This is a book about discernment in action, centered on the Buddha’s strategic use of discernment in framing and responding to questions.

The idea for this book was born more than a decade ago from reading three of the Buddha’s discourses. The first was SN 44:10, in which he refused to answer the question of whether there is or is not a self. This discourse called attention to the fact that the Buddha had clear ideas about which questions his teachings were meant to answer, and which ones they weren’t. I realized that if I wanted to understand and get the best use out of his teaching on not-self, I had to find the questions to which this teaching was a response and not take it out of context. I also realized that the same principle would apply to the Buddha’s other teachings as well.

The second discourse was MN 2, which defined appropriate attention—one of the most important qualities of mind in leading to awakening—as the ability to know which questions were worth attending to, and which ones were not. Among the questions listed as not worth attending to were, “Am I?” “Am I not?” “What am I?” This discourse reinforced the lessons of SN 44:10, proving that they were not limited to the circumstances described in that discourse, at the same time showing that the ability to focus one’s questions on the issue of suffering and stress was central to the path.

The third discourse was AN 4:42, in which the Buddha classified questions into four types depending on the response-strategy they deserved: a categorical answer, an analytical answer, cross-questioning, and being put aside. Although the discourse didn’t define these types of questions or illustrate them with examples, it did suggest that the Buddha had reflected carefully on the general issue of how to approach questions. Because so many of his teachings were in response to questions, the thought occurred to me that it would be instructive to look through the discourses to see if and how he used this typology in practice, and how it affected the way he approached particular topics in his teaching. And more than instructive: Given the importance of appropriate attention in the practice of the path, a study of this sort would provide a valuable practical tool, giving guidance in how to keep the practice on course by paying careful attention to the questions that motivated it and gave it shape.

That’s how the idea for this book was born.

For many years I was unable to pursue this project because of other responsibilities, but I did keep a growing file of passages from the Canon that seemed relevant to this project as I encountered them in the course of other pursuits. These passages showed that the Buddha actually employed his fourfold typology in approaching questions, and that it was a useful tool in focusing attention on issues of genuine importance and avoiding distractions. I began applying the typology in my own practice, and found that it clarified many issues that had previously been unclear. Also, I began referring to the Buddha’s response-strategies in my writings, for instance in the articles, “No Self or Not-self?” “Questions of Skill,” “De-perception,” and “Perennial Issues,” along with the discussions of appropriate attention in The Wings to Awakening, “Food for Awakening,” and “Untangling the Present.” Some of the other projects I worked on in this period—in particular, the books, The Paradox of Becoming and The Shape of Suffering—broadened and sharpened my understanding of the issues involved in the Buddha’s choice of response-strategies.

At the same time, I began noticing discussions on the topic of questions in non-Buddhist sources as well. Two passages in particular underlined its importance. One was a story told by a man born in New York whose parents had been immigrants from Eastern Europe. They had placed great importance on his education, and his mother would ask him every day after school, not what he had learned that day, but what questions he had asked. The mother was wise, understanding the importance of an inquisitive mind in the ability to learn what is of true value in a subject. The second passage was a quote from a famous author to the effect that if they can get you to ask the wrong questions, it doesn’t matter what answers you come up with. This quote underlines the fact that we often pick up our questions from other people without considering whether they actually help us or not, and that people can often use their influence in this way to keep others distracted from what’s in their true best interest to know. Reflecting on this quote, I appreciated even more the Buddha’s typology and the way he taught it in practice. He didn’t rest content with teaching others the right answers to questions; by his example, he provided them with the tools to foster their own discernment: to choose their questions wisely, to find the answers for themselves, and to gauge whether their answers really helped them. This was a rare and important gift.

For the past year and a half I have been working on this project, and I have found that the more time and energy I have put into this issue, the more fruitful the results have been in my teaching and practice. As the manuscript took shape, I benefitted from sharing it with others and gaining their insights in how to improve it. In addition to the monks here at the monastery, these people include: Ven. Varadhammo Bhikkhu, Michael Barber, Gerald Eule, Bok-Lim Kim, Emer O’Hagan, Addie Onsanit, Nathaniel Osgood, Xiao-Quan Osgood, Narciso Polanco, Dale Schultz, Mary Talbot, Sebastian Wong, Jane Yudelman, and Michael Zoll. Ruby Grad and Jonathan Tarbox generously gave of their professional skills, compiling the indexes and proofreading the text, respectively. The generosity of these people in providing their time and expertise has greatly improved the book. I, of course, am responsible for any errors that remain.

I would like to dedicate this book, in gratitude, to the memory of Phra Rajvinayasobhana (Boontham Puññamayo) of Wat Makut Kasatriyaram, Bangkok, a monk I have known for many years as Luang Lung, or Venerable Uncle. Beginning with the day of my ordination, he provided much help and encouragement in my practice of the life gone forth. When he passed away last March, it was as if I had lost a protector. I hope that the merit of this book will help speed him on his way to Nibbāna.

And I hope it will help you, the reader, in the quest for discernment on the path.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

(Geoffrey DeGraff)

Metta Forest Monastery

Valley Center, CA 92082-1409 USA

October, 2010