Who is asking the question ?

This is a wonderful question; a horrible question; but one that lurks within every other one of these Ten Zen Questions.

Before you read Chapter 3, you might like to have a go at it yourself. Settle down to sitting quietly and looking at the floor, or a nice flower, or whatever you like – or do an easy task like washing up or just walking – and ask yourself “Who is asking the question?”.

You can listen to me agonising about it if you like. 
And then you can read Chapter 3 and see how I got on.

What do you think? Where did the question take you? Have any of you experienced the “headless way” or tried any of the other things I describe there?

Oh, and by the way, the Psychology Today  blog is up and running. You might like to join in there too, or at least take a look. It will be very different from this one, though on the same topics. Advice welcomed!


37 Responses to “Who is asking the question ?”

  1. mrealg Says:

    “Who is asking the question ?”

    Sue, and then Simon

    Sue, there are some important issues raised here about different types of perception, and the limits of different types. You seem to be placing very much emphasis on visual perception over the other senses. Your question about the boundaries between inside and outside (and Harding’s curious take on the presence or absence of heads) take on a very different cast if one investigates them using for example touch as the main sense. I have always been more interested in auditory rather than visual perception; one of the things that made me realise this was Maconie’s ‘The Science of Music’ which I naively read, hoping for tables of frequency and wave-forms etc.

  2. tenzenbookblog Says:

    You are absolutely right – attending to the different senses leads to rather different experiences, and modern psychology has a habit of paying much more attention to vision than the other senses. Even so, there is a great deal about sounds in my book. For example I talk about bird song, the sounds of traffic and builders, and many other noises.
    For example, see the EEEEEuchhhhhh” in Chapter 2 http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/Books/Tenzen/question2.htm.
    The conclusions are a bit different but the gist is the same – the distinction between experience and experiencer begins to break down, or so it seems to me.

  3. holdingnobough Says:

    Yes that seems to be the question. And who separates out all the senses and can you get them all at once in one now, including who sits? Inside, outside, more thoughts, think not thinking, that’s a thought, who’s voice am I hearing, blah blah, where was I oh yes who’s asking the question, that’s a thought. But behind it all… in stillness… wake up, think not thinking…

    I suppose an other question might be ‘what’s behind asking the question’ because I think that affects the questioning. I am aware that I am always approaching the cusion with some held position.

  4. sgthomas601 Says:

    I sense a trap with this question. If somehow I was able to look inwards and see who is looking at the stone, I would then have to ask: who is looking at me looking at the stone? If I see who is looking at me looking at me looking at the stone, then who is looking at me looking at me looking at the stone?

    I’m never going to see who’s doing the looking because there’s no one who’s doing it. There’s looking, but no one looking, hearing but no one hearing, thinking but no one thinking. The classic analogy is the eye, which sees everything except itself, because it’s what’s doing the looking.

    As I’ve probably read somewhere in the Zen or Advaita literature: I can’t see it, only be it.

  5. tenzenbookblog Says:

    You’re quite right. But it’s relatively easy to get this intellectually – much harder to really feel that there is only the looking and no one doing it.
    This raises another interesting question (I discuss this a bit in the introduction to the book). Does intellectual understanding help us get to experiential understanding, or direct knowing? I think so, but many Buddhist teachers tell students to avoid all intellectual discussions and thinking.

  6. sgthomas601 Says:

    Given my particular genes, environment, conditioning and life experience, I tend to approach this and other questions in an intellectual, thought-driven way, mixed in with observations of my direct experience to check the validity of my understanding.

    What I’ve been noticing lately is that, as my understanding grows, my way of experiencing and being in the world changes. For example, after a lot of investigation, it’s become obvious to me that I don’t have contra-causal free will. At first this was purely an intellectual position derived from my (admittedly limited) studies of physics and neuroscience but, as my understanding deepens and is increasingly validated by direct experience and observation, I’m finding that I’m starting to become more accepting of both myself and others and of what happens in this marvelously pointless universe.

