Sunday, November 22, 2009

Knowing the right questions to ask

People love to talk. And people love to debate. Often the debate, however, really isn’t an effort to persuade the other to your side; rather, it’s really a mild argument, just a simple game of “I’m right and you’re wrong” done for an audience with the hopes of gaining acolytes.

Monks love to talk. And monks love to debate. There’s a grand tradition among many Sanghas, particularly in Asia, of monks debating Dhamma when they gather together for festivals and other events. And monks within an individual Sangha debate each other to test their knowledge of the Dhamma. It is often a method of teaching other monks who may be listening to the debate, because there are times when someone has an incorrect view, they will hear that view expressed by another during a debate and then witness that view fall apart against the superior understanding of someone with correct view.

Monks, however, are also people and as a result, are not immune from having a debate devolve into pettiness. The Tipitika has many examples of a monk who stubbornly clings to wrong view. It is through these examples that the Buddha exposes a wrong view, contrasts it with right view, and corrects the monk’s misunderstanding, or course to everyone’s delight. This pedagogical technique is simple and timeless, but perhaps more importantly it is also effective: it brings about the desired results.

To say that there has been recent discussion within the iSangha and Twangha about what is the proper way to practice Buddhism is a bit misleading. Granted, the debate has taken form around the point of whether one can really have an effective practice if his or her absorption of the Dhamma is primarily through “discussion” via the Internet, which ostensibly would make such a debate appear to be “new.” Maybe even “different.” But it’s not any different from any other debate that has occurred within the Buddhist community, because at the heart of all this is the assertion that “my practice is the correct practice, your practice is false.”

For newcomers to the Dhamma, for those who have come to Buddhism with the hope that it will offer them something they could not find in other practices and faiths – inner peace and guidance on how to live a happy life that in turn promotes equanimity in all – encountering such debates within the Buddhism community can be disheartening. Because what I fear newcomers perceive when seeing these debates, which often are nothing more than flame wars in the old style of USENET, is that Buddhism is ensnared within the same political sniping and posturing that seems to dominate the monotheistic religions, as well as the general political culture of the West. To be skillful doesn’t seem to mean exemplifying the Noble Eightfold Path; rather, it seems to be clever in how you use your ad hominem – use just enough sarcasm, make your criticism just biting enough so that it doesn’t cause complete offense, but so that it creates an emotional rather than rational response.

The irony in all this is that the Buddha completely understood this, because, as he taught, at the root of all our suffering is ignorance – failing to see things as they really are. And the reason we fail to see things as they really are, as I understand his teachings, is that we have deluded minds. And because of our deluded minds, we fail to ask the right questions. Yet, cultivating the skill to ask the right questions is so simple that the Buddha taught it to a child, to his son Rahula (MN 61).

What the Buddha taught Rahula also seamlessly fits with what he told the Kalamas as well (AN 3.65). At the heart of these suttas – one given to a child and the other to an elite group of intellectuals – is guidance on asking the right questions. And a skillful question, as I understand the Buddha’s teachings, is one that seeks to honestly reveal our intentions.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains this very well in the essay “The Road to Nirvana Is Paved with Skillful Intentions.”

“At first glance, we might think that continual self-reflection of this sort would add further complications to our lives when they already seem more than complicated enough, but in fact the Buddha’s instructions are an attempt to strip the questions in our minds down to the most useful essentials. He explicitly warns against taking on too many questions, particularly those that lead nowhere and tie us up in knots: ‘Who am I? Am I basically a good person? An unworthy person?’ Instead, he tells us to focus on our intentions so that we can see how they shape our life, and to master the processes of cause and effect so that they can shape our life in increasingly better ways. This is the way every great artist or craftsman develops mastery and skill.”

Grasping this, I come to understand that most of my embarrassing moments of misstatement, or incidents of provocation on my part, can be traced to either one of two things: I either deliberately deluded myself about my real intentions for an action and as a result ignored the outcomes they would create, or I was careless because I failed to fully evaluate my intentions and the likely outcomes they would produce.

