From Socratic questioning – Wikipedia:

Socratic questioning is a form of disciplined questioning that can be used to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes, including: to explore complex ideas, to get to the truth of things, to open up issues and problems, to uncover assumptions, to analyze concepts, to distinguish what we know from what we do not know, to follow out logical consequences of thought or to control discussions. Socratic questioning is based on the foundation that thinking has structured logic, and allows underlying thoughts to be questioned. The key to distinguishing Socratic questioning from questioning per se is that Socratic questioning is systematic, disciplined, deep and usually focuses on fundamental concepts, principles, theories, issues or problems.

Examples of Socratic questions that are used for students in educational settings:

  1. Getting students to clarify their thinking and explore the origin of their thinking
    e.g., 'Why do you say that?', 'Could you explain further?'
  2. Challenging students about assumptions
    e.g., 'Is this always the case?', 'Why do you think that this assumption holds here?'
  3. Providing evidence as a basis for arguments
    e.g., 'Why do you say that?', 'Is there reason to doubt this evidence?'
  4. Discovering alternative viewpoints and perspectives and conflicts between contentions
    e.g., 'What is the counter-argument?', 'Can/did anyone see this another way?'
  5. Exploring implications and consequences
    e.g., 'But if...happened, what else would result?', 'How does...affect...?'
  6. Questioning the question
    e.g., 'Why do you think that I asked that question?', 'Why was that question important?', 'Which of your questions turned out to be the most useful?'

Does this sound familiar with any Buddhism teachings/suttas? In specific, I think this has the same idea with koans, but I'm not sure. My interest seems to be about zen and mahayana, however any schools are welcomed.


3 Answers 3


Yes, this is pretty much the way Buddha has led all his conversations with individual students when he was not preaching to groups. In Pali Canon there are many examples of dialogs following same exact model. Buddha's hallmark was to start with whatever assumptions / framework the student had and to show how by staying consistent with the key principles of that same very framework the student would himself reach the same conclusions as the Buddha has reached. This is why it is traditionally said that Buddha is "perfect teacher" and teaches using 84,000 ways - according to each student's dispositions.

  • What do you think about koans? (How to lit a candle without match? What is the sound of one-hand clap like? Why does this beardy guy have no beard at all?) I don't think Socrates himself would ask those question, but the koans seems to be in the same technique?
    – Ooker
    Feb 24, 2019 at 8:21
  • Nope, I don't see any connection. Entirely different point.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Feb 24, 2019 at 12:46
  • Is it because Socratic questioning is meant to solve problems, while koan is meant to realize the clinging on concepts? And thus it is not necessary to answer the koan?
    – Ooker
    Feb 24, 2019 at 16:58
  • I'm not allowed to answer this question.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Feb 24, 2019 at 22:00
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 8, 2019 at 12:16

This meta-topic mentioned the Pañha Sutta, which includes,

There are these four ways of answering questions. Which four? There are questions that should be answered categorically [straightforwardly yes, no, this, that]. There are questions that should be answered with an analytical (qualified) answer [defining or redefining the terms]. There are questions that should be answered with a counter-question. There are questions that should be put aside. These are the four ways of answering questions.

Many of the suttas show the Buddha asking "leading questions", e.g. (the first one which comes to mind is) the Kalama Sutta

"What do you think, Kalamas? When greed arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?"

"For harm, lord."

I think I found this line of questioning persuasive when I read it for the first time (though I wasn't always convinced by Socrates' for what that's worth). I'm not sure why the technique can be helpful, perhaps it lets the student experience working something out for themself.

As an aside, I wonder if the technique helps to bypass a student's resistance to dogma. If you made a claim like, "Greed is harmful!", then I might question that, "Oh yeah? Isn't that what makes people work for a living? Don't people say that's the best way to organise society?" Or saying "Greed is harmful!" would be saying that greed is always harmful (and I wonder whether that's true), whereas when the student answers they're admitting that it's generally harmful -- also the question supplies a little more context, e.g. that it's about what's "arising".

