Sunday, October 25, 2009




Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Hong Kong, 2009

Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Ever since the academic study of Buddhism began in the early 19th century, one question that has intrigued modern scholars is why the Buddha deemed it unnecessary to answer certain questions. Although the Buddha gave his own reasons for leaving these questions unanswered, modern scholars wanted to know what other reasons lay behind the Buddha’s “silence”. The main problem in deciphering the correct interpretation of the Buddha’s silence on some questions is due to the following reasons:

1. Many scholars failed to notice that the Pali Suttas presented, not one, but two separate lists of unanswered questions, one containing ten and the other, four.

2. The failure to take into consideration the commentarial gloss of the term ‘tathagata’ as it occurs in the list of unanswered questions.

3. The failure to give due consideration to the Buddhist teachings relating to the psychological genesis of ideologies, which has resulted in a number of totally unacceptable interpretations as to why the Buddha left some questions unanswered.

4. The attempt to understand the unanswered questions in the light of several speculative ideologies, when it is clearly stated in the teachings of the Buddha that all speculative views and ideological stances are due to “sakkaya-ditthi”, i.e. the insertion of the ego-centric perspective into the domain of perceptual experience.

The category of unanswered questions, as is well known, is closely connected with the Buddhist teaching relating to four kinds of questions. They are (1) A question that ought to be explained categorically (ekamsa- vyakaraniya), (2) A question that ought to be explained analytically (vibhajja-vyakaraniya), (3) A question that needs to be explained with a counter-question (patipuccha vyakaraniya) and (4) A question that ought to be set aside (thapaniya).

Both Pali and Sanskrit sources agree in listing the unanswered (avyakata) questions as examples of this category. These questions are to be set aside (sthapaniya) because there is no objective entity corresponding to the word “living being” (sattva) and therefore to predicate something of something that really does not exist is meaningless.

Existence of unanswered questions from Cula-Malunkyaputta Sutta and Aggivacchagotta Sutta of the Majjhimanikaya and Avyakata Samyutta of the Samyuttanikaya
There are altogether fourteen such questions, made into two lists, the longer list containing ten while the shorter list containing only four. The longer list occurs in a number of early Buddhist discourses, the main reference being the Cula-Malunkyaputta Sutta of the Majjhimanikaya. The ten questions listed are:

1. Sassato loko ti (Is the world eternal)
2. Asassato loko ti (Is the world not eternal)
3. Antava loko ti (Is the world finite)
4. Anantava loko ti (Is the world infinite)
5. Tam jivam tam sariran ti (Is the soul the same as the body)
6. Annam jivam annam sariran ti (Is the soul different from the body)
7. Hoti tathagato param marana ti (Does the tathagata exist after death)
8. Na hoti tathagato param marana ti (Does the tathagata not exist after death)
9. Hoti ca na hoti ca tathagato param maran ti (Does the tathagata both exist and non-exist after death)
10.Neva hoti na na hoti tathagato parammarana ti (Does the tathagata neither exist nor non-exist after death).

The four questions of the shorter list are:
1. Hoti tathagato parammarana ti (Does the tathagata exist after death?)
2. Na hoti tathagato parammarana ti (Does the tathagata non-exist after death?)
3. Hoti ca na hoti ca tathagato parammarana ti (Does the tathagata both exist and non-exist after death?)
4. Neva hoti na na hoti tathagato parammarana ti (Does the tathagata neither exist nor non-exist after death?)

It will be readily noticed that the four questions in this shorter list are identical in wording with the last four questions in the longer list. This is perhaps the main reason that prevents us from noticing that there are two lists of unanswered questions mentioned in the Pali Suttas. However, the Pali Suttas never make a confusion of these two lists. They are always presented as two different lists: in the longer list the term tathagata always means the living being (satta) or as a separate self-entity (atta); whereas in the shorter list the term in question always means the one who has realized the truth and attained the final goal of Nibbana. However, according to the Pali commentaries in both lists the term tathagata occurs in the sense of a living being (satta) or as a separate self–entity (atta).
The Probable Reasons Why These Questions Were Left Aside Unanswered
We need to know why Buddhism deems it unnecessary to answer the questions contained in the two lists. In this connection there are three points that we should take into consideration. The first point refers to the fact that the fourteen questions in the two lists are never presented in the Buddhist texts as unanswerable (“avyakaraniya”) questions. On the contrary, they are questions that have been left unanswered (avyakata). To call them unanswerable amounts to declare that they are perfectly legitimate questions but that any answer to them transcends the limits of knowledge.

