The Necessity And Futility Of Seeking

Chan master Linji (Jap. Rinzai) is addressing an assembly of students: “What are you seeking? Everywhere you say, ‘There’s something to practice, something to obtain.’ Make no mistake! Even if there were something to be gained by practice, it would be nothing but birth-and-death karma” (The Record of Linji, ed. Sasaki and Kirchner, p. 17).

The spiritual teacher Papaji is noted for having said, “Call off the search.” Is this where we are to begin?

Absolutely not! Rinzai in particular is trying to undercut his students’ ideas that enlightenment is something to gain or to obtain and thus that practice is the vehicle by which enlightenment is to be gotten. This is excellent spiritual instruction for those who have already dived in deep.

The thing is, though, one must begin by diving in deep. And that means, necessarily, one must start off by seeking. It’s just that, after some maturation, it should strike one that one can’t keep this up: that the seeking is now the very thing is taking one away from what it is that one seeks.

“Thus,” Rinzai states bluntly, “the more you chase him the farther away he goes, and the more you seek him the more he turns away” (p. 14).

Absolutely right! For this reason, the nondual teaching provides, at this stage, a teaching that seems to contradict the other early teaching. The early teaching says, “Dang, you better keep polishing that mirror until all the specks of dust and dirt are removed. Get at it!” The later teaching says, “What are you doing, you blind fool? Polishing the mirror? Who’s polishing, with what cloth, and, say, is there a mirror here anyway?”

All seeking bears this contradiction within itself. While at first seeking is necessary, in the end it is an impediment. While at first you must, finally you can’t.

I take it you know the story that David Foster Wallace told in his famous commencement speech delivered at Kenyon College in 2005. It’s, in fact, a retelling of an old Daoist tale:

Greetings parents and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Not quite, though. For what happens instead is that the young fish start laughing uncontrollably: “Ha ha ha!” they say in unison. “How ridiculous! It’s always only ever been water! We can’t swim anywhere without it, can’t move an inch out of it, and couldn’t leap out of it no matter how hard we tried. Ha ha ha! What a cosmic joke!”

We’ve Gotten Rinzai Zen All Wrong

From the outside, Rinzai Zen Buddhism can look strict, militant, disciplined, stern, and cold. And it can seem herculeanly effortful. To a degree, some of these appearances are true, but let’s listen to the man himself as he offers up the true Dharma.

Which man? To Linji (Jap. Rinzai) from The Record of Linji:

If you want to be free to live or to die, to go or to stay as you would put on or take off clothes, then right now recognize the one listening to my discourse, the one who has no form, no characteristics, no root, no source, no dwelling place, and yet is bright and vigorous. Of all his various responsive activities, none leaves any traces. Thus the more you chase him the father away he goes, and the more you seek him the more he turns away; this is called the ‘Mystery’ (The Record of Linji, ed. Ruth Fuller Sasaki and Thomas Kirchner, p. 14).

Boy, now that doesn’t sound like Zen from the outside, does it? Is Rinzai suggesting that one sit for hours? Not here (though if you don’t have your “spiritual eye opened,” then sitting zazen might just be the ticket). Is he haranguing us for not applying intense efforts? Not at all! The pointing–so truly Chan–couldn’t be more direct: just “right now recognize the one listening to my discourse.” That’s all!

Well, but who is this one? Not who you might think. He–you–has “no form, no characteristics, no root, no source, no dwelling place,” and yet undeniably he–you–is right here, is listening right now, is clear and “bright and vigorous.”

OK, well, I better run after him, hadn’t I? After all, won’t he be hard to catch?

Wrong again. The essential point of Zen is to stop seeking, stop chasing, stop swerving, stop the shenanigans. In fact, you can’t “sink back” into him because you’re already sitting right on top of him! You can’t “ascend” to him because he’s already at the very ground of everything. All talk of “up,” “down,” “toward,” and “away” are really moot since he is the very air you breathe right now.

This is the heart of Zen: you gotta quit all that and then–ha ha ha!–it’ll be clear that the one reading these words is none other than the one writing them. What a great joke.

Existential Salience + Philosophical Inquiry = Wisdom?

Let’s suppose that a group of us were committed to philosophizing in the sense of “philosophy as a way of life” (Pierre Hadot).

Let’s suppose that, ostensibly, we developed two “knacks.” Say we developed the knack for finding out what, right now, in oneself, and between us is “existentially salient.” Were that to be so, then it could be said that we’d become attuned to existential salience–to wit, to whatever unspecified “something” is undeniably “here for us.” No definition of existential salience can be supplied, yet we all have the felt sense that, yes, such and such is existentially salient.

