“O Deep Thought computer,” he said, “the task we have designed you to perform is this. We want you to tell us…” he paused, “the Answer!”
“The Answer?” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to what?”
“Life!” urged Fook.
“The Universe!” said Lunkwill.
“Everything!” they said in chorus.
Deep Thought paused for a moment’s reflection.
“Tricky,” he said finally.
“But can you do it?”
Again, a significant pause.
“Yes,” said Deep Thought, “I can do it.”
“There is an answer?” said Fook with breathless excitement.
“A simple answer?” added Lunkwill.
“Yes,” said Deep Thought. “Life, the Universe, and Everything. There is an answer. But,” he added, “I’ll have to think about it.”
– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
And so, as the story goes, Deep Thought thought about it. For seven and a half million years, he thought about it, until finally he delivered his answer — The Answer: 42. His audience was less than satisfied. He went on to point out that things would make a lot more sense if they knew The Question to which 42 was The Answer. The audience was, still, largely unsatisfied.
An answer without a question is perhaps — especially in this instance — even more frustrating than a question without an answer. Yet Zen masters know the importance of frustrating their students with questions that cannot be answered. The purpose is not to find an answer — to spit information into one side of the formula and receive an answer out the other — but to provoke deeper thought about questions, answers, life, the universe, and everything. The purpose is not to memorize questions, answers, and formulae, but to cultivate a fertile mind where new questions can be asked, new answers found, and new formulae, techniques, ideas, and creations can bloom.
Perhaps, then, Deep Thought knew that an answer without a question could, in many ways, be more important than an answer to an obvious question. Or perhaps not, and we simply never got to learn The Question. Nevertheless, to expect the entirety of Life, the Universe, and Everything to boil down to a single question and a single answer that provide instant enlightenment is like shaping soil into the shape of a tree around an acorn and calling it an oak, or like seeing our first painting and expecting to immediately know how to paint. Memorizing information can only teach us so much, but understanding life, the universe, and everything lies down a deeper path. As Zen Master Isan put it, “What I say belongs to my own understanding. How can that benefit your mind’s eye?”
Perhaps, then, what Deep Thought should have said is: “There is an answer. But…you’ll have to think about it.” Memorization and mechanical, formulaic methods can generate answers, but deeper thought is the seed from which all sorts of answers can grow, branching out into new territory as it is reached. Deep thought is the difference between knowing and understanding. It is the difference between memorizing a few words and learning how to read, opening up a library’s worth of knowledge. It is the difference between an unused collection of paint, brushes, and canvas and the time and effort taken to orchestrate and create works of art.
There are many paths to understanding, each important, and each unique to the one who wanders down it. Each path has its own winding way, its own obstacles, and even its own shortcuts. Some obstacles may appear as shortcuts, getting us lost in biases and illusions, while many shortcuts are hidden behind obstacles. Ultimately, though, we each must find our own way to wisdom and enlightenment. This, then, is the importance of deep thought: Of contemplation. Of wisdom over knowledge. Of ‘having to think about it.’
This blog, therein, is a blog about life, the universe, and everything, and the path that winds through all of these. This is the story of the acorn and of the oak tree and of the forest. This is the story of words and libraries, paint and paintings. This is the story of winding paths, getting lost, and finding shortcuts. This is the story of the beginning and the end, and how it all fits together. This is the story of the question and the answer. You have probably already begun down your path, and already understand perhaps even more than you realize. Other times, you may want to believe some of what you read before you understand it, but I caution against this, since that can be a dangerous path, indeed. At its core, though, this is not a blog to provide information, content to merely report on the world like so many others — although I will do my best on that front, as well, whenever this winding path overlaps it. Instead, most of all, this is a blog to provoke deep thought.