I would suspect that one of these scenarios was in operation in the production and publication of a recent article in Tricycle Magazine, an item that has created some angst among Buddhist bloggers, to be putting it mildly. Granted, the article “Dharma Wars” does reveal something that is true: there are some Buddhist teachers who become bullies as they become ensnared with dialogue over whose methods produce results. Recently, I attended a Buddhist gathering where the question was asked how was what this group believed and practiced different than what was practiced in other schools of Buddhism. The answer dismayed me. The respondent said it had been her experience that other “vehicles” tended to denigrate other methods, that the monks or teachers within these schools would disparage other teachers or schools. This was a “turn-off” for the respondent. I was dismayed because the answer, I thought, was unskillful in that the respondent’s answer was motivated by the same intention she was criticizing. Rather than answering the question asked – how is your practice different from others – the respondent answered a question that was unasked: how is your practice superior to others. The respondent was doing exactly the same thing that she found to be a turn-off: she focused on what she believed to be the negatives of other practices to place her own practice in a more positive light.

Similarly, it seems to me the Tricycle article failed to deliver on its supposed premise because the author asked the wrong question. The article’s summary asks this question: “What is it about the Internet that turns Buddhist teachers into bullies?” This question presumes that Buddhist bullies are not responsible for their bullying behavior because the Internet made them be bullies. It’s the old, “the Devil made me do it,” argument, a premise that conveniently absolves one of any personal responsibility. The other flaw with this premise is that it’s based on the notion that there is something about the written word appearing on the Internet that provokes disharmony, that it is more likely to encourage unskillful discourse by virtue of the fact that it appears on the Internet, which seems rather odd to me because after all, a written word is nothing more than a written word, and whether it’s placed on parchment or a computer screen is moot. It all comes back to who wrote that word and what were his or her intentions in writing it and was his or her action skillful? If a Buddhist teacher behaves like a bully, it is because the seeds of a bully were already present; the Internet did not create that seed. So it would seem the more appropriate question to ask is, “Are Buddhist teachers who respond with anger and behave like bullies worthy of receiving attention?”

Interestingly, the Buddha had an answer for that question: No. In part of the Lohicca Sutta (DN 12), the Buddha describes three types of teachers that should be avoided and who, in fact, ought to be criticized. Lohicca then asks the next logical question:

“But which teacher, Master Gotama, is not worthy of criticism in the world?”

“There is the case, Lohicca, where a Tathagata appears in the world, worthy & rightly self-awakened. He teaches the Dhamma admirable in its beginning, admirable in its middle, admirable in its end. He proclaims the holy life both in its particulars & in its essence, entirely perfect, surpassingly pure.”

But criticism in the Buddha’s view does not mean malign those who proffer wrong view. Skillful criticism is outlined by the Buddha in the Brahmajala Sutta (DN 1):

“Bhikkhus! if others should malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, you must not feel resentment, nor displeasure, nor anger on that account. Bhikkhus! If you feel angry or displeased when others malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, it will only be harmful to you (because then you will not be able to practice the dhamma). Bhikkhus! If you feel angry or displeased when others malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, will you be able to discriminate their good speech from bad?

‘No, indeed, Venerable Sir!’ said the bhikkhus.

If others malign me or the Dhamma, or the Samgha, you should explain (to them what is false as false), saying ‘It is not so. It is not true. It is, indeed, not thus with us. Such fault is not to be found among us.’ Bhikkhus! If others should praise the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, you should not, feel pleased, or delighted, or elated on that account. Bhikkhus! If you feel pleased, or delighted, or elated, when others praise me, or the Dhamma, or the Samgha, it will only be harmful to you. Bhikkhus! If others praise me, or the Dhamma, or the Samgha, you should admit what is true as true, saying ‘It is so. It is true. It is, indeed, thus with us. In fact, it is to be found among us.”

Indeed, two bloggers I am aware of who responded to the Tricycle article with great skill were Nathan at Dangerous Harvests, and NellaLou at Enlightenment Ward. There have been skillful responses by others and my omitting them from mention is by no means a commentary on their value, but these two are certainly worth reading.

There’s a reason why Right Speech is part of the Noble Eightfold Path, and that is speech is one of the ways we make kamma. If our speech is unskillful, our results will be unpleasant. As Master Hsing Yun wrote in “Being Good: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life,” most of our bad kamma is created by the words we speak.

“Speech is the single most powerful means by which we interact with other people. Our choice of words, our tone of voice, even our selection of subject matter can have the profoundest influence on other people. Intemperate or ill-considered speech often leads to misunderstanding, suspicion and anger.”


  1. I have heard from more than one teacher, and even one monk...that if there is anything I(or for anyone) could practice more of in the path than all the would be right speech. Thanks again for the reminder.

  2. @Was Once, you are welcome, and thank you for being a reader!