Ask the Right Questions
February 04, 2024

The Buddha once said that all he taught was suffering, or dukkha, and the end of suffering. But there were people who came to him with questions about things that were not related to that problem: In cases like that, he would put the question aside.

He illustrated his decision with the story of a man who’s been shot with an arrow. People take him to the doctor, and the man says to the doctor, “Before you take the arrow out, I want to know who shot the arrow, what wood the arrow was made of, what feathers it was made from,” questions of that sort. As the Buddha said, if he demanded to have the answers to those questions first, he would die.

In that particular case, what has to be done is to take the arrow out, and then you can decide if you really need to know about the wood or the feathers or the person who shot you. In the same way, when you ask questions that have nothing to do with the end of suffering you’re delaying your cure. After all, we all suffer, and if we’re going to place conditions on the answer beforehand—before we accept the treatment—we just keep pushing the treatment further and further away, and we could die first.

So we focus on the questions that are really necessary. But it’s good to know, though, the questions that are not necessary, the questions that are like the question of who shot the arrow. Among those questions are, “What am I: Do I have a self? Do I have no self?” The Buddha consistently refused to answer those questions. As he said once, it would get you entangled in a tangle of views* *if you try to answer those questions.

Another time he said that it would actually get you into wrong views. On top of that, any way you define yourself, he said, is to place limitations on you. We define ourselves by our attachments, and then, our attachments—the ways we define ourselves—place limitations on us. We’re here to get rid of our limitations, so we don’t try to answer questions that would add more limitations to those we already have.

Think about that question: Do you have a self? Do you not have a self? What happens if you answer either way? If you believe that you’ve got a self someplace inside, then you’re going to be looking for something you can hold on to. That gets in the way of the practice because ultimately we have to let go of everything.

If you believe there is no self, then you can ask, “Well, who’s responsible for my actions? And who’s going to reap the results?” Maybe it doesn’t really matter what happens: If there’s nobody responsible, nobody to be punished or harmed by the actions, you can just do what you want with impunity. In that case, teaching that there’s no self can make you very irresponsible.

Some people ask the question, “Well, maybe it’s something that you would say, that in one sense you have a self and in another sense you don’t have a self.” But that doesn’t avoid the problem: Whatever you believe is self you’re going to hold on to.

What the Buddha was more interested in is this action of creating a sense of self. What does that do? How is that helpful in the path, and how does it get in the way? Those are questions you can answer, because there are times when having a sense of self that’s competent to do the practice keeps you going. It’s actually skillful. In other words, you feel that you can do this, and you’re willing take responsibility. That keeps you on the path. If you see that what you’re doing is harmful, you decide to stop the harm, and then do what you can not to repeat it.

Then you can also create a sense of self that’s going to benefit from this practice. If you create that kind of sense of self, that’s useful, too. You keep using it until you don’t need it anymore. You regard it as a tool. But you want to be very clear about the fact that it is something you’re creating—it’s an action. And as always with the actions, the question isn’t what’s your true self or what’s not your true self. The question is, “Is this a skillful action or is this not a skillful action?”

Sometimes, especially in some Buddhist circles, we hear that “Well, you don’t have a self, but you are the five aggregates.” But then again, that’s defining what you are; and again, it’s placing a limitation on you. If you’re just the five aggregates, the five aggregates are going to end at nibbāna. Does that mean you don’t exist anymore? Well, no. The Buddha said that when someone reaches nibbāna. you can’t say that they do exist, or don’t exist, or both, or neither. That’s because you can’t define them. They’re defined by their attachments, and when they have no attachments, there’s no definition; when there’s no definition, you can’t talk about them.

All we need to know is that on attaining nibbāna, there is the highest happiness. As Ajaan Suwat once said, “Once you’ve attained the highest happiness, you don’t care to answer the question of whether there’s somebody there or not. It’s totally irrelevant. The happiness is totally satisfactory in and of itself.”

What this means is that you want to get very careful about watching your mind in action. When you latch on to something, is it a good thing to latch on to, or not a good thing to latch on to? We hold on to the path in the same way that you hold on to a raft going across a river. Or, another analogy the Buddha gives is that the path is like a chariot: As you ride in the chariot, you can’t let go of the chariot because you’d fall off. So hold on to the chariot, and when it gets you to your destination, then you get down, let go.

So, you will have to hold on to certain things, and the things you hold on to will define you. But you’re not so much interested in your definition of you, you’re more interested in the question of, “These actions in my mind: Are they causing stress? Are they not causing stress?”

Some things cause stress and they don’t really accomplish anything, so why bother to keep doing them? Other things may cause stress, but the stress is worth it. Like practicing right now: Even though we’re trying to get the mind to rest, it is work because the mind keeps wanting to slip off. But it’s work worth doing for your long-term happiness, so you keep doing it.

It’s like a little child: You try to get it content to play, and it wants to do something else. But you want to make sure that it stays safe and stays in a safe place. You give it things to play with inside, so it doesn’t go wandering off.

So, it is work, and whenever there’s work there has to be a sense that you are capable of doing the work, you are responsible for the work, and you will benefit from the work. That’s all you need to know about who you are. Your main focus is on the work that needs to be done.

This is why, when the Buddha analyzed the causes for stress, there’s no place where he says someone does something. Simply he says, *there is this action, and then from that there is that action. When there’s this action, then there’s that action…” *If the actions are done in ignorance, there’s going to be stress and suffering; if they’re done with knowledge, they can become part of the path away from suffering.

So you want to focus on the actions of the mind—this is why we get the mind really quiet: not to find out who we are, but to see exactly what actions are happening in the mind, which ones are causing stress, and which ones are helping put an end to it.

When we focus on the actions, we’re not saying there’s nobody there, we’re just saying that that issue is irrelevant right now. It’s like when you talk to a physicist, and the physicist describes the atoms in a rock. He doesn’t say whether the rock is sandstone or granite or limestone. He’s more interested in the electrons and the protons in the atoms. When he doesn’t talk about limestone or sandstone, that doesn’t mean there is no such thing as limestone or sandstone. It’s just that for the time being—if you’re looking just at the atoms—the type of rock it is, how it got formed: Those things are all irrelevant.

You’re trying to focus on the problem that you’re interested in solving, so don’t let yourself get distracted by other problems that can get in the way. Learn to treat that question of who you are as a problem that gets in the way, and instead look at the question of, “What am I doing to identify with things?”— because identification is a form of clinging, and clinging, as we know, is part of the definition of suffering and stress. So if you have any sense of you inside that’s just purely clinging and is not helpful in any other way, then you let it go.

You’re trying to find out what you were craving to create that clinging. You see that the craving isn’t worth it: That’s how it ends.

Other times you cling because you’re clinging, say, to mindfulness, or concentration. Okay, cling in the meantime because those are necessary tools in the work that needs to be done. When the work is no longer needed, then you can put down the tools, too.

So, whenever you get confused about the Buddha’s teachings, keep reminding yourself that he taught just two things: suffering and the end of suffering. Then ask yourself, “How does this teaching fit into solving that problem?” If we bring other, irrelevant problems to the practice, we have to learn to put them aside. Otherwise, the arrow just stays in our heart, and nobody can get it out because we refuse to take it out. We’ve been waylaid by other questions.

But as the Buddha said, once the arrow is taken out, the questions you wanted to have answered, you realize don’t really have any meaning anymore, because you’ve solved the big problem, which is: Why it is that the mind wants happiness, but it keeps creating suffering and stress? When you get so that it stops creating that suffering and stress, that’s when you can put all your burdens down.