11/25/2014 03:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Meditate Sitting in a Chair, Part 2

Courtesy Hwansan Sunim

In part one, we learned how to engage correct meditation posture and breathing. Now we enter into the heart of Son Buddhist meditation.

Son Buddhist Meditation: The Great Doubt

In Son Buddhist meditation we ask ourselves a very serious question, one that is, in fact, logically unanswerable. In Korean this question is called a "hwadu." It is a life question that we direct toward ourselves with the greatest possible level of urgency, sincerity and honesty.

Its purpose is to create a state of what is called the "Great Doubt" in Son Buddhism. "Doubt" here doesn't refer to skepticism. Rather it indicates a state of spiritual crisis. A state of consciousness in which one is filled with the desire to know the unknowable, to perceive the invisible, to grasp that which is intangible and just out of reach. We allow our hearts to fill and overflow with the natural human desire and longing to know the nature of our own existence. We make this existential crisis, this profound spiritual questioning, the center of our lives. Meditation in Son Buddhism is to allow ourselves to be consumed in the Great Doubt.

Physically and emotionally, the Great Doubt feels like one is blocked inside. It's as if we're trying to remember something, something that's on the tip of our tongue yet refuses to emerge into the clear light of consciousness. Imagine that you've searched your entire house for a missing key, asked everyone about it, and still it remains lost. Now you're just wracked with the question, "Where is the key? Where is the key?" The key that we've lost, of course, is ourselves, the clear perception of our true nature, our true form. This state of intense, unanswerable questioning is Doubt.

Son Buddhist practitioners seek to meditate upon the hwadu, to ask ourselves this great question, to raise, maintain, and increase the state of Great Doubt in every waking moment. We experience the Great Doubt in our bodies and hearts as a vibrant, burning, energetic mass of... something. And this Doubt grows when we make a daily practice of Son meditation.

Then, the Great Doubt fills our minds and bodies. It burns away extraneous thoughts and useless mental activity. It consumes negative emotions, even the ones that lie beneath the conscious level.

Our field of awareness and our state of consciousness become unbelievably clear, calm, balanced, and alert. In traditional terms, our mindset comes to resemble that of a cat poised above a mouse hole. The cat must remain totally focused in the on-going now so that at any given moment, if the mouse even slightly exposes itself, the cat can strike with lightning swiftness. Like the cat suspended in anticipation, our experience of reality becomes hyper-real. Our field of attention becomes somehow both laser-focused and panoramic. Somehow we are both at rest and primed for action. Through the Great Doubt we are healed, refreshed, recharged, and then later, augmented with new knowledge, and then, later still, transformed. And, finally, if we remain committed, the Great Doubt erupts and blossoms in the event known as enlightenment.

The Hwadu: "Yi-mwot-go?" or "What is this?"

In the classical Son Buddhist canon there are said to be 1,700 hwadus. Among these the most accessible one for modern people is "Yi-mwot-go?" which means "What is this?" in Korean. "Yi" (pronounced like the "ee" in "seed") means "this." "Mwot" (pronounced just as awkwardly as it's spelled) means "what." And "go" (pronounced like the English word "go") means "is."

In meditation we mentally intone this question and we use the Korean pronunciation -- rather than the English translation of "What is this?" -- because the word sequence is important. It's important that the word for "this" ("yi") come at the beginning of the question. So although the Korean question "Yi-mwot-go?" may feel unfamiliar at first, with practice it becomes second nature.

The question "Yi-mwot-go?" or "What is this?" means: What is this that directs my body? When I think a thought, what is it within me that generates that thought? When I feel sadness, what is it within me that aches and grieves? When I feel anger, what is it inside me that rages and complains? When I'm happy, what is it that exults and shines?

When someone calls my name, what is it within me that instantly recognizes the sound of my own name and directs attention to the caller?

When I imagine the sight of my bedroom or my cellphone or the face of someone I love, the image of that thing or person appears within my mind as if it's on a movie screen. What inside me is looking at that mental image? What created the image?

This is what "Yi-mwot-go?" means. It is quite literally the most important question of our lives and asking it naturally causes us to enter the state of Great Doubt. In meditation we ask this question in coordination with correct posture and breathing technique. The posture and breathing achieve the optimal conditions we need for concentration. We direct that optimized concentration at the question to create the Great Doubt. Here's how we do it.


The Technique of Son Buddhist Meditation

(Please practice the instructions in part one before trying the meditation described below.)

1. Sit in correct meditation posture.

2. Using diaphragmatic breathing, inhale and then pause.

3. Then, as we exhale, we mentally intone "Yi-mwot-go?" and we trail the last syllable, "go," to the end of the outbreath.

4. In our minds it sounds like: "Yi. Mwot. Gooooooooooh?" (For a demonstration, I refer you to videos of our TV program, "Son Meditation in English with Hwansan Sunim" on Youtube.)

5. Keep your attention on the movement of your abdomen. Imagine that the question "Yi-mwot-go?" is interwoven with your outbreath and emerges from your dantien. Keep one part of your awareness on your dantien at all times. This means pay attention to that part of your body at all times during meditation.

6. The physical experience of the Great Doubt begins and remains rooted in your dantien. With continued practice, it will seem to expand throughout the internal space of your body.

