The Karma Of Questions

The Karma of Questions

Essays on the Buddhist Path


Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

(Geoffrey DeGraff)


copyright 2002 ṭhānissaro bhikkhu, expanded edition 2016

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Metta Forest Monastery

Valley Center, CA 92082-1409


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  • Introduction
  • Life Isn’t Just Suffering
  • Opening the Door to the Dhamma
  • Questions of Skill
  • Freedom from Fear
  • Saṁsāra
  • Saṁsāra Divided by Zero
  • The Agendas of Mindfulness
  • De-perception
  • The Weight of Mountains
  • Five Piles of Bricks
  • Perennial Issues
  • “When you know for yourselves … ”
  • Glossary
  • Abbreviations


There’s no such thing as a totally idle question. Every question, even the most casual, carries an intention: the desire for an answer to fit a certain purpose. You might think of a question as a mold for a tool. The emptiness of the mold indicates the desired but missing knowledge; the shape of the mold, the use to which the knowledge will be put. Most people, when looking at a question, focus on the emptiness of the mold. The karma or power of the question, though, lies in its shape. If you ask “Where did the universe come from?”, the answer can’t be “jump.” Any answer acceptable to the question has to address the ideas about existence, causality, and sources implicit in “universe,” “come from,” and “where.” And whatever stance the answer takes with regard to those ideas, it has to fit into the mold provided by the question. Even if it were to state that there is no universe or that the universe didn’t come from anywhere, the act of giving an answer would affirm that the mold shapes a useful tool: an idea important enough to merit talking about and taking a stance.

The danger here is that if your actual problem requires a screwdriver, but your questions are designed to mold a hammer, any answers that fill the mold may do more harm than good. If you don’t abandon the mold, then even if you’re given a screwdriver, you’ll force it into the mold, add scraps of metal from here and there, and turn it into a hammer.

This was why the Buddha approached questions with great care. He divided them into four sorts: those deserving a straight answer, those that need their terms redefined, those deserving a counter-question in response, and those that should be put aside. In other words, he saw that some molds were useful as is, some needed adjusting, some were best countered with an alternative mold, and others were best thrown away. His criterion for classifying questions in this way was whether the answers would be useful in putting an end to suffering and stress.

As he had noted, suffering leads to two reactions: bewilderment (“Why is this happening to me?”) and search (“Is there anyone who knows how to put an end to this pain?”). These two reactions are a potent combination. If handled unskillfully, bewilderment can turn into ignorance, and search into craving—a surefire recipe for even more suffering. But if framed into a skillful strategy of clear and thoughtful questions, they take you to total freedom, beyond aging and death. So he deliberately framed his teachings to answer only the right questions. And he was especially careful to avoid questions that would foster craving or ignorance, delaying or obstructing the ending of stress.

The essays in this book are an attempt to follow the Buddha’s example in approaching questions, trying to trace back to the questions that molded his teachings, and resisting the temptation to focus on questions that would force those teachings into a different shape. I’ve gone on the assumption that his screwdrivers were so well-designed that they are right for our needs today, and that we should guard against turning them into hammers. If you find that the tools offered in this book are useful in ending your own sufferings, then I’ve succeeded in my task.

Some of these essays, in earlier incarnations, have appeared in Tricycle, Buddhadharma, Inquiring Mind, and Insight Journal. The fact that they were originally intended for different audiences explains the overlap that occasionally occurs among them. It also explains the inconsistent use of Sanskrit and Pāli terms: dharma, karma, and nirvāṇa in some essays; dhamma, kamma, and nibbāna in others. I hope that this presents no difficulties.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

(Geoffrey DeGraff)

Metta Forest Monastery

Valley Center, CA 92082-1409

September, 2002

Dhamma Paññā

BQT trang Theravāda cố gắng sưu tầm thông tin tài liệu Dhamma trợ duyên quý độc giả tìm hiểu về Dhamma - Giáo Pháp Bậc Giác Ngộ thuyết giảng suốt 45 năm sau khi Ngài chứng đắc trở thành Đức Phật Chánh Đẳng Chánh Giác vào đêm Rằm tháng 4, tìm hiểu thêm phương pháp thực hành thiền Anapana, thiền Vipassana qua các tài liệu, bài giảng, pháp thoại từ các Thiền Sư, các Bậc Trưởng Lão, Bậc Thiện Trí.