“The Buddha tailored his answers not only to the question but also to the questioner’s needs [§5, §99]. He could often detect the assumptions or beliefs lying behind a question [§66], and could tell when two questions—though widely different in their wording – were actually equivalent.” (DeGraff, 2010)
Two thousand five hundred years ago, a young man by the name of Siddhartha Gautama decided to leave his family and dedicate himself to the ultimate spiritual path – to find the end of human suffering. From the root of his experiences and teachings, Buddhism was born.
The focus of Buddhist practice is often called the middle way and is made up of a complex interplay of questions, dialogue and answers between a recognized enlightened human being (Siddhartha) and his students.
Most intriguing and often overlooked in preliminary introductions to Buddhism, was Siddhartha’s focus on what to give attention to when answering questions, and what not to dwell on. Through careful observation and study, Siddhartha’s teachings can be broken down into four classes of questions, “Those that deserved a categorical answer, those that deserved an analytical answer, those that deserved to be cross-questioned before being answered, and those that deserved to be put aside.” (DeGraff, 2010)
My favorite example of Siddhartha ‘putting aside’ questions is in the doctrine of no – self or Annata. “In fact, the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible” (Bhikku, 1996). In this case wrong view is defined by the “element of self-identification and clinging, and thus suffering and stress” (Bhikku, 1996). Siddhartha was pointing at an essential component of Buddhist practice, recognizing the direction the question and/or the answer would lead the student.
While current day thinking leads to classifications, such as the four classes mentioned above, it is not at all clear that Siddhartha himself had any defining guide by which to answer questions. Instead, “Buddha explicitly cited the skill with which one addresses a question as a measure of one’s wisdom and discernment” (Degraff, 2010).
Siddhartha did not cling to classification and organization for the sake of intellectual rigor. Siddhartha was primarily concerned with the seed of the question, in what direction was the seed growing? Would the question lead to the cessation of suffering? In order to know the answer, it is not enough to know the question, one must see into the intent of the questioner.
What can we, modern day and unenlightened people, learn from Siddhartha? Instead of listening to what someone says, listen beyond the words. Hear the deeper feeling by which the words are executed. While you may not know what each word means, you will gain insight from looking deeper at the direction the feeling is going. This listening is not an analytical one, but one that is captured through insight. Analysis can never lead to enlightenment – at least not in the prescriptive way we hope to uncover.
For more on the end of suffering, listen to Jeanne’s recent radio show on this very topic!
Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. (1997). Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Properties translated from the Pali. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.140.than.html
DeGraff, Geoffrey. (2010). Skill in Questions: How The Buddha Taught. METTA FOREST MONASTERY VALLEY CENTER, CA 92082-1409 USA OCTOBER. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/skill-in-questions.pdf