What Is the Difference Between Trivial and Burning Spiritual Questions?

By Adam J. Pearson

Q: What is the difference between a trivial and a burning spiritual question?

A: All spiritual questions are absolutely trivial in and of themselves, for our essential nature is beyond all questions and the concepts used to formulate them, but some questions can be more or less relatively useful in focusing the mind and absorbing all doubts in their all-consuming fire. The key difference between an inconsequential and a burning spiritual question is the presence or absence of urgency, sincerity, and earnestness.

A powerless spiritual question is one we learned from somebody else that we are pantomiming asking ourselves because we think we “should” want to know its answer, but which we aren’t really sincerely interested in. Such a question is powerless because questions that don’t arise organically from within have no juice or earnest fire in them with the power to captivate and focus attention. Powerless spiritual questions–which we simply heard from other people or don’t really care about–have no power to fascinate, obsess, and render the mind one-pointed. They have no power to absorb all doubts and other questions into themselves. Such questions simply feed more thought; they do not generate a ball of burning tension and doubt so intense that it leaves no way out except to explode in the revelation of its ever-present answer.

It is not necessary to make up a spiritual question if we don’t have one already; abiding in the Mind before thinking or the simple sense of being aware is more than enough. However, if a natural, organic, burning question bubbles up from within, this can be a skillful means in itself.

A powerful, driving, burning spiritual question focuses interest and attention like a lens intensifying a laser beam, a magnifying glass focusing the light of the sun into a burning point, or a single balloon being filled with more and more air until it bursts. If we continually pump up a single all-consuming, authentic question with interest and attention, it will eventually pop and obliterate the question in the light of its answer, which is not another thought, but the Source of all thoughts. This is the heart of Rinzai Zen in a nutshell: it attempts to give rise to an authentic question that can obsess the conceptual mind until it bursts in its utter inability to answer the burning question and the truth stands thoughtlessly revealed. But if the question doesn’t arise organically from within and have a driving energy behind it, it does not have the power to serve this all-important function. Such a question just becomes a movement in intellectual confusion or fruitless cleverness, which amount to the same thing.

A sincerely burning question arises from within and totally baffles and stuns us. It’s the question we’re afraid to ask because we fear we won’t know the answer, while also being the question we sincerely, earnestly, and authentically yearn and burn to answer. Powerful spiritual questions carry an energy of motivating urgency that transforms them into the substance of an entire spiritual practice. When such a question arises, everything converges on it, everything becomes of service to it, everything aims to clarify it. It consumes and absorbs all other questions and doubts into itself like a black hole. A skillful spiritual question is a natural, organic koan that arises from within and having arisen, becomes a great black hole that sucks everything into itself and burns ever-brighter in the process. Nothing short of being obliterated by truth itself can put an end to it; that’s its relative value.

If this sounds too abstract, let’s consider an example of a powerful, authentic spiritual question. Before he attained the enlightenment that silenced his burning question, the Zen Master Bankei Yōtaku (盤珪永琢) read the first line in a Confucian classic called The Great Learning (大學), which said:

“The way of great learning lies in clarifying bright virtue.”

From this simple opening line, the question arose: “What is this bright virtue?” Bankei asked  this spontaneously arising burning question to his teacher, but his teacher couldn’t answer. He went on to visit other great teachers and put his burning question to them too, but they also couldn’t answer it. Bankei knew that they couldn’t answer because a true answer explodes and dissolves the question once and for all, and their answers were only absorbed into the fire of this great question. Their ‘answers’ only reinforced the question and intensified and inflamed it like bellows pumping up a fire with more and more air. This single question became so strong for Bankei that it burned up all other questions; all his doubts were absorbed together into this one question: What is bright virtue? He was so obsessed with it that he traveled all over Japan asking every eminent teacher he could find about it, whether Confucian, Taoist, or Buddhist. No one could answer.

When the answer finally came–and it came, not in a verbal form, but in a direct seeing into the essential nature of reality, a direct revelation of the ever-present–it exploded the question like an atomic bomb. Bankei’s mind blew open and there it was: the very awareness that had been entertaining the question of “what is the bright virtue?” the entire time had always been it: the bright virtue, the Unborn Buddha Mind! This original Mind is prior to all questions and answers; from the beginning, there are no questions, so all questions are absolutely useless. But this question was relatively useful; it took Bankei from utter confusion through a terrain of madness and agonizing practice into awakening.

To make headway on this pathless path, it can be helpful to simplify and declutter. If we have no burning questions, then we can abide in the empty Mind prior to thinking, which is the endpoint of all spiritual questions anyway.  If we do have questions, however, it can be helpful to throw out all of the spiritual questions we learned from others or don’t care about and zoom in on our single all-consuming doubt, the hardest, most burning question we have. Having done so, we can focus on it like a laser beam and resolutely and earnestly refuse to swerve from it until it detonates into a direct revelation that explodes the question and leaves no more doubt in its wake. In the wake of the explosion, the original Mind before the question arose will be shining just as bright as it was when the mad search for an answer was going on, but it itself will be the answer that puts the question to rest. Not through thinking, but through silence.

Part of a series on Nonduality, Jana Yoga and Zen:
Throw Out Your Spiritual Answers

Great Doubt Expresses Great Faith

Beyond Experiencing

Movements of the Immovable

One Step is One Too Many: Waking Up as Stripping Away

Beauty, Wonder, and the Invitation Home

Glimpses vs. Stabilization on the Way of Jnana Yoga

The Heart of the Way: Not One, Nor Two

Everything You Experience “Now” is Remembered: Neuroscience and Nonduality