9

The review queue has already picked up a few answers as low quality, simply, I think, due to their brevity. It seems such answers go against the SE model, but at the same time they are an accepted pedagogical methodology in many types of Buddhist dissemination; should we allow them here or should they be discouraged?

Here's an example of the issue:

Question:

Every Buddhist believes in Eternity or Samsara. So, how can I imagine of Samsara?. What is the starting of it ? Any suggestions would be really appreciated.

Answer:

Samsara begins when subject and object separate from each other.

https://buddhism.stackexchange.com/a/85/18

Edit: Another example:

Question:

I have seen Zen monks in meditation, usually with one monk supervising. The monk supervising usually carries a wand of some sort. Every once in a while he would rest the wand on the shoulder of one of the monks and then respectfully hit his shoulder. It did not seem very forceful yet I found this confusing because to me it seemed as if it may be a method of harm or violence. I would like clarification on this practie.

Why does the supervising monk do this to the meditating monks?

Answer:

It's a remedy for sleepiness. Nothing special. It's a little pat on the back to keep you awake.

https://buddhism.stackexchange.com/a/96/18

  • I suggest you answer your own question with some sort of "yes, it's an accepted pedagogical methodology in many types of Buddhist dissemination". It'll help voters who would agree, and you're probably one of the best voicers of this position. – Nikana Reklawyks Jun 24 '14 at 21:47
  • Actually, I'm on the no side. – yuttadhammo Jun 24 '14 at 22:02
  • Ah, well, I misunderstood, sorry about that. My comment still stands, though (:p), even if you have less incentive. – Nikana Reklawyks Jun 25 '14 at 7:43
2

Summary

  • The accepted answer ("no") was written before the question was edited on June 20th: and refers to pithy, enigmatic or koan-like answers.
  • Ditto this answer from Andrei (in which he justifies sometimes giving cryptic answers of his own)
  • Ditto the answers from Crab Bucket and Wideshanks (these too were posted before the question was edited on June 20, and refer to Zen-like answers)

On June 20 the question was edited to reference a second example of a short answer (a second type of short answer).

Then the four other answers posted after June 20 say "yes" to even very short answers, provided that:

  • They answer the question
  • They're clear (not enigmatic)

Furthermore this topic When my answer is short, shall I post it as a comment instead? suggests that if there isn't much to say in an answer, even then we would prefer to see it as an answer than as a comment.

Aside from that they can be judged on a case-by-case basis (i.e. up- or down-voted depending on how well and how fully they answer the question, i.e. depending on how "useful" they are).

15

I would say that we discourage them in traditional SE fashion: While such answers may be good in a teaching setting, they aren't really appropriate for a Q&A site without further explanation.

  • 6
    Agreed. A koan or other enigmatic thing can serve as part of an answer, but it should be accompanied by further explanation or interpretation, either from the answerer him/herself or from primary/secondary sources the answerer would like to draw from. – senshin Jun 18 '14 at 21:02
  • I think that we could use the koan as a stepping stone for a bigger discussion. It seems to me we want to keep the spirit of koans, but we don't want to push people away because they don't "get it". Perhaps asking someone to think about the koan in a certain light or perspective, or even sharing their (the answerer's) perspective with the understanding that you're trying to open the door, not shove them through it. – QuestionMarcs Jun 19 '14 at 17:29
  • Explaining koans is like explaining jokes or puzzles. – Andrei Volkov Jun 19 '14 at 20:43
  • @senshin I don't think this topics was asking about koans. Although a "koan" may short, a "koan" and a "short answer" aren't necessarily the same thing at all. – ChrisW Jun 22 '15 at 13:45
  • @Hrafn when you say "we discourage them in traditional SE fashion", do you just mean "post a comment asking for more, and/or downvote it, if you don't think it's useful as it is?" – ChrisW Jun 22 '15 at 13:47
  • @ChrisW I think a clearer phrasing of what I meant would be "in the tradition of other SE sites, we discourage short answers." I wasn't really meaning to speak to "how" but rather indicating that we should just as other sites do. – Hrafn Jun 22 '15 at 16:40
9

I feel strongly we should not encourage these kind of short mysterious answers. We should aim to be an open Q & A site which is as helpful and clear as possible. I think that there is a real risk of answers being willfully obscure or just slipping into jargon which doesn't help the average punter. I will be interesting to see what kind of people the site attracts but I would imagine a significant proportion will be 'just curious' so clear answers as possibel would be best.

