The Unanswerable Question
by Dr Richard Bolstad and Margot Hamblett.
The Japanese monk Toyo-san, at Kennin temple, was only twelve years old when his teacher Mokurai-sensei gave him perhaps the most famous learning task ever set. "You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together, said Mokurai-sensei, "Now show me the sound of one hand." For over a year, Toyo-san collected and came back with different sounds. Each seemed like it might be the answer, but each was rejected. Finally, little Toyo-san reached a state where, as he said "I could collect no more, so I reached the soundless sound." At that moment, Toyo-san went beyond seeking an answer. He recognised that his teacher had given him an unanswerable question. At that moment, he heard the sound. (Reps, 1973, p 34)
Toyo-san's search is a metaphor for all the searches each of us does, to find answers to suffering, loneliness, pain, loss, emptiness and so on. His recognition that "I could collect no more" is precise. In the end, his answer did not require more knowledge about sound; it required more understanding of his own "self". Spiritual teachers throughout history have guided their students from their initial, external, answerable questions, to the one place where true answers abide. In this article we will model the work of teachers from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and of twentieth century teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti. This article is about finding that place where the "you" can collect no more: the place where you ask an unanswerable question. As NLP continues to demonstrate, attaining such states is not a mystic privilege of the few. It is freely available to us all. We will conclude with a specific NLP based process for experiencing Toyo-san's soundless sound.
Finding the Right Question
Asking the unanswerable question is a very factual and practical process. Oscar Wilde pointed out that, in ordinary speech, "a practical scheme is one already in existence or which could be carried out under the existing conditions" (Goldman, 1969, p 49). He adds that if we want to change the existing conditions, such schemes are foolish in the extreme. And yet, being trapped by the familiar, our questions have usually tended to be limited too. A questioner once asked Indian teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti "Can you ever empty this storehouse of impressions which you have had?" Here is his reply:
Krishnamurti: You've put a wrong question. It is a wrong question because you say' Can you ever '. Who is the 'you' and what do you mean by 'ever'? Which means... Is it possible? Sirs, look, we never put the impossible question - we are always putting the question of what is possible. If you put an impossible question, your mind then has to find the answer in terms of the impossible - not of what is possible. All the great scientific discoveries are based on this, the impossible. It was impossible to go to the moon. But if you say, 'It is possible' then you drop it. Because it was impossible, three hundred thousand people co-operated and worked at it, night and day - they put their mind to it and went to the moon. But we never put the impossible question! The impossible question is this: can the mind empty itself of the known? - itself, not you empty the mind. That is an impossible question. If you put it with tremendous earnestness, with seriousness, with passion, you'll find out. But if you say, 'Oh, it is possible', then you are stuck.." (Krishnamurti, 1978, p 157)
Who Is The "You" That Wants To Change?
Krishnamurti's common response when someone asked him how to change something was to ask them "Who is the you who wants to change?" For example, when someone asks him about death, he says "If you do not understand what you are actually, not descriptively, then death becomes a dreadful thing. If we are to go into the question of death, we must understand what you are -- a name, a form, man or woman, with certain qualifies, certain tendencies, idiosyncracies, desire, pain, anxiety, uncertainty, confusion. Out of this confusion, you invent something permanent - the Absolute, the Brahman or God. But what you actually are, is the movement of thought. That thought may invent the idea that you have got the spark of divinity in you, but it is still the movement of thought. So what are you apart from your physical reactions, differently educated, rich and poor? Actually, when you look at yourself, what are you? Aren't you all this? If there is something permanent in you, then why seek permanence in something else? Do you understand my question? As we said, begin with uncertainty, begin with not-knowing. This is what you are." (Krishnamurti, 1983 (B), p 29)
In a previous article (Bolstad, 1998) we discussed the nature of the "Self". From an NLP perspective, the self is a nominalisation of the process of "owning" experiences; it is a style of thinking rather than a "thing". We noted that spiritual teachers have again and again identified this "owning" process as the source of suffering. Krishnamurti points out that from childhood we build up an image (we would say an internal representation) of our "self" and it is this image which is hurt when we feel hurt. "If one has an image about oneself and another comes along and says: don't be an idiot, one gets hurt. The image which has been built about oneself as not being an idiot is "me" and that gets hurt... When there is total attention to the statement that one is an idiot it has totally lost all significance. Because when there is attention there is not a centre which is reacting." (Krishnamurti, 1983 (A), p 89-90)
