Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Asking the Right Question

Last night, I was fortunate to sit with, and hear talk from forest monk and Buddhist scholar Thanissaro Bikkhu. He spoke about the importance of giving skillful answers to questions. His talk referred to several suttas, with relevant excerpts quoted below: 

"There are these four ways of answering questions. Which four? There are questions that should be answered categorically [straightforwardly yes, no, this, that]. There are questions that should be answered with an analytical (qualified) answer [defining or redefining the terms]. There are questions that should be answered with a counter-question. There are questions that should be put aside. These are the four ways of answering questions."

From Abhaya Sutta (Thanissaro Bikkhu's commentary in Access to Insight):

The prince asks him two questions, and in both cases he responds first with a counter-question, before going on to give an analytical answer to the first question and a categorical answer to the second. Each counter-question serves a double function: to give the prince a familiar reference point for understanding the answer about to come, and also to give him a chance to speak of his own intelligence and good motives. This provides him with the opportunity to save face after being stymied in his desire to best the Buddha in argument. The Commentary notes that the prince had placed his infant son on his lap as a cheap debater's trick: if the Buddha had put him in an uncomfortable spot in the debate, the prince would have pinched his son, causing him to cry and thus effectively bringing the debate to a halt. The Buddha, however, uses the infant's presence to remove any sense of a debate and also to make an effective point. Taking Nigantha Nataputta's image of a dangerous object stuck in the throat, he applies it to the infant, and then goes on to make the point that, unlike the Niganthas — who were content to leave someone with a potentially lethal object in the throat — the Buddha's desire is to remove such objects, out of sympathy and compassion.

Most notably, Thanissaro Bikkhu stressed the importance of not just answering questions skillfully, but also of raising the right questions. 

This morning, I reflect on this last point from Thanissaro Bikkhu, and I wonder which question(s) do I need to ask myself? which ones do I need to bring forth to my teacher? and I realize, that in itself is a great question to ask . . . 

How about you? Which questions should you be asking, that you have not already asked?


  1. Hummm, interesting, Tom . . . 'Who am I?" was actually one of the questions mentioned by Thanissaro Bikkhu as not worth asking. His point of view . . .

  2. I spent time with the wife of a terminal cancer patient today, who kept repeating that she knew she could get answers if she only knew the right questions to ask, even with all my training I couldn't provide her with the "right" questions, only all the information and resources I could think to offer. That is the dilemma that faces all of us I'm afraid...
    Thank you for allowing me to think further about this and not pushing it back because it was so painful to witness.

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  4. Thank you, Magpie for sharing such a powerful story. Sitting in the midst of not knowing is such a hard thing to do.

    With much metta


  5. The Human Talk, I am a bit confused by your comment. Maybe you can clarify connection between your comment and point of the post?

  6. I am so sorry... I think I have posted this commentary by mistake in your post... see, I was reading your post and responding to one on another blog... it was late at night and must have gotten confused.... please accept my apologies. Not to much mindful thinking here ahh?