All in It Together: Zen & the Art of Asking Questions

All in It Together: Zen & the Art of Asking Questions October 27, 2017





The church with which I am affiliated is undergoing a ministerial transition. And, I was one of several people asked what questions should potential interim ministers be asked.

Me, I have little use for the usual questions. Some may be important, like “what three or five things you want to accomplish during your tenure.” It is good to be on the same page. But, others, like “what is your greatest weakness,” only invite obfuscation and sales. In case you’re wondering, my response to the weakness always was “I work too hard.”

But, these are fast moving events, the hiring process for an interim is done in a haze even as it is important to try and find a right person. So, right after the easy questions, like “what do you hope to accomplish” some questions that evoke the heart of the candidate can be important. Can be critically important.

So, I consulted with my old friend the Zen priest Ed Oberholtzer, and together we came up with five to ask.

1. A clearly drunk derelict walks up to you and asks for a quarter. What do you do? Why?
2. Are you a cat person or a dog person? Why?
3. What are the books on your bedside table right now?

4. What periodicals do you subscribe to?

(Okay, maybe the last two are redundant. But I wanted five. And, at least one of them should be asked. I lean toward the books, myself. But, all this asked, really just to soften the person up a bit; then, here’s the zinger. Ed suggested, and I’m all in for it:)
5. There’s an old Zen story.
There was an old woman who supported a hermit. For twenty years she always had a girl, sixteen or seventeen years old, take the hermit his food and wait on him.One day she told the girl to give the monk a close hug and ask, “What do you feel just now?”

The hermit responded,

An old tree on a cold cliff;
Midwinter – no warmth.

The girl went back and told this to the old woman. The woman said, “For twenty years I’ve supported this vulgar good-for-nothing!” So saying, she threw the monk out and burned down the hermitage.

What do you think about this story?

I first ran across this story, I’m pretty sure, in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Maybe I was seventeen. I recall how I was both shocked and fascinated by it. Sex in a spiritual story didn’t get any better for me. And not going to the way my Baptist upbringing inclined me to assume it would go was a clear bonus, even as I didn’t really get where it was going. Where was the simple and clear moral? Why drive the monk out for not responding to the girl? Wasn’t that the appropriate response to an inappropriate question? And what about the old woman sending the young girl to do such a thing? And. Why burn the hut to the ground? I was just enthralled and haunted and, you know, it continues to be so. It’s one of those stories.

It’s actually a koan, anthologized in the Eighteenth century Japanese collection, Entangling Vines. And, koans are presentations of reality and invitations to stand in that place. What better thing to throw out for someone you might wish to invite into spiritual leadership?

No doubt this one is tricky, in fact maybe more difficult to get through to the heart of it than with many others. The traps along the way. Gender. Sexuality. Exploitation. Its so easy to open questions of race and class. It opens questions of all sorts of oppression. And of course whether those are actually the right questions to answer in that moment is itself something pregnant with possibility.

Where will the candidate go?

It’s a complete rorschach of the human heart. Or, can be.

Where would you go? What is the heart of that matter? The genuine heart. Is it the serving girl? The monk? The old woman? The hut burned to ashes? Or? Or? That question and all the possible answers bubble and burn and whisper and call, like the embers of that burnt hut, like the tendrils of smoke rising from the ashes of that hut.

And sweating through an answer might reveal who that potential minister really is. And, of course, it also shows the questioner’s heart. We are, after all, all in this together.

One heart.


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