In the “Preface” to The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, Arthur Osborne includes an elegant summary of self-inquiry in Ramana’s words: “It is not right to make an incantation of ‘Who am I?’ Put the question only once and then concentrate on finding the source of the ego and preventing the occurrence of thoughts” (p. 5).
Ramana’s very succinct instructions can use some unpacking.
- The Difference between a Mantra and Self-inquiry.– As Chan master Sheng Yen also states, self-inquiry (akin to huatou) is not a mantra. While a mantra is repeated time and again and while a mantra is a sacred sound, self-inquiry is indeed a mode of questioning. As a genuine line of questioning, the question, well, needs to be deeply registered as a question. Sure, each time one asks, “Who am I?,” it may seem as if the question could get old or gray, but, quite the contrary, the question is ever-fresh, ever-penetrating, ever-enigmatic.
- Putting the Question.– Sheng Yen and Ramana also agree on the fresh way of putting the question. Now Ramana does not mean “only ever ask the question once.” What he means, rather, is that the question, whenever it is put, needs to be put in a mysterious, hungrily-wanting-to-know sort of way. Therefore, putting the question “only once” means asking it gingerly, tenderly, and hungrily and then trusting that the question will point the way Home. What cannot be underscored enough here in Point 2 is the growing, then abiding sense of deep trust in What Is.
- Concentrating on Finding the Source of the Ego.– Here, I think that Ramana, committed to the direct path, leaves out what, I believe, is a preliminary step for many (but not all) spiritual aspirants. That preliminary step involves strengthening considerably the powers of concentration first. Once, via early meditations, such powers have been strengthened, then Ramana’s counsel is to the point: concentrate on finding the source of the person/personal consciousness/ego-self. “Who am I?” means, really, “Who is that which is really asking the question, who is that from which this question arises, and who is that to which this question returns? Who, in brief, is aware of all of this?” In Zen speak, there can be, as the inquiry deepens, a greater and greater sense of “I don’t know.” The finite mind starts to realize that it cannot know its Source.
- Preventing the Occurrence of Thoughts.– This pointer requires some finesse. On the one hand, self-inquiry has nothing to do with the suppression of thought (cf. spiritual bypass). On the other hand, there is room in self-inquiry for some “delicate muscle” to be applied: really wanting to know Who I Am, I, as personal consciousness, may need to experience fewer and fewer thoughts first. For when there is, as Zen says, no-thought or no-mind, then there is realization. “Preventing the occurrence of thoughts” really means seeing What Is beneath and prior to it all.