The example you quoted, from Wikipedia, isn't quite like that: that seems to be an example of questioning the student's thesis (or thinking), which assumes that the student has a thesis -- whereas the line of questioning in the Kalama sutta (for example, though iirc the "Socratic" dialog was similar) follows the Buddha's agenda and doctrine (unless the Kalamas' "They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt: Which of these venerable brahmans & contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?" is counted as a thesis).

The protagonist-who-asks-questions, and especially the story-which-ends-with-a-question, does seem of a feature of Zen stories -- of Nothing Exists for example ...

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

Desiring to show his attainment, he said: "The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realisation, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received."

Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

"If nothing exists," inquired Dokuon, "where did this anger come from?"

I think that one is (again) a question about doctrine, but this one is a bit practical too: i.e. "So there's some doctrine, more- or less-well learned ... can you practice it?"

When I learned Maths, for what it's worth, the lessons were half theory and half practice: the teacher would explain some theory or a new technique, and the second half of the class was student exercises in applying that technique to some problem.

I think that not all of the Zen stories are so obviously connected to a specific piece of of Dhamma (at least, that I recognise as such), e.g. there is some obvious "moral" to the story (or several orals) of Is That So? but the protagonist isn't so obviously asking a Dhamma question.

  • What do you mean by "Dhamma question"? A question about phenomenology? It's not really clear to me what you intend to say in this answer. It seems that you say Socratic questioning is to uncover assumed thesis, while the Buddhist questioning, as reflected in the Kalama sutta, is about teaching the doctrine? But the Socratic one is also has this purpose? I think the Kalamas say their thesis outright: "They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt"
    – Ooker
    Feb 24, 2019 at 8:08
  • What do you mean by "Dhamma question"? I meant, "A question about doctrine". Because e.g. "greed" and "is this harmful or beneficial?" are aspects of the doctrine in the suttas, and "emptiness" is Mahayana doctrine.
    – ChrisW
    Feb 24, 2019 at 8:41
  • I tried to say that the questioning in the Kalama sutta was a "leading question". IMO Socrates too asked "leading questions", but it has been a very long time since I read e.g. The Republic and The Symposium so perhaps I misremember that. Conversely the "Examples of Socratic questions" in the OP e.g., "Why do you say that?", assume that the student said something, so the questioning is about the student's thesis. The two Zen stories are a better example of that, though in the first the student's thesis is restating what he learned of ...
    – ChrisW
    Feb 24, 2019 at 8:52
  • ... Dharma, so maybe not exactly his own thesis. The second, Is That So? is more clearly questioning the townspeople's own positions, therefore IMO it's much closer to the example in the OP.
    – ChrisW
    Feb 24, 2019 at 8:54
  • I think the Kalamas say their thesis outright: "They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt" I don't know, that's almost the opposite of a thesis. I think a thesis is like "X is true!" and questioning is like "Are you sure? What about Y?". Whereas the Kalama sutta seems to open with "We have no idea!" and the questioning is like, "Oh come on, yes you have: what about X, surely you can take a position about that?"
    – ChrisW
    Feb 24, 2019 at 8:57

Yes it is the greatest fantasy by rationalists that a discussion among rationalists is the way to reach truth. They create the fantasy that things have ''definitions'' and that a ''thesis'' is defended by ''arguments''. When they see the sterility of their ''debate'', they try to salvage their fruitless method with the claim that, instead of having the goal as the opponent switching side, the goal is that the audience of the debate will choose the side presenting the truth. The usual problem for these people is that they still have zero method to distinguish between an ''argument'' and not an argument. Plus of course, the audience is supposedly drawn towards the side which speaks the truth, but the audience is just drawn towards pleasing ideas.

This is what rationalists do not understand: for them, the intellect is not like the 5 usual senses and they fail to see that what they call truth, validity, argument is just ''pleasing ideas''. And falsehood, fallacy are just displeasing ideas. They claim that when a few humans agree on something, something deep, transcendental and meaningful is happening, like truth is established, consensus is reached and peace is achieved.

