Chapter Nine

A Path of Questions

In the course of this book we have frequently noted the close connection between the how and the what in the Buddha’s teaching. How he taught was shaped by what he taught, and what he taught was shaped by how. The reason this connection is so close is because what he taught was a how: a path of practice, a set of skills aimed at a very particular goal. Even the views that explain the path and form its first factor were chosen for their beneficial, pragmatic value in helping make progress on the path. These truths are thus instrumental and teleological—to be used as means to the goal of putting an end to suffering and stress.

The Buddha’s conception of his act of teaching these truths was thus also teleological: His primary concern was with the effect that his words would have on his listeners. In this way, his approach was rhetorical rather than dialectical. Instead of seeing words as primarily descriptive—talking about things—he saw them as performative: doing things, having an effect on their listeners. And like any rhetorician, he found it most effective to teach not only by word but also by example. Thus he was careful to teach in a way that illustrated what he was trying to teach.

This was especially true in the way he handled questions. As we noted in the Introduction, a practical question expresses a desire for knowledge that fits a certain shape and function: the shape determined by what makes sense in terms of what we already know or control, the function by what we want the knowledge to do. The fact that questions provide a shape for the knowledge connects directly with the role of right view on the path, which is to act as a frame for experience—not only providing knowledge about the issues of skillful and unskillful action, together with the truths of stress, its origination, its cessation, and the path to cessation; but also showing how to view experience in terms of these categories. This means that the ability to frame questions in terms of right view is an essential part of the path. The fact that questions express desires connects both with the truth of the origination of stress—the three forms of craving that lead to further becoming—and with the factor of right effort in the truth of the path, which includes the act of generating desire to abandon unskillful qualities and to develop skillful ones in their place. This means that skill in questions has to be mastered in order to encourage appropriate forms of the desire for knowledge, leading to the end of suffering, and to avoid inappropriate forms that would lead in the other direction.

This is why the Buddha emphasized the ability to respond skillfully to questions as an important measure of wisdom and discernment. To illustrate this principle, he not only described four strategies for responding to questions but also employed all four in the course of his teaching career. These response-strategies play an important role in establishing and clarifying the frame of right view. Categorical responses show that the questions they address are already framed in appropriate terms; analytical responses show which factors have to be added to questions inadequately framed in order to bring them into line; cross-questioning responses show how unexpected subtleties in the frame of right view can be understood through comparison with skills and activities with which the listener is already familiar; and the response of putting a question aside shows that the question is so improperly framed that it needs to be totally abandoned before one can start over with the proper frame.

However, in addition to establishing the frame of right view, the Buddha’s skill in questions also taught how to test that frame and its application through the subset of cross-questioning that we have termed self cross-examination. This, in fact, is the approach that determines whether the answers provided by the frame of right view actually perform the desired function of putting an end to suffering and stress.

To understand the interaction among these various response-strategies, it’s useful to look at them in the larger context of the Buddha’s approach to questions, taken as a whole, in the various forms we have encountered in this book. This enables us to see the broader outlines of his rhetorical strategy in demonstrating not only the discernment needed skillfully to employ the categories of right view and skillful questioning, but also the qualities of heart and mind needed to respond wisely to those questions and thus bring the entire path to fruition.

Taking this perspective, we can see that there were at least seven types of questions that played a role in the Buddha’s discovery and teaching of the path.

1) The primary question to which the path is a response.

2) The bodhisatta’s own questions in which he asked himself why he was acting in a particular way.

3) The questions with which he proposed another course of action.

4) The questions that established the frame of right view and appropriate attention.

5) The questions that refined that frame.

6) The questions that tested that frame by applying it to specific actions, and tested specific actions against the frame.

7) The questions that induced the right attitudes and mental qualities needed to keep one on the path.

Many lessons about the path can be learned—and many mistaken notions corrected—by looking in more detail at these seven types of questions. These lessons cover not only the content of the right views the Buddha was trying to communicate, but also the qualities of the heart that need to be developed as an essential part of the practice.

1) As AN 6:63 (Chapter One) notes, one of the primary responses to stress is a question that expresses a search: “Who knows a way or two to stop this stress?” Although this question doesn’t necessarily call for a path to practice—it may simply indicate a desire for someone or something else to solve the problem of stress from outside—the fact that the Buddha’s teaching is a response to this question establishes several important facts about the path he taught.

