Skill in Questions

When we read the account of the Buddha’s last night, it’s easy to sense the importance of his final teaching before entering total nibbāna: “Now, then, monks, I exhort you: All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.” These words call attention to themselves because they were the last he ever said.

That may be why it’s so easy to overlook the importance of what the Buddha did right before saying them. In a gesture extremely gracious—given that he had been walking all day, had fallen severely ill along the way, and now was about to die—he offered one last opportunity for his followers to question him. He even made the offer four times to show that it wasn’t just a gesture. He seriously wanted to clear up any remaining doubts in their minds before closing his mouth for good.

Then the Blessed One addressed the monks, “If even a single monk has any doubt or indecision concerning the Buddha, Dhamma, or Saṅgha, 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.’”

When this was said, the monks were silent.

A second time… A third time, the Blessed One said, “If even a; single monk has any doubt or indecision concerning the Buddha, Dhamma, or Saṅgha, 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.’”

A third time, the monks were silent.

Then the Blessed One addressed the monks, “Now, if it’s out of respect for the Teacher that you don’t ask, let a friend inform a friend.”

When this was said, the monks were silent.

Then Ven. Ānanda said to the Blessed One, “It’s amazing, lord. It’s astounding. I’m confident that in this community of monks there isn’t even a single monk who has any doubt or indecision concerning the Buddha, Dhamma, or Saṅgha, the path or the practice.”

“You, Ānanda, speak out of confidence, while there is knowledge in the Tathāgata that in this community of monks there isn’t even a single monk who has any doubt or indecision concerning the Buddha, Dhamma, or Saṅgha, the path or the practice. Of these 500 monks, the most backward is a stream-winner, not destined for the planes of deprivation, headed to self-awakening for sure.” — DN 16

It’s possible to read this passage simply as a rhetorical flourish, indicating how special the assembly was that had gathered to witness the Buddha’s passing: Only those who had had their first taste of the deathless were privileged enough to be present. But the passage goes deeper than that, showing how the Buddha had brought them to that taste. Instead of enforcing an unquestioning acceptance of his teachings, he had resolved his students’ doubts by being open to their questions. The fact that this incident is placed right before the last teaching is a measure of how central this method was to his teaching, and how important it was to his followers who assembled the Canon.

Other discourses emphasize this point as well. AN 2:46 [§73], for instance, notes that the Buddha trained his followers in cross-questioning, with the result that, “when they have mastered the Dhamma, they cross-question one another about it and dissect it: ‘How is this? What is the meaning of this?’ They make open what isn’t open, make plain what isn’t plain, dispel doubt on its various doubtful points.”

The central role of questioning in the Buddha’s teaching may be connected to the fact that his teaching starts not with a first principle but with a self-evident problem: how to put an end to suffering. And instead of trying to argue from this problem back to first principles, he stays focused on the immediate question of how to solve it. As he noted, suffering gives rise to two responses—bewilderment and a searching question: “Who knows a way or two to stop this pain?” To help put an end to that bewilderment, the Buddha presented his teachings as responses to the many questions deriving from that primal, searching question. Thus questions formed the primary mode for organizing what he taught.

But even though the Buddha ordered his teachings around questions rather than first principles, he did not set out to answer every controversial question that came his way. He focused solely on questions related strategically to the end of suffering, i.e., questions that would actually help in attaining that goal. For this reason, he classified questions—as they related to this focus—according to the response-strategy they deserved, and he arrived at four sorts: those that deserved a categorical answer, those that deserved an analytical answer, those that deserved to be cross-questioned before being answered, and those that deserved to be put aside. This fourfold classification is the theme of this book, for it provides important insights into both how and what the Buddha taught about the way to end suffering.

To understand the importance of this classification, and why the Buddha formulated it in those terms, it might be useful first to reflect in general terms on what it means to ask and answer a question based on a desire to attain a goal. A helpful way to begin that reflection is with a question that, in Western thought, is first stated in Plato’s Meno:

When you’re looking for something but don’t know quite what it is, how do you know when you’ve found it?

