Misconceptions on the Topics the Buddha “Refused to Answer”

Revised January 25, 2019

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

1. Is the world eternal?
2. Is the world finite?
3. Is the self identical with 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 say there is a “self” or there is “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 a number of questions regarding the universe and stated that he will 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 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”.

4. However, there are other suttā that 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) 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.

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 in sharp contrast to the current scientific understanding. For example,in the beginning, Earth was exclusively populated by humans who had very fine bodies. 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 his version will be proven to be correct with further scientific discoveries; 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), 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.
  • But the Buddha knew all about the universe as well as how the mind works, 2500 years ago!

8. Buddha has explained that both theories of a “self” and of “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 Abhidamma (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 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. The Tipitaka contains Buddha’s teachings in a variety of forms, ranging from simple interpretations of Dhamma in some simple suttā to very deep philosophical aspects in the Abhidhamma as well as in some deep suttā.
  • 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 Saṅgha of Sri Lanka for keeping this material intact.

Next, “Preservation of the Dhamma

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