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What is a question?

A question is a request for information. The request is shaped according to what you think is relevant and what you want to know. Your own experience and knowledge are responsible for the question.

Can you see the drawback?

Your own experience frames every question. Invariably you are seeking to learn something new, but the means for requesting the new is rooted in the known, which is old.

Most students ask too many questions too soon. An inquisitive mind is not wrong, but too much questioning often signifies that the student failed to practice enough or didn't take time to analyse and investigate the problem on his own.

(Adam Hsu)

Consider the question: what is tai chi?

In what terms of reference can this question be answered? Can the reply be understood in terms of what you already know? If you already understood tai chi, would you be asking the question?

Open & closed questions

People are commonly taught to distinguish between open and closed questions.
An open question is intended to provide the opportunity for a diverse range of answers whilst a closed question  is limited and narrow in scope.
This distinction is actually false... Questions are by their very nature closed:

  1. Who? Is asking for the identity of a person.

  2. When? Requires a time frame.

  3. Why? Seeks a purpose/reason.

  4. What? Requests an object/subject/situation/incident.

  5. Where? A location.

  6. How? A method.

  7. Which? A choice/decision.

  8. Can? Ability.

  9. Is? Confirmation.

  10. Should? Is it prudent/appropriate.

  11. Are? Confirmation of intent.

  12. Would? Projection of outcome.

  13. Will? Intention.

  14. May? Permission.

  15. Shall? Confirmation.

  16. If? Possibility.

    and so on...

These questions are designed to shape the answer, to limit and mould the response.
If you provided an answer that did not fit within the framework of the question, you may be considered obtuse or awkward.


The problem with questions is not necessarily the question itself but rather the expectation of an answer. Answers suggest finality, a definite explanation.
Consider: what is the meaning of life? The answer can only be framed in terms of the question, hence the meaning of life is life.

Paradoxes we create ourselves

If every aspect of life is encompassed within life then any meaning attributed can only be expressed in terms of life itself because any other answer would still be part of life.
See the problem?
The question has no actual meaning or relevance. Asking that particular question does not further your understanding in any way.

What you seek, you find

If you have an idea in mind, your question serves as a wish-fulfilment device. You ask the question in the hope of hearing a particular answer.
The answer is a means of confirmation, of satisfaction - it furthers your knowledge or endorses it.

The unexpected

What if the answer is not what you expected? Are you receptive to change, to the unknown? Or will you ignore what you don't want to hear?


Asking questions is good when they lead to a deeper understanding. Quite often, questions simply stem from impatience: What is next? When can I? Why don't we?


Considering the condition of mind that produces the question will usually tell you more than the answer itself does.
Lao Tzu wrote that you can know the whole world without leaving your room.
This statement indicates that awareness is the key - being in the 'here and now' - and that paying attention to the moment will provide your answers.
Would you look far for what is already here?


The main difficulty faced with questions is that words do not extend to reality. If we attempt to understand reality, we will fail - it is too big and too complex.
If we attempt to render reality verbally, we will fail - it is experiential.


Consider: explain what 'sorrow' means. The word 'sorrow' is a label applied to a particular emotion. Unless you experience sorrow for yourself, the word has no meaning.


Sorrow cannot be understood in terms of something else, it can only be felt by the individual. Once felt, the label can be applied.
The label is simply a verbal convention, it is not sorrow.
A label serves only as a means of sharing our thoughts and feelings with people who already understand what the label refers to from their own experience.

Are questions pointless?

No. Questions are useful in themselves because the very framing of the question is a reflection of how we think.
Zen has created an entire discipline surrounding questions. A Zen koan is a question which has no answer as such.
The question itself is what you must consider. The question is the means, the how, the Way.


Consider the koan: what is the colour of wind?
Can you answer this question? Does not the question provoke more questions about the nature of the question itself?
Colour is a way of measuring and labelling light - it is a convention.
Can wind be measured in terms of colour? What exactly is 'wind'? And what does 'what' refer to?
The question tells us more about words and thought than anything else.

Words are only for distinctions,
and so there cannot really even be a symbol,
not even an idea, of the non-distinction.

We cannot think it, but we can feel it,
though we do not feel it like an object.

You feel you are alive, that you are conscious,
but you do not know what consciousness is because consciousness is present
in every conceivable kind of experience.

 It is like the space in which we live,
which is everywhere.

It is like a fish in water;
the fish does not know it is in the water,
because it never leaves it.

(Alan Watts)



When asking a question, consider what you are expecting as an answer. Your question may contain the answer to your inquiry.

Tai chi & questions

Tai chi cannot be answered verbally, you must physically experience it for yourself. Do not expect to understand tai chi in terms of something else - it is not yoga, karate or dance.
The art of tai chi is tai chi. It can only be understood in terms of itself.

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023