There is obviously a role for engima and baffling statements but i think that is in the context of particular Buddhist practice in a given tradition - but not he practice of having a decent Q & A site.

Just my two-penneths

7

Short, enigmatic answers might be the right thing in a teaching situation, where the teacher knows the student and his/her needs exactly. On a web site, for the general public, this is not the case, and we need more context.

The answer can still be short, but it should be clear, I think.

  • 1
    I'm not sure I agree. See here, for example: buddhism.stackexchange.com/a/96/18 It's short, clear, and yet SE still flags it as poor quality. I agree, because it doesn't really add much to the discussion or help the OP in any appreciable manner, IMO. – yuttadhammo Jun 20 '14 at 16:15
  • @yuttadhammo what do you mean "SE flags it as poor quality"? – Andrei Volkov Jun 20 '14 at 19:02
  • If you click on 'review' at the top, you'll see a list of issues, one of which is potential low quality posts. – yuttadhammo Jun 20 '14 at 19:37
  • 1
    @yuttadhammo: automatic detection of potential low quality only goes so far. Reviewers are the ones to discriminate between actual low quality and good quality short clear answers. – Nikana Reklawyks Jun 24 '14 at 21:39
  • Of course, understood, but it is a reminder that this is an expert exchange and answers are expected to have some level of comprehensiveness (i.e. quotes, citations, background, etc.) to them normally only found in longer answers. – yuttadhammo Jun 25 '14 at 10:27
4

yes

length != quality and causes tl;dr

  • 1
    Use comments to ask for clarification or details as necessary, otherwise allow the community to upvote / downvote answers . – Panther Jun 26 '14 at 21:01
  • 1
    Well, this is a good example of a short answer that still works, because you've provided an answer and given an argument to back it up. I'm not convinced by the argument, since saying not all long answers are good doesn't actually say anything about short answers. But, I think this makes clear that a short answer can be okay if it actually contains some sort of supporting argument. – yuttadhammo Jun 27 '14 at 11:58
  • Thank you for your consideration. I understand your primary concern is with developing a quality resource here and building the community. I am confident you are off to a good start and will be sucessful. – Panther Jun 27 '14 at 15:03
3

I very much understand the frustration of students receiving these cryptic answers, in fact I went through the same kind of pain when receiving similar answers from my teacher. I specifically remember wondering why would anybody who have achieved a clear realization of Buddha's teaching not explain it to students in a nice and clear manner. And here I am few years later, declining to elaborate on some of my answers.

Because the reason for me giving such cryptic answers is entirely rational, let me try and summarize it here.

There is a type of questions, that come from confusion about the concept one is asking about, from what I call incorrect frame or reference. Answering these directly is not helpful. E.g. the one that started this thread seems to come from a complete absence of understanding, which makes it pretty much invalid and irrelevant. The options we have for these are:

  • Close the answer as "not clear".
  • Answer with "your question is invalid and irrelevant".
  • Try to give them an outline of the area the question lies in. In this case, give a definition of Samsara, introduce the Six Worlds, mention transmigration -- in effect write an introductory article on Buddhism 101.
  • Answer the question directly. In this case, say 'According to Buddha (here is a quote) Samsara is beginningless, so it has no "starting" as you called it'. Like I said above, such answer hardly helps the questioner get anywhere. They need to start thinking about their mind here and now, not about speculative points like "if Samsara has no beginning where do I come from?"
  • Or, the option I chose, is to give an answer that is ultimately valid and points the questioner in the direction they should focus their inquiry on. In this case, it is an invitation to switch one's context from the objective timeline, to phenomenology of "I" and "world" (or subject and object), to research into relationship of mind and experience, which, when followed through, and augmented with practice of meditation, altruism, and non-attachment, will eventually lead the person to Right Understanding.

