extremely hard. Every morning just resolve to be awakened before evening. Strengthen this commitment daily until it is as inexhaustible as the sands along the Ganges.
There is no one who can undertake this task for you. The student’s hunger can never be satisfied by his teacher’s eating a meal for him. It is like competing in a marathon. The winner will only be the person who is either the fittest or the most determined. It is solely up to the individual to win the race. Likewise, to achieve the aim of your practice, do not be distracted by things that are not related to this task. For the time being, just let everything else remain as it is and put it out of your mind. Only when you are awakened will you be able to truly benefit others.
Be careful never to disregard the moral precepts that act as the basis for your practice of meditation. Furthermore, do not try and look deliberately withdrawn or abstracted. It is quite possible to pursue your practice of Zen without others being aware of what you are doing. However, when your absorption in the hwadu becomes particularly intense, your attention to external matters may diminish. This might result in your looking rather out of touch with everyday concerns. At this time the hwadu is said to be ripening and the mind starts to become sharper and more single pointed, like a fine sword. It is vital at this point to pursue your practice with the intensity of an attacking soldier. You must become totally involved with the hwadu to the exclusion of everything else.
If you can make your body and mind become identical with the hwadu, then in the end ignorance will naturally shatter. You will fall into a state of complete unknowing, perplexity, and questioning. Those who have done much study will even come to forget what they had previously learned. But this is not a final or lasting state. When you have reached this point you must still proceed further to the state where although you have ears, you do not know how to hear; although you have eyes, you do not know how to see; and although you have a tongue, you do not know how to speak. To reach the place where mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers may entail several years of hard practice. Therefore, it is necessary to cast aside all other concerns and train yourself to focus the entirety of your attention on the tasteless hwadu alone.
By practicing diligently in this manner, you will finally awaken. Then you can seize the Buddhas and patriarchs themselves and defeat them. At that time, mountains will again be mountains, rivers will again be rivers, the earth will be the earth and the sky will be the sky.
Kusan Sunim (1909-1983)
Excerpted from The Way of Korean Zen Kusan Sunim and Martine Batchelor 2009
In Zen there are many styles of meditation taught through the various schools; each person has to find the approach that strikes a chord within them, one they can spend enough time to realize the fruits of their efforts. In some schools students are given traditional Zen koans that have been studied for generations of students. In this school of Korean Zen “What is this?” is the koan given to students; it can be traced back to the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng who asked the young monk Huai-jung: “What is this thing and how did it get here?”
As with any practice whether moving or sitting meditation, the challenge is to keep the efforts fresh. The tendency to become mechanical is almost wired into us; the effort to stay awake and present in the moment requires a kind of authenticity that is the antidote for the sleeping sickness of daily life.
“There is no one who can undertake this task for you.”