The Enigma of the Buddha’s Silence
“Silence of the Buddha” is far from being a new research topic in Buddhist studies and the literature accumulated so far is substantial.1 But in discussing this issue researchers were predominantly focusing on the well known case from the Cūḷamālunkya Sutta (M 63), where a monk asks the Buddha a series of ten questions, but doesn’t get the answer.2 Therefore, these questions were labeled avyākata, “unexplained” or “undeclared”.
“These speculative views have been undeclared by the Blessed One, set aside and rejected by him, namely: (1) ‘the world is eternal’ and (2) ‘the world is not eternal’; (3) ‘the world is finite’ and (4) ‘the world is infinite’; (5) ‘the soul is the same as the body’ and (6) ‘the soul is one thing and the body another’; and (7) ‘after death a Tathagata exists’ and (8) ‘after death a Tathagata does not exist’ and (9) ‘after death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist’ and (10) ‘after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist.’3
A lot of interpretative effort was invested in resolving the enigma why the Buddha remained silent, with ideas leading in different, often conflicting directions. Based on previous writings on the topic, T. W. Organ was the first to create a classification of possible solutions to the enigma of the Buddha’s silence and came up with six answers.4 The first one could be labeled as Conformity and assumes that the Buddha had nothing new to offer, as he accepted the current views of his age. This view was advocated by those authors who strongly believed Buddhism is a version of Brahmanism and therefore the Buddha’s teaching consists of just reformulated ideas contained already in the Vedas and the early Upanishads. Thus, Coomaraswamy writes, “the more profound our study, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish Buddhism from Brahmanism”.5
The next possibility, Unorthodoxy, is quite opposite. This means the Buddha rejected the current views and as they were implied in what he was asked to explain, his silence was a formal expression of that stance. Another option, we call it Agnosticism, is that being a kind of agnostic in this matter, the Buddha had no views of his own. This opens up another hotly debated question, the one of Teacher’s omniscience, particularly stressed in Mahayana schools. The fourth possibility, Exclusivism, is that while knowing answers for all speculative problems, he didn’t disclose them on the ground that his interlocutor is not yet mature enough to understand them. This has often been connected to a questionable idea that besides the teaching for ordinary people, the Buddha also taught esoteric one, for initiated only. Such a view could be challenged by several quotations from the Pali Canon, where the Buddha explicitly confirms he doesn’t hide any part of his teachings. The most telling among them is found at the end of the Mahāparinibbana Sutta (D 16). But, as it is known, many later Buddhist schools exploited this idea to explain their later appearance in the history of Buddhism and also to give credibility to their innovative teachings.
The fifth option formulated by Organ is that Gotama considered language as inadequate in two ways. The first is that questions itself were wrongly formulated, implying the existence of something that doesn’t exist in the supposed way. The language is also inadequate by its inability to express reality and thus not precise enough to formulate appropriate answers to the monk’s questions. This Transcendental position led the Buddha to the conclusion that the best answer would be to remain silent. And finally comes Pragmatism as the sixth possibility to explain the Buddha’s silence. It was simply used as a skillful mean, as after pondering on metaphysical questions of Mālunkyaputta, the Buddha considered answering them as a waste of time and energy. Debating metaphysical questions does not move us closer to the real goal of the Dhamma, liberation from the cycle of rebirth and suffering, even for an inch. This last, pragmatic hypothesis seems confirmed by the Buddha himself, as he, after his interlocutor left, explained to his personal attendant Ānanda:
“Why have I left that undeclared? Because it is unbeneficial, it does not belong to the fundamentals of the holy life, it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.6
After such an explicit answer, strengthened by a memorable simile with the man shot by an arrow, it seems odd that this episode, firstly, was named “silence of the Buddha” and, secondly, provoked such a diversity of interpretations. It does seem that questions were simply wrongly formulated and unlike in some other cases when he would reformulate a question before answering it, this time the Teacher for certain reason decided not to do what he was asked to.
Early Buddhist scholars spilled a great deal of ink discussing this question. Among aforementioned options, T.R.V. Murti clearly favored the Transcendental solution of the enigma, writing that “silence can only be interpreted as meaning the consciousness of the indescribable nature of the Unconditioned Reality.”7 Here he clearly follows a stance of his own teacher S. Radhakrishnan, who in his study about the Buddha writes: “If the Buddha declined to define the nature of the Absolute or if he contented himself with negative definitions, it is only to indicate that absolute being is above all determinations.”8 Whatever cannot be defined may be responded to only by silence.
A different, Pragmatic option was supported by R. Panikkar in his analysis of the Buddha’s relationship to the idea of the Absolute, He notices “holy indifference” on the part of the Buddha “not for things of little account, but for the thing that human beings – in the excess of their zeal – have always regarded as the most important, most transcendent in their lives”,9 and it is a question of God’s existence. As this is what the Buddha was actually asked about, Panikkar claims, he goes to the root of the problem not by direct denial of God, but by demonstrating “superfluity” of the very question, as the answer that would satisfy all unenlightened beings cannot quite be found. Further on, the Buddha’s silence is a sign of “vacuity” of any possible response, not so much “because the number of answers is roughly equal to that of the population of the earth, but essentially because the response is inevitably conditioned by the question… And then it will scarcely be the ultimate answer that is asked for and expected”.