Here is another consideration:

Previously (on Buddhism Q&A site on Google+ during the last year or two), I used to answer such questions elaborately: explain what the question implies, point out why this is an invalid way to think about the subject, introduce a valid frame of reference, and outline the basic structure they should follow to arrive to an insight. Then I noticed, that people who tend to ask such "confused" questions, often do not appreciate a complete answer, because they are not ready for complete answer yet! Instead, all they are trying to do is "probe" their way around Dharma, and try to identify key concepts and relationships relevant to their Spiritual Quest.

A notable example is this question, where the questioner, after having received 4 elaborate answers said: "Thank you all for the considered and learned answers. I shall study the texts in question. However, I am a simple man. Is there a simple answer to my question?"

This led me to appreciate my teacher's attitude to questions: because much of Buddhism is "skillful means" (upaya) designed to aid one's spiritual transformation, rather than give a purely conceptual understanding, long explanations are irrelevant at best. At worst, they have a potential to rob the student of motivation to actively inquire and thus receive their own insights about their psyche, their world, and how the two relate. So giving a cryptic or simplistic hint may be the least evil, pointing them in the right direction without confusing them or robbing of their own path.

All this said, while writing this reply, I did get a few ideas about the way this particular question can be addressed, and edited my answer to make it more helpful to the poster and other readers. Thank you for your inspiration guys!

  • As far as I understand, this site is about providing factual information about Buddhism, not about converting people. If the questioner presupposed that Samsara has a starting point, we should answer that the question is based on an incorrect assumption. The answer "you should ask completely different questions" may make sense in a teacher-student interaction, but not on the site that aims at explaining what Buddhists practice and/or believe in. I don't get the example with anatta and rebirth, either. A simple, factual answer is that the former is just a conventional truth. – michau Oct 26 '15 at 16:22
  • You are right, which is why the way I answer questions has changed since Jun 2014 when this site started. – Andrei Volkov Oct 26 '15 at 16:30
  • OK, sorry for digging up an old answer. – michau Oct 26 '15 at 16:32
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I'd be inclined to accept that answer above if the poster could reference an answer from the Buddha which is equally as short, or reference an answer from another reasonably popular teacher.

A poster replying with an "inspired utterance" on his or her own accord kind of resembles Wikipedia's prohibition on original research: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:No_original_research

In other words, you can answer like a Zen master, but you have to cite your sources.

  • I disagree. How would we determine which sources are acceptable? Are Mahayana sutras authentic, or only Hinayana? Are works by 18-19 century Tibetan authors? How about 20th century? Contemporary authors, all of them? And what about my teacher, who lives in my town, is he authentic? Besides, restricting answers to those traceable to verifiable sources would rule out answers based on personal experience, and make this a site of theoretical Buddhology as opposed to practical Buddhism. – Andrei Volkov Jun 19 '14 at 20:35
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    I was talking only about the short enigmatic replies that make it look like the author hasn't put any effort into their answer. If they can cite a teaching somewhere to back up why they wrote such a small short reply (e.g. the Buddha's short sutta on how the mind is so quick to move there's nothing that's an appropriate analogy to describe it), then it would be acceptable. – Caleb Paul Jun 19 '14 at 20:39
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Hmm. The consensus seems to be that short answers are not good. However many of the questions seem to be phrased in ways that encourage brevity. I see many questions that ought to have yes/no answers for example.

Sometimes there is just no long answer. The one asked today, for example, on why the Buddha answered questions if asked three times. I've never come across any discussion of this in primary or secondary texts (either religious or scholarly). No one knows why. There are very many question to which the answer is "no one knows". Many cultural idioms are like linguistic idioms: there's no reason, it's just what they did. Padding out "no one knows" with speculations for the sake of a longer answer seems unproductive.

  • I think the consensus became confused by the question's being edited (to ask about a different type of answer) two days later. – ChrisW Sep 1 '15 at 19:14

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