In the Meno, Socrates uses this question as the departure point for his doctrine of memory from past lives: You know what you want because you knew it in a previous lifetime. But from a Buddhist point of view, a more fruitful approach to this question is to look at the psychology of how people go about setting up a problem and solving it in the here and now: You know when you’ve found the knowledge you were seeking because the desire that sparked your search had already given it a function and a shape. You wanted knowledge that would perform a desired function, and you wanted it to make sense, to fit in with what had worked with similar problems in the past. When you’ve encountered something that, when put to the test, meets both specifications—the function and the fit—you know that that’s what you wanted. (Ironically, even Socrates himself would set up a problem and test the proposed solutions in precisely this way.)

The questions aimed at determining the fit and function of your answers operate on three levels. The first level aims at giving your ignorance a shape, to define your felt need and why the need makes sense. The second and third levels determine if the answer actually functions as you want it to, with the second level establishing tests for checking the actual performance of whatever potential answer seems to fit that shape, and the third setting standards for measuring whether an answer has actually passed the tests.

In formulating a question on the first level, you create the frame of a sentence and leave part of the frame blank. The important feature of the blank is that it’s not an amorphous hole. It’s more like the shape of a missing piece of a puzzle. Only a piece that matches the shape and the pattern of the puzzle will fit. If you ask, “Why am I suffering?” and are told, “42,” you won’t be satisfied with the answer, for it’s not just a wrong piece from the right puzzle. It’s from the wrong puzzle entirely.

The reason we need questions to give shape to our ignorance is that the shape helps to narrow down the range of potential answers we will need to test to see if they fulfill the function we want. It’s a way of saving energy and time so that our second and third levels of questions can be applied immediately to the most promising candidates. If it turns out that none of the possibilities suggested by the shape of the first-level questions pass the second- or third-, we can then turn around and question the puzzle with which we started: Maybe the shape it suggested was mistaken, and we have to find a new puzzle or a new way of putting the pieces together. Then we experiment with a new shape, and apply the second- and third-level questions again. This way, through trial and error, we have a chance of finding the answer we want. When our questions on all three levels are well formulated, they help us to recognize the solution to our problem even though we originally had only a vague notion of what it might be.

But if the questions are wrongly formulated, they can easily lead us astray. The original narrowing-down might narrow down on the wrong spot, focusing our attention away from the actual answer. The tests we set for our answers, and our standards for judging the results of those tests, might be misguided or aim too low.

This means that when you try to find an answer to a question of this sort, you have to do more than simply provide a piece that fits into the puzzle you’ve formulated. You have to question the question, remembering that your answer will have an impact, in terms either of what the questioner—you or your listener—will do with it, or of what it will do to the questioner. And this means that the puzzle analogy, which is essentially static, has to be replaced with a more dynamic one: The questioner is assembling a complex tool or instrument, such as a piano or a machine, and—seeing that you have practical experience with what he wants to assemble—has asked you for a missing part and advice on how to use the completed instrument. In this case, the first-level questions would cover the structure of the instrument; the second-level questions, the way it should be played or used; and the third-level questions, standards for determining whether it’s being played or used well. If you want to give responsible answers in a situation like this, you can’t simply supply the missing part. You first have to ascertain the desire behind the request: Does the questioner really want the part, or is he trying to make you look like a fool? Or does he want to use the part to assemble something more sinister? Even if his desire for the part is sincere, you want to make sure he’s planning to use the instrument for a beneficial purpose, that the instrument is the correct one for the purpose he has in mind, and that he knows how to use the instrument in a way that doesn’t cause inadvertent harm.

