Everyone wants answers. We figure answers tell us how to live more happily. Answers let us fix things, while questions are simply problems to be solved with answers. Preferably answers come sooner than later because questions point to limitations in our understanding or ability, and they’re often associated with discomfort.
I think this view of questions is unfortunate because the process of arousing and engaging a question feels like where all growth and aliveness occurs. We directly encounter life when we recognize something we don’t know, when we become curious, when we move forward into life even while knowing we don’t have things figured out. It’s well worth the discomfort, but there are many reasons we choose, instead, to stay within the limits of what we’re sure of – or overestimate how far our understanding extends.
Here’s a lovely story illustrating how someone can refuse to overestimate the power and relevance of their answers:
In the documentary “No Ordinary Genius,” Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman tells a story of how he was taught to question things as child. He observed that when he pulled his wagon when it had a ball in it, the ball would roll to the back of the wagon. When he would stop the wagon, the ball would roll to the front. He asked his father why. His father responded, impressively, with an explanation of the law of physics that states an object in motion stays in motion, or an object at rest stays at rest, unless an outside force acts on it.
Now, most parents would be more than satisfied to have provided such an erudite answer to their child and they’d stop there. Feynman’s father, however, continued. “This tendency is called inertia,” he said, “And no one knows why it’s true.”
To admit to ourselves that we don’t know something can trigger a sense of inadequacy or panic. To know is to be able to predict and control, to rationalize and explain, to make sense of things. To not know something after the age of 18 is usually seen as a slightly embarrassing situation that we can only hope is temporary. If we admit to others that we don’t know something, they are usually very concerned for us and try to provide us with an answer or advise where to find one.
Sometimes we find some good, inspiring answers. That’s great – but considering the universe is infinite, there will always be more questions waiting if we are open to them.
Last week I had another opportunity to risk public humiliation by asking my Zen teacher a sincere question in front of a whole bunch of people. Since I last participated in this exercise (in early November, see Wearing My Heart – and Doubt – on My Sleeve) I have been able to refine my question. I asked, “When he was enlightened, the Buddha said he awakened simultaneously with all beings, but how does the Buddha’s awakening benefit beings who do not see what he saw? What about those beings with heavy karma, or in whom the way-seeking mind has not arisen – those who do not experience the relief and joy of his realization?”
At least I didn’t cry this time, although I was trembling a little because of how much I care about this question. To explain it a little further, I do not believe in some sparkly happiness-essence that pervades the universe and makes everything okay. Just because, in one sense, someone is pure and complete just as they are doesn’t mean they aren’t consumed with self-hatred, fear, anger, greed, or delusion. As they awaken to their true nature, those things naturally start to melt away – but as long as they don’t awaken to it? This is analogous to asking whether Christ’s sacrifice benefits people who do not choose to take him into their heart.Is the wonderful, transcendent, loving reality that so many religions point to restricted to the adherents of those religions? Or is this loving reality more real than adopting a particular alignment of mind or heart? This is important! If salvation lies solely in achieving a particular understanding or embracing a particular faith, it will be of limited usefulness in saving the world. We will never manage to convert everybody to the path that has resulted in salvation for us. On the other hand, if beauty, perfection, and love pervade everyone and everything no matter what – as our saints and sages tell us they do – then there’s hope.
Gyokuko, my kind teacher, answered me with a smile, “How could Buddha-nature not benefit all beings?” (Or something like that, I can’t remember exactly.)
My response: “But…”
Gyokuko asked if I could see our luminous, complete Buddha-nature.
“Yes!” I answered. “But…”
Before I could launch into another explication of my doubt, Gyokuko said, “You do not see it.”
I paused for a split second, ready to keep arguing, but then bowed abruptly in response and with deep sincerity spoke the ceremonial words that end this kind of exchange, “Thank you, great teacher, for your great compassion.” This elicited some laughter from the audience because of the timing.
To me, Gyokuko’s answer brings great hope. If I keep engaging the question, I will see it someday. I will have the direct experience of how beauty, perfection, and love pervade everyone and everything no matter what, and how the deepest truth is not dependent on one’s understanding or faith. I will be able to tap into that in order to help save the world.
Of course, Gyokuko’s answer also, for a time, inflamed my ego with a sense of humiliation. “Great,” I thought, “Now everyone knows I don’t know something so fundamental. Many people will assume they know the answer when they actually don’t, just as they might think describing the physical law of inertia actually explains what’s going on when a ball appears to roll when the wagon beneath it moves. They’ll pity me and think they’re more realized than I am.”
For an hour or so I sank down into an old karmic pit of self-pity and comparison with others, but I got over it. At some point I just set aside any concern for what others might think and any effort to know how I rate in the world of Zen. Screw it, the only thing that matters is the truth, and wrestling wholeheartedly with questions is the only way I know to get closer to it.
Do you realize how many questions there are you don’t really know the answer to? What keeps us from opening our hearts to one another every time we meet? What is the nature of our experience of time? What is it inside us that always knows what is generous and kind? How do we fully face and appreciate the fact that we will die? Is there a time to fight? What is it that allows us to keep participating in destructive and unjust systems? Wholeheartedly engaging any one of these questions could open up a lifetime of discovery and growth.
Don’t be satisfied with half-assed answers. And ultimately all answers are half-assed.
Photo by tracy apps, Flickr Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/4Exzp5, Some rights reserved