Sunday, March 2, 2014

Not Zen 100: Wrong Questions

Two women hiked through the woods in the spring. Flowers grew on either side of their path. Some had been planted. Others had taken root from wild varieties.

Both women had studied the ways of enlightenment, one of them for most of her life. During their hike, the less experienced practitioner asked the more experienced one a question. As is traditional, her teacher unasked the question. She explained that it was not the right line of inquiry.

Her student reminded her, "There are no stupid questions."

"Do you really believe that?"

"Of course. Don't you?"

"Only in a limited sense. What about ..." The teacher turned to a bush full of thorns for her example, "... this question: 'why do roses smell purple when they grow on the surface of the sun?'"

"That's nonsense." The younger woman folded her arms. She didn't laugh. "It's not a fair question."

"So you can at least agree that some questions are nonsense. Good."

The younger woman's brow furled. "Are you saying my question is nonsense?"

"Human minds are wonderful things." The older one resumed their walk, hands clasped behind her back. They left the rose bushes behind. "Our brains let us interrogate abstract matters. So our questions can be based on models of reality that are, in fact, wrong. We take some of those questions for granted. But the fact that we ask them shows how off the track we can become."

"Like me."

"Yes. Me, too," she allowed. They passed a chrysanthemum bush. She caressed one of the flowers. "We are not just thinking wrong. We are not just taking our first step wrong. We have a problem before we've started thinking about taking our first step. We've been given a set of sensory illusions and learned assumptions that bear little relation to how things are."

They spent a moment admiring the bushes. Then they strolled further along their path past patches of lilies in bloom.

"You're saying that my questions come out of a wrong impression of the world?" The younger woman swept her arm to indicate the beauty around them.

"So wrong that it can be difficult to contemplate. It is like thinking that this white lily is white."

"But it is white. I can see it is." She press her fingertip against a petal. "Anyway, you just said so."

"To people, it may seem white. We now understand that it does not seem that way to a bee. They see things differently in lights at higher wavelengths"

"In the ultraviolet." The student nodded and moved along.

"Yes, thank you. Our senses are limited. Our minds our limited. Those are why your impressions of the world are wrong. They are impressions you share with everyone, including me.  I am trying to tell you the correct regard for those impressions."

"All I asked is who you think created the universe."

"And the depth of the wrong assumptions in the question remains astounding."


  1. In Japanese they say "unask the question"

    1. Thanks, Adam!

      I did think about using that phrase as the title for this story. But since I'm expressing the idea in such a Western way, I thought I'd try this.

  2. Also, number 59 ( got really popular in the Ukraine over December 2013 and that brought the idea to the fore in my mind.