    Re the avoidance of thinking, it seems to me that, if I’m wired to think a lot because of the causal web of which I’m a part , then thinking will happen, and trying to avoid or suppress it will only make things worse. Then again of course, I’ll try to suppress my thoughts if that’s what I’m caused to do! Aargh!!

  7. atan10 Says:

    Buddhist teachers often said: “Burn the scriptures!”, but were ardent writers nevertheless. As Buddhism is a religion, not science, knowledge is a tool of teaching rather than something judged to be “true” in a scientific sense.
    Zen texts a full of exemplary controversy about this point, eg. followers of other schools, who beatify sutras, statues, Buddha himself and the Zen master, who says: “If you meet Buddha, kill Buddha!”
    It can be a danger to oneselves practice to take the intellectual understanding of something for the real experience – as the practice can be dull and burdensome, we are all to eager to make us believe we really got “there”!

  8. ealg Says:

    Very interesting. I tried asking this question (with my eyes shut, for variety) and found that there didn’t seem to be an answer, certainly not any usual ones triggered by social situations. I could almost say that the answer was nobody, except that there was a sense of physical boundaries.
    I can’t put any weight myself on Buddhist teachers instructing people to avoid intellectual discussions and thinking. How do we know that they don’t say that to maintain an elite status? If you are approaching this in a spirit of intellectual inquiry, even in an amateur way as in my case, you can hardly avoid such things.
    Perhaps the answer is less surprising if there are times, e.g. when excitedly writing an exam answer, when it would not occur to me to ask who is doing the writing; there is only the writing, which almost seems as if it is being done itself.

  9. atan10 Says:

    I think, as a religion, Zen has a different objective than science. Religion contains doctrine, practice and spiritual experience. While Zen, unlike many other religons, is fairly open to the point of formal adherence to the faith, it still stays a religion, a certain concept of life. As one Zen teacher expressed it: “enlightment may be interesting but rather meaningless without religion.” Experience is the foundation of understanding the doctrine, the doctrine will get us to practice, which in the end might lead to a deeper experience.

    In one way, science could be compared to this, a true scientist will always go on asking and harbour doubts about “established facts”. On the other hand, scientific knowledge is treated often as something separate from your practice of life. You put it in a book, it becomes an established fact, and after a while, you tend to defend it as your achievement and cornerstone of your academic prestige.

    True experience is something of melting, you melt down all your meagre “achievements”, your oh-so-precious and delusional ego and all concerns about “who” is asking.
    And going there, you might spend years without any “results”, you could put nothing that sounds “bright” or “intellectual” into a thesis. This can be rather frustrating, but it is nevertheless part of the process. To get out of this, you would welcome any kind of confirmation, that you achieved “something”, had this or that “valuable” “insight” or “idea” – but the good teacher will always reject you, for 1st, he wants you to get to the “real” stuff, and 2nd, for not confusing everybody else with the random brain rubbish you produce out of intellectual despair to “know” “who” is asking.

  10. jacques79 Says:

    Ealg says (quotation):
    “I can’t put any weight myself on Buddhist teachers instructing people to avoid intellectual discussions and thinking. How do we know that they don’t say that to maintain an elite status? If you are approaching this in a spirit of intellectual inquiry, even in an amateur way as in my case, you can hardly avoid such things”.

    The reason of that seems to be quite reasonable though. Ok let’s consider this. All relative knowledge and thinking is dualistic. But the aim of Zen practice is that special “experience” which is said to be non- dualistic. This is also said to be the ultimate answer to every question and “essence” of every single thing on the world. Therefore every coan question is ultimatively the answer itself as there’s no distinction beetwen question and answer, subject and object. From that point of view, every intellectual answer is just half – answer, it is -according to Zen- sort of ‘excercise of multiplying relative knowledge”. So, actually you can say that all coans like “who is asking the question” and “does the muon have buddha nature” – they are just all the same.