7. We attempt to ask "Yi-mwot-go?" in this way with each cycle of breath.

MEDITATION TIP: At the beginning, the mind wanders. Even in the course of one breath -- even in the time it takes to intone one syllable -- an endless, flickering stream of mental events competes with the hwadu for our attention. But that's okay. Each time you become aware that your mind has wandered, simply return to "Yi-mwot-go?" on the following breath. Over time your mind -- which is to say, your direction of attention -- stops switching targets so much.

"Turn the Light Around": Directing attention at its own source

An edict in the Son Buddhist canon succinctly describes what we're trying to do with our awareness or attention when we perform Son meditation. "Turn the light around and shine it back." This means that we attempt to direct our attention back at its own source. We attempt to perceive the perceiver, to know the knower, to experience the experiencer. Like an eye trying to see itself or a hand trying to grab itself, we become stymied in the effort -- we get stuck -- and this feeling of being stuck or obstructed is the Great Doubt.

Son meditation consists of maintaining this state of being stuck and keeping our attention on it at all times like a hen sitting on her egg or that cat in front of the mouse hole. Keeping our attention on this state of being stuck is called "Observing the Mind of Doubt" and this is the official title of Korean Son meditation.

Some people who hear that description will immediately know what the masters were talking about and instinctively begin generating Doubt when they meditate. Others will understand on the conceptual level, but when they actually try to meditate, they find they don't know where exactly to direct their attention. That's okay. It's like trying to wiggle your ears. Some people know how to use those muscles. Others need to practice.

That's where the "Yi-mwot-go?" or "What is this?" hwadu comes in. When we ask ourselves this question with genuine feeling and honesty, it automatically pushes us into the Great Doubt. We can't help it. The truth is, on some level, we're already caught in its grip. We're just trying to push that question into the light of conscious awareness. If we keep asking ourselves this question using proper posture and breathing, eventually the Great Doubt takes root and begins to radiate.

So when you ask, "Yi-mwot-go?" do it with the intention of directing your awareness back at its own source. Direct your attention toward the very thing in you that's attempting to "meditate." Do it in the spirit of asking, "This. What is this that is asking what is this?"

Final Suggestions

First, please try to remember: In meditation persistence is everything. Meditation both requires and builds patience. The all-important ability to direct my attention at the object of my choice and keep it there for as long as I wish. This is the very essence of concentration, willpower, and determination. I can't think of a single human endeavor that does not require this mental skill of concentration. No matter what you do for a living, where you live, how much money you have, or what your lifestyle is like, Son meditation can only benefit you.

Second: Do not try to generate an answer to "Yi-mwot-go?" or "What is this?" We're not interested in philosophical theories or labels. The purpose of Son meditation is to awaken our mind, not stuff it with more information or chatter. Cauterizing our mind with the fire of the "Yi-mwot-go?" question, the Great Doubt, empties it of everything unnecessary to create a luminous, calm and expansive state of consciousness.

Finally: Do not think of meditation as something "mystical." There is nothing otherworldly or ethereal about meditation. There's nothing abstract or passive about it either.

Spirituality is physical.

Son meditation is as active, intention-driven, concrete and energetic as lifting weights. You're not just "sitting still" or "doing nothing." You are coordinating a series of delicate, microscopic physical and mental actions that call for both brute mental intent and exquisite control of which muscles to tense and which ones to relax. You are attempting to master a bodily technique that demands as much subtlety and finesse as a golf swing, a baseball pitch, or a dancer's pirouette. The only difference is that you are orchestrating physically internal motions -- literally, actions that you perform under the surface of your skin -- rather than outwardly visible ones.

Therefore, practice is needed. And with practice your posture, breathing, and "Yi-mwot-go?" question become one.

What does that mean, "become one"?

It means that with practice, the three elements of posture, breathing, and "Yi-mwot-go?" become associatively bonded together so that when you engage one, the other two naturally follow. Later, when you simply assume the physical posture, diaphragmatic breathing and the "Yi-mwot-go?" question become automatically engaged. Or if you just take a diaphragmatic breath, your back straightens, your mind clears, and the Great Doubt radiates in your mind. Or, finally, if you merely intone, "Yi-mwot-go?", the posture and breathing engage.

The lovely thing about achieving unity of posture, breathing and "Yi-mwot-go?" is that it's like installing an anti-virus software program into your own mind and body. As soon as you detect a "virus," that is, an offending thought or emotion, all you need to do is click the button -- ask "Yi-mwot-go?" -- and the meditation program goes online -- the fiery Great Doubt shines forth -- to eliminate the negative thought before it proliferates. In that way, Son meditation is a preventive mental health program -- "program" both in the sense of a strategy and in the sense of an automated system.

Today we've only covered the most basic elements of Son meditation. But there should be enough here for you to begin meditating in your own life, if you wish. You can begin by meditating, say, 10 minutes or more per sitting. As your body adjusts and your mental power increases, you can extend the sitting time eventually to one hour per sitting. Meditating immediately after you wake up and/or just before going to sleep is extremely beneficial.

To conclude, let me thank all of you who have taken an interest in our Korean TV program, "Son Meditation in English with Hwansan Sunim." We're approaching the end of our first year and in that time we've received messages and visitors from all over the world. If you're interested in pursuing Son meditation further, I encourage you to view our program on Youtube. We also have a Facebook page ( I know that I have received far more than I shared and for that I am abashed and at the same time immensely grateful. Thank you!

Palms together,

Hwansan Sunim