Waiting for the Sincere Question

moss buddhaMy grandmother — we called her Oma — struggled with Alzheimer’s before passing away a few years ago. One evening after dinner, during her last Christmas visit with our family, we were sitting around the table — Oma, my brother, Tracy, and I. Oma took a cookie from her plate, held it up, and asked, “What is it?” One of us, in the gentle way that people do, said, “Oma, that’s a cookie.” She looked irritated. Again: “What is it?” We all glanced at each other around the table. This was awkward. This time, one of us started to explain how a cookie is made. “Well, there’s flour, and egg, and this one has chocolate chips.” Then this 90-plus-year-old woman, who in her lifetime had probably baked about 80,000 cookies, shot us all a very lucid, fiery look, as if we were all disappointments. “I know how to make them,” she said. She held up the cookie again. “What IS it?”

And so the four of us found ourselves staring in earnest at a cookie in an old, shaking hand, really unsure of the answer. What was she asking us? We all looked hard at that cookie and said, “Wow, Oma, I don’t know.” That was how we left it.

There is an old rule that a teacher should not speak of the Dharma unless requested to do so three times. This always seemed silly to me. How does one reject the first two requests? And since the rule is well known, wouldn’t people just ask three times quickly? Isn’t it a kind of game?

Perhaps. But now I see it more clearly. It’s a way of insisting on sincerity. And like all the rules, it evolved in response to a problem — namely, that most questions are insincere.

Especially in Zen, there is a misunderstanding about what we are asking when we ask. And why.

So much of the Zen tradition rests on dialogues in which traveling monks challenge a teacher. The monk throws a curveball, and when the story is good, the teacher hits it out of the park (or throws one right back). It’s all very dynamic, even explosive.

And so we get this unfortunate term, “Dharma combat.” There is a strong idea in the Zen world — even stronger in the West, where people tend to be more familiar with the literature and with those stories — that Zen is aggressive, that a good Zen exchange has these steps:

  1. Someone is tested.
  2. Someone is shot down.
  3. The “answer” either makes no sense (“The snail outside my window”) or appeals to an absolute view of reality (“My friend, there is no question, and no questioner. A songbird! I rest my case”).

I’ve encountered a lot of this in person. Now, from Japan, I need only look at online forums or comments threads to find more of the same. Perfectly intelligent people, when Zen is mentioned, suddenly start tossing around Song Dynasty-era metaphors and accusing each other of being attached to views. There are a few good reasons why some people really hate Zen. This is one of them.

What’s missing in this kind of Koan Theatre is a genuine desire to help. It’s play-acting. It’s insincere. What we forget when we imagine those ancient dialogues is this: the traveling monk didn’t question the teacher because he wanted to win. He wanted to lose. He was searching desperately, risking everything, to find his true teacher. So when he asked, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” he wasn’t trying to see if the teacher had the “right” answer or not. He wasn’t checking if the teacher’s understanding matched his own. He was asking because he really wanted to know. He didn’t want the teacher’s understanding to match his own. He wanted the teacher’s understanding to blow him away, and if he really didn’t have any hope that it would, he wouldn’t bother asking the question. He just moved on.

Likewise, if the teacher saw the monk coming and thought, “I’ll teach him a thing or two,” well, I hope that the monk just kept walking. A sincere question, in this tradition, will never get an answer. At best, it will get a skillful response. Just as no one can blow your nose for you, no teacher can tell you what you most want to know. Why? Because if it’s a really good question, the teacher also doesn’t know. She can’t know. But a teacher might know how to help you to know. There’s a big difference.

The teacher must sincerely want to help. The student must sincerely want to be helped. A poetic, hard-to-grasp image, if it is part of a response, is only compassionate if the teacher believes that this particular image is actually more helpful than a straightforward one. The goal cannot be to obscure, or to look wise, or to add a little Zen flavor. Likewise, one can only penetrate with an absolute view if the other person is clinging fiercely to the relative; it can only be an antidote. Never a weapon. Never a way of shutting it all down.