    Zen masters definitely are not fools or snobs -there are very good objective reasons to avoid too much of intellectual discussion during practice (including psychological – it seems to be easier to calm and focus the mind). I’m not trying here to deny value of scientific inquiry. You can always use intellectual tools to “point the truth” (as Sue says), as long as you can remember there are just tools and don’t let yourself getting caught in them.

  11. timxcampbell Says:

    “Who is asking this?”

    I wouldn’t be asking that right now if I hadn’t visited Susan Blackmore’s site. And that wouldn’t exist without the Internet.

    Gosh, it sure felt like “my” question.

    Perhaps questions like “Who is asking this?” become intractable when the source is presumed to be a discrete source instead of a system.

  12. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Isn’t it difficult not thinking of yourself as a discrete source.

  13. timxcampbell Says:

    Difficult? Yes. We keep the body alive according to the convention that we are discrete. We tend to put food in one particular mouth, not another, so the convention is not a silly one.

    On the other hand, the inter-relatedness of everything is clear enough even to logical thought. I can plainly see that I’m writing this because I got an email notice that you’d replied. It would be incomplete if I claimed I’m writing this because “I” decided to.

  14. mrealg Says:

    Rather the opposite, isn’t it hard to think of yourself as a discrete source once you have realised about multiple parallel systems? Simon

  15. tenzenbookblog Says:

    No! I know lots about the multiple parallel systems, and you should be right, of course. Yet I still cartch myself feeling as though there’s a “me” who’s a discrete surce of ideas or feelings or inventions.

  16. jacques79 Says:

    If “you” are not the source of feelings or thoughts then you can always ask “what’s the source of feelings and thoughts”. And what’s that source – is it you or isn’t? Instead of asking “who is asking the question?” you may ask “where do the thoughts come from?” – without any additional presumptions about (existing or non existing) self.

  17. timxcampbell Says:

    Hmm. In our efforts to see beyond a me-centric viewpoint, we can inadvertently employ the conventional tools of thinking we sought to down-play.

    For example, we speak of “multiple parallel systems” we “know lots” about. In so doing, we imply separating lines that make the systems discrete enough to be considered parallel.

    Oops. Discreteness somehow got back into the mix.

    We humans have evolved countless nifty mental tools we can use. At times, though, it appears that our tools are using us.

  18. tenzenbookblog Says:

    If you look at the list of questions at http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/Books/Tenzen/old%20stuff/chapters.htm you’ll see that question 5 is “How do thoughts arise?”. All these questions flow into each other.

  19. seanholland Says:

    Many years ago, as a student, I first encountered Wittgenstein and my mind was blown, as we used to say. “Who is asking the question?” This brings to mind old Ludwig and his talk of “mental cramps.” My memory of his exact words and ideas is a bit foggy, but I seem to remember him talking about the “cramps” arising from questions we ask about language; we are using the thing we are trying to explain or define, and look for a meta-language with which to talk about language, but then we need a meta-meta-language to talk about that one, in infinite regress. What excited me about Wittgenstein was that he was attempting to show the edge, the membrane that we bump up against, when we try to talk about or think about talking and thinking. Logic is a finite system, language is a finite system: that’s why they work. But there are some jobs that we trick ourselves into thinking they can do. From the Tractatus (and certainly not from memory!):
    4.003 Most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical. Consequently we cannot give any answer to questions of this kind, but can only point out that they are nonsensical. Most of the propositions and questions of philosophers arise from our failure to understand the logic of our language. (They belong to the same class as the question whether the good is more or less identical than the beautiful.) And it is not surprising that the deepest problems are in fact not problems at all.
    (He was using “nonsense” not in a dismissive way, but in a technical way.)
    And, of course, that beautiful little book ends with proposition 7: “What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence.” Which seems like a pretty good answer to “Who is asking the question?”

  20. banoffi Says:

    Only tangentially relevant, but it made me smile:


  21. jacques79 Says:

    It’s getting windy… Where is the wind blowing from??