Then those people try to talk about what they experience, trying to be down to earth, instead of speculating about their dreams and metaphysics, and they create even more appalling statements. Those people range from the old greeks, like the stoics, with their ''epokhē'', to the modern humanist rationalists trying to pass for professionals in phenomenology, who fall in love with dry vipassana because they see that as compatible with their ''intellectual minds'', to the philosophers who invented mahayana and vajrayana,

They go like :

''I am miserable because I judge, because I choose, because I think. Therefore, the way to be happy is to stop judging, to stop choosing, to stop thinking. The reality naked of judgement, of choice, of agency is nice and not harmful. it cannot be otherwise''.

this is a few of the meaningless words they invented to talk about their toxic fantasy that they try to pass as nibanna:

aperception, choiceless awareness, present moment awareness, non conceptual awreness, non judgemental awareness, centerless awareness, bare awareness, lack of doer, lack of witness, lack of agency, pure awareness (or knowingness)

And when they try to detail their dream they say;

''It means that sensations are just sensations, simply that, with no knower, doer, be-er (not beer, as that is a beverage), or self in them to be found at all.''

THis what the intellectual puthujjanas will never understand: the dhamma has nothing to do with judging or stopping the thoughts, or lack of choice.

The point of the dhamma is that people are unhappy:

  • not because they judge, but because they have the wrong notion of what is right and wrong
  • people do not know how to go from bad to right
  • people already think they are nice people
  • reality nude of judgement is indeed harmful, dukkha, not worth any consideration, craving, interest, passion. (for puthujjanas, reality is always one of the toxic aggregates or some conditioned stuff stemming from them)

When the philosophers babble about the dhamma to cram their toxic view about lack of doer, lack of agency and how nice reality is when people stop thinking with concepts, they always rely on the Bāhiya Sutta. they really really love that sutta, because it is the only sutta they can use to create their view.

Fortunately, there is another sutta which explains for puthujjanas what that means

"Then, Malunkyaputta, with regard to phenomena to be seen, heard, sensed, or cognized: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Malunkyaputta, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress."[2]

"I understand in detail, lord, the meaning of what the Blessed One has said in brief:

Seeing a form — mindfulness lapsed — attending to the theme of 'endearing,' impassioned in mind, one feels and remains fastened there. One's feelings, born of the form, grow numerous, Greed & annoyance injure one's mind. Thus amassing stress, one is said to be far from Unbinding.

Hearing a sound... Smelling an aroma... Tasting a flavor... Touching a tactile sensation...

Knowing an idea — mindfulness lapsed — attending to the theme of 'endearing,' impassioned in mind, one feels and remains fastened there. One's feelings, born of the idea, grow numerous, Greed & annoyance injure one's mind. Thus amassing stress, one is said to be far from Unbinding.

Not impassioned with forms — seeing a form with mindfulness firm — dispassioned in mind, one knows and doesn't remain fastened there. While one is seeing a form — and even experiencing feeling — it falls away and doesn't accumulate. Thus one fares mindfully. Thus not amassing stress, one is said to be in the presence of Unbinding.

Not impassioned with sounds... Not impassioned with aromas... Not impassioned with flavors... Not impassioned with tactile sensations...

Not impassioned with ideas — knowing an idea with mindfulness firm — dispassioned in mind, one knows and doesn't remain fastened there. While one is knowing an idea — and even experiencing feeling — it falls away and doesn't accumulate. Thus one fares mindfully. Thus not amassing stress, one is said to be in the presence of Unbinding.

"It's in this way, lord, that I understand in detail the meaning of what the Blessed One said in brief."

"Good, Malunkyaputta. Very good. It's good that you understand in detail this way the meaning of what I said in brief."

[The Buddha then repeats the verses.]

"It's in this way, Malunkyaputta, that the meaning of what I said in brief should be regarded in detail."


The philosophers despise this sutta because they cling to their view that they are already arahants with respect to the doctrine they invented, but when they compare what they experience with the other sutta, they see that they are not even at stream entry.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .