What is it?

As a Zen priest, I took a vow to keep the lamp of Zen from going out. But what is the lamp of Zen? What lights the way? What is my deepest understanding of Zen practice? What’s personally most true and alive for me?

These days, my Zen practice tends to focus on two questions: “What am I doing?” and “What is it?”

“What am I doing? is asking what the living moment is requesting of me and how I’m behaving. Asking “what am I doing?” is how I watch myself and investigate my habits, my actions, my delusions, and my character. It’s Zen practice in the domain of activity, relationship, and morality.

The second question – “What is it?” – asks about the nature of emptiness, the absolute, the principle, as it is manifested in everyday life. This second question is the ongoing question at the heart of many Zen koans. It’s a question you can raise throughout the day as well as when you wake up in the middle of the night. “What is it?” applies to any and every object, any and every action, time, thought, idea, feeling, silence, and being. I’m walking down the driveway. What is it? I’m feeling sad. What is it? A cloud covers the sun. What is it? My wife is having breakfast. What is it?

This might sound exotic or have a feeling of disorientation or alienation. But in plain terms,
do you know? You kind of know, but maybe you don’t really know completely. Not entirely. You’re taking a shower. What’s happening? What is it? You have language – words and grammar – to describe it. But does this description really say enough? Say it all? Is the description the whole story? What is motion? What is water? What is heat? Who are you? Do you know deeply and completely? If you answer “yes,” good for you. But if you don’t, you may consider that perhaps you don’t yet quite know the true nature of a single thing. It turns out the question is neither exotic nor distancing; it’s basic and it’s intimate.

Sometimes, one comes across the question in almost this exact form in old Zen teachings. For example, Dongshan (Tozan) said, “When looking, what is it? When serving, what is it? When accomplishing mutually, what is it? When there is the accomplishment of accomplishment, what is it?” More recently, the Japanese lay teacher Shin’ichi Hissamatsu posed the question, “When nothing will do, what will you do?” as what he called “the fundamental koan.” And Seung Sahn Sunim, the Korean Zen master, constantly referred to the importance of “Don’t know mind.”

What is it? is something I’ve carried forward from studying with Keido Fukushima Roshi. Practicing koans with him is where I got deeply acquainted with “the Great Doubt” that this question expresses. This doubt arose for me initially when I was a young man in the form of questions like “what does this mean?” But over time as the doubt persisted and much later when I took up formal Zen practice it took root in my body and body and mind together learned to take on the essential energy of the question mark.

When I was young, the What is it? question felt more like an irritant. Like a curse. It was a persistent source of feeling dissatisfied. I didn’t have an answer that satisfied me, nor was I able to hold the question as something not needing a particular answer. (I understand it now as my early experience of Bodhicitta – Way-Seeking Mind.) Now, the question is something I rely on as a pipeline to the absolute, to Buddha Nature, to the principle, to what’s essential nature and essentially impossible to describe. I experience it not as a curse but as a nourishing blessing, a reliable companion that connects me to the essential nature of reality.

For me, What is it? challenges and demolishes names and categories. It erases history and future. It throws everything away and at the same time is a complete, wide-open invitation that includes everything. It’s both humble and insistent. It merges the miraculous and the ordinary. It’s the sound of the live present. Asking it of everything, it meets, unites and connects all things without negating or diminishing the unique identity of any one single thing, pointing to the shared fundamental nature of all things and beings while acknowledging and respecting each individual thing’s and being’s self identity.


  1. Ken says:

    My koan is now: When Life has taken away your Soul Mate, the Love of your Life, the very breath you breathe,,, WHAT DO YOU DO?

  2. Peter says:

    Hi Ken. Keep breathing. Keep breathing. Your friends are thinking of you and breathing with you.