You are on page 1of 9

The Buddhas Unanswerable Questions

By
Sthiramati (sthiramati@gmail.com)
August, 2012

Introduction
The Buddha considered the truth of several propositions to be indeterminate. He
therefore considered the establishing the truth or falsehood of these propositions as
unnecessary, distracting, and unfruitful. These propositions (ten in number) concern the
nature of the universe, the individual soul, and the enlightened being.
There are several places in the Tipitaka where these propositions are listed; however
there are two suttas who exclusively deal with these propositions Camlukya Suttam
(Majjhima Nikya 63), and Aggivaccha Suttam (Majjhima Nikya 72). Excerpts from
these two suttas will be used to explain the Buddhas teaching on these matters.
Excerpt from the Camlyukya Suttam ()
This sutta is a dialogue between Mlukyaputta (also referred to as Mlunkyaputta) and
the Buddha. Once, Mlukyaputta was greatly troubled by the fact that there were several
topics that have not been explained by the Buddha. He then resolved that either he would
get the Buddha to explain these topics, or, failing which, he would give up the life of a
recluse and return to worldly life. What follows is an interesting dialogue between
Mlukyaputta and the Buddha in which the Buddha uses the famous parable of the man
stricken by an arrow. For the gist of this parable, see:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_arrow
Here is the concluding part of the Camlukya Suttam:
, , ;
Therefore (), Mlukyaputta (), understand () that what has been
unexplained () to be unexplained ( ) and () what has been explained
() as explained ().
Notes:
Sanskrit
Sanskrit

++

(from

, , ?

) = explained

to hold) = hold in your mind; understand properly

What then (), Mlukyaputta (), has not been explained () by me


()?

, ;
This world is eternal ( ), Mlukyaputta (), has not been explained
() by me ()
This world is not eternal ( ), Mlukyaputta (), has not been
explained () by me ()
Note: Sanskrit = eternal
;

This world is finite ( ), Mlukyaputta (), has not been explained


() by me ()
This world is infinite ( ), Mlukyaputta (), has not been
explained () by me ()
;

The soul () is [the same] as the body ( ), Mlukyaputta (), has not
been explained () by me ()
The soul () is one () and the body ( ) is another () , Mlukyaputta
(), has not been explained () by me ()

Note: = life or soul; Sanskrit = another, different


; ;
;

The Tathgata ( ) exists ( ) after death (), Mlukyaputta (),


has not been explained () by me ()
The Tathgata ( ) does not exist ( ) after death (), Mlukyaputta
(), has not been explained () by me ()

The Tathgata ( ) both exists ( ) and () does not exist ( ) after death (
), Mlukyaputta (), has not been explained () by me ()
The Tathgata ( ) neither () exists ( ) nor () does not exist ( ) after
death (), Mlukyaputta (), has not been explained () by me
()
Note: Sanskrit = is, exists
, , ? , ,

Why then (), Mlukyaputta (), has this () been left unexplained
() by me ()? Because, Mlukyaputta (), this () is devoid of

meaning (), does not pertain to the spiritual life (), and is not
() conducive () to dispassion (), non-attachment (), cessation
( ), peace (), wisdom (), awakening ( ), and

enlightenment (). Therefore (), this () has not been explained () by


me ()
Notes:
Sanskrit = equipped with meaning
Sanskrit = pertaining to the beginning () of
spiritual life (). The Buddha used to word (Sanskrit ) to mean
spiritual life. The original meaning of the word was the life devoted () to the study
of the Veda (), hence student life. So a student was called . Since the student
was unmarried, the word eventually came to mean bachelor
Sanskrit = goes with, is conducive towards

Sanskrit = for dispassion ( = feeling, passion, emotion)


Sanskrit = for non-attachment ( = attachment)
Sanskrit = for cessation, stopping
Sanskrit = for peace

Sanskrit = for wisdom

Sanskrit = for awakening


Sanskrit = for enlightenment
, , ? , , ;
; ;

What then (), Mlukyaputta () has been explained () by me ()?

This ( ) is suffering (), is what has been explained () by me (); this ()


is the arising of suffering ( ), is what has been explained () by me ();
this () is the cessation of suffering ( ), is what has been explained ()
by me (); this () is the way to the ending of suffering ( ), is
what has been explained () by me ()
Note:
= the way () that goes () to the cessation ( ) of
suffering ()

, , ? , ,

Why then (), Mlukyaputta (), has this () been explained () by


me ()? Because, Mlukyaputta (), this indeed () is meaningful
(), pertains to the spiritual life (), and is conducive () to
dispassion (), non-attachment (), cessation ( ), peace (),
wisdom (), awakening ( ), and enlightenment (). Therefore
(), this () has been explained () by me ()

, , ;

Therefore (), Mlukyaputta (), understand () that what has been


unexplained () to be unexplained ( ) and () what has been explained
() as explained (). [Repetition of the first sentence]

Excerpts from the Aggivaccha Suttam ()


This sutta records the conversation between the Buddha and Vacchagotta. Vacchagotta
asks the Buddha whether he holds views such as This world is eternal this is the true
view and all other views are false the same set of views as those in the previous
section are mentioned. To each question the Buddha replies, Vaccha, I do not hold such
and