I will never know what my grandmother was asking when she held up that cookie. But I do know that the question was a sincere one. She genuinely wanted to know — it was important to her, and she knew she couldn’t see the answer. And as she continued to ask the question, as we wrestled to find a response, we also took on some of that sincerity. We felt the intensity she brought to that exchange, and we tried to match it. I don’t think we satisfied her. She still wanted something more. But “I don’t know” — that was pretty good. That’s always a good place to start.

I’ve been invited this month to respond to Zen-related questions from Reddit users. You can eavesdrop on the conversation here (where they’re collecting questions), or you can register with Reddit and participate. I think it might be fun.

20 comments on “Waiting for the Sincere Question

  1. genkakukigen says:

    I like your Oma.

    I liked your post.


  2. shel says:

    For either a desire to make money from this blog or because you don’t want to spend what little it costs to pay for it, you have rather prominent ads selling things like Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola is very very unhealthy. It makes a lot of money for corporations but substantially contributes to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and many other health issues in the world today.

    Don’t you care?

    • koun says:


      I guess I was wrong — Zen is aggressive. 🙂

      I was not aware that ads were showing. As an administrator of the blog, I see a slightly modified version on my screen. A little research shows that WordPress does use ads, with reassurances that they will be few, and not distracting.

      But I don’t like it. I just paid the $30 for the “no ads” service; I did the same for One Continuous Mistake.

      For the record, I do not make one cent off of this blog. It costs me money to keep the domain name, and now to block ads. I’ve gotten a lot out of doing this, but not revenue.

      Take care.


  3. Rich says:

    It is an example of the interbeing of intention, skill, consumables, non-consumables and energy.

  4. Arnold says:

    Someone posted a thoughtful response to this here:


    Considering that comment, do you have anything to add? Thank you.

    • koun says:


      Thank you for the link.

      One of the strange things about writing a blog like this one is that most of the discussion around it — and around me — takes place not in this comments section, but on other forums, on other people’s Facebook pages, and so on. It’s not intended for my eyes. I have had the impulse a few times to jump into one of these conversations (WordPress lets me know about them, if people are linking from there to here) and say, “NOOO — I didn’t mean that! I meant this!” Or even just to say thank you. But I don’t do it. I think that people write to their audience, and if someone wants me to be that audience, they know where to find me. (I’m very, very grateful when they do, but I respect when they don’t.)

      That said, because it’s Reddit and I’ll be hanging around Reddit for the next couple weeks or so, I’m confident that I will have the chance to interact with some of the people there, at least if they want that –if you know the writer of the comment you sent, perhaps you could encourage him/her to post a question for discussion. I very much look forward to the opportunity.

      Take care.


  5. Jay says:


    A mention on Genkaku’s blog brought me here.

    Having someone in my life with dementia, I strongly feel that using Oma’s persistent question as a launch for a supposedly “Zen discourse” other than a discussion of the disease shows at least a grave misunderstanding of the disease, and, perhaps, of Zen.

    It may be too late for understanding what was going on with Oma, for the sake of your blog, do a little research into dementia and Alzheimer’s before using Oma’s symptomatic behavior as showing something other than the failing of faculties.


    • koun says:


      Thank you for writing, and for your concern. I’m sure that your personal experience must make this a raw topic — this post must have sent up all sorts of red flags for you.

      For those of us who were at the table, that evening with Oma is a powerful shared memory–the last time any of us were really engaged by her. She called us by our names during dinner. It was wonderful to have any kind of contact with her.

      We knew what we were seeing — we had seen it a lot, and for a long time. But the fact that it was symptomatic behavior doesn’t make her questioning any less honest. And our knowledge of what was happening didn’t dampen, even in the slightest degree, our desire to craft some sort of skillful response, to help against all odds.

      This was not “Zen discourse,” not at all — I appreciate the opportunity here to clarify that, if there were other readers who felt I was trying to say that it was. But it was honest, on both sides: an honest inquiry, an honest (and clumsy) reply. That honesty, and that mutual investment, are lacking in much of the dialogue in and around Zen.

      For the record, from a writing perspective, I don’t feel it is out of bounds to reference Alzheimer’s in a post without making the post about Alzheimer’s. It is part of our common human experience, something far too many people know far too much about from their own encounters.

      My best to you, and to the person in your life who is facing these difficulties. Take care.


      p.s. Thank you for the link.

