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What Questions to Ask?

When trying to ask the big questions (the answer to life, the universe and everything, as Douglas Adams put it), what are the questions it is fruitful to ask?

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My starting point when thinking about what is the purpose of my life, and what should I be doing, is to think about what questions to ask, and what questions not to ask.

In Buddhist terms, there are skillful and unskillful questions - questions that it is worthwhile trying to answer, and questions that however intriguing, go nowhere.

The American Pragmatist philosophers in the 19th century (Pierce, Dewey, William James etc) had the same idea - whenever James was presented with a question of belief etc, he answered 'What is the cash value of either answer', meaning what practical difference is it to answer one way or another.

Two examples of questions that most people think are very important to answer, but which I think have no or little 'cash value', are: Does God exist? and Who Am I? In my experience, when trying to answer either, I go in an endless spin and go nowhere, and people have been trying to answer these questions, and others like them, for thousands of years. Furthermore, even if I got to a final answer one way or the other, would it make any practical difference? I don't think so.

When the Buddha was asked point-blank 'do you believe in a soul?' he refused to answer. When a Buddhist teacher (Ajahn Chah) dealt with a similar question in the same way, the questioner said 'I don't accept your non-answer', Chah replied 'I don't accept your non-question'. The Buddha said that questions like Who am I? lead to a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion, a writhing, a fetter of views. Of course, it is still fun to play round with questions like these; I remember late nights with friends, the buzz and adrenalin of setting the whole universe to rights, only to wake up a little dispirited, as my grand solution looked a little frail in the morning light!

So why not leave the grand solution, trying to solve life, the universe, and everything, in Douglas Adam's famous phrase, and focus on questions that have a practical, everyday importance, and that are possibly solvable - in other words, questions that are skillful to ask. Questions that seem to me skillful, ie worth my energy trying to answer, are questions like: How should I live my life? How can I be compassionate? How can I see more clearly into things - both what I see around me and within myself? If there is beauty and love to be found, how do I find them? What is the most practical way to ease my stress and suffering? etc

The way that I am currently answering these questions, is through the meditation I describe on this site. Of course, in a sense you also need to answer these questions perhaps to take up meditation in the first place; in other words, meditation can be seen both as an answer to questions like this, as well as framing the questions even more skillfully. Because like any skill, meditation and learning how to be towards yourself and to others, is a messy process involving feedback loops. You take an action, be sensitive to the results, and subsequently adjust the action. This takes a little courage, sensitivity, intention and motivation - learning a skill is itself a process which needs to be done skillfully.

The essence of it is that if I observe with interest, joy, focus and openness whatever I experience - this world, my body, the contents of my mind - then I begin to see more clearly, and become more aware of the incredible love, beauty, happiness, vastness that myself and the whole universe are based on.

[Return to list of articles]    [next article] Last revised Nov 03 2003

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