- Posted August 16, 2013 by
The Buddha’s Silence
When the questioner was unable to understand the real meaning of the answer or when the questions posed to Him were wrong, the Buddha remained silent.
THE scriptures mention a few occasions when the Buddha remained silent to metaphysical and speculative questions posed to Him. Some scholars, owing to their misunderstanding of the Buddha’s silence, came to the wrong conclusion that the Buddha was unable to answer these questions. When the Buddha knew that the questioner was not in a position to understand the answer because of its profundity, or 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:
1. Is the universe eternal?
2. Is it not eternal?
3. Is the universe finite?
4. Is it infinite?
5. Is soul the same as the body?
6. Is the soul one thing and the body another?
7. Does the Tathagata exist after death?
8. Does He not exist after death?
9. Does He both (at the same time) exist and not exist after death?
10. Does He both (at the same time) neither exist nor nor exist?
The Buddha who had truly realised the nature of these issues observed noble silence. An ordinary person who is still unenlightened might have a lot to say, but all would be sheer conjecture based on his or her imagination.
The Buddha’s silence on these issues is more significant 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 experienced through Insight. On several occasions, the Buddha had very patiently explained that human language is too limited and cannot 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 capacities, they misunderstand the Truth like the seven blind men and the elephant. A listener who has not realized the Truth cannot fathom the explanation given, just like a man who was blind since birth will have no way of visualising the colour 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 the questioner and which in any case had no relevance to one’s 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-realisation, not as a way of showing His towering wisdom.
How to Answer Questions
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 requiringan analytical answer. Suppose someone says that Angulimala was a murderer before he became an ‘Arahant’ and is it possible for any murderer to become an arahant? This question should be analysed before you can say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Otherwise, it will not be answered correctly and comprehensively. You would 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 the problem 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 more 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.
Some answers which the Buddha gave have close parallels to the kind of responses found 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 the electron is at rest, 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 why these questions were not answered by the Buddha merely to satisfy the inquisitive but undeveloped minds of the questioners.