In Buddhist traditions, as with many other religions and cultures, debate holds a special place. Part investigation, part competition, it is common for people to engage in back and forth conversation in an attempt to sharpen their wits and prove their points. The Buddha was often challenged by the proponents of other paths. In the sutta quoted below, he lists four specific types of questions and the appropriate ways to answer them.
Bhikkhus, there are these four ways of answering questions. What four?
(1) There is a question to be answered categorically, e.g. Q: ‘Is the eye impermanent?’ A: ‘Yes.’
(2) There is a question to be answered after making a distinction, e.g. Q:’ Is the impermanent the eye?’ A: ‘Not only the eye, the the ear, nose, etc. are also impermanent.’
(3) There is a question to be answered with a counter-question, e.g. Q: ‘Does the eye have the same nature as the ear?’ A: ‘With respect to what?’ (with respect to seeing – no; with respect to impermanence – yes).
(4) There is a question to be set aside, e.g. ‘Is the soul the same as the body?’
These are four ways of answering questions. – from AN 4:42, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, with examples from the commentaries (taken from footnotes to the AN)
Much of our public conversation at present is characterized by artificially constructed “yes or no” questions. These guidelines may help us talk with each other in ways that bring more clarity and (perhaps) less volatility.
If someone says “You’re either with us or against us”, we may well ask, “Who is ‘us'”? If someone asks how the universe could have been created without an underlying intelligence, we can put that question aside as unbeneficial. When someone categorizes people as “lifters or leaners”, we might ask whether we haven’t all been both lifters and leaners at different times in our lives.
We can also practice mindfulness by not reacting to every scrap of news (every tweet) that floats across our awareness, at least not right away. An enormous percentage of the daily “noise” of the news turns out to have no consequence by the next day. It’s liberating to realize that we can let things pass by, can take our time deciding what to allow into our consciousness, and what to respond to.
As with many of the practices involving speech, we can always consider the option of listening, of waiting and reflecting before we speak. With practice, we can recognize questions that can and can’t be answered with a yes or no. Even if the questioner’s intention is provocative, we can reply with seriousness. We can use a question to reframe an issue to the benefit of those open to conversation. In this way, we can increase the level of harmony in whatever company we find ourselves in.