When we take up with a good question, the entire universe is there with us inside our questioning. The birds chirp our question, people smile it, and our emotions paint it in jagged lines or swirls. We don’t have to take anything for granted as being true, and actually we don’t have to do that for things we think of as false, either. We can experiment with stepping out of all our assumptions. It can be very uncomfortable at first to live inside a question (why do you think we have so many answers for things?), but it can also be absolutely exhilarating.
If we have a question, often we also have some idea about what the answer will be, or at least an approved list of possibilities. Many questions are born inside answers and live out their entire lives there. Various explanations may trot out at different times during our questioning, often awkwardly cobbled together from used materials that don’t quite fit flush, but we may notice that their interchangeability subtracts from their credibility. Like a charging bull being attacked by tiny mice, a good question will just keep on trucking, no matter how clever and complex its hopeful answers may be. It will pare away our certainties about the answers we come upon, the beliefs we hold that spurred the question, and identity of the questioner itself.
We might say that the least interesting thing in questioning is to receive a satisfying answer. Many kinds of answers provide something I’ll call closure; they rescue us from the vast ocean of ambiguity that comprises the universe. But if we accept them, we are like a gutter-dwelling beggar who believes he is a king. On the other hand, there is a breed of truly helpful answer; they are actually more like a question wearing an answer mask. These dubious answers entice us with promises of certainty, only to turn and push us deeper and deeper into our questioning, widening our field of experience and enlivening the demons of ambiguity. If we are tricked into freedom by one of these answers, we become the beggar who really is a king.
Deep questioning of this kind is a paradoxical activity. Rather than securing certainty, questioning frees us from it. When we pursue a good question with the entirety of our being, when we really listen, the barrier between us and the world begins to dissolve. We forget who or what we thought we were and surprising other possibilities emerge. As provisional answers fall away, we may forget the original question we started off with, being left to bear the heart of questioning itself. When we are open in this way, we might discover that we are nestled in the wide arms of the world. Everything is nourishing. Everything is speaking the answer to us and it is incomprehensible by our usual way of thinking.
It’s Alive! Zen is a home for Zen meditation and koans in San Antonio, Texas