Misconceptions on the Topics the Buddha “Refused to Answer”

Revised January 25, 2019; March 26, 2021; re-written October 9, 2022

The “Unanswered Questions”

1. Some say that the Buddha refused to answer a set of questions; see “The unanswered questions.” According to that article and others, 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 Tathāgata (Buddha/Arahant) exist after death?

  • Buddha did provide answers to those questions. But the answers depend on what one understands by the words “loko” (the world) and “jīvaṁ” (life.)
Buddha’s Method of Answering Questions

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 had befuddled the audience, he remained silent on that 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 refused 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,” he would die with these questions unanswered by the Blessed One.”

4. However, other suttās provided the answers, or they 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. counter-questions should answer some others, and
  4. put aside some since they serve no purpose.
  • This is stated in the “Pañhabyākaraṇa Sutta (AN 4:42)“.
  • As mentioned in the above section, depending on the audience, he chose the method that he deemed appropriate.
Answers According to Mundane Meanings 

6. Nowadays, the words “loko” and “jīvaṁ” are taken as “the world out there/cosmos” and “self,” as Wikipedia article of #1 indicates. Here, the short answers are: Yes; No; It is not correct to say there is a “self” or “no-self”; No.

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 in “Buddhism and Evolution – Aggañña Sutta (DN 27)“.

  • As you can see in that post, the Buddha’s version sharply contrasts 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 scientific theories. 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 two hundred years ago, the scientific understanding was limited to the Solar system and 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 slow transition 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 worked 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 to those 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. The 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 confused those people.
Answers According to “Buddhist Meanings” 

10. In most cases, by “loko” (and also “sabba” or “all,”) the Buddha meant “one’s world” and NOT the conventional meaning that scientists use for the “world out there” with innumerable stars and planets. 

  • One’s world is the five aggregates. That is all each “person” has ever experienced. But there is no “person” that “travels the rebirth process.” Each existence arises depending on causes and conditions (Paṭicca Samuppāda.)
  • The Buddha has given clear answers based on the above in “Sassatadiṭṭhi Sutta (SN 24.9)” and “Asassatadiṭṭhi Sutta (SN 24.10).” The Buddha describes the five aggregates (rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, viññāṇa) as the “loka.” 
  • The first position (“loka” is eternal) is sassata diṭṭhi and the second position is uccheda diṭṭhi.
  • Note: The translator (of the English versions in the links) incorrectly translated “loko” as “cosmos,” the mundane meaning we discussed earlier. Also, he has truncated the five aggregates in the second sutta and the following suttas. The complete versions are there in the Buddha Jayanthi Tipiṭaka Edition.

11. The following two suttas address the issue of whether “loka” is infinite or not: “Antavā Sutta (SN 24.11)” and “Anantavā Sutta (SN 24.12).”

  • The two suttas following that “Taṁjīvaṁtaṁsarīraṁ Sutta (SN 24.13)” and “Aññaṁjīvaṁaññaṁsarīraṁ Sutta (SN 24.14)” state that it is not correct to say either life (jīva) is the same as the body (sarīra) or not.
  • Here, those with uccheda diṭṭhi believe that life (jīva) is associated with the physical body (sarīra) in this life. When the body dies, that is the end of jīva.
  • Those with sassata diṭṭhi refer to jīva as a “lifestream that continues without end” because it has a permanent entity (ātman) associated with it.  

12. There are four more suttas, “Hotitathāgato Sutta (SN 24.15)” through “Nevahotinanahotitathāgato Sutta (SN 24.18)” stating that it is not correct to take those positions on the “status of a Buddha/Arahant” after Parinibbāna. That is because we cannot express anything about Nibbāna in the terminology of “this world.”

  • Mahayanists believe that Buddha/Arahants still exist in this world of 31 realms. That is the wrong view of the first sutta in the four suttas.
  • The other three wrong views arise because of not understanding the following fact. Once attaining Parinibbāna, the “status” of Buddha/Arahants cannot be expressed with the vocabulary of “this world of 31 realms.” We can only say that Buddha/Arahants will not be reborn in this world.

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