For instance, suppose that you’re a construction engineer, and a close friend—a would-be do-it-yourselfer totally inexperienced in construction—has come to you for advice. He’s discovered that a concrete barrier in his backyard is acting as a dam after heavy rain, preventing drainage, and keeping his yard and cellar flooded. He has what he thinks is a jackhammer for chipping away the concrete and has asked you for a missing part. Your first duty is to make sure that he really intends to use the jackhammer to attack the barrier, and that he’s not actually going to dig into a sewer main instead. Then you check to see that the concrete is actually causing harm, and that its removal will be beneficial: The water, when allowed to flow, won’t cause worse damage somewhere else. And you want to make sure that your friend isn’t assembling a cement mixer to make more cement by mistake.

When you’re sure that his purpose is skillful and that he actually has a jackhammer, you then check to see that the parts he’s already assembled have been put together correctly. Otherwise, even the best possible part you might give him wouldn’t fit, and the jackhammer wouldn’t work. And even then, when you supply the missing part, you might have to quiz him to make sure that he knows where to put it and how to use the jackhammer once it’s fully assembled so that he doesn’t end up injuring himself. And ideally you should give him the opportunity to ask you questions, for otherwise you can’t be sure that he’s understood what you’ve said. If you’re really responsible, you’ll give him a checklist of questions that will teach him how to judge whether he’s using his jackhammer appropriately and with skill.

What this means is that when you take into consideration the impact of the knowledge you’re providing, simply being truthful is not enough. You also have to ensure that your answer will be beneficial. If it’s challenging to your listener, you have to take care in presenting it with words that are timely: appropriate to the situation and the listener’s level of skill and understanding.

This was the Buddha’s approach to the responsibilities he took on when answering questions. His primary purpose in teaching was to provide his listeners with something they were looking for—a total end to suffering and stress—yet he knew that they might have only vague or downright wrong ideas of what that end might be or how to attain it. He had learned from experience that the act of framing skillful questions played an essential role in directing his own search for release, so his first step in helping his listeners overcome their ignorance was to show them how to give it the proper shape: how to frame the questions they addressed to him so that they would recognize the truth and utility of his solutions when they heard them. However, he had also learned from personal experience the importance of self cross-examination in testing the original frames he had formulated, and the answers he had come up with, in the course of his quest. Thus he also wanted to teach his listeners how to frame the questions they addressed to themselves, so that they could become independent in the Dhamma and learn to overcome their ignorance on their own.

In other words, he wasn’t content simply to provide answers to people’s questions. He also wanted to show them how unskillful questions can be recognized through testing, and how skillful questions—conducive to the end of suffering—can be framed and tested in their place.

The Buddha was one of those rare teachers who understood how the content of his teaching gave insight into the act of teaching, so that how he taught was shaped by what he taught. In this case, the how was shaped by what he had learned on the night of his awakening. In the second watch of the night, he had seen that people’s experience of pleasure and pain is shaped by their actions (kamma), that their actions are shaped by their views, and that their views are shaped by their attitude of respect or disrespect for those who have realized and taught the truth.

This insight showed him that, as a teacher, he would be responsible for more than simply providing his listeners with right views. To be effective, he would also have to provide them with good reasons for respecting him and accepting those views, along with the right framework for putting them to proper use and testing the results they received. In other words, his approach would have to be strategic. He saw that words are not only descriptive but also performative: The act of speaking is a type of kamma, and as with all kamma it has an effect. The speaker’s responsibility is to make that effect as beneficial and timely as possible.

Thus, when answering questions, he kept the kamma of teaching and learning in mind. He saw that teaching and learning, to be most effective, have to be cooperative efforts. This meant, as a basic ground rule, that he’d be open to questions about his teachings, showing that he was responsive both to his listeners’ desire to find an end to suffering and to their desire to learn and understand his teachings. At the same time, however, he’d be careful to answer questions only when he felt the questioner was truthful and sincerely wanted to put an end to suffering and stress. Then he’d make sure that the person’s way of framing questions was appropriate to that task. If it was, he’d respond to the questions with answers that were categorical—absolute and without exceptions. If it wasn’t, he had a choice. Either he’d reframe the questions, giving what he called analytical answers, if the questions were relevant to the ending of suffering and the frame could be adjusted to bring it in line with the path—the jackhammer wrongly assembled—or else he’d put the questions aside if he found them irrelevant and the frame totally inappropriate: the cement mixer when a jackhammer was the better tool. If he saw that his listeners might have trouble understanding the way he framed his answers, he’d cross-question them to help them remember and apply their knowledge of other skills to understanding and utilizing the skills he was teaching. When he was being especially thorough, he’d continue the cross-questioning by providing them with a checklist of points to ask themselves so that they could put his answers to the best use and gauge for themselves how well they were succeeding.