  6. Jay says:

    Thank you for your sympathies.

    I hope you do take the time to consider the set of diseases such as Alzheimer’s that create cognitive impairment.

    Again I strongly recommend not using cognitive impairment as a off hand launch point for any kind of Zen teaching. To me it is far more abhorrent than the willy-nilly regurgitation of out of context Ch’an stories from a thousand years ago.

    • koun says:


      I’m sorry I caused so much offense to you with this post. It was not my intention to “use” anything, just to tell a personal family story that I think of often.


  7. Jay says:


  8. WoodsyLadyM says:

    A sincere question deserves a sincere answer which you and your family gave Oma. I agree that a lot of what passes for Zen dialogue nowadays is not sincere. It is merely clever and lacks compassion. Sometimes it’s just downright rude, which I guess would be okay if it were at least sincere. It’s also why I sometimes hate Zen too even though I love it. You gave the sincere and therefore compassionate answer. What could be more skillful than that?


  9. Jerry C says:

    Someone at my regular newbuddhist forum said to check out your blog. Just want to say how much I enjoyed your writing and now I have to put aside some time to read your past postings.

    I loved the story you shared about your Oma.

    Jerry C

  10. christine li says:

    Dear koun,

    i stumbled upon your blog post and feel strangely compelled to add my own perspective on disease and conditions. I was also very touched by your humble and compassionate response to Jay who very naturally seems to be in a lot of pain. I do hear you Jay, but bear with me right now, because I would like to add something to maybe soften your point of view.
    Personally I do not feel this makes any difference or does in any way add to my sincerety or perceived authority, but in case somebody does think so: I am a Western trained doctor.
    Secondly, I am not a native speaker of English, so please bear with me there.

    I am aware of diseases and conditions like probably most people are in the West. I am also afraid, we make to much out of this, an attitude, which actually dehumanizes people. I would go so far as calling this discrimination.

    Let me explain and start with two little stories about disease:

    As a very young doctor I was trained in a closed inner city clinic for psychiatry. As might be expected people there were in a lot of pain for all kinds of reasons. Even though doctors were not encouraged to do so, I felt strongly compelled to just sit with people and be with them, even after hours. In many cases this helped them calm down and cut down on medication.
    However this was not “state of the art”, as they say. My behaviour was frowned upon and one day I was called into the office.
    “Why do you spend so much time with these people!”, the consultant nearly shouted at me.
    “They are sad.”
    “You, being a doctor, should really know better”, was the indignant answer. “These people are not sad. They are psychotic.”

    As can be expected I left Western medicine after some time and trained for five years in China. To make some money I did translations at congresses and Chinese medical classes. Once I was travelling with one of my Chinese medical teachers to translate some classes he gave in Europe. The guy who had invited him, while making lots of money out of these classes, payed my teacher a ridiculously small amount of money and made him stay in cheap hotels, eating food, which was very very hard for an elderly Chinese gentleman to digest.
    “He is so greedy”, I complained to my teacher. “Don’t you want to do something about that?”
    “No need to get angry”, he answered sweetly. “He is a good man and greed is just his disease.”

    So, Jay, you are arguing from that first perspective. Which is ok. Oma does not know what a cookie is, because she is demented.
    But consider the second perspective: Are we not all deficient in some way? Are we not all diseased in some way?
    Who has not experienced the following scenario: We get angry at something, maybe an injustice and argue, maybe a bit too strongly. Then we are told of: “This is the anger speaking.” (which usually makes as even more adamant…) It is the anger speaking alright. And yet does our anger necessarily invalidate, what we are saying? I do not think so. We might be saying it more calmly. But even shouted, what we said was our truth at that moment.
    If I am in a lot of pain from cancer and going to die soon, my truth is different. If I am happy other things might strike me more. If I am highly educated, or traumatized or…we live in so many different realities and all are made up by us in accordance with our specific disease.
    But whatever the disease, is it part of the human condition, our own personal experience, our personal illusion, and should be respected as such.

    So Oma might have been officially diagnosed with some condition. Other people are not.
    What is the difference?

    Thank you and love to you all.
    Christine Li

  11. Tanya A says:

    Thanks for shaaring

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