  22. tenzenbookblog Says:

    I liked SeanHolland’s comment about Wittgenstein’s “membrane”. The balance between inner and outer sometimes feels like this I think. One of my teachers, Michael Luetchford, http://www.dogensangha.org.uk/about.htm, advocates hovering between inner and outer – surfing on the boundary between looking in and looking out. Is this like a membrane? Was Wittgenstein really exploring the same things?

  23. yoshizen Says:

    Really interesting conversation to read through.
    And I found there are three types of matters and tendency here.
    1) is approach the original question “Who is—” in conventional way.
    2) is taking it as another Rinzai-Koan thus the blog became like something but yet another puzzle.
    3) is in fact peculiarly missing from here, which is
    pure psychological, neuroscientific approach.
    (may be the answer had been exhausted against
    the classical question)

    I often use an analogy in the robotics or computer to see the brain function. It is not difficult to design self diagnostic feed back system, which in function
    keep watching the self automatically.

    (my PC started malfunction——To be continued)

  24. yoshizen Says:

    (to follow the previous blog)

    Same as a robot, our human existence are also self regulating. (In fact robot was designed after our system)
    Such as the Homeostasis which maintain the whole
    chemical, hormonal balances and its functions.

    As most of the electronic servo system, those control and
    function remain invisible. Though, some give-off sign of
    the state of the machine or body become noticeable,
    such as motor over heat or high blood pressure as a
    latent feelings.

    For those, we can put additional sensor to a motor or even a heart to observe the state, and possible to measure
    temperature or pulse rate, and farther conversion of the signal it is possible to display the figure or count.
    (so-called human interface)

    In the human body we are sensing burst amount of
    give-off sign. Some of them has been categorized and
    even given a particular expression for the sake of communication, such as ” I feel heavy ”
    With further decoding of those internal signal which may
    even associated with the visual signal by its similarity or
    close proximity in the neural networks. “I saw the light”
    ( ———better ask Susan)

    So that, our vague feeling of the self or even a visually
    added image of “Somebody is watching me” is the
    reflection of those internal, subliminal functions and
    the signal traffics.

    Without bothering those signal or even the images
    we imagined, the body still works, thanks to the bullion years of refinements of the design ( simply a bad design
    couldn’t survive and its gene configuration disappeared)
    ( and may thanks to the Dharma’s guidance)
    —-if not, it is the Fate and if it was caused by the
    inherited gene defect, it is the Karma)

    The Buddha’s teachings are “Don’t bother those
    mal-interpreted notions and images, some of them are even far-fetched delusions.
    Live while you live, at its best. Just DO it. (not waste
    the time thinking or worrying)——such as what we are
    doing here. Ha Ha Ha 😀

    ( This is my view in its rough brief based on the
    common sense and popular science, therefore don’t
    ask me the origin or bibliography)

  25. jimclatfelter Says:

    I just discovered these ten zen questions from friends on an email list devoted to the ‘headless way.’ I’ve ordered a copy of Ten Zen Questions, and I’ve read some of the online text.

    I first met Douglas Harding at a workshop he gave in Los Angeles in the mid-70’s. He gave workshops in California up until 1999. And I attended his workshops most of the years in between, not so much to repeat his experiments as to be with Douglas and other friends again in a setting of seeing who I really am.

    I think the whole approach to exploring consciousness and identity by doing experiments is the way to go. Aside from Douglas Harding, Susan Blakemore is the only one I know who is taking an experimental approach to the question of ‘what is consciousness?’ and ‘who or what am I?’

    Here’s a quote from this chapter (3): “Right – so now I can draw a line between there and here. Over there is the flagstone. Over here is me.”

    Can I really draw a line between me right here and that (the flagstone) over there?
    Someone else can do it, but can I? A tape measure stretched between me here and the flagstone there would, for me, reduce to a point. I really can’t measure the distance between me and the flagstone. There really is no distance between me and any of the objects I see. The objects in awareness are at no remove from awareness itself. I can measure distance between two objects in my awareness, but I can’t measure or find any distance between either of the two objects and ‘me.’