These are apparently the considerations that lay behind the Buddha’s decision to classify questions as to whether they deserved categorical answers, analytical answers, cross-questioning, or to be put aside. These four categories form the framework for his skill in questions—pañha-kosalla—which was not simply a matter of providing deft answers to difficult questions, but also an ability always to keep in mind how an individual question fits into the larger quest for freedom from suffering. This is why the Buddha said that a person’s wisdom and discernment can be gauged by the way he or she responds to questions, for wisdom is not content simply with correct answers. It’s strategic, pragmatic. It wants those answers to have as beneficial an effect as possible.

Because of this intimate connection between what the Buddha taught and how he taught, the how is not just an offshoot of the what. The what is also shaped by the how. In particular, there’s a great deal to be learned about the content of the Buddha’s teachings by examining where those teachings fit into the four response-strategies, for the questions provide the framework in which the terms and strategies of the teachings find their meaning. This is particularly important in a teaching like the Buddha’s, which—as we have noted—neither starts nor ends with first principles, but stays focused on a question that seeks a solution to a problem. This is why the Buddha viewed questions as the primary means by which the mind creates contexts for its concepts. If we want to understand and use his teachings for their intended purpose, we have to view them in terms of the questions they were and were not meant to answer. So there’s a great deal to be learned by looking at his skill in choosing which questions to answer as they were, which to reframe, which to cross-question, and which to put aside.

This is the motivation behind this book. Although the Buddha lists the four types of questions three times in the discourses (DN 33, AN 3:68 [§118], and AN 4:42 [§1]), he doesn’t illustrate the lists with examples of the different types. However, there are many situations in which he calls attention to the fact that a particular question deserves a particular response-strategy, which he then provides. Thus it’s possible to collate these examples from the discourses to show these various response-strategies in action, along with the distinctive patterns that emerge when the material is organized in this way.

For this reason—after Chapters One and Two provide a theoretical and narrative background for the Buddha’s approach to responding to questions—Chapters Three through Eight provide readings that consist primarily of passages in which a particular response-strategy is used. I say primarily because the Buddha tended to use particular response-strategies with particular topics, and so I have augmented the passages in some of the chapters with additional passages that help to flesh out these topics. I have done this with two aims in mind: to help give a more coherent account of the Dhamma lessons contained in the Buddha’s responses, and to help clarify the rationale behind the response-strategies he has chosen.

Also, each chapter is prefaced by a discussion calling attention to some of the salient lessons to be learned when similar response-strategies are viewed side by side. Although some of these discussions are fairly long, they are not meant to be exhaustive. They simply provide a few beginning insights for anyone interested in pursuing the material further. Because the Buddha, in responding to questions, is often operating on many levels, I felt it would be most useful to limit my observations to the essentials, and to give extensive quotations from the texts so that the reader can observe the Buddha’s skill in questions in action for him or herself.

However, because it’s easy to get lost in the large number of passages provided in these chapters, I would recommend reading the discussion sections for all the chapters before delving into the readings in any one of the chapters. That way you can start with a clear overview of the main points, which will then allow you to pursue the particulars of whatever you find interesting without losing your bearings.

You will notice—especially in the discussions in Chapters Three, Five, and Eight—that I have frequently compared the Buddha’s approach to asking and responding to questions with Socrates’ approach as recorded in the Platonic dialogues. I have done this for four reasons.

The first is that some modern commentators have asserted that the Buddha employed the Socratic method in his teaching, and I felt that a close examination of the Buddha’s approach to the four types of questions would offer a good opportunity to test exactly how far this assertion is true.

