There is something very mysterious and significant about a question.

In the Zen sect, one major practice is the continual asking of an internal question — “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” perhaps, or “What was my true face before I was born?”

These are questions that cannot be ended by an ordinary response.  In fact, one must go beyond all intellectual and logical and rational answers, beating one’s head against the wall of the question again and again, hour after hour, week after week, perhaps even year after year until finally — if all is favorable — all at once the wall falls of itself and the answer beyond words is revealed.

The spiritual practice advocated by Ramana Maharshi, the noted south Indian saint of the early 20th century, was asking one’s self continuously “Who am I?”  Again, all ordinary answers had to be put aside, because it is the ongoing state of questioning that will finally — again if one is fortunate — lead to realization.

In the Western tale of the Holy Grail, we find the naive young Parzival witnessing a strange ritual in the Grail Castle.  He sees the wounded Fisher King, and he sees the Grail brought in, glowing with its own light.  He is supposed to ask “Whom does the Grail serve?” but fails to do so.  In Jungian psychology this is very significant– it is the equivalent of failing to ask the meaning of life.  The question need not be answered to be effective — but like the questions of Zen and Ramana Maharshi, it must be posed and then the matter will develop.

We find parallels again and again between hokku and the higher levels of spiritual practice and realization, but though there are parallels, I caution again that no one ever became enlightened by reading or writing hokku.  Nonetheless, the questioning state is held so highly in hokku that there is a specific category devoted only to posing a question that remains unanswered, as in this Autumn verse of Kitō, which I give here in a translation very close to that of R. H. Blyth:

Dense fog;
What is being shouted
Between hill and boat?

The whole effect of such a hokku lies in the state of unknowing generated by the question that is asked but not answered.  That is why in question hokku, an answer is neither given nor expected.  It is only that focused state brought about by the question — that heightened condition of not knowing — that we want.

It is written in the Cloud of Unknowing,

“That right as bi the defailing of oure bodely wittes, we
bigine redeliest to kom to knowing of goostli thinges…”

“That just as by the failure of our bodily wits, we begin most readily to come to knowing of spiritual things…”

In the same way the unanswered question of hokku opens us up to silence that is beyond the intellect, beyond questions.


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