    I think Douglas might have called this one of the ‘minor’ experiments. I don’t remember him doing it in any of the workshops I attended, but I do remember him talking about it. He probably mentioned it in most of his books as well. It’s one I especially like. If there’s no (measurable) distance between me and what I see, what is the difference between the two? They obviously aren’t separated, yet they are distinct. To me this isn’t Indian non-duality so much as the Chinese yin-yang design—two views of a single presence.

  26. tenzenbookblog Says:

    How lovely to have met Douglas Harding. I have learned much from his “Headless Way”. Indeed people have often told me (sometimes expressing great surprise :)) that my ideas are similar to his.
    I’m sure you realise that my drawing those lines was just part of how I tend to go about these questions – deliberately, and perhaps rather ploddingly, trying out the ordinary way things seem first. Then I can accept that I’m mired in illusion and go on to explore just how and why this fails to do justice to the way it is.
    I am happy if these are “minor experiments”.

  27. jimclatfelter Says:

    It’s wonderful to find someone who is taking an experimental approach to awareness. I just discovered this site two days ago. Before that I had watched a talk you gave where you showed a picture of two people sitting at a table looking at each other. You asked what changes are taking place in the picture. I looked and looked and couldn’t see that anything was changing. Then I suddenly noticed that the large rail behind them was changing positions every second or two. How could I have missed that? I would have never thought it possible. That’s a great clue to how we see. Douglas Harding also talked about how we only glimpse what we see looking out, while we see the space we’re seeing from absolutely clearly. He says so at the end of this video: http://www.youtube.com/user/leroyjose#play/favorites

    Every year there is a Summer Gathering of people who follow the Headless Way. It’s held in Salisbury, UK. That’s pretty close to Bristol, isn’t it? Many of Douglas’s old friends will be there. I’m sure his wife Catherine will attend. I don’t know if you’d be interested, but it’s coming up on July 23 to July 27. It’s on the Headless Way website. I’ve never attended one of these. I don’t get out of California very often. But I hear from friends that do attend that they are wonderful occasions. Besides the ‘major’ experiments Douglas did in every workshop, they do many of the so-called ‘minor’ experiments that Douglas and his friends developed over the years. I’m not even sure what they all are.

    By the way, I probably shouldn’t have made the major-minor distinction, especially about the tape measure experiment, since I heard Douglas mention it many times. I never actually did it with a real tape measure. I remember doing it once with a piece of string. It immediately changed how I experience distance by eliminating the visual distance between the seer and the scene.


  28. thisica Says:

    ‘I’ felt [and sometimes do now!] as though my hands and legs motions moved independent of ‘my’ will. It’s as though ‘I’ have witnessed ‘my’ own loss of independence. It’s all too weird…as if my understanding of the universe to date have ‘taken revenge’ on ‘my’ own un-selfawareness. However, I sometimes don’t want to confess it, because of the fears of my own dissolution of self.

    Now…’I’ see a strange conspiracy of sorts, with the workings of the universe pushing this ‘I’ to do things. It sorta gets us from behind, doesn’t it? It sounds weird that this ‘I’ is a product of some process that ‘I’ can’t understand.

    It resembles Dennett’s turn of phrase “reasons without a reasoner”…

  29. tenzenbookblog Says:

    It does sound weird, but it’s true. The “I” is a product constructed by multiple processes and interactions between brains, bodies and the world in ways we can’t understand. It can be unsettling too, but I hope you’re getting used to it. There’s also Dennett’s meaning without a “central meaner” and the mythical audience in his Cartesian theatre.

  30. timxcampbell Says:

    Perhaps we could ask “What is the survival advantage of the I meme?”

    It is a meme, is it not? There’s no brain circuit or organ for it. Newborns don’t have it.

