A Buddhistic Update to Trick Questions
© Copyright 2004 by Phil Servedio
The notion of enquiry, investigation, atma-vichara, etc. is often associated with the
branch Hinduism known as Advaita Vedanta, and popularized by the famous question of
Ramana Maharshi: "Who Am I?".
This vital and powerful aspect of the spiritual process, however, is certainly not a monopoly of the
Vedantans; a fairly quick investigation into many esoteric schools of spirituality will
reveal that this 'method' is a common one. What may be lead one to think otherwise is that
enquiry is considered a more advanced practice in certain schools, and therefore not advertised
or given the exposure that "Who Am I" has been given.
In Vajrayana Buddhism, enquiry is seen in two major traditions, in stages of practice given
to intermediate and advanced practitioners - in the Mahamudra school, it is used in the stage
of Vipassana ("insight"), and in Dzogchen, it is employed in the stage of practice known as
Trekchod. In both traditions, this stage is preceeded by a shamatha stage, which
results in a capacity for a certain level of quietude in the mind.
While enquiry can be found in multiple religions and schools, it's purpose is simple - to
expose, loosen undermine, crack or untie the conceptual knots and assumptions that we take for
granted and in which define reality for us. While enquiry leads to no specific 'answer', the
space generated by the cutting through of limiting concepts is co-incident with insight into
the nature of self and world, as well as self-existing radiance and joy.
As one who has recently been investigating and in the stream of the Buddhist transmission, via
the Mahamudra tradition, I've found a set of extremely rich and profoundly detailed practices to
undercut conceptual boundaries and limitations. The following questions have personally been used in
guided meditations and in private practice to investigate what exactly this mysterious
notion of 'mind'. By investigating the depth of content and structure of mind, we can arrive at
a joyful certainty and (groundless) ground. Based loosely upon the book
Pointing Out the Dharmakaya,
by the Ninth Karmapa of the Kagyu school of Vajrayana Buddhism, these questions help to point
out the limited notion of mind, arranged into various categories:
- Investigating the Mind Itself
- Investigating 'Internal Appearances' (thoughts)
- Investigating External Appearances'
- Investigating the notions of mind and body
- Investigating Still Mind and Moving Mind (mind with and without content)
- Investigating Mind and it empty nature
While these particular questions have a Buddhist flavor to them, you may find
many parallels to the questions found in my original Trick Questions page. These particular questions may expose how little we have investigated how our mind perceives things, and how we function in our perception of apparent reality. Enjoy the ride!
- What is mind?
- Is mind a something or a lack of something?
- Does your mind have a shape or form?
- What is the size of your mind?
- If it has no shape or form, then what are its characteristics?
- Does your mind have a color?
- What does the mind feel like?
- Can you see your mind objectively, or are you coming from your mind?
- Is mind separate from you or are you the same as your mind?
- What is in front of your mind?
- What is in back of your mind?
- Does your mind have limits? Where does it end?
- Are you ever without your mind?
- Does mind stop and start?
- How do you know you have a mind?
- What are the components of your mind?
- What is the structure of your mind?
- Are there levels to your mind?
- Does the mind start anywhere?
- Does it abide anywhere?
- Does it subside somewhere?
- When you connect or converse with a person, where does your mind end and where does their mind begin?
- When the mind is still, what characteristics does it have?
- Is your mind inside or outside of your body?
- Does your mind have a location?
- Is still mind in the same place as moving mind?
- Is mind empty or substantial?
- What is the nature of mind?
- Can mind be aware of itself?
- If so, how? Does it require thoughts to know itself?
Thoughts (“Internal experience”)
- What is a thought?
- From where does a thought come from?
- What does the creation of a thought consist of?
- Where does a thought abide?
- How does a thought abide?
- What does it mean for a thought to abide?
- How does a thought cease to abide?
- Where does a thought go to?
- What does the ending of thought consist of?
- What is a thought made of?
- Does a thought have a shape? A color?
- If a thought doesn’t have a shape or color, what substantial characteristics does it have?
- Does mind exists without thoughts?
- Is mind the same with thought than without thoughts?
- Does mind move when thoughts occur?
- Is mind still when no thoughts occur?
- Is mind absent when no thoughts occur?
Mind and Perception (“External experience”)
- How does your mind perceive objects?
- When your mind perceives an object, does your mind go out to meet it, or does the
- object move to meet your mind?
- Where are objects perceived?
- Are thing perceived inside ones mind or outside of it?
- If thing are perceived inside one’s mind, then how are they perceived?
- Is the experience of appearances different than mind or the same as mind?
- Is the perception of the physical world different than the perception of thoughts?
- When you experience an appearance, is that appearance different from you? In other words, is that appearance separate from the experiencing mind?
- If the experiences of appearances are separate from the experiencing mind, where do they meet?
- Do appearances come into the mind or does the mind go out and enter into the appearances?
- How does subject and object meet?
Mind and Body
- Is the mind cognition and the body matter?
- When the body feels pain, does the body feel it, or does the mind?
- If your mind feels pain, does the body feel it also?
- Is your mind joined to the body or separate from the body?
- If you mind is separate from your body, where is it located in relation to your body?
- Are body and mind fundamentally different or the same?
- Is your body an characteristic of mind, or is your mind a characteristic of body? Or both? Or neither?
Still Mind and Moving Mind
(mind with and without thoughts)
This section is for individual who have come to a reasonable level of capability to
abide in shamatha. In the still mind characterized by shamatha, one can then look into
the differences in the characteristics of mind when it is quiet and when thought is occurring.
- Is the mind different when it still and when thought are occurring? If so, how?
- It stillness present when thoughts are occurring, or are still mind and moving mind two different things or states which alternate in their existence?
- If there is a difference between still mind and moving mind, is the difference like the earth begin a ground versus a chariot holding a substance (i.e. a thought)?
- Does moving mind come and go?
- Does still mind come and go?
- Is a still mind an environment in which movement occurs? Or is does it disappear when movement occurs?
- Does still mind and moving mind alternate?
- Are a still mind and a mind with movement fundamentally different in nature?
- Does the mind change when it goes from moving to still?
- How often in your mind still and how often is it moving?
- If they’re the same, how are they the same?
- When thoughts appear does that mean still mind goes away, and when thought leave does that mean moving mind goes away, though the nature of both is fundamentally the same?
- Do you experience mind and thoughts similar to water and waves, being of the same nature but distinct in mode and appearance?
Mind and Emptiness
Note: the term lucidity-emptiness is one of many terms to describe the ultimate nature of mind
and existence. Feel free to replace it with a term that describes it most clearly for you.
- If you think the nature of both still and moving mind lucidity-emptiness, what does that mean?
- If you think the nature of both still and moving mind lucidity-emptiness, do thoughts become lucidity-emptiness when they are recognized?
- When the nature of a thought is seen, does that nature become lucidity-emptiness?
- When a thought vanishes on its own, without effort, does it become lucidity-emptiness whether it is recognized or not, but only after it vanishes?
- What occurs when thoughts are recognized as to themselves? As to their nature?
- Do thoughts vanish into lucidity-emptiness?
- Is the nature of thought lucidity-emptiness from the moment of its inception, irrespective of it being recognized or not; having vanished or not; is that just its basic nature?
- Which of the three above experiences do you experience if you say that still mind and moving mind are lucidity-emptiness?
- Is lucidity-emptiness an appearance or are thoughts and mind seen to be lucidity-emptiness?
- What is the relation between the non-substantiality of thought and lucidity-emptiness? Is non-substantiality a pointer towards lucidity-emptiness or is it the same as lucidity-emptiness?