by Wayne Ren-Cheng
You need tools in your Buddhist Toolbox that allow you to gain knowledge and experience so you respond more appropriately to all situations. The main tool to accomplish this with is the willingness to be aware of what you don’t know and then ask the appropriate questions so that you can arrive at an appropriate answer. The Buddha asked a BIG question, “Is suffering an integral part of how human beings are?” He found the answer to that question to be an emphatic . . . YES.
From the moment you are born, until that moment when you die you ask questions as a way to learn what you can do, what needs to be done, and how you can do it. Your very first cry upon birth is an articulation of the question, ‘Whose here to take care of me?’, and your final question might be, ‘Who’ll be there to take care of me?’ In between, it is questions that drive you to knowledge, to skills, and to how you choose to be in life. The majority are silent questions, ones you ask in the midst of your experiences – ‘Did I do that right?’, ‘Could I have done that better?’, ‘Will anyone notice?’. There are the questions you ask of others, ones you ask so that your knowledge and experience can expand – ‘What is the best way to . . .?’, ‘How can I reach Nirvana?’, ‘I am doing this right?’. You also ask questions of the Universe when you, and those you trust don’t seem to have the answers. The Universe is often asked, ‘Why me?’, for example. In all of these instances questions are critically important because without the questions the answers would never be found.
An important question for a practicing Buddhist to ask moment-to-moment is ‘Am I making a good choice?’, and each must answer with rigorous self-honesty so that the answer has value. The Eightfold Path can be used as a guide to finding that answer because it requires you to ask questions. To practice the Eightfold Path that can lead you out of suffering you must constantly be asking questions: ‘Do I have a view appropriate to this situation?’ – ‘Is my intent to gather information or practice knowledge?’ – ‘Is the effort I am putting into my practice enough?’. Without asking these sorts of questions of yourself, your teachers, and . . . yes . . . sometimes the Universe, there will be no progress in your practice.
You should ask questions of people you trust, and verify through your own experience that their answer has value. Asking questions of the Universe has been the path to some of the greatest answers in human history. Isaac Newton questioned gravity. Albert Einstein questioned the constancy of the Universe. Many theologians have questioned the existence of God. Without the questions no answers will ever be found. In some instances questions are asked that can’t be fully answered with the knowledge of that time, but must be asked again-and-again before the answer is realized. That is the nature of questions.
Siddhartha realized the importance of questions. In the Awakened One’s final talk (Maha-parinibbana Sutta, Digha Nikaya) he spoke directly to the assembled.
Then the Blessed One addressed the monks, “If even a single monk has any doubt or perplexity concerning the Buddha, Dhamma, or Sangha, the path or the practice, ask. Don’t later regret that ‘The Teacher was face-to-face with us, but we didn’t bring ourselves to cross-question him in his presence.'”
The Blessed One repeats this statement two more times.
“Now, if it’s out of respect for the Teacher that you don’t ask, let a friend inform a friend.”
On the surface the Buddha was reassuring his assembled disciples that whatever questions they might have should be asked. Each opportunity might be their final opportunity to ask and so that they wouldn’t suffer regret later they must ask now. To “cross-question” the teacher was not disrespectful, to not ask at all could lead to suffering, which does have a ring of disrespectful. The Awakened One underlined the importance of this statement by repeating two more times, and still no questions came from the monks. Here is where the Buddha took a step from revered teacher to fellow human being. If it was out of fear of showing disrespect that they hesitated to ask then he called upon them to view him as a spiritual friend, one that was on the same path, and ask. This was a lesson in skillful means, as well as in the importance of asking questions. Set aside the disposition of not asking questions out of fear, fear of seeming ignorant or fear of seeming disrespectful. The teacher, like a friend will be willing and ready to answer.
It is a critical part of learning to realize that questions give substance to “what you don’t know” and can reveal “what you think you know.” Recognizing what we don’t know is a component of keeping a “beginner’s mind”. Don’t approach knowledge with the idea that you already know; instead approach all phenomena with the idea that there is more to learn and strive to question. Learning also requires you to recognize the answers you need so that you can practice them and determine their usefulness. It is necessary for you to delve through layers of questions about your practice and knowledge so that you can find what works. Questions are a path to experiential verification. Questions are a path to wisdom.
Engaging with questions, and seeking answers should become spontaneous when you sit with the sangha. The teacher is there to offer the dharma, and has the responsibility to answer questions (though at times the response may come in the form of silence), the sangha has the responsibility to themselves and fellow members to ask questions so that all may benefit. The sangha is there to learn and practice, and must trust that any questions will be viewed as valid and important. While the substance of the talk is important; the subsequent questions are equal in importance. It is through the process of question and answer that ignorance becomes information, through practice that information transforms to knowledge, then knowledge applied situationally grows into wisdom.