The Most Important Question

The logician Raymond Smullyan tells the following story. The Buddha was around in Northern India and he was going on his world tour. The way it would work was he would walk into town and everybody who wanted to could come and ask him a single question and then he would move on. If you think about that’s a huge deal — he was so wise that we still have posters and jewelry with him on it around 2500 years later. And the people in this little village are going to have a chance to ask him something.

One guy gets really worreid. He doesn’t want to blow his chance to ask the Buddha a question. And he’s worrying. What should he ask. Should I ask the Buddha how to get rich? Should I ask him how to get a girlfriend? Should I ask him if there’s life after death? Should I ask him what we should do when fossil fuel runs out? Should I ask him how to make a really good hamburger? It’s really hard! He only gets one question!

So finally the guy he’s up all night. The Buddha has answered everybody’s question. He’s put on his sandals, grabbed his begging bowl, and he’s walking out of the village. And the guy gets a brain storm. He runs after the Buddha and says “Oh Buddha! What is the single best question for me to ask you and what is the answer to it?” And the Buddha says “That. That is the single best question for you to ask me and that is the answer.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson said strictly speaking we cannot acquire instruction from another person but only provocation, which is Latin for calling forth what is already inside. The best thing I can offer you is to provoke you to ask a really good question.

The question you really care about. The question you want to know.

Philosophy and science are full of questions other people asked. Is man good or evil? Does the external world really exist? What is time? Why are there so many different kinds of animals? How can we stop war?

But what’s your question?

I can’t tell you what your questions are, and I would suggest you be very suspicious of anyone who tells you that you can.

And that’s for an interesting reason.

You might have learned in school or on wikipedia about another famous riddle asked by a monster. If you play Dungeons and Dragons it was a gynosphinx. She asked Oedipus — and he actually didn’t turn out so great but at htis point in the story he was doing good — what is that monster that walks on four feet in the morning two feet int he afternoon and three feet at night. All the other heroes were like I don’t know shape-shifting leg-monster? And she ate them.

Do you know?

Yes. Oedipus answered the question. Me. Human. I am the monster who has four legs inthe morning as a child, two legs in the afternoon as a man, and three legs in the evening as a man leaning on a cane.

The answer to the riddle was him.

Who you are — what bothers you, what your family was like, what happened to you that you hated, what happened to you that you love, the people you allow to matter to you — is what made you ask the question.

And since who you are is what made the question — when you answer them they teach you who you are. Which is pretty cool.

Any questions?


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