Available at AccessToInsight (as a .pdf only)
This is a book about discernment in action, centered on the Buddha’s strategic use of discernment in framing and responding to questions.
The idea for this book was born more than a decade ago from reading three of the Buddha’s discourses. The first was SN 44:10, in which he refused to answer the question of whether there is or is not a self. This discourse called attention to the fact that the Buddha had clear ideas about which questions his teachings were meant to answer, and which ones they weren’t. I realized that if I wanted to understand and get the best use out of his teaching on not-self, I had to find the questions to which this teaching was a response and not take it out of context. I also realized that the same principle would apply to the Buddha’s other teachings as well.
The second discourse was MN 2, which defined appropriate attention—one of the most important qualities of mind in leading to awakening—as the ability to know which questions were worth attending to, and which ones were not. Among the questions listed as not worth attending to were, “Am I?” “Am I not?” “What am I?” This discourse reinforced the lessons of SN 44:10, proving that they were not limited to the circumstances described in that discourse, at the same time showing that the ability to focus one’s questions on the issue of suffering and stress was central to the path.
The third discourse was AN 4:42, in which the Buddha classified questions into four types depending on the response-strategy they deserved: a categorical answer, an analytical answer, cross-questioning, and being put aside. Although the discourse didn’t define these types of questions or illustrate them with examples, it did suggest that the Buddha had reflected carefully on the general issue of how to approach questions. Because so many of his teachings were in response to questions, the thought occurred to me that it would be instructive to look through the discourses to see if and how he used this typology in practice, and how it affected the way he approached particular topics in his teaching. And more than instructive: Given the importance of appropriate attention in the practice of the path, a study of this sort would provide a valuable practical tool, giving guidance in how to keep the practice on course by paying careful attention to the questions that motivated it and gave it shape.