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“Not a Valid Question”

August 16, 2013

Q: Now that we are starting to get more questions from the readers, maybe we need some guidelines for which questions we consider acceptable.

The Arahant: Yes, the Buddha had such guidelines, so it’s a good idea to follow them and make our criteria public. First let’s talk about the kind of questions and the motivations behind them:

Ven. Sariputta said: “All those who ask questions of another do so from any one of five motivations. Which five? One asks a question of another through stupidity & bewilderment. One asks a question of another through evil desires & overwhelmed with greed. One asks a question of another through contempt. One asks a question of another when desiring knowledge.”— Pañhapuccha Sutta (AN 5.65)

We are not interested in addressing stupid questions, or cynical questions aimed at entrapping or embarrassing us. We have no interest in contemptuous questions, or those posed by someone who thinks he already knows. Our interest is in questions asked out of a sincere desire for knowledge. Only sincere questions provide us the opportunity to help people. And how do we answer these questions?

“There are these four ways of answering questions. Which four? There are questions that should be answered categorically [straightforwardly yes, no, this, that]. There are questions that should be answered with an analytical (qualified) answer [defining or redefining the terms]. There are questions that should be answered with a counter-question. There are questions that should be put aside. These are the four ways of answering questions.” — Pañha Sutta (AN 4.42)

Questions that are not asked out of a sincere desire for knowledge should be set aside. We answer questions on clear topics of the Dhamma categorically. When a question requires further clarification, we ask a counter-question. And when the subject matter is very deep, we provide an analytical answer. There are many examples of all these in the Suttas.

The Buddha also considered certain questions to be invalid on ontological grounds. For example,

“Lord, who makes contact?”

Not a valid question,” the Blessed One said. “I don’t say ‘makes contact.’ If I were to say ‘makes contact,’ then ‘Who makes contact?’ would be a valid question. But I don’t say that. When I don’t say that, the valid question is ‘From what as a requisite condition comes contact?’ And the valid answer is, ‘From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling’.” — Phagguna Sutta (SN 12.12)

The Buddha’s point is that the question is invalid because it assumes the existence of a self; but the Buddha’s fundamental teaching is that there is no self or anything pertaining to a self, as he makes clear here:

Then Ven. Ananda… said to the Blessed One, “In what respect is it said that the world is empty?”

“Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self” — Suñña Sutta (SN 35.85)

Another way to say this is that conditioned existence is devoid of authentic Being. Questions and answers that lead us toward that understanding are helpful; others are not. The Buddha often rejected questions that would force him to take an extreme position, or that assumed the eternal existence of a self or something belonging to a self. The Buddha’s criterion in accepting a question rested on whether the answer would be useful for the elimination of suffering. Thus he rejected any question that would lead to useless speculation, or that did not forward the cessation of suffering.

“…those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous [than what I have taught]. And why haven’t I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.

“And what have I taught? ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress’: This is what I have taught. And why have I taught these things? Because they are connected with the goal, relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. This is why I have taught them.” — Simsapa Sutta (SN 56.31)

He therefore deliberately set aside certain topics and questions that did not contribute to attaining cessation of suffering:

“…what is undeclared by me? ‘The cosmos is eternal,’… ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’… ‘The cosmos is finite’… ‘The cosmos is infinite’… ‘The soul & the body are the same’… ‘The soul is one thing and the body another’… ‘After death a Tathagata exists’… ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist’… ‘After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist’… ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,’ are undeclared by me.

“And why are they undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undeclared by me.

“And what is declared by me? ‘This is stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the origination of stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the cessation of stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,’ is declared by me. And why are they declared by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are declared by me.” — Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta (MN 63)

It would be better and easier for all concerned, if before submitting their questions readers were to go through Venerable Thanissaro’s fine essay Skill in Questions. It provides many examples from the Suttas of the kinds of questions that are acceptable. Let us make this the standard policy.

From → Q&A

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