The second reason, related to the first, is that some have noted that the Buddha and Socrates were near contemporaries in the so-called Axial Age, and that as seminal figures representing the spirit of inquiry in that age they shared a common agenda. A comparative study of how they handled questions is a good way to test this assertion as well.

Third, to the extent that Socrates and Plato set the agenda for Western intellectual life, I thought that comparing the Buddha’s approach to dialogue with Socrates’ would be a useful starting point for comparing the Buddha’s thought with Western thought in a way not limited to superficial or invidious generalities—to see precisely where his approach to wisdom differs from the assumptions about wisdom that Westerners have absorbed, often unthinkingly, from the history of their culture.

Fourth, I found that the comparisons between the Buddha’s approach and Socrates’ help highlight what is truly distinctive and important in the Buddha’s manner of teaching. To make clear what he was doing in his teaching strategy, it’s useful to have a clear point of comparison to show what he wasn’t. The compilers of the Pali Canon use this approach to introduce the Buddha’s teachings in the discourses they place at the beginning of both the Dīgha Nikāya and the Majjhima Nikāya (DN 1 & DN 2, MN 1 & MN 2), and it’s especially helpful here in clarifying the Buddha’s reasons for dividing questions into four types.

There are many advantages to viewing the Buddha’s teachings from the standpoint of these four types of questions, but one of the most important is that it allows us to see those teachings in a framework that the Buddha himself regarded as having utmost importance. For example, when we compare the questions to which the Buddha gave categorical answers to those whose answers were more specific to the context, we can see which of his teachings, in his eyes, had the most categorical, universal significance, and which had a more limited, specific range. When we note the topics he taught using analytical or cross-questioning strategies—which are primarily methods of clarification—we can see which of his teachings his contemporaries found hardest to understand. This, in turn, helps us to see which of his teachings were most original to his thought and newest to them. And when we examine the questions he put aside, we can learn important lessons about how his teachings are best understood and used, in that they were clearly meant to function in the context of some questions but not others.

This way of organizing the Buddha’s teachings also draws attention to the central fact that all of his teachings have the strategic purpose of helping people to change their minds. As we watch the Buddha respond to questions, we are watching discernment in action, for that’s how he understood discernment: as an action, as a compassionate strategy for bringing about release. To see his teachings in this light helps to correct the common tendency to regard Buddhist wisdom as sage aphorisms devoid of context. It also helps to correct the more academic tendency—dating back to the Abhidhamma—of teaching Buddhist wisdom as a vocabulary lesson, believing that if we can define the terms, we can fully understand what he’s saying. Admittedly, the terms are important, and clear definitions useful, but they find their true meaning only when applied in the context of the Buddha’s overall strategy of questions and answers in teaching the path to release.

Although our main focus will be on how the Buddha used the four response-strategies when dealing with the questions of his time, the import of the book is not entirely historical. As we will see in Chapter Two, the Buddha’s own path of practice to awakening was directed by the questions he asked himself. The more skillful he became in asking and answering the right questions, the closer he came to release. For this reason, in Chapters Five and Six we will find that he encouraged his students to ask questions of him—and themselves—in just the same way. Thus, for anyone interested in practicing the Buddha’s teachings, an important dimension in reading this book will lie in learning how to apply its lessons in formulating the questions you ask yourself in the course of your practice.

At the same time, Chapters Four, Five, and Eight show the many ways in which the Buddha’s listeners misinterpreted his teachings by trying to force those teachings to answer questions shaped by the listeners’ preconceived notions—an important object lesson for those of us at present who may not share the preconceived notions of the Buddha’s time, but still bring preconceived notions to the Dhamma nonetheless. When we see the advantages that the Buddha’s listeners gained as he reworked their questions, we can be more inclined to accept the idea that our questions may require some reworking as well.

So by watching the Buddha in action as he responds to a wide range of questions that people in his time brought to their practice, we can gain lessons in how to be more skillful and discerning in the questions we bring to our own.