    At this point there’s a risk of confusing the human animal’s ability to function effectively as a unified body in the wild, and the civilized human’s notions about that functioning.

    It may be that the answer to “Who is asking?” is “Language”.

  31. timxcampbell Says:

    Perhaps a meme underlying “I” is this: “A phenomenon can have a single cause”.

    Underlying that notion would be: “A thing can be separate from everything else.”

  32. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Yes. I think it’s a meme. I discuss this at some length in the Meme Machine, and also in an article “Waking from the meme dream” http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/Chapters/awaken.html
    But are you asking about survival advantage to the person, to their genes, or to the memes? I think the interesting question here concerns the value of the selfplex or “I” to other memes that latch onto it. “I” is a very powerful meme and perhaps other memes latch onto it and gain advantage that way e.g. in “I believe x” or “I want y” and so on.

  33. timxcampbell Says:

    > … are you asking about survival advantage to
    > the person, to their genes, or to the memes?

    I wondered about any factor that keeps the “I” meme (and related memes) in circulation. I’m guessing the “I” meme helped humans thrive and thus made it more likely that we (and thus the “I” meme) would survive. I suppose any culture with explicit division of labor requires an “I” meme.

    It might be instructive to attempt to write without ever using “I”. Of course, one can easily cheat (as can be seen in this sentence).

    I’ve actually spoken with people who attempt to avoid “I”. Even when they don’t cheat — and they usually do — it’s quite frustrating because my mind has been thoroughly programmed to see the universe through the lens of the “I”.

  34. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Again – don’t just think about advantage to the human being, or the group or the genes, think advantage to the memes themselves. The “I” meme might be a parasite thriving on humans rather than being of advantage to them – or a bit of both.
    Krishnamurti wrote a whole book avoiding “I”. It’s kind of fun to read but, as you say, quite frustrating.

  35. thisica Says:

    Just this afternoon, just as ‘I’ walked down the road, ‘my’ perception of the road ahead became somewhat unhinged from ‘my’ actual motions of ‘my’ body. ‘I’ felt as though the space between ‘me’ and the trees warped…and then the instincts came straight in, removing this appearance of zombie vision at once.

    Speaking of the creeping up of physics on the unwary [and even knowledgeable ones, like ‘me’]…’I’ can no longer sit as still as ‘I’ once did. Motion is everywhere, and the desire to move becomes stronger still.

    Traditional mediation, though ‘I’ have tried, only makes it worse. Perhaps it’s because ‘I’ am not ready…but then, Zen wouldn’t be Zen anyway. ‘I’ just do things differently, using my all-worrying self-awareness to see things differently. Maybe ‘I’ am thinking too much, and these Strange Loops have led to the irreversible breakdown of intuition and safety nets which other people have…

    [The quote marks are there, as this mind-brain individual is confused about what they refer to. Inspired by the dialogue “Who shoves whom around in the careenium, or what is the meaning of ‘I’?”]

  36. tenzenbookblog Says:

    It’s possible that you have some sort of condition making these changes happen and you ought to check it out. But assuming that’s not the case might I suggest that you work at that sitting still. Zen teachers often point out that noticing movements and wanting to move yourself is just one more way of avoiding looking straight into the nature of whatever is arising. Sitting still is difficult.
    A vicar friend of mine told me that after a service one of the parishioners exclaimed “Oh how do you manage to sit so still? I wish I could.” and she replied simply “Practice”.

  37. juanitezpaz Says:

    Who is asking What Who is seeing this? I am that by which I know I am. And round and round it goes, where it stops – No-Body-Mind knows….

    Just a poem:
    My world crumbled
    it was torn apart.
    I could see clearly,
    not with mind but from the heart.

    Tears rolled down
    The soft kiss of a warm breeze
    For the very first time I could smell all the flowers
    Feel the wind in the trees.

    The storm kept coming
    but I was blue
    Heaven dwells inside me
    I can see that it´s true.

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