Using Inquiry to Unpack the Buddhist Teachings
By Lama Palden
The Buddha, as Dzogchen Ponlop reminds us, encouraged us to question the teachings, sift through them, try them out and see what turns out to be true and real in our own experience. A couple of years ago I decided to try an experiment along these lines. I have been teaching a Wednesday morning class at our center for over ten years. We meditate, study, discuss, chant, sing: all of the usual Buddhist activities. What would happen if we added inquiry, which is a questioning process, right after introducing a teaching?
I decided to spend eight months presenting some of the essential teachings of Buddhism. With each aspect of the teaching I asked participants to inquire into their experience. I gave them questions to explore in pairs. It was amazing to me what happened. By inviting the subconscious to reveal its truth through these questions, participants experienced increased psychological understanding of themselves and their relationship to the teachings. Many of them had spiritual insights and spontaneous openings.
Inquiry is a structured kind of questioning in which a person explores their responses to a question. What sensations arise in my body as I ask a question? What thoughts, images, emotions come into my experience? The other person listens without saying anything and as much as possible rests in open, objective awareness. At the end, there is time for discussion. The inquiry process itself is not a conversation, but rather an inner exploration.
The purpose of this kind of inquiry is to flush out whatever we are thinking and feeling, both consciously and unconsciously. For example: How do I feel when I hear and contemplate the teachings on suffering, or on emptiness of self? Once our thoughts and feelings come fully into awareness, we can begin to meet the different parts of the self with openness and compassion. We can sift through and discern what is emotional reaction, what are fears or ideas based on hidden beliefs, and what is truth that we can feel in our hearts.
Your Own Inquiry
Below are some possible questions for you to explore. All have to do with the first Noble Truth that the Buddha taught. You can do this with a friend, as I explained above, or alone with your journal. This is a chance to let your subconscious speak to you so that after the thoughts and feelings are brought to consciousness, you can work with them skillfully. Approach yourself with kindness and openness while you inquire, just like you would meet a beloved friend.
The first Noble Truth is that life is suffering. When I open to my suffering what happens? What sensations, emotions, thoughts come up? Be present with what arises.
In the moment: Tune into and feel your body, emotions, and mind. Open to any suffering that you experience in this moment. Be with it, breathe into it, relaxing into it. Let go of resistance and simply feel it. If resistance is persistent, then be with that.
Suffering . . . or . . . Even when we’re happy, everything changes
Usually we are always trying to change or improve everything. Actually the way out is to be present with our suffering or discomfort; not thinking something is wrong because it is there. See Lee Worley’s blog post where she talks about our “demons,” and Milarepa’s teaching on working with them. We invite them in. Now ask:
Am I defending myself against my own suffering?
How do I attempt to avoid suffering?
What does it feel like when I drop into it?
If it is too much, how can I open to it gradually?
How do I add to my own suffering?
Is there a way I am attached to my suffering?
Notice what it’s like when you invite these questions with openness. Be curious without having to get answers, and see what you discover. You can use this process of inquiry to try out any of the teachings you encounter, to see how they fit with your experience, and to find out what feels true for you.