I came with lots of questions. Some were pretty mundane: am I doing this right, and why does my side hurt, and is that fucking bell ever going to ring? I’m certain I still have these. But I have larger questions, too. Who am I? Will I ever be happy again? Why did this thing happen to me? I came hoping to find answers to these.
When I studied philosophy, I knew I’d never come up with the answers for life’s biggest questions. My professors actively discouraged their students from attempting that. They encouraged asking better questions. If we could ask better questions, then maybe we could get closer—a smidge closer—to the finding the answer. What does it mean to ask a better question?
Well, when I think of what makes a bad question, I think of what Stephen Colbert used to do on “The Colbert Show” when he’d ask his guest something like, “George W. Bush: great President or greatest President?” or, conversely, “Barak Obama: is he a terrible President or the worst President?” He already knew the answer, so he phrased the question to get that answer. A bad question sets limits on an answer.
One of the most famous examples of a bad question in Zen literature comes from this koan: “A monk asked Joshu, ‘does a dog have Buddha nature or not?’ Joshu replied ‘MU!” The monk set up the question as: does it have a) Buddha nature or b) no Buddha nature. And Joshu, the Zen master, ignores the multiple choice part of the question and answers, no or MU. He doesn’t say yes to a or b. He doesn’t say, well on the one hand or on the other hand. He says no to the whole mindset of the question. He says no to the expectations set up by the question.
Who knows how long that monk spent weeks and months and years struggling with the question of a Dog’s nature? I imagine him sitting with this question of does a dog have a) Buddha Nature or b) no Buddha nature, over and over and over and over and over and over. How many nights had he lost sleep over it? How many nights did he wake up with sweat drenching the bed? So, he finally works up the guts to ask the Master about it and the Master simply says, MU. He simply says, no.
And this MU—there has been lots written about it—undercuts the assumptions of the question. This Mu says the question isn’t big enough. This Mu says you’re going about this all the wrong way. This Mu says you’ve been limiting the answers. This Mu says you’ve already backed yourself into a corner with this question. This Mu says the questions you ask have become a prison. You’ve locked yourself away and pitched the key. Mu, Mu, Mu.
Unfortunately, the answers I find come from the questions I ask. And if my questions are so limiting, so will my answers be. If my questions are a prison, then my answers will be just another shackle. Even good questions will give good answers, but they’re still limited by the question. Maybe there is no such thing as a good question? Perhaps all of my questions are just expectations hiding behind question marks.
I become a dog chasing his tail day after day after day after day. Always doing the same thing, asking the same questions—but expecting different answers. It’s as if I went to the well for the water, but the rope isn’t long enough to reach the depths. I came away thirsty. I suffer because of the questions I ask and the answers I seek. I suffer because I expect an answer will end my suffering.
But, anymore, I do nothing. I ask nothing. I just sit. I let the questions, the expectations, the answers all fall away as I focus on my breaths: one, two, three. I expect nothing. And as the questions drop away, as these answers drop away, my little, rabid doggie mind starts to fall away—or, at least slow down—and I begin to experience now. This now. Just this.
But the problem with saying “now,” or “just this” is by the time my vocal cords form the sound and it vibrates the air, then the vibrations hit your inner ear and your brain registers the words, that now has already past. Just by milliseconds, but it has past. So, there is no “now”. There is no “just this”. Plus, the same mind that becomes addicted to the past can also be addicted to the present. There is no now. There is no just this.
My questions cannot penetrate this silence. My answers, even my best answers, cannot explain it. But it is there in that silence, beyond does a dog have Buddha nature or not, beyond great president or greatest president, beyond Christian or Buddhist, beyond any question or answer, there I must go.
But it’s not that I go there. It’s that I’ve always been there. I just didn’t realize it.
In this silence, there is no prison, there is no freedom. In this silence, there is nowhere to go, nowhere to be, nothing to do. In this silence there is no self or no non-self, no master or no student, no questioner or answerers. There are no questions and no answers. In this silence, there isn’t even nothing.
So, maybe the best question is no question. Maybe the best answer is no answer.