Furthermore, let’s suppose that we were able to come to a high level of facility with the art of philosophical inquiry. The latter, first finding what is existentially salient, proceeds by bringing us to greater clarity or knowledge than we could have imagined or conceived of. That arrival at knowledge is always surprising, always fresh, ever germane.

If we were to become so attuned to existential salience and if we were to become facile in the art of philosophical inquiry, would both bring us closer to shared, living wisdom? Indeed, would both put us in touch with shared, living wisdom?

This is the question, which is also the hypothesis.

How Does Wisdom Emerge?

Existential Opening

In the last post, I discussed the condition for the possibility of wisdom to emerge. I called this an “existential opening.”

Now, once an existential opening has occurred, then the question of wisdom is “on the table.” Our question today, therefore, is: “How does wisdom emerge?”

What follows are first thoughts, not final steps.


Oddly enough, the starting point is faith. As Raimon Panikkar states, “By faith I mean the capacity of opening to something ‘more,’ a capacity not given us either by the senses or the intelligence” (The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery, p. 30).

Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether you call this “capacity of opening to something ‘more'” faith or a postulate of reason (Kant). In either case, you posit something (and to speak of “something” is already, at this point, to say too much) that is neither confirmed nor disconfirmed. Could it be? You don’t know, yet you don’t dare close the door.

Staying with the Question

If, provisionally and for our purposes, we define wisdom as knowing how best to live and living that knowledge consciously and completely, then we need to see how we can angle or incline our lives to the actuality of wisdom. And that leaning or angling starts with a very vague, yet also pointedly vague, question: “what is this ‘something more’?”

In order for wisdom to emerge in and for and through me, I must stay with this question. I must have faith (that word again) that asking this question is worth it; that this question is answerable not in intellect alone but most especially and thoroughly in conduct; and that fragments of clarity shall shine some light upon me as the philosophical inquiry unfolds.

To faith, therefore, must be added the virtue of courage.

Love of the Spirit of Questioning

And what, after a time, becomes apparent to me as I stay with this question is that something almost miraculous is occurring. Not only do I care about answering (in at least but not just a propositional way) the question of moreness that I’ve put to myself time and again; I have also come to care about something to do with the nature of questioning itself.

With what do I fall in love, pray? I fall in love with the very spirit of questioning.

Let’s not be cute, okay?, and say glibly, “It’s good to ask good questions.” I don’t mean that. What I’m saying here is that loving philosophy just means falling, and then being, in love with the very spirit of questioning. In other words, the moreness I’ve been seeking is beginning to make its presence felt in a surprising way: in my very disposition or, clearer yet, in the depths of my being.

Coming behind my Back

Wisdom starts to emerge “behind my back.” The moreness I seek is the moreness I become. Yet not through my efforts alone, really, but instead through a wholehearted innocence, a receptivity that opens me up to radiance.

What I want to know, do I not?, is how to live, and what wisdom begins to reveal is that this knowledge is coming to live in me. It is taking up residence in me without any program of my own.

Wisdom is a kinda funny thing.

How Does The Desire For Wisdom Emerge?

How does the desire for wisdom emerge?

Not everyone cares about wisdom, and the question–“What is wisdom, and how can I become wise?”–only occurs to some in some contexts.

(At this moment in history, I posit that the question of wisdom is of paramount importance, but making this argument is a subject for another day. For now, the question remains: “How does the desire for wisdom emerge?”)

The desire for wisdom can only emerge once one has had an existential opening. An existential opening can be defined as the experience of having questions bend back on the questioner such that the questioner is now in the spotlight. In other words, the questioner of the question is now the one at stake in the questioning.

But why would this be the condition that enables the desire for wisdom to emerge?

Because wisdom has to do–to put the matter roughly here–(a) with knowing how to live and (b) with living that knowledge knowingly. And I can’t even begin this inquiry, “How shall I live if I wish to live best?,” until I bring myself into the question. Who is the one who wants to know how to live?

And that question in which the questioner is now in the spotlight can’t arise until “something happens” that compels one to go from “being asleep in one’s life” to “being awake to the nature and character of one’s life.”

I call that pivot point an “existential opening.”


To argue as I have above is to say a little but not much since the desire for wisdom can arise without wisdom itself emerging. That is, we haven’t yet inquired into how wisdom itself can emerge in the first place. I begin doing so in earnest in the following posts.