Whoever coined the phrase, “there are no stupid questions”, probably never interacted with a Zen Master. I say this because I was recently involved in an interchange with a Zen teacher that, in retrospect, should have resulted in my receiving a hearty whack from him with an awakening stick. As usual, after his dharma talk, he opened the floor for questions, and I asked him about the purpose of the ego – specifically, “if it is so problematic, why is it the norm instead of enlightenment?”
In response, the Master spent more time criticizing the form of the question I posed than he did addressing the substance of it. He even went as far to suggest that my question was so convoluted that I would need to supply multiple choices in order for him to answer it. Flushing hot with anger, I gave a rather terse rejoinder which I later followed with a string of text messages to him lamenting the fact that he had embarrassed me in front of the other practitioners with his sarcasm.
This instance wasn’t the first time I felt unceremoniously dismissed by my teacher. On several prior occasions, he had admonished me to stop wasting my time getting lost in the quagmire of concepts and their meanings. Previously, he accused me of pointless philosophizing when, for example, I asked how or whether Buddhism could avoid the pitfalls of determinism and nihilism. On another occasion, he rather bluntly cut off my carefully crafted question related to an infinite regression (to wit: the watcher, watching the watcher, watching the watcher, and so on) which I had just observed during a session of meditation. His response to what I thought an important insight was, “Don’t worry about it!” And if these slights were not enough, he made regular habit of interrupting my attempts to lay foundation with a gruff, “What’s your question?”
The irony of all of this may be that in cutting me off and offering what seemed to me undue criticism, I was given the chance to clearly see the suffering which arises when I waste time defending an ego that ultimately doesn’t even exist. Indeed, as my teacher pointed out in the aftermath of my protests to him, “If you are a student everything becomes a teaching,” before adding, “and both of my teachers insulted me, more than once.” One of his teachers, Trungpe Rinpoche took the position that, “The role of the spiritual friend is to insult you.” Along those same lines, another of Trungpe’s students, Pema Chodron, regards ego insults as highly valuable practice opportunities. “Keep them coming,” she says.
So I have a big, delicate ego that I vigorously defend and react with anger when I feel embarrassed or insulted. This observation is hardly a revelation to me or anyone who knows me well. That is not to say that if this were the only lesson derived from my recent ego-injuries it would not be worthwhile. On the contrary, ego-deflation is likely a good medicine for someone like me who leads with it so often in my interactions with others. But when I really began to take a look at the suffering I had experienced in interacting with my teacher, what I found was something more fundamentally flawed in my approach to questioning. As it turns out, 2500 years earlier, another student had encountered similar difficulties with the Buddha himself.
Malunkya’s Unanswered Questions
From the Cula Malunkyaputta Sutta in the Mijjhima Nikaya comes the story of an unawakened monk named Malunkya who might be described in modern terms as an intellectual type. He likely would have enjoyed engaging in metaphysical speculation and philosophical discourse of the sort I have often sought out. One day, while meditating, Malunkya arrived at a number of questions which he thought to ask the Buddha. His questions related to the world (is it eternal or not eternal; is it finite or not finite); to the self or soul (is it the same as the body, or is it separate from the body); and to the tathagata (does he exist after death; does he not exist after death; does he both exist and not exist after death; and does he neither exist nor not exist after death). Determined to learn the truth, Malunkya rather boldly proclaimed that if the Buddha did not declare the answers, that he would give up the training, and return to lay life.
As might be imagined, the Buddha was unmoved by Malunkya’s threat. Indeed, he pointed out that he had never promised to answer such questions for any of his disciples. In fact, the Buddha stated that if anyone were to proclaim, as had Malunkya, that they would not lead the holy life until such declarations were made by him, those questions would remain unanswered and the person would die waiting to hear from the Buddha on these matters.
The Parable of the Poisoned Arrow
To illustrate his point, the Buddha spoke the following parable to Malunkya:
“Suppose, Malunkya,putta, a man were wounded by an arrow, thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his kinsmen and blood relatives, bring a physician who is an arrow-remover to treat him.
If he were to say, ‘I will not let the arrow-removing physician pull out this arrow until I know if the man who wounded me is a noble, or a priest, or a merchant, or a worker.’
Or if he were to say, ‘I will not let the arrow-removing physician pull out this arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me.
…until I know whether the man who wounded me is tall or short or of medium height.
…until I know whether the man who wounded me is dark or brown or golden-skinned.
…until I know whether the man who wounded me lives in such and such a village or town or city.
…until I know whether the bow with which I am wounded is a longbow or a Munda bow.
…until I know whether the bowstring with which I am wounded is fiber or reed or sinew or hemp or bark.
…until I know whether the shaft with which I am wounded is wild or cultivated.
…until I know whether the feathers fitted to the shaft with which I am wounded is from a vulture or a heron or a hawk or a peacock or a stork.
…until I know whether the sinew which binds the shaft with which I am wounded is that of an ox or a buffalo or a deer or a monkey.
