Questions from the Heart

Questions from the Heart

Discussion date: Thu, Nov 06, 2014 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

On July 16th, 2014, during the Summer Opening, Thich Nhat Hanh offered a Question and Answer session. He began the Q and A, as he often does, by explaining that a good question is a question from the heart:

The Summer Opening is not a course in Buddhism. It is an opportunity for us to practice: to practice walking, sitting, and taking care of our feelings. So don’t ask questions about Buddhism. Ask questions about your practice. A question that has to do with our suffering, our happiness, our experiences of the practice, our difficulties in the practice. We know that a good question can benefit many people. So we have to ask a real question, a question of the heart. The question that has been there in our heart for a long time. This is an opportunity.

This Thursday evening, after our sitting and walking meditation, we’ll watch a video of three heart-felt questions, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s answers, from that session:

  • I work as a doctor in a poor area. How can I say to children that have one meal a day “Happiness is here and now”?

  • How do I practice to love myself when I struggle to believe that I am worth it?

  • I am very shy. How do I take refuge in the Sangha?

In our dharma sharing, we will have time to reflect on the questions and answers we have seen, and also have a chance to ask questions that have been in our hearts for a long time.

You are invited to join us.

You are also invited to join us this week for a brief orientation to mindfulness practice and the Still Water community. The orientation will begin at 6:30 pm and participants are encouraged to stay for the evening program. If you would like to attend the orientation, it is helpful if you let us know by emailing us at

The July 16th Question and Answer is available on line at

Below is a related passage by Thich Nhat Hanh on good questions and good answers.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner

Introduction to Answers From the Heart: Compassionate and Practical Responses to Life’s Burning Questions

by Thich Nhat Hanh

When you first encounter mindfulness practice, you may have a million questions. But before you look to someone else for answers, sit with these questions yourself. You may discover, with surprise, that through looking deeply and touching deeply, you can answer most of the questions by yourself.

We have the habit of always looking outside of ourselves, thinking we can get wisdom and compassion from another person or the Buddha or his teachings (Dharma) or our community (Sangha). But you are the Buddha, you are the Dharma, you are the Sangha.

The goal of this book is not to teach you about Buddhism. Storing up knowledge about Buddhism will not answer your burning questions. We have to learn the things that can help us to transform our own suffering, our own caught situations. If our teacher is a real teacher, then his or her words are there to help us be in touch with life and to untie the preconceptions, views, anger, and habit energies we have. The aim of a real teacher is to help his or her students transform.

Don’t underestimate the power of a good question. A good question can benefit many people. We should ask a question from our heart, a question that has to do with our happiness, suffering, transformation, and practice. A good question does not need to be very long.

There was a famous Zen teacher in ninth century China, Master Linji. He was well-known for his "Zen Battles" between teacher and student. A student would stand up to ask a question of the master, to find out if his own understanding was ripe. Linji used the expression "coming out onto the battlefield"; sometimes the student was victorious and sometimes he was defeated. When people asked me the questions in this book, they didn’t have to come out onto the battlefield. In battle there is someone who wins and someone who loses. Instead, I try to look at each question and questioner with compassion, as if I had asked the questions myself.

This doesn’t mean that the answers will be what we are wanting to hear. Just as we have the tendency to run away from a shot or a dose of medicine, even if it’s good for us, we have the tendency to run away from answers that touch painful areas in our lives.

Sometimes Zen answers are like riddles, designed to stop the thinking process of the student. Thinking is not awakened understanding. Awakened understanding is quicker than lightning. Where there is reasoning, there is failure.

Sometimes the teacher has to respond by what Master Linji called "removing the object." This means that when someone comes with a question, if the teacher were to spend a lot of time explaining this and that, it wouldn’t help; the student might stay caught in thinking and views. Instead the teacher removes the question, which may very well be a false obstacle. I often remove the object in order to give the question back to the student.

I hope that in some of these questions and answers we can find the kind of healing that we deeply need. The teaching words of the Buddha are called "the all-embracing sound." This means that the words have the nature of fullness, touching all kinds of human conditions. All-embracing sound also means that a teaching has the characteristic of being appropriate to the hearer; it can touch our real situation. Questions and answers are an opportunity to cultivate our capacity to listen with openness, receptivity, and stillness. Listening in this way, we will surely receive the medicine we need.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Nov 06, 2014