Coming back to the literature on the Theravada Dhamma, the Buddha seems to have followed four ways of treating questions: (1) Some should be answered directly, (2) others should be answered by way of analyzing them, (3) yet others should be answered by counter-questions, and (4) there are questions that should be put aside. As mentioned in the above section, depending on the audience he chose the method that he deemed was appropriate.
He always told his disciples that they should not waste time worrying about such questions on the universe, since they should be using the precious little time on the Earth in pursuit of Nibbana. So, questions on the characteristics of the universe was one that Buddha chose to put aside in REGULAR question and answer sessions. A good example is when a monk named Malunkayaputta came to the Buddha and asked a number of questions regarding the universe and stated that he will leave the order if the Buddha refuses to answer them. The Buddha’s following answer illustrates the urgency with which he asked the followers to “follow the path” diligently instead of wasting valuable time on metaphysical questions.
The Buddha told Malunkayaputta, “Suppose Malunkayaputta, a man is wounded by a poisoned arrow, and the friends and relatives bring him to a surgeon. Suppose the man should then say: “I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know who shot me; whether he is a Ksatriya or a Brahmana or a Vaisya or a Sudra (i.e., which caste); what his name and family may be; whether he is tall, short, or of medium stature; whether his complexion is black, brown, or golden; from which village, town, or city he comes. I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know the kind of bow with which I was shot; the kind of bowstring used; the type of arrow; what sort of feather was used on the arrow and with what kind of material the point of the arrow was made”. Malunkualputta, that man would die without knowing any of these things. Even so, Malunkulaputta, if anyone says: “I will not follow the holy life under the Blessed One until he answers these questions such as whether the universe is eternal or not, etc.” he would die with these questions unanswered by the Blessed One”.
We have to look at this from the perspective of the “knowledge base” that existed at the time of the Buddha. Think about the fact that starting with the Greek philosophers at the time of the Buddha (a coincidence), the Western science took over 2500 years to reach the current level of understanding of the universe. Even a mere two hundred years ago, the scientific understanding was limited to the Solar system and basically nothing beyond that. Now we know that there are billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars (most of which have planetary systems like our Solar system), and that all this started with the big bang. This transition was slow and took the genius and courage of people like Galileo who sometimes sacrificed their lives to bring out the truth.
Twenty five hundred years ago, there was no rational way that the Buddha could have “explained” concepts such as the origin of the universe, extent of the universe, etc. Therefore, even though he clearly stated the existence of “innumerable world systems” in order to lay down the basis of consciousness (see “Consciousness – A Dhamma Perspective“), he refused to discuss such concepts with individuals simply because it would have been a waste of time given the limited base knowledge existed at that time. If the Buddha was teaching his doctrine today, I believe that he would have answered such questions directly, because the vocabulary and background knowledge for doing so is available today.
However, Buddha’s perspectives on the universe is apparent in his teachings on Abhidamma (and also in some main Suttas). This is because the fundamental aspects of the universe (infinite in space and time) are inherent in the doctrine. Those principles are embedded in the teachings, but the Buddha avoided giving answers to specific questions, especially from individuals, because it would have totally confused those people.
Some people used examples as mentioned above to state that the Buddha refused to answer any questions related to the origin of the universe or that his position on the existence of a soul was not very clear. That is not the case at all. The Buddha’s main concern at any given instance was to provide an answer that the audience at hand was able to comprehend. If the correct answer would have befuddled the audience, he remained silent on that particular question. He has described the evolvement of life on this planet in the Agganna Sutta. But please do not read the published translated versions, because the translations are embarrassingly flawed.
Therefore, one should not come to certain conclusions by reading just a few discourses, and needs to pay attention in what context the discourse was delivered. It is always possible to refer to Abhidhamma to clarify issues, since it is written in a methodical way. So, the texts of the oldest Pali texts contain Buddha’s teachings in a variety of forms, ranging from simple interpretations of Dhamma to its very deep philosophical aspects in the Abhidhamma as well as some of the Suttas. Yet the contents in all this vast material remains self-consistent when one examines the contents with the correct perspective. We owe a deep gratitude to the Sangha of Sri Lanka for keeping this material intact.
Next, “Preservation of the Dhamma“