The right question opens a treasury of teaching.
The Diamond Sutra, a Mahayana text written between the 2nd and 5th centuries, begins as Subhuti, a disciple of the Buddha’s, asks his teacher, “How does a bodhisattva stand? How does a bodhisattva walk? How does a bodhisattva quiet the mind?” Subhuti asks these questions because he was stunned by the naturalness with which the Buddha came in, arranged his robes, and sat down after returning from his begging rounds. In their exchange, the Buddha leads Subhuti into the experience of emptiness. The Heart Sutra begins in a similar way, when the Buddha’s disciple Shariputra asks Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, how a person trains in the perfection of wisdom. Shariputra is moved to do so because the Buddha nudges him energetically while Avalokiteshvara is right in the experience of the perfection of wisdom.
Questions, whether from student to teacher or teacher to student, are an integral part of Buddhist practice. Yet most of us have limited opportunities to meet with our teachers and ask our questions. How, then, do we make the best use of those opportunities? Here are a few ideas I’ve found helpful.
Keep it simple. Ask about experience, not theory, philosophy, or what something means. Ask about challenges you are facing in your practice, insights you have experienced, or questions you are not able to resolve.
Go to the edge. Go to the edge of your practice, where you step into what you do not know. It may be where your conceptual mind reaches its limits and you fall into confusion or where you begin to lose attention and fall into reaction. If you know how to go empty, let your question come from there. If you don’t know how to do that, then stand in your reaction and confusion, take a breath, and speak from that place. The questions you ask from the edge of your practice will tell your teacher exactly where you are and invite him or her to meet you there.
Cut to the chase. Spiritual practice is about your experience right now and how it arises. You do not need to give any background about yourself or the sequence of understandings that led you to your question. If your teacher needs background or history, he or she will ask you for it.
Be succinct. Say what is true for you, no more, no less. It’s a good exercise to boil your question down to the point at which you can ask it in 25 words or less.
Ask the question behind the question. It’s good to do a bit of homework. When there is a question you want to ask, bring the question with full attention. Don’t analyze it. Let the question permeate your whole being, body, heart, and mind. Is there a question that is impelling this question? If so, that’s the question to bring to your teacher.
Ask about now, not then. Don’t ask about what might happen or how things might be. At best, you are looking for reassurance. No one knows—not you, not your teacher—where practice will eventually bring you. Let your questions come from what and how you experience right now.
Don’t try to impress your teacher or prove yourself. Intellectual, clever, or convoluted questions come from trying to avoid something, whether you are aware of it or not. Your teacher will see through them immediately. As they say in Zen, “I spare you 30 blows.” This is not a compliment.
Your teacher is not your therapist. Your teacher is not there to heal your old wounds. That may happen in spiritual practice, but it is not the aim or purpose.
Or your consultant. Your teacher is not there to solve problems. If anything, he or she is there to create problems that you as you are now cannot solve.
Or your friend. Despite the misleading translation of the Sanskrit and Tibetan term kalyanamitra as “spiritual friend,” your teacher is not a friend in the ordinary sense. You are not there to hang out or be supported or share ideas. You are there to learn what you do not know, and you can only do so by going to a place where you do not know.
Don’t be intimidated. When you are actually with your teacher, your questions may suddenly seem unimportant or even silly. If you have done your homework and they come from your heart, ask them anyway.
Your teacher may not answer the questions you ask. Your questions themselves reveal where you are in your practice. Your teacher may respond by asking you questions based on what your questions have revealed. Answer them as best you can. Your teacher’s questions are intended to lead you deeper into how experience arises for you.
Stay in the dance. A meeting with a teacher is a dance, each of you respond- ing to what the other has just said or asked. You can’t rehearse it. You can’t go back and repeat a step. You can only be in what is happening right now.
In this dance, the basic instructions for Mahamudra (emptiness) practice apply: Stay in the dance (no distraction). Don’t try to lead (no control). It’s not a rehearsal (no practice).
This is the kind of meeting the French philosopher Pierre Hadot pointed to when he said that learning only takes place during in-person interaction. It is only there that both teacher and student step out of their respective worlds and meet. In the Buddhist context, teacher and student meet when both go empty. In that emptiness, you go beyond question, and the doors to understanding open.