To begin with, it establishes the path’s obvious focus on putting an end to stress. This in turn establishes the teleological nature of the path: Its every aspect is aimed at a particular goal. In the simple fact of responding to this question, the Buddha indicated that the desire to know a way out of stress is something to be encouraged. He didn’t want people simply to accept things as they are, or to resign themselves to the thought, “That’s just the way it is.” He wanted them to recognize that something is wrong and to develop the conviction that it can be corrected—thus the role played by conviction not only as the first of the five faculties (SN 48:10), but also as the important turning point in the extended formula of dependent co-arising (SN 12:23) that treats the experience of stress as a motivating factor for developing the path to release.

The searching question cited in AN 6:63 also suggests that it’s possible to look to others for advice on what to do to put an end to stress. In fact, that is what the bodhisatta did at the beginning of his quest for awakening. Only when he came to the conclusion that no one at the time had the knowledge he was seeking did he try to find the path on his own. But even though he ultimately gained the knowledge he was seeking through his own efforts, he did not conclude that the search for someone who knows is totally misguided. Having gained the knowledge of how to go beyond stress, he was in a position to share it with others, at least to the extent of telling them what they needed to do to gain release from stress through their own efforts. In fact, as he later told Ven. Ānanda (SN 45:2), if it weren’t for him as an admirable friend, the beings of the world wouldn’t even know the path, much less be able to follow it. Thus the ability to judge who is and isn’t an admirable friend is an essential skill in pursuing the path.

2) When the Buddha described his quest for awakening as a series of responses to questions of the form, “Why am I doing this?” he was indicating the point at which the search for a way out of stress turns inward: the realization that stress may be caused by one’s own actions. He was also indicating that an important part of the path consists of the realization that one’s habits—and in particular, one’s intentions—are not to be blindly accepted or taken for granted. They should be called into question and subjected to honest scrutiny. However, he also was indicating that not everything is to be questioned—in particular, conviction in the efficacy of action should be maintained as a working hypothesis all the way to release.

3) When the Buddha told how he followed the question, “Why am I doing this?” with the question, “What if I were to do something else?” he was indicating the point where the notion of a path of practice actually begins to take shape: the realization that one can act in different ways and that, perhaps by changing one’s ways of acting, one can put an end to suffering and stress. This question also emphasizes the mind’s freedom to think of alternatives, to use imagination in proposing new ways of acting. The assumption of freedom of choice is what makes a holy life dedicated to the end of stress a genuine possibility.

4) The questions that establish the frame of right view are the ones with which we move from the story of the bodhisatta’s quest to the example set by the Buddha as a teacher. Establishing this frame is a primary function of three of the Buddha’s four response-strategies. Categorical answers do so simply by answering questions that are already properly framed; analytical answers, by adding whatever variables are necessary to approach the issue at hand from the proper frame; questions put aside (followed by different questions to establish the frame), by drawing a clear line between what does and what doesn’t correspond to the frame. In particular, in the course of employing this last strategy, the Buddha focuses on how the mental processes of objectification (papañca) encourage the terms of becoming—selves operating in worlds—and how questions derived from these terms get in the way of the path.

In contrast, the actual frame of right view and appropriate attention builds on the assumptions underlying the questions in categories (2) and (3) by looking at experience, not in terms of things, but in terms of actions and results. We noted above that the Buddha’s words are not simply descriptive, talking about things; it’s also true that teachings based on the frame of right view and appropriate attention are not talking about things. They talk about action and result, focusing attention on identifying which ways of acting are unskillful—leading to suffering and stress—and which are skillful, leading to the end of suffering and stress. When the Buddha’s responses to questions establish this frame, they also establish right view as an important element in the path—as a type of action needed for other skillful actions. They also establish the role of that frame as a set of instrumental truths used to analyze experience so as to determine the skillful response.