Like Krishnamurti, other teachers have recommended the seeker enquire first and last into who they are. In his Dharma talk on One Mind, Fourteenth century Rinzai Zen master Bassui says "If you would free yourself of the sufferings of samsara, you must leam the direct way to become a Buddha. This way is no other than the realisation of your own Mind(... To realise your own Mind you must first of all look into the source from which thoughts flow. Sleeping and working. standing and sitting, profoundly ask yourself, "What is my own Mind?." with an intense yearning to resolve this question. This is called "training" or "practice" or "desire for truth" or "thirst for realisation." What is termed zazen is no more than looking into one's own Mind." (Kapleau, 1989)
The great twentieth century Hindu teacher Ramana Maharshi also focused his entire method on this one question "Who am I?" He says "In this method, the final question is the only one and is raised from the very beginning... Since every other thought can occur only after the rise of the "I"-thoughts, and since the mind is nothing but a bundle of thoughts, it is only through the enquiry "Who am I?" that the mind subsides. Moreover, the integral "I"thought implicit in such enquiry, having destroyed all other thoughts, itself finally gets destroyed or consumed, just as a stick used for stirring the burning funeral pyre gets consumed." ( Osborne, ed, 1996, p 131-4)
Krishnamurti describes the way that asking the unanswerable question actively alters the person's experience as they ask it. He says ""Actually, what are you? Have you ever asked it, and have you found an answer? Is there an answer? If there is an answer, it is not in terms of what you already know. But what you know is the past, and the past is time; and the time is not "you". The "you" is changing(?)�&. When I put that question to find out what I am, that "what I am" is always in the past. The "me" is always the past. I can only put the question and enquire into something static. And through the thing that is dead, that is static, the past, I have to find out what I am; and so fear never goes away. But fear goes away the moment I put that question and watch myself all the time, not direct my attention to the past but actually to what is taking place, which is "the me" that is alive." (Krishnamurti, 1962, p 36).
As you'll find out in following the Unanswerable Question process below, this simple question leads to a profound experience, once attention shifts from an "image" of the self remembered from the past, to a search for the self in the present "now". At first, one discovers that the internal representations of "self" that one has are only representations. The obvious "answers", like Toyo-san's first ideas for the sound of one hand clapping, are just covers for the fact that you do not know the answer. In fact, there can be no answer, if one asks the question in the present moment. At the moment this is understood, no representation arises in response to the question at all. There is total blankness, total silence, total stillness. As Toyo-san says, "I could collect no more." No struggle was needed to reach this moment. Maharshi explains "Instead of setting about saying there is a mind and I want to kill it, you begin to seek its source, and then you find it does not exist at all." (Osborne, ed, 1996, p 132). In that state, extraordinary change occurs. This is not a state of despair, of "giving up", all of which would imply the response of the same mechanism which has been collecting. It is a state of complete stillness.
At this stage, an observer may wonder what the person is supposed to "do" next to reach these "extraordinary experiences". But as Maharshi cautions about the ending of the self, "All that you need do is to find out its origin and stay there. Your effort can extend only so far. Then the beyond will take care of itself. You are helpless there. No effort can reach it." (Osborne, ed, 1996, p 139). Explaining why the "self" cannot think up some smart plan to solve things and find this "other" experience, Krishnamurti says simply (Jayakar, 1986) "Where you are, the other is not!"
Unanswerable Questions Break Free From Set "Attractors"
The most amusing thing about our normal "answerable" questions is that we so easily think they are evidence of our "freedom of thought". Krishnamurti contrasts the state of "choice" and the state of freedom. A person who is choosing is choosing between two things which they already know about, which they already have internal representations of. Freedom, on the other hand, occurs when something totally new occurs, something that is not within the field that the person operated in before. When a lion is kept in a cage, it paces back and forth from one end of the cage to the other. After a few years, the cage can be removed, and for some time the lion will still pace back and forth in its prescribed area. It has no doubt become very proud of its ability to choose which place it wants to be in. If you tried to reason with it, you might say "Don't choose between here and there! That's not freedom. You could be anywhere, but you limit yourself to such a small range. This "choice" is irrelevant. Simply move where you will." The lion would quite likely become very suspicious at such attempts to take away its "freedom of choice".
