January 11, 2011

If you could ask the Buddha one question, what would it be?

Thanissaro Bhikkhu's new book Skill in Questions deals with the difficult business of being discriminating with our questions.  It may be true that there are no stupid questions, but there are questions which it is pointless to answer.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu has pointed out the importance of questioning in the Buddhist canon for some time. Since the dialogue form dominates the better known parts of the Pali canon, we shouldn't be shocked to find questions are so important. And the role of the dialogue is of course foundational to western thought as well, with the Socratic method or elenchus.

From the introduction to Skill in Questions:

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.

Join the Tricycle Community as a Supporting or Sustaining Member and download Skill in Questions by Thanissaro Bhikkhu for free. If you're already a member, you can get the book here. When you download the book, you will have the opportunity to make a voluntary $5 contribution to the Tricycle Teachers Fund. Donations in January will go entirely to support the Metta Forest Monastery, where Thanissaro Bhikkhu is abbot.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu's Tricycle Retreat on The Ten Perfections runs throughout the month of January at Tricycle.com. Watch Week 2—there's a preview video if you're not a member—here.

Puzzle image: Horia Varlan

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