The fact that action—kamma—plays the primary role in establishing the frame of right view shows how important this teaching is in providing the context for understanding all aspects of what the Buddha taught. This is especially crucial in understanding the teaching on not-self, for often the connection between not-self and kamma is approached by taking not-self as the frame, and kamma as a teaching that doesn’t fit into the frame: If all things are not-self, who performs an action and who will receive the results of the action? Actually, the relationship between these two teachings goes the other way. Kamma is the frame, and not-self the teaching that fits into the frame: When is it a skillful action to employ the perception of self? When is it a skillful action to employ the perception of not-self?

To view the teaching on not-self within the framework of kamma helps to clear up many of the issues that have developed around this teaching over the centuries. Buddhist philosophers, ignoring the message of SN 44:10 [§162] and MN 2 [§25] that questions about the existence and non-existence of the self should be put aside, have often tried to provide analytical answers to these questions—stating, for instance, that Yes, the self has conventional existence but No, not ultimate existence; that Yes, the self defined as impersonal phenomena, i.e., the five aggregates, does exist, but No, the self defined as a person doesn’t; or that No, there is no self, but Yes, there is an empirical personality and personal continuity after death. More modern philosophers have offered analytical answers of their own, introducing the variables of individual self vs. cosmic self, stating either that individual self does exist, whereas the cosmic self doesn’t; or—the exact opposite—that the individual self doesn’t exist whereas the cosmic self does.

All of these analytical answers, however, ignore the fact that the Buddha could have given an analytical answer to these questions had he wanted to—but he didn’t. They also all deal in terms of inappropriate attention and blatant objectification: categories of existence and non-existence, questions of how to define the “I” in “I am the thinker” over the course of the past, present, and future. As the discussions in Chapters Three and Eight have shown, the act of blatant objectification is a form of unskillful kamma that moves in the opposite direction from the duties of the four noble truths. Thus a more useful approach is to view the perceptions of self and not-self as actions in the context of dependent co-arising, to see how they do promote the duties of the four noble truths, and to put the analytical answers of the philosophers aside. In fact, this principle applies to all the perceptions and categories of blatant objectification: self/not-self; existence/non-existence. When questions of skillful kamma are framed on their most subtle level, in terms of dependent co-arising, they provide the framework by which these categories can be comprehended both as instances of stress and as causes of stress. This allows for their abandoning. Then the terms of dependent co-arising, having performed their function, can be abandoned as well.

Thus, by using the teaching of kamma as the primary frame of understanding, it’s possible to gain important insights into the Buddha’s teachings on not-self and into other topics as well. For instance, on the issue of judging people: Given that the primal question in category (1) focuses on looking to others for help in the end of suffering, the Buddha regarded as an essential duty the ability to judge who might be a reliable guide on the path. Instead of viewing the act of judging others as inappropriate and inhumane, he saw it as absolutely central to the path. But because people tend to use inappropriate categories in judging others, he used analytical answers to show that other people are to be judged primarily, not as to their ultimate worth, but simply as to their helpfulness in one’s own search for skillfulness. At the same time, they are to be judged not by their status, race, or occupation, but by the skillfulness of their actions. And to be able accurately to judge the integrity of others, one has to develop one’s own integrity as well.

The Buddha’s lessons on kamma appear not only in the content of his responses to questions, but also in the values he taught by the way he responded. The simple fact that he answered questions indicates that the principle of action is such that the act of asking others for advice can be a helpful part of the path. He expanded on this point in the several discourses where he suggested going to experienced people to gain advice on how to act [§43, §44, §131]. However, the nature of the advice he gave—and that he said should be expected from others—shows that a teacher cannot get rid of stress and suffering for another person, that each person also has to cooperate by acting on that advice. This utilizes one of the windows of opportunity provided by the Buddha’s teaching on kamma: Even though one’s experience is shaped primarily by one’s own actions, this does not preclude one’s benefiting from the help of others. The proper use of this opportunity lies in approaching the act of teaching and learning the path to the end of stress as a cooperative effort.

The Buddha’s care in responding to questions in these ways shows some of the qualities needed in this cooperative effort. By teaching only truths that are beneficial, and by taking care to ensure that his responses were appropriate to his listeners, he showed that compassion is needed for teaching and learning to succeed. He also showed compassion in observing the etiquette of not harming himself or others—not exalting himself or disparaging others by name—in the course of his teaching. By giving displeasing answers when they were timely, he showed that compassion has to be responsible: It’s not a matter of giving the listeners what they want or making them feel good. Instead, it requires keeping their long-term benefit foremost in mind.

