Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera
the questioner himself was not in a position to understand the real
significance of the answer to his question and when the questions posed to
Him were wrong, the Buddha remained silent.
mention a few occasions when the Buddha remained silent to questions posed
to Him. Some scholars, owing to their misunderstanding of the Buddha's
silence, came to the hasty conclusion that the Buddha was unable to answer
to these questions. While it is true that on several occasions the Buddha
did not respond to these metaphysical and speculative questions, there are
reasons why the Buddha kept noble silence.
When the Buddha knew that
the questioner was not in a position to understand the answer to the
question because of its profundity, of if the questions themselves were
wrongly put in the first place, the Blessed One remained silent. Some of
the questions to which the Buddha remained silent are as following:
Is the universe eternal?
Is it not eternal?
Is the universe finite?
Is it infinite?
Is soul the same as the body?
Is the soul one thing and the body another?
Does the Tathagata exist after death?
Does He not exist after death?
Does He both (at the same time) exist and not exist after death?
Does He both (at the same time) neither exist nor not exist?
The Buddha who had truly
realized the nature of these issues observed noble silence. An ordinary
person who is still unenlightened might have a lot to say, but all of it
would be sheer conjecture based on his imagination.
silence regarding these questions is more meaningful than attempting to
deliver thousands of discourses on them. The paucity of our human
vocabulary which is built upon relative experiences cannot hope to convey
the depth and dimensions of Reality which a person has not himself
experienced through Insight. On several occasions, the Buddha had very
patiently explained that human language was too limited and could not
describe the Ultimate Truth. If the Ultimate Truth is absolute, then it
does not have any point of reference for worldlings with only mundane
experiences and relative understanding to fully comprehend it. When they
try to do so with their limited mental conception, they misunderstand the
Truth like the seven blind men and the elephant. The listener who had not
realized the Truth could not fathom the explanation given, just like a man
who was blind since birth will have no way of truly understanding the
color of the sky.
The Buddha did not attempt
to give answers to all the questions put to Him. He was under no
obligation to respond to meaningless questions which reflected gross
misunderstanding on the part of spiritual development. He was a practical
Teacher, full of compassion and wisdom. He always spoke to people fully
understanding their temperament, capability and capacity to comprehend.
When a person asked questions not with the intention to learn how to lead
a religious life but simply to create an opportunity for splitting hairs,
the Blessed One did not answer these questions. Questions were answered to
help a person towards self-realization, not as a way of showing His
According to the
Buddha, there are several ways of answering various types of questions.
The first type of question is one that requires a definite answer, such as
a 'yes' or 'no'. For example, the question, 'Are all conditioned things
impermanent?' is answered with a 'Yes'. The second type of question is one
requiring an analytical answer. Suppose someone says that Angulimala was a
murderer before he became an "Arahant". So is it possible for
all murderers to become Arahants? This question should be analyzed before
you can say 'Yes' or 'No'. Otherwise, it will not be answered correctly
and comprehensively. You need to analyse what conditions make it possible
for a murderer to become a saint within one lifetime.
The third type
of question is one where it is necessary to ask a counter question to help
the questioner to think through. If you ask, "Why is it wrong to kill
other living beings?' the counter question is, 'How does it feel when
others try to kill you?' The fourth kind of question is one that should be
dropped. It means that you should not answer it. These are the questions
which are speculative in nature, and any answer to such questions will
only create ore confusion. An example of such a question is, 'Does the
universe have a beginning or not?' People can discuss such questions for
years without coming to a conclusion. They can only answer such questions
based on their imagination, not on real understanding.
which the Buddha gave have close parallels to the kind responses which are
given in nuclear science. According to Robert Oppenheimer, 'If we ask, for
instance, whether the position of the electron remains the same, we must
say 'no'; if we ask whether it is in motion, we must say 'no'. The Buddha
has given such answers when interrogated as to the conditions of a man's
self after his death; but they are not familiar answers in accordance with
the tradition of seventeenth and eighteenth century science.'
It is important to note
however that the Buddha did give answers to some of these questions to His
most intellectually developed disciples after the questioner had left. And
in many cases, His explanations are contained in other discourses which
show us, who live in an age of greater scientific knowledge, why these
questions were not answered by the Buddha just to satisfy the inquisitive
minds of the questioners.
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