Open Questioning

How do we Know?

If we think about thoughts (the Abhidharma explains thoughts in interesting ways), we see that thoughts are not direct experiences…they are conclusions we reach about experiences.
  • Question: I have an open question to share with you: “How is it possible to know, or think of anything new?” We assess everything based on what we already have learned, and we can process something new based on that stock of information, but how can we generate a new thought – one that has not occurred to us before? It seems like a simple question, but it lives for me and keeps opening new horizons of thought. How is creativity possible? What prevents us from allowing new thoughts to flourish? How can they be nourished and sustained? [and given the nature of beginningless time, is anything really new anyway?] Not that we need an answer, but let me know if this question strikes you as well. Cheers, Mike

    Response: Dear Mike, Thank you for your question. One thing that interests me about your question is that you respond to your own question in a very clear way. You say, “…[my question] lives for me and keeps opening new horizons of thought.” My response would be similar to that. When we stay open we encounter new horizons of thought…and creativity flourishes.

    When I first read this question I had to think about it for a while, because I never “thought” of thoughts as being new or old. I never considered that I have had the same thought again and again. Even if the topic is the same, the thought is always fresh and arises based on particular causes and conditions. Although I can see how I sometimes dwell on things, get fixated on ideas or fall into patterns of fundamentalism where I hold on tightly to certain views…never too helpful.

    If we think about thoughts (and this is explained in the Abhidharma in interesting ways) we see that thoughts are not direct experiences…they are conclusions we reach about experiences. The world is fluid and open to interpretation, never stuck, but thoughts are static – they are conclusions we reach about the world of things. And if we don’t understand their limits we can’t utilize thoughts in an intelligent way.

    This “stock” information you refer to comes from cultural conditions, family views and conclusions we have reached about our experiences. When we hold on to this information or ideas as true or static we miss out on the natural creativity and fullness of life. For instance, we may see someone in a one-dimensional way – “He’s a bad guy – whereas, nothing can truly be one-dimensional because all things are changing and open to interpretation. We might say that all things are: open dimensional (this is the way the translator Guenther translated the term emptiness).

    So thoughts are not a problem in and of themselves…it’s just that we need to see that they can guide us but that they are not static things to hold on to. Like the adage says: “Don’t believe everything you think.” When we hold on to static ideas while the world around us changes we may feel our thoughts are “old.” I am guessing this is what you mean by old.

    This is precisely why I love the practice of open questioning so much (which is really just another way of speaking about the Buddha’s path or discovery). Open questioning has to do with staying open so that we can respond to the world in a direct way rather than through ideas we have about it. In the sutras the Buddha said, “Those who are awake live in a state of constant amazement.” I find that the great teachers in all the living traditions are full of amazement. That means that everything is new for them. When we experience this kind of openness we recognize our natural creativity.

    For instance, when I was writing my book, rather than writing about something I already knew about (which would be fixed or static) I decided to write about what I didn’t know…which means I just asked questions. When I started to ask questions my mind was open to what you might mean by “new”.

    I noticed that questioning lends itself to staying open and engaging and responding to life directly. So I would ask myself a question about my practice, or about faith or doubt…and it seemed like the entire world was responding to my question. When I listened to the radio I would learn something about my question and so on. But also, I think when we ask a question we wake up to the world around us. So I noticed that it was really my own approach to experience that allowed this kind of learning to express itself. It is not that there are old thoughts and new ones. It is just the way we understand our experience that makes the difference.

    Thoughts can be a closing down around experience when we take thoughts as static truths. But thoughts can also be a part of the creative process of simply learning and understanding the fullness of things…and that things don’t truly lend themselves to being known in a static way.

    I don’t think that thoughts can be sustained, as you put it (although we try to sustain thoughts through holding on to views). But I think the point of practice is to habituate ourselves to openness so that we can experience the natural creativity of mind and the fullness of life around us. And this natural creativity of mind is neither new nor old. It is always there (and this is what is meant by primordial or “….from beginning-less time”) when we stop shutting down.


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