The Buddha’s general openness to being cross-questioned on his teachings was also an object lesson in the compassionate sense of responsibility he brought to the act of teaching. As we have noted, a teacher not open to cross-questioning is guilty of objectifying himself and his audience. A teacher who welcomes cross-questioning is concerned less with his status as a teacher—and his teaching as a finished product—and more with the communication of something useful and clear. Thus the act of teaching is part of a process leading to a goal, rather than an exposition of the goal itself. In honoring his listeners’ freedom to question in the course of this process, the Buddha opened the discussion to their subjective experience of doubt. He also honored their desire to know about the skills needed to end that doubt and to attain release from their subjective experience of suffering and stress. At the same time, he avoided many of the conflicts implicit in blatant objectification by offering his teachings less as a set body of knowledge about people and the world to be imposed on those people and their worlds, than as an array of tools that his listeners were free to take or leave as they pleased.

5) The questions that refine the frame of right view include those that, asking for details about the terms of right view and appropriate attention, deserve categorical responses; those that deserve analytical responses showing how even categorical teachings have to be applied differently to listeners with different levels of skill; and those that deserve to be cross-questioned with reference to hypothetical analogies and examples to show how the frame of skillful and unskillful action should be called to mind and applied to areas where the listeners don’t understand how to do so on their own. The frame of right view is also refined by the questions of self cross-examination that the Buddha recommended be applied to one’s specific actions, all the way to the action of assuming a sense of self and other subtle forms of clinging.

The extent to which the Buddha had to explain and refine the frame of skillful and unskillful kamma—especially through analytical responses and cross-questioning about hypotheticals dealing with actions and skills—shows that his listeners had trouble understanding the implications of his concept of kamma. This in turn suggests that it was new to them. In other words, even though the word kamma was something the Buddha picked up from his environment, his understanding of kamma was not. This point is underlined by the fact that he went out of his way to refute the teachings of those who taught a deterministic version of the doctrine of kamma. In doing so, he revealed a second window of opportunity in the principle of kamma: that even though actions have consequences, sometimes imposing severe limitations on the choices available at any given moment, one is always free within those limitations to follow the skillful path toward the end of stress and suffering through one’s choice of what to do in the present.

The Buddha’s responses to these questions also demonstrated in action the extra levels of refinement in the compassion and sense of responsibility that he brought to the act of teaching—and that he expected his listeners to bring to the act of learning. In particular, the way he used hypotheticals in cross-questioning his listeners was an object lesson in the need for truthfulness and mutual respect. By recognizing the special skills and knowledge his listeners brought with them, he induced an attitude of respect in return.

The way he engaged in arguments also taught many lessons in respect. To begin with, he was willing to enter into discussion only with people whom he trusted and respected to have a sincere desire for the truth. His purpose in engaging in debates was not to score points but to clear up his opponent’s misunderstandings. In fact, the way he used hypotheticals in cross-questioning his opponents—a strategy he used elsewhere to clarify difficult points of doctrine—showed that debate, for him, was principally a matter of clarification.

The aggressiveness with which he pursued his points, however, showed that respect was not necessarily a matter of honoring other people’s points of view. Instead, when combined with compassion and a sense of responsibility, true respect means the desire not to leave one’s opponent mired in wrong views, for views of that sort can have dire consequences. In the same way that he saw strict enforcement of the rules of the Vinaya as an expression of compassion, he saw the rigorous uprooting of wrong view in his opponents as an act both of kindness and respect.

6) The questions of self cross-examination test the frame of right view in action—to see if it really does aid in eliminating stress—at the same time testing actions against the frame of right view, to see if they actually follow the path. In this process one cross-questions oneself about one’s actions to see how they fit against the frame, from the common level of words and deeds to the subtlest levels within the mind: testing acts of perception, such as perceptions of self and cosmos. Self cross-examination also checks one’s progress on the path, both as a means of testing the path and as a means of gauging one’s skill in following it.

