Examining the Buddha’s fourth way of answering questions

In Walpola Rahula’s short introduction to Buddha’s teaching, What the Buddha Taught, one reads that the Buddha evidently replied to questions in one of four ways:

1.) He answered some questions directly.

2.) He analyzed some questions to determine what they meant.

3.) He answered some questions by replying with counter-questions.

4.) He put some questions off to the side.

One of the lessons I have learned from meditating, most especially during the past couple of weeks, is that questions–all questions–that occur during meditation are to be put off to the side. This is because it is not then the right time to ask such questions or any questions.

When is not the right time in philosophical discourse? For some years, I have said to a conversation partner or philosophical friend, ‘Let us set that question off to the side for now.’ This raises a question: When is it a good idea to set certain questions off to the side? The answer to this question will vary according to context. The kinds of answers would be:

  • When it is too early to ask such a question. It is not that the question is bad per se, yet it comes too early either (a) in a particular inquiry or (b) in one’s education. One must be patient.
  • When the question cannot possibly be answered given that it is a speculative question which, by definition, goes beyond the bounds of human understanding.
  • When that question connotes that the questioner is jumping ahead or leaping past a couple of steps. This implies that he is restless or impatient, his thoughts racing ahead of him.
  • When that question only serves to tie the questioner more fully in knots. Some questions, like spiderwebs, are entanglers only.
  • When that question is bound to take us off course. Therefore, it is merely a way of straying, of wandering, of indulging wayward thinking.
  • When the question is a leading one, a fishing one (E.g., ‘Do you ever feel lonely?’): the questioner is seeking reassurance only, and reassurance is not what a philosophical conversation is about.
  • When the question is a way of evading answering any more questions.

The good philosophical guide as well as the good examiner of one’s own life must get better and better at identifying when a question is to be set aside and for what reason or reasons. Even these things, though necessary, are not enough. In addition, he must get good at doing so in the right way–sometimes (as is true of the Buddha) by being silent and not answering a question, sometimes by not indulging an idle question, sometimes by bringing one back to the last legitimate question, sometimes by gently saying that one must set that question off to the side while supplying a reason. By these means, the practitioner develops right speech.