The second point is that, if these questions have been declared unanswered or undetermined, this does not mean that they have been rejected as false. To reject them as false is certainly to answer them and not to leave them unanswered. In this connection the commentary to the Anguttaranikaya says that “unanswered” (avyakata) means that which has not been answered categorically, or analytically, or by raising a counter-question.

The Third point that we need to keep in mind here is that it is not correct to say that the Buddha was silent on these questions. On the contrary, he very much responded to them. Although he did not give a categorical answer to any of the questions, but he stated the reasons for his not determining these questions as true or false.

Examination of the ten unanswered questions of the longer list
We need to note here that the first list of ten questions was there before the rise of Buddhism. These ten questions had been a subject of much controversy among the many religious and philosophical circles at the time of the rise of Buddhism. It will be noticed that the first four questions in the longer list concern the nature of the world or the universe that we inhabit. They relate to the problem whether it is finite or infinite in terms of time (sassato, asassato) and space (antava, anantava).

The next two questions deal with the relationship between the soul and the physical body. The first represents ucchedavada, the belief in a physical self which is temporary because it comes to annihilation at death. The second represents the belief in a self which is metaphysical and permanent (sassatavada) and which thus survives the break-up of the body at the time of death. The last four questions in the first list relate to the post-mortem existence of “tathagata”. As mentioned in the Pali commentaties, the term “tathagata” as it occurs in this particular context means the living being (satta) in the sense of a separate self-entity (satto tathagato ti adhippeto), or the soul (tathagato ti atta).
The word “tathagata” in this longer list, does not refer to the person who has attained Nibbana, though most of the modern scholars who wrote on the subject did not seem to have noticed the commentarial gloss of this term.

The Doctrine of Dependent Origination is an explanation in terms of causality, the origination and cessation of suffering. Hence all Buddhist teachings, whether they relate to the nature of actuality, the nature of knowledge, theory and practice of the moral life, are all related to the problem of suffering and its cessation.

Parable of the Poisoned Arrow
It is against this background that we need to understand why Buddhism has set aside (thapita) certain questions as undetermined (avyakata). Nothing illustrates this situation better than the parable of the poisoned arrow (sallupama). When the monk Malunkyaputta wanted to know from the Buddha the answers to these ten questions, the Buddha told him that these questions are “undetermined, set aside, and rejected” by the Blessed One. The answers to these questions are not relevant to understanding the fact of suffering and its elimination. It is as irrelevant as the need to know the name of the person who shot the arrow in order to remove it from the body.
But here we should keep in mind that the parable of the poisoned arrow seems to imply indirectly that questions regarding who shot the arrow, etc. can in principle be answered though they are irrelevant for the purpose of a cure.

Parable of the Simsapa Leaves
Some scholars believed that the Buddha knew the answers to all these questions, but as they were irrelevant for gaining spiritual knowledge or salvation, he had left them aside. The parable of the Simsapa leaves appear to support this conclusion. The parable of the Simsapa leaves states that what the Buddha knew but did not preach was comparable to the leaves on the trees of the Simsapa forest, while what he taught was as little as the leaves on his hand. But in reality, we cannot get too much clarity in the parable of the arrow and also the parable of the Simsapa leaves does not necessarily imply that the ten questions were meaningful.

Four different views of the modern scholars as to why the Buddha left certain questions unanswered
According to the first view, the Buddha did not know the answers to them (Skepticism, Naïve Agnosticism). According to the second view, the Buddha knew the answers, but deliberately left those unanswered because they were not relevant to Buddhism as a religion (Pragmatism). According to the third view, the questions go beyond the limits of knowledge (Rational Agnosticism). According to the fourth only the first four questions go beyond limits of knowledge (Rational Agnosticism) whereas the other six are logically meaningless (Logical Positivism).

Critical analysis of the four views given by the modern scholars
The Buddhist attitude towards the personality view (attavada) and partial truths (pacceka sacca) can explain this reason very clearly from the concept of Buddhist Psychology of Ideologies.