This process helps to develop the analysis of qualities as a factor of awakening (dhamma-vicaya-sambojjhaṅga). At the same time, it starves the hindrance of uncertainty, and in doing so responds to the bewilderment that is often the result of suffering and stress. The fact that doubt is overcome and conviction established by exploring and testing—and not by simply denying doubt or waiting for it to go away on its own—shows the confidence the Buddha had in his teachings: that they would withstand any sincere test. It also shows the active role of discernment, not as a set of propositions to be simply accepted or cloned, but as an active faculty to be developed through skillful inquiry.

Self cross-examination succeeds in producing insights—and, in some cases, precipitating total release—by helping one to look at familiar events in a new frame. The fact that one is able to choose one’s frame of understanding, and not simply take it for granted, is another expression of freedom. And the fact that total freedom comes from applying appropriate attention to one’s actions makes an important point about the focus of the practice: that the freedom of total release is to be found by exploring—through exercising—one’s moment-to-moment freedom to choose to act skillfully.

In testing one’s actions, the questions of self cross-examination set the bar for gauging one’s skillfulness progressively higher and higher. They start with the simple aim of not harming oneself and others, progress through the aim of bringing the mind to a point where it is ready to face death at any moment, and finally aim at erasing craving and clinging of every sort. The more basic levels of these questions deal in terms of “I” and “mine,” while the more advanced are aimed at dismantling any need for those perceptions. These questions thus establish the fact that the path goes through many stages, and that concepts and perceptions useful at one stage of the path may need to be abandoned later. Thus the consistency of the path lies, not in an adherence to a consistent vocabulary or set of first principles, but in the common goal to which all of its stages are aimed.

7) The questions that induce the right attitudes and mental qualities needed to keep one on the path are another subset of the questions of self cross-examination. On a preliminary level, these questions encourage a healthy type of conceit and craving needed to get one started on the path to mastery. When that mastery has reached the point where conceit and craving are no longer needed to stay on the path, a more advanced level of cross-questioning focuses on uprooting any remaining conceit and craving that would block further progress.

The most basic attitudes encouraged by this type of cross-questioning are compassion, integrity, and truthfulness. Compassion is needed in that the goal of putting an end to stress and suffering, and to find a happiness without blame, is essentially a compassionate quest aimed at one’s own well-being and that of all others. Integrity and truthfulness are needed to stick with the skillful path because defilements can easily disguise themselves under the cloak of delusion and denial, and the habit of denying any unskillful elements in one’s actions and intentions is delusion in its most pernicious and tenacious form. There are times when the frames of objectification aid in this denial and become a form of avoidance, acting as a cover for attachment. Thus truthfulness is needed to dig out and expose that attachment for what it is.

Self cross-examination also works together with the cross-questioning of hypotheticals to encourage mindfulness and alertness: mindfulness in calling to mind useful frameworks of thinking and understanding; alertness in applying these standards to examining one’s actions—physical, verbal, and mental—in the present moment.

Finally, the most crucial attitude fostered by the questions of self cross-examination is that of heedfulness. As the Buddha pointed out, all skillfulness—including the skill of questions—is rooted in heedfulness. People become skillful not through any innate goodness of the mind, but by clearly realizing—and taking to heart—the danger of unskillful action and the benefits of skillful action. The questions of self cross-examination are meant to keep this realization firmly in mind and to bring it to bear in all one’s activities. When heedfulness is combined with the understanding of right view, as encouraged by the framework of skillful questioning, it gives rise to right effort. When combined with the mindfulness and alertness encouraged by skillful cross-questioning, right effort—in the form of ardency—completes the set of qualities needed to bring right mindfulness and right concentration to the culmination of their development.

Right mindfulness and right concentration, in turn, allow the mind to become more sensitive to even its subtlest actions. As the principle of heedfulness continues to inform the process of self cross-examination into these actions, it first strips away any attachment to activities that lie outside of the path. Then it helps to root out any traces of unskillfulness, any remnants of I-making or my-making, that may still hover around the mastery of the path factors themselves. This is what ultimately frees the mind from all the activities of objectification and attachment, even in their subtlest forms.

In these ways, skill in questions helps to foster a cluster of skillful mental qualities that, acting in concert, form a path leading to the primary aim of the Buddha’s act of teaching: a dimension beyond action, total release.