Zen and the Art of Asking Questions

By Arthur, Chris | Contemporary Review, November 1995 | Go to article overview
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Zen and the Art of Asking Questions


Arthur, Chris, Contemporary Review


We have grown used to questions, so much so that their interrogations scarcely disturb the drone of everyday babble. Questions and answers have, for the most part, become no more than untaxing wordy inhalations and exhalations of the oxygen of information which endlessly surrounds us, an exchange of stale gases of which we are as unaware as we are of our own breathing. Yet a good question should interrupt our equanimity, ambush the pottering progress of the mundane with its own intrusive, urgent pace. It should make us stumble and result in the psychic equivalent of those heart-thudding moments when, suddenly brought face to face with danger, adrenalin floods our system and we shift into a higher reactive gear. When was the last time you were asked such a question, one which stopped you in your tracks and made you gasp for breath, left you reeling and searching for a long while afterwards for some adequate reply?

The American critic and art historian, Gregor Goethals, has identified an epochal change in the scale and tempo of the questions which characterise our interrogatory habitat. In her book, The TV Ritual, Worship at the Video Altar (Boston: Beacon Press, 1981), she claims that those timeless elemental questions with which religions and philosophies have grappled for centuries have, in the modern period, been overlaid and obscured by a plethora of trivial queries. A major cause of this climatic cultural shift, Goethals argues, has been the impact of the numbing litany of question and answer indulged in by the advertising industry:

The endless, mindless questions and answers encountered in

commercials are a fractured, sometimes pathetic witness to the persistent

human compulsion to raise questions and cope with life's problems. They

also reflect the profound metamorphosis from Questions to questions,

from the mysteries and miracles of traditional sacred truths to the

mysteries and miracles of modern detergents.

Whatever our assessment of Goethals' analysis may be, she is surely correct in identifying two broad categories of question. On the one hand there are uppercase Questions, big Questions, capital Questions, Questions which are concerned with the grand scale: What are we here for? How should we live? Is there a God? What is the nature of evil? Do we survive after death? On the other hand there are lowercase questions bearing scores of minor queries about much less weighty matters. Goethals focuses on the commercial manifestations of such little questions (Where should I shop? Which hair shampoo is most effective? Who offers the best insurance deal?), but they also occur in those requests for basic information about ourselves which forms and questionnaires demand (name? age? sex? salary? and so on).

Questions occur at different strata beneath the surface of our lives. Goethals' concern is that the deepest stratum, bearing the richest lode of questions (according, at least, to any spiritual assaying of values) is now only rarely mined. Instead we are being smothered by trivialities. Of course it is important to have answers for the myriad of issues brought to us on the back of those lowercase little questions with which we are so inundated. But if they act to obscure those bigger Questions which tap into more fundamental matters, there is surely legitimate cause for concern.

The art of asking questions with much finesse is only rarely practiced now. When watching even the most skilled television interviewers at work, the image that comes most immediately to mind is of toothless inquisitors, gummy ineffectual dogs chasing decoys got up unconvincingly as something worth pursuing. For all their yapping and apparent terrier-like tenacity, their questioning is backed up only by the dismissable pressure of jaws denuded of their fangs. Increasingly, as I watch their antics I have come to the conclusion that, for a question to really bite, one must break through to another level and lob the occasional capital Question into the lowercase debate.

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