Misconceptions on the Topics the Buddha “Refused to Answer”

Revised January 25, 2019; revised March 26, 2021

1. Some people say that the Buddha refused to answer a set of questions; see, “The unanswered questions.” According to that article, the four questions that the Buddha did not answer are:

1. Is the world eternal?
2. Is the world finite?
3. Is the “self” identical to the body?
4. Does the Tathagata (Buddha) exist after death?

  • Buddha did provide answers to those questions.
  • The short answers are: Yes; No; It is not correct to say there is a “self” or “no-self”; No.
  • I will discuss them below.

2. 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. There are some suttā with such accounts.

3.  A good example is when a monk named Malunkayaputta came to the Buddha and asked several questions regarding the universe and stated that he would leave the order if the Buddha refuses to answer them; see, “The Shorter Discourse to Mālunkyāputta (MN 63)“.

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 shot me; 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 arrow was”. 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.”

4. However, other suttā provided the answers directly, or the answers are inherent in the doctrine itself.

5. The Buddha seems to have followed four ways of treating questions:

(1) Should answer some directly,
(2) others should be answered by way of analyzing them,
(3) yet others should be answered by counter-questions, and
(4) Should put aside some since they serve no purpose.

6. Now, going back to the set of four “unanswered questions,” the answers to the first two questions are in several suttā, but mainly in the Aggañña Sutta (DN 27). An introduction to that sutta is at “Buddhism and Evolution – Aggañña Sutta (DN 27)“.

  • As you can see in that post, the Buddha’s version is sharp contrast to the current scientific understanding. For example, Earth was exclusively populated by humans who had subtle, invisible bodies in the beginning. This is the reverse of the currently adopted “theory of evolution” in science.
  • However, as pointed out in that post, Buddha’s version had survived previous theories of science. I have no doubts that  further scientific discoveries will confirm Buddha’s version; also see “Dhamma and Science – Introduction.”

7. Think about the fact that starting with the Greek philosophers at the time of the Buddha (a coincidence), 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.
  • But the Buddha knew all about the universe and how the mind works, 2500 years ago!

8. Buddha has explained that both theories of a “self” and “no-self” are wrong. That is discussed in detail in many suttā; see, for example, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream” and “Anattā – A Systematic Analysis.”

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.

9. Buddha’s perspectives on many issues ranging from the working of the mind in great detail and about many details on the universe are apparent in his teachings on Abhidhamma (and also in some main suttā, such as the Aggañña sutta). Fundamental aspects of the universe (infinite in space and time) are inherent in the doctrine.

  • For example, his teachings are based on cause and effect (principle of causality). There can be no effects without prior causes. This is the opposite of the “Creator model,” which requires a Creator of the world. Causality principle NECESSARILY requires that there can be no beginning!
  • 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.

10. Therefore, one should not come to certain conclusions by reading just a few discourses and needs to pay attention to sutta’s delivery context.

  • It is always possible to refer to Abhidhamma to clarify issues since it is written methodically. The Tipiṭaka contains Buddha’s teachings in various forms, ranging from simple interpretations of Dhamma in some simple suttā to profound philosophical aspects in the Abhidhamma and some deep suttā.
  • Yet, the contents in all this vast material remain self-consistent when examining the contents with the correct perspective. We owe deep gratitude to the Saṅgha of Sri Lanka for keeping this material intact.

Next, “Preservation of the Dhamma

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