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On Etiquette Concerning Questions
November 2, 1973, Friday evening (Timely Teachings, page 75)
You should not answer questions asked by any Dharma Master who comes here, unless it is during a formal lecture or class. As soon as you answer, you are wrong. There is no way to be right. Why? The purpose of most monastic visitorsí questions will to expose your faults. Even if you answer correctly, the Dharma Master will maintain that you are wrong, thereby showing that he is better than you. Basically, any well-educated person knows not to ask questions when visiting other places. He is not supposed to test others to see what they understand and what they donít. If people put on their robes and sashes, hold their sitting cloth, kneel down and put their palms together to seek your instruction, then you may answer. If they ask you to explain a point without putting on their robes and sashes and holding their sitting cloth, then you should not respond, nor should you ask them to explain it. To ask them shows your own lack of knowledge, and to answer them also reveals your ignorance. All of you should know this.
If anyone starts asking you questions, regardless of whether it is a layperson or a monk or nun, you can tell the person that the time for asking questions is during lectures and classes, and that everyone has work to do at other times.
Why, when this Dharma Master questioned you about non-self, did you recklessly blurt out an explanation? Actually, the nonexistence of the ego can be explained in a million different ways. There is no one right way or wrong way. Since the self doesnít even exist, what is there to talk about? How can there be a small self, a great self, or a divine self? None of these exist. To even speak of the non-self is already wrong. If you havenít even understood the true character and the original meaning of dharmas, how can you answer him? You have made a mistake just by saying something. Each individual has his or her own interpretation and theory. How can there be a Ďrightí or a Ďwrongí? You explain it your way, and I explain it my way. Even if I consider your interpretation wrong, I donít have any basis to criticize it. Since there is no basis, whatís the point of debating the issue at all?
You foolishly answered him, because you thought that to not answer would have been wrong. Actually, not answering would have been the right thing to do. He had no right to ask you to explain the nonexistence of self. The nonexistence of self is just the nonexistence of self. What more is there to explain? How come you didnít know this when you are so intelligent? You were actually motivated by your wish to establish connections with him because I had praised him before. Actually, I avoid mentioning anything bad about people. I even praise those who are bad, because I regard all people as Buddhas. However, I cannot guarantee that everyone is actually the way I see him or her.
People who are truly cultivating the Way donít talk. This doesnít mean just not talking with women; it means basically not engaging in conversation, even to the point of looking dumb. When I was traveling and cultivating, all day long I kept my eyes closed and didnít look at people. I didnít chat with people. Thatís the way it should be done. The conversation is useless. The more you respect a cultivator, the less you want to talk with him. You have a competition to see who will talk the least. As soon as someone who understands this principle sees someone who chatters, he will look down on that person. In the past at in China at both Gold Mountain Monastery and Gaomin Monastery, a person could live next to someone else for several years and still not know his name. People stayed side by side, slept next to each other, but years would go by and they wouldnít know each otherís names, and would never have spoken with each other.