By Rev. Jon Turner
Imagine an infinitely long scroll of paper. On the left hand side, there is a numbered list of questions as far as the eye can see. On the right hand side, there are blank lines – where we are to fill in all the answers. For example, what is the square root of 4? Or who invented the lightbulb?
Q1: What is sqrt(4)? A1: 2
Q2: Who invented the light bulb? A2: Edison
Q3: What is the symbol for iron? A3: Fe
Q4: Who wrote 1984? A4: Orwell
Q5: Who was the 2nd President? A5: Adams
There is always another question on the horizon. Over time this can become an exercise in minutia.
I had a philosophy teacher in college who used this illustration as a metaphor for how she felt students approach their studies. She said that we believe that this is the goal of education. Finding and collecting answers to a supplied list of questions. The students that are able to match answers to questions will be the ones who succeed. Those will be the ones who receive an ‘A’.
We are merely fact collectors rather than thinkers. She felt that it was her mission to teach us how to think rather than what to think about. She wanted us to develop the skills of critical reasoning.
I found this same spirit when I went to the Institute of Buddhist Studies, IBS. My first course was Introduction to Shin Buddhist Thought taught by Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto. I was excited to finally learn the correct way to understand our tradition. Initially, we began by studying many different interpretations of our tradition. I assumed that by week sixteen Professor Matsumoto would finally reveal the correct one out of the many. But that never happened. Instead, I had to write a research paper exploring my understanding of Shin thought and to be able to justify it. Later Dr. Matsumoto admitted to me that he was also trying to get us to think critically, just like my philosophy teacher had years earlier.
She had warned us that these questions are not of our own making and neither are the answers – both have been defined by others and then supplied to us. She felt that memorizing the answers to these questions does not make a person educated nor does it give meaning to our lives. Instead she wanted us to learn to think on our own. She wanted us to be critical thinkers. She felt that meaning came from coming up with our own questions. This is how one develops meaning; by setting course on a quest; by discovering meaning within ourselves. This turns out to be true for both education and for our lives.
Many people also come to Buddhism with such a list of questions – seeking to fill in all those blanks. Why do Buddhists chant? Why do Buddhists bow? These are important questions and a good place to start but they are academic questions. They are good for studying Buddhism as a subject; like anthropology or history. It is a good starting point. We need context and some background in the tradition before we go out on our own journey. It is much like the jazz pianist who is able to improvise only after mastering all the skills and scales required.
But, hopefully, over time, these questions will become more personal. Why do I chant? Why do I bow? The answers to these questions help give meaning to one’s life. However, they are still the questions of others. The only difference is now they are being asked in the first person rather than in the third person. This is progress but it still relies on collecting answers. At its core Buddhism is not like this.
Generalizations like this are also a danger in philosophy. This can cause important issues to appear as mere abstractions. When this happens then it has no urgency or intimacy. It has to be something that informs one’s life rather than a series of hypothetical thought experiments.
“What is my life?” This is a very specific question.
This is a single, burning, personal question that compels one to seek the way. This is the essence of Buddhist practice. It is not the many answers but instead a single, personal question that defines Buddhism. It is the question that creates the path for us to follow. One finds meaning through seeking rather than through acquiring fixed answers. One’s life becomes a life of process – a process of openness and discovery.
In gassho, Rev. Jon Turner