…until I know whether the dart that wounded me is hoof-tipped or curved or barbed or calf-footed or oleander.’
All this would still not be known to the man and meanwhile he would die.”
Perhaps it would be easy to find the answers to the questions posed by the man wounded by the arrow. It is not that the answers are unknowable, but that having them would not end the man’s suffering nor heal the wound caused by the poisoned arrow. While he is demanding to know certain truths, he continues to suffer and will ultimately die. Through the parable, the Buddha points out that in our seeking definitive answers to certain metaphysical and philosophical questions, we needlessly prolong our suffering.
In my own case, such questions offer up an interesting though harmful diversion to my looking squarely at the causes and conditions of my own suffering. Too often, the answers that I seek have nothing to do with the help I truly need. They only serve as a means for the ego to further reify itself through intellectualizing, looking away, and conflict. Meanwhile, the poison arrow remains stuck in my side and its poison is coursing through my veins.
The Buddha’s Four Categories of Questions
And so, not every question – no matter how well conceived or how important to the questioner – is worthy of a response. For the teacher to answer some questions would be to set the student astray, off the path, and into the thicket of discursive thought and ideas. For example, if we answer “yes” or “no” to a question such as “Are Martians green” we are drawn into accepting the validity of an obviously flawed question. Recognizing this, the Buddha divided all questions into the following four classes:
- Those that deserve a categorical (“yes” or “no”) answer;
- Those that deserve an analytical answer (defining and qualifying terms);
- Those that deserve a counter question (which puts the ball back into the questioners court); and
- Those that deserve to be put aside.
Malunkya’s questions to the Buddha – and likely many of those I have posed to my teacher – fall into this last category of questions that are to be put aside. These questions are to be set aside and left unanswered because all speculative views and ideological stances are due to the insertion of the ego-centric perspective into the domain of perceptual experience. As the Buddha rather pointedly asked Malunkya in response to his threat to have answers or leave the holy order, “O hollow man, who is there to abandon what?” In other words, though my ego demands answers, prudence often dictates silence (or even sarcasm to kill two birds with one stone). It is up to the teacher to decide into which category the question falls – not the student.
Similarly, in the Aggi Vacchagotta Sutta, when Vaccha,gotta asks the Buddha why he consistently refuses to take a position on Malunkya’s unanswered questions, the Buddha warns that such speculation is:
…a wilderness of views, a twisting of views, a wriggling of views, a fetter of views; attended by pain, by conflict, by misery, by fever; not conducive to revulsion, nor to fading away [of lust], nor to cessation [of suffering], nor to inner peace, nor to superknowledge, nor to self-awakening, nor to nirvana.
It may very well be that the Buddha had answers to the questions posed by Malunkya. Indeed, most scholars refer to them as unanswered rather than unanswerable. As an enlightened being, it is at least conceivable that Gautama could see these ultimate truths. Nevertheless, by the Buddha remaining infamously “silent” as to Malunkya’s metaphysical and philosophical ponderings, he intentionally avoided interjecting into Buddhism needless dogma unrelated to the dharma and antithetical to awakening.
Asking the Right Questions
And so, contrary to popular notions, there are “right v. wrong” questions. Questions are “wrong” to the extent that they should be set aside by the teacher and left unanswered as a hindrance to the student’s progress along the spiritual path – diversions that only serve to strengthen the phantom ego. This runs contrary to popular notions of spirituality in which the individual seeks answers to the big existential questions like: Who is God? Who created the world? What is a soul? Why do we suffer? What is the origin of the universe? While some religions may offer answers to these loaded questions, in many cases, Buddhism views them as speculative, frivolous and the cause of more suffering. As John Hick has wisely observed:
…it would be a mark of wisdom and maturity to accept our ignorance. We do not know, for example, the nature of the ultimate eschatological state – whether it is a state of what we now call ourselves, whether it is in what we know as space or in what we now know as time, and so on. The questions we pose about it may be so utterly wide of the mark that any answers to them are worse than useless.
In my case, the questions that I tend to pose to my teacher run towards a variant of skepticism – or at least represent an effort on my part to find a thread that when pulled will unravel 2500 years of teaching. While I recognize this tendency is largely ego-based, I wouldn’t say that it is egotistical in the common use of the term. I would say that this trend – which has subconscious elements –more closely mirrors a historical pattern of self-destruction and self-injury than it does self-aggrandizement.
Ultimately, it is the pragmatism of Buddhism generally and Zen specifically that render metaphysical speculation a waste of time. It seems that I’d be far better off to seek specific guidance from my teacher regarding the technique of shikintaza than I would to waste his time with philosophical banter. At least such questions could potentially help me to improve my meditation practice without leading me astray. In his wisdom, my teacher consistently directs his students back to the cushion, into meditation, and towards sharpening awareness. From there, through contrast by simply watching what continues to move, I might myself find answers to those questions that will channel me towards freedom. Likely, the right questions will relate to what the Buddha did declare rather than what he did not – this is suffering, this is the arising of suffering, this is the ending of suffering, this is the path leading to the end of suffering.