(a) The Buddha is free from Personality View (Attavada)
From the Buddhist perspective, all the ten questions in the longer list are a product of the personality view. They range from the four primary elements of matter to such abstract categories as diversity and unity, the idea of totality and Nibbana as the supreme goal. Thus as long as what is referred to as personality view (sakkaya-ditthi) persists, so long will our pronouncements on the nature of reality be conditioned by the egocentric perspective. The Buddha does not answer the ten undetermined questions it is because the Buddha is free from the personality view. What this clearly implies is that once the ego-notion is eliminated, the very validity of raising such questions gets eliminated. In other words, in the context of the Buddhist teaching relating to the nature of reality, they become meaningless questions.

(b) Concept of Pacceka-Saccas
The commentarial explanation of pacceka-sacca does not justify them either as partial truths or as individual truths. The analogy of the elephant and the blind men, as the commentary says, is to illustrate how what is called sakkaya, i.e. the group of the five aggregates of grasping (panca upadanakkhandha) becomes a basis for many kinds of misinterpretations. Just as each blind man touches one part of the elephant and mistakenly believes that to be the shape of the elephant; even so each party mistakenly takes one of the five aggregates, such as, material form, or feelings as the self and attributes to it such characteristics as eternity or non-eternity. We need to remember that according to Buddhism, all assertions on the absolute reality of the self as well as all denials on the absolute non-reality of the self are all traceable to the five aggregates of grasping; they are all based on a misinterpretation of their true nature.

The List of Four Undetermined Questions in Shorter List
The four questions of the shorter list refer to the post-mortem status of the “Tathagata”, where the term means the liberated saint and not the soul or the self-entity as when it occurs in the longer list. What happens to the liberated saint after death is a question to which other religious teachers, too, had to provide answers, because each religious system had its own notion of the perfect saint, described as uttama-purisa, parama-purisa, and paramappattipatta. One of the most important sources for our understanding the Buddhist response to this question is the Aggivacchagotta Sutta of the Majjhimanikaya. As recorded here Vaccha, the wandering ascetic, visits the Buddha and raises one by one the ten questions in the longer list. On being told why the Buddha does not explain them, he then raises the four questions relating to the post-mortem status of the liberated saint.

The term used here is not Tathagata but “the monk whose mind is liberated” (vimuttacitta-bhilkkhu). But it means the same as the Tathagata in the sense of the liberated saint. The four questions relate to whether he is born after death, or is not born, or is both born and non-born or is neither born nor non-born. Here “is born” is the same in intent as “exists”.

Fire Analogy in relation to the “Tathagata”
The Buddha’s response to the four alternative possibilities proposed by Vacchagotta is neither one of acceptance nor one of rejection but that none of the alternative possibilities “fits the case” (na upeti). The commentarial gloss of the term is “not proper”, or “does not apply” (na yujjati). One reason why Vaccha could not grasp the full significance of the Buddha’s reply was his being conditioned by a set of views and view-points totally at variance with the Buddha’s Dhamma. The above statement that none of the four alternatives fits the case has given rise to a widespread belief that the post–mortem status of the Tathagata is some kind of mystical absorption with an Absolute that transcends the four alternative possibilities proposed by Vaccha.

In other words, that the liberated saint enters, after death, into a transcendental realm that transcends all descriptions in terms of existence, non-existence, both existence and non-existence, or neither existence nor non existence. It has also been suggested that if the four questions were considered meaningless, this meaninglessness is partly due to the inadequacy of the concepts contained in them to refer to this state.

In summing up the correct position to Anuradha, the Buddha says that both formerly and now “it is just suffering and the cessation of suffering” that he proclaims. This statement could be considered as the final answer to the question why any predication on the post-mortem status of the liberated saint is not legitimate. From the Buddhist perspective, if anything arises it is only suffering, and if anything ceases it is also only suffering. And it is just suffering and its cessation that the Buddha proclaims. Therefore what is extinguished when Nibbana is won is only suffering. It is not the annihilation of an independently existing self-entity, i.e. the ego-illusion and all that it entails and implies.

Thus, at the end, it becomes evident that all the ten questions in the longer list as well as the four questions in the shorter list were all meaningless, because they were all based on a wrong approach to the nature of reality. In the context of Buddhist teachings none of the fourteen questions arise as valid questions. When we say meaningless this must be understood entirely from the Buddhist perspective, not from the perspective of any other religion or philosophy, modern or ancient, eastern or western.

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