Putting aside his unfortunate use of male language, the point can be seen very clearly in this following passage from Krishnamurti: "We are talking about the radical change of human behaviour so that man is not self-centred as he is, which is causing such great destruction in the world. If one is aware, then we can begin to ask whether that conditioning can be totally changed so that man is completely free. Now, he thinks he is free to do what he likes. Each individual thinks he can do what he likes, all over the world, and his freedom is based on choice because he can choose where to live, what kind of work he can do, choose between this idea and that idea, this ideal or that ideal, change from one god to another god, from one guru to another, from one philosopher to another. This capacity to choose brings in the concept of freedom, but in the totalitarian state there is no freedom; you can't do what you want to do. It is totally controlled. Choice is not freedom. Choice is merely moving in the same field from one corner to another. Is this clear? Our brain being limited, we are asking, is it possible for the brain to free itself so that there is no fear? Then there is right relationship with all the neighbours in the world." (Krishnamurti, 1983 (B), p 36)
In the new science of non-linear systems (Chaos theory), choice would be described as the result of an "attractor". Chaos theory points out that most natural systems are exceedingly complex, and cannot be explained or even measured in any detail. But they none the less have certain basic predictabilities about them. For example, all snowflakes are different, but all of them have a "six-sided-ness". Six-sided-ness is an attractor for snowflakes. The shapes vary, but they never vary beyond the basic attractor. However, in certain extreme circumstances, a snowflake slips out of this attractor. It then becomes a raindrop, following a totally different set of rules. To take another example of an attractor, every oak tree is unique, but if you learn what the attractor is like (the "essence" or genetic mark of an oak tree) you can recognise that they are all oaks. Another example is that, in terms of the earth's climate, there are two known attractors. One is what we have now; a balance that supports life, even when we pour greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere for a century. Though the weather varies unpredictably from year to year, it none-the-less stays within certain limits. The other known possible attractor for the Earth's system would be where the seas freeze, and the land is covered in ice. That too would be a stable attractor. Scientists do not know why the current climatic attractor is holding out; the other state, called the White Earth Equilibrium, is mathematically just as likely (Gleick, 1987, p 170).
Spiritual teachers have sought to bring their students to a change which is so fundamental that it breaks out of the attractor of the self. Answerable questions cannot do that. They ask only within the presupposed limits of selfhood. When the questioner above asked Krishnamurti "Can "I" ever empty this storehouse of impressions?" he asked a question which presupposed the continued existence of the self. In fact, the more the questioner tried to empty the storehouse, the more the storehouse (through it's agent; his own "self") would remain full. The more "he" acts, the more life stays the same. Krishnamurti recommended he ask first "Who is the "I" that wants this emptied?", and then "Can this storehouse of impressions empty itself?". These, as he notes, are questions which the "self" cannot answer. That is why they are worth asking. When the questioner is still, then the other comes into being.
What Is Change?
From the perspective of that stillness, that silence which comes when the unanswerable question is finally heard, our old problems seem rather insignificant. They look like an illusory cage that we once paced around in. Once you understand this, you will want to return to that silent place more frequently to experience that freedom. This practice is known in the East as meditation. This is simply another way to describe the same place which we reach by the Ascending States process (Bolstad, 1998, p 17).
Of course, there are still many things which "you" may wonder. You may ask, "Do I have the right to guide someone else through this?" Krishnamurti's answer is simple. "Please listen; do not agree, but listen to find out. We have to be both the teacher and the disciple. The meaning of that word 'disciple' is he who learns. Also we must be the teacher. The very act of learning gives us the responsibility to teach." (Krishnamurti, 1983 (B), p 71)
And you may ask "What is the other? What will be here when "I" am not?". Here is Krishnamurti's response. "Only when you totally deny the known -what you know, your experiences, your knowledge (not the technological knowledge but the knowledge of your ambitions, your experiences, your family)- when you deny the known completely, when you wipe it away, when you die to all that, you will see that there is an extraordinary emptiness, an extraordinary space in the mind. And it is only that space that knows what it is to love. And it is only in that space there is creation- not the creation of children or putting a painting on the canvas, but that creation which is the total energy, the unknowable. But to come to that, you must die to everything you have known. And in that dying there is great beauty, there is inexhaustible life-energy." (Krishnamurti, 1962, p 149)
And with this love, with this vast energy and creativity, we turn to look once more at the things in our life that were once "problems" for which we sought solutions. And find that these "problems" are no more. "If you seek, then the search becomes a problem... If you are alive, really alive every minute, then it does not become a problem; but there is a constant regard, a constant look, which is the response, not of memory but of something much more, much wider, deeper." (Krishnamurti, 1962, p 161) This is comparable to the process in Core Transformation‒2 which Connirae Andreas calls "Reversing the Outcome Chain" (Andreas and Andreas, 1994, p 37).
The Unanswerable Question: An Example
Modelled as an NLP process, then, the Unanswerable Question solves problems not simply by altering our perception of the problem, but by removing our "self" from the perceptual process. A script for the process follows. Here is an example of its use, with George, who sought help because of longstanding conflict with one of his children.
So George, think of yourself in that situation you want to change. What feelings do you have there?