Following Murti’s analysis, J. Hick employs an interesting division between various questions of the avyākata type into two groups of “unanswered” and “unanswerable”, indicating at the same time that to know the answer to those from both groups is not necessary or conducive to liberation. The first group:
consists of questions which are in themselves legitimate and admit of true answers. We do not definitively know those answers, although we can develop theories and dogmas about them. The first six ‘views’ listed, expressing pairs of positive and negative assertions – the eternity or non-eternity and spatial infinity or finitude of the universe, and mind-body identity or non-identity – are of this kind… Indeed it is possible that Gautama, after his enlightenment, did know the answers to these questions; at any rate later Buddhist writings speak of his omniscience. But it is still the case that, according to him, salvation/liberation does not depend upon such knowledge.10
Questions of “unanswerable” type are the remaining four, as well as those from the conversation with Vacchagota (M 72) inquiring about the state of a fully enlightened being, a Tathagata, beyond this life. After declaring them wrongly formulated, the Buddha tries to be more intelligible by using well known simile with the whereabouts of a flame after a fire is extinguished. “In which direction has the flame gone: east, west, north or south? None of the permitted answers applies. Likewise, what happens after the bodily death of a Tathagata cannot be expressed in our ordinary human categories… Here the translation of the avyākata as ‘the unanswerable questions’ seems more appropriate. It also seems proper to refer to their subject-matter as mysteries, realities that are beyond human comprehension and expression.” Hick thus comes again to the Transcendental category as an answer to the alleged mystery of the Buddha’s silence.
The whole of this discussion was turned into a completely different direction by A. Velez de Cea’s conclusion that the silence of the Buddha is actually non-existent:
Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as the silence of the Buddha regarding the undetermined questions. The undetermined questions are not inexpressible, unanswered or unanswerable. In fact, the Buddha answered them in very explicit ways and for more than one reason.11
The Buddha himself did not hold any of ten views and when asked about them, he simply used different ways among the four strategies of answering: directly, by analyzing and separating, by counter question and by setting the question aside. The reasons for this were, as we already saw, pragmatic, but Velez de Cea points out also to a cognitive and affective ones. The cognitive reasons are related to the Buddha’s insight into the process of dependent origination and elimination of ignorance, mainly regarding the true nature of the five aggregates and called “identity view” (sakkāyadiṭṭhi). By clearly seeing selflessness of the aggregates, the Buddha also uprooted the latent tendency to become attached to them. This Velez see as an affective reason for the Buddha’s answers to the undetermined questions. Further on, he stresses the novelty of his approach: “The distinction between these two kinds of reasons, cognitive and affective, does not appear in former interpretations of the silence of the Buddha” and discuss concrete examples illustrating both types of reasons. In conclusion, he discusses on one possibility to talk about the silence of the Buddha, and it is related to the limitation of the Teachings itself:
If by definition the Buddha limits himself to teach suffering and its cessation, then it is logical to expect silence about what happens after the cessation of that suffering. This silence, however, must be relative, for soteriological purposes, after the cessation of defilements at the moment of awakening, but it is absolute after the cessation of aggregates or nibbāna without remainder.12
Elaborating on Velez de Cea’s position, A. Tilakaratne in his Nirvana and Ineffability claims that “it is not altogether correct to say that the Buddha did not answer the avyakrta questions. Although he did not answer these and many other such questions in ‘yes’ and ‘no’ terms, he did answer them in a different manner.”13 He further compares the Buddha’s dialogues with Malunkyaputta (M 63) and Vacchagotta (M 72) and points out that in the second one the Buddha gives an answer, describing Vacchagotta’s standard ten questions as “speculative views”. When after that his interlocutor asks about after-death status of an arahant, the Buddha compares an arahant with the fire which extinguishes due to a lack of fuel. This shows, concludes Tilakaratne, “that the Buddha was not silent, nor is it the case that he refrained from answering these questions at all times.” The reason why he hadn’t answered to Malunkyaputta in the same fashion, speculates Tilakaratne, “may be understood depending on the context. It is possible that, before deciding on the type of the answer, the Buddha took into consideration the special circumstances under which such questions were put to him.” Another reason for not answering may be psychological, as “it is clear that the very questions are a result of an ‘un-arahant’ mentality” and a person attached to a whole spectrum of unfounded assumptions would not be able to understand the answer properly.
So far we were discussing a very limited material related to the silence of the Buddha, namely various ideas on why he remained silent when asked a set of metaphysical questions. However, as we will see, there is a number of other aspects of silence in Buddhism as well as in Christianity to be discussed. But before we look for textual examples of these aspects in both traditions, it would be helpful to review the very term of silence and see what typology of it could be devised and later applied to the material discussed.
1 E. g. Coomaraswamy (1943), Radhakrishnan (1946), Organ (1954), Murti (1955), Beckh (1958), Hick (1989), Pannikkar (1990), Tilakaratne (1993), Velez de Cea (2004), Karunadasa (2007).
2 These questions also appear at several other places in the Pali Canon, like Poṭṭhapāda sutta (D 9), Nivāpa Sutta (M 25), Aggivacchagotta Sutta (M 72), Rūpāññāṇa Sutta (S 33:1), Cinta Sutta (S 56.8), Kokanuda Sutta (A 10:96), Paṭhamanānātitthiya Sutta (Ud 54) etc. When it comes to the texts outside of the Pali Canon and preserved in Sanskrit or Chinese translations, ten questions turns into fourteen, as the first two pairs, related to the world which might be eternal and (spatially) infinite, are transformed into two tetralemas (catuṣkoṭi): A, not A, both A and not A, neither A nor not A.
3 Bodhi (1995), p. 533. Numbers inserted by me.
4 Organ (1954).
5 Coomaraswamy (1943), p. 45.
6 Bodhi (1995), p. 536.
7 Murti (1955), p. 48.
8 Rahakrishnan (1946), p. 59.
9 Panikkar (1990), p. 149.
10 Hick (1989), p. 345.
11 Velez (2004), p. 125.
12 Velez (2004), p. 139.
13 Tilakaratne (1993), p. 117.