One day as a small child, I was suddenly struck by wonder. How amazing it is that we just show up in a particular body with a head we can’t see, looking out into the world. I kept asking what is this all about? I wondered if adults knew anything about how this all happened. To me it seemed they were unconcerned. Their replies were cursory: “God’s plan can’t be known. Don’t worry yourself over these things.” But I had to keep asking. All of us have the asking part of ourselves, even though it is masked by our daily difficulties and personal ambitions. When we allow ourselves to open deeply to our spirit of inquiry, we find the motivating force in our lives is the infinite spirit we all are, beyond the limits of what we can imagine.
Through years of contemplative practice, our spirit of inquiry takes twists and turns, but it always seems to come back to what the late great Zen master Suzuki Roshi once said: “The most important thing is to find out the most important thing.” For me the most important thing is asking the question who or what am I, really? Is there an entity we can call me? What is this awareness that manifests the world, that manifests the idea of me?
The ultimate question is to ask deeply: What is it, really? We step back from our intellect and our emotional attachments, and allow ourselves to come face to face with what in Zen is called our original face. Our original face is simply the totality of our being right here and right now. It includes what we conceive of as outside of us as well as inside. It includes all of our sensory experience, including the thinking mind. Our original face is what is here. It is the living spirit we are, eluding all labels, including this one.
At the end of Huston Smith’s autobiography, Tales of Wonder, he describes an experience his friend Ann Jauregui had as a young girl in Michigan, a beautiful merging of the spirit of inquiry with spirit itself.
“In summer she would lie on a wooden raft anchored in the bay, listening to the waters lapping, drowsy in the warm sunshine. The warm day, the clear northern light, and the water’s gentle motion together worked a semi-hypnotic effect. Then suddenly Ann would snap alert and feel intensely alive, or rather that everything was alive and that she was part of it. The rocks, the rowboats on the shore, the water itself — everything seemed pulsating with a kind of energy. She found she could put questions to the experience. ‘What is my role in all this?’ she asked. ‘I want to know,’ she whispered. ‘Show me.’ The rocks, the trees, the water — all in silent chorus ‘answered’ – not in words, of course — that her wanting to know, just that, was her part of the pulsating landscape. ‘Creation delights in the recognition of itself’ is how she would later put it.”
Even though almost all of us have had such transcendent or mystical experiences, most of us tend to forget them or not attach much importance to them. When I’ve discussed mine and other people’s similar experiences, I’ve found one common denominator. Our wanting to know is revealed as the intense aliveness of the experience. As our wanting to know intensifies, we become aware that the aliveness we bring to each moment is the true knowing!
This spirit of wanting to know is our deepest devotion to the mysterious presence of life. As our wanting to know is revealed as the aliveness of spirit, devotion to our inquiry is revealed as devotion to spirit itself. So inquiry and devotion arise together. Great doubt and great faith. Each furthers the other’s development. We cultivate devotion to spirit through inquiry. We cultivate inquiry into spirit through devotion.
In the beginning stages of practice, we naturally embark on self-inquiry with our thinking mind. Questions can help us let go of thought, when we are open to the wondrous mystery that surrounds them. First we ask the question, and through our witnessing practice, we learn to deeply enter the mysterious field of the question through witnessing our experience. Deeply entering our experience is simply allowing it to be as it is without trying to control it by grasping onto thoughts about it. This is how the power of our questioning transforms from being centered in our thinking, into being informed by our intuitive spirit of inquiry. We’re learning to ask by merging with pure presence, we’re now asking from the very source of thought. And our desire for truth is revealed to be this pure presence.