I feel tense and worried when I'm with him. Kind of guilty and even confused. I can't work out what to do.
Now, you say you want to change that situation. Who is the you that wants to change that?
What do you mean? It's just me.
How do you see, hear or feel that "just you" you say you are there?
I see me tense and frowning like I do in when I'm with him.
As you think of that you, tense and frowning like you do when you're with him, who are you that is aware of that thought now?
Well, I'm sort of an observer; I'm a kind of compassionate observer.
How do you see, hear or feel that kind of compassionate observer you say you are there.
I see me smiling gently.
As you think of that you smiling gently in that way now, who are you, that's aware of that thought.
How do you see, hear or feel that stillness?
Space, like outer space, very still.
As you think of that outer space very still in that way now, who are you, that is aware of that thought?
How do you see hear or feel that life, that everything?
The universe, the stars.
As you think of that universe, the stars in that way now, who are you, that is aware of that thought?
Shrugs and smiles.
And just be aware as that question becomes unanswerable. Having found this state, just be aware; listening, seeing, feeling, tasting, smelling, with all the senses awake. [George nods] Staying in this state, be aware of the universe, the stars. Is it there? [nod] How does this original state change the universe, the stars?
It seems even vaster.
Staying in this state, be aware of that outer space very still. Is it there? [nod] How does this state change that outer space, very still?
It's just more so.
Staying in this state, be aware of that you smiling gently. Is it there?
I don't think so.
So, staying in this state, be aware of that you tense and frowning. Is it there?
So how does being in this state change the process occurring in the situation which that first "you" wanted to change?
Well it feels like I have access to everything. I am everything.
And how does it change the way you feel there?
I feel immense calmness and love.
The Effects Of The Process, in NLP Terms
We have used this process with quite a large number of people, and most describe it as a dramatic experience. Some people say that when the question becomes unanswerable, they feel as if something exploded in their mind, or that they know what the Japanese meant by saying this process causes Satori (sudden enlightenment). The state that the person enters is quite variable, because (unlike, say, Core Transformation) the technique is not specifically designed to create a state change per se. It is designed to create a radical shift in perceptual position. Some people describe the state they then enter as calm and detached. Some describe it as euphoric and blissful. These are "individual" responses to the central perceptual shift. So far everyone who gets this perceptual shift has then reported that their "problem" was solved. Most find themselves unable to access their previous problem state at all.
We have found it useful to explain to the person that the question will, at some point, become unanswerable. This gives less surprise to that moment, but the shift is the same. Without explanation, some people become a little unnerved at the point where they discover that there is no "them" observing.
It was Mokurai-sensei who set Toyo-san his unanswerable question. In the west, it is common for us to have a sense of awe of such people. Mokurai-sensei, however, enjoyed the company of carpenters, merchants, newspapermen and poor workers as much as the company of the monks at Kennin temple. There was one particular maker of tubs who used to come frequently to talk with Mokurai-sensei. Almost illiterate, he would ask Mokurai-sensei the most simple questions, have a cup of tea, and go. One day, he was there when Mokurai-sensei had an appointment with one of his student monks. The master asked the tub-maker to please wait outside while he talked with his student.
The tubmaker was affronted. "Even the stone Buddhas in the temple never turn someone away." He said, "They say you are a living Buddha. Why should you send me out?" Mokurai-sensei bowed, and, in agreement, he went outside to meet with his student. Anyone can ask the unanswerable question. To others, your question may seem simple. But an innocent tubmaker or a devout monk are both only a fraction of a centimetre away from their original state. Who is to say which conversation is more noble. That which is beyond all self, that which holds the universe in the palm of its hand, waits for you now, at this moment. You have only to ask, and it is there. And where it is, you are not...
But who are you?
- Andreas, C. and Andreas, T. Core Transformation, Real People Press, Moab, Utah, 1994
- Bodenhamer, B.G. and Hall, L. M. Mind-Lines: Lines For Changing Minds, ET Publications, Grand Junction, Colorado, 1997
- Bolstad, R. "Beyond Self" in Anchor Point, Vol 12, No 12, p 9-17, December 1998
- Bolstad, R. and Hamblett, M. "Questing: Aligning Change With Life's One Great Search" in Anchor Point, Vol 11, No. 4, p 3-12 and Vol 11, No. 5, p 3-16; April and May 1997
- Gleick, J. Chaos, Sphere, London, 1987
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- Krishnamurti, J. The Impossible Question, Penguin, Harmondsworth, England, 1978
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Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer who has worked with clients individually and as a trainer of groups since 1990. He can be contacted at PO Box 35111, Browns Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, Phone/Fax: +64-9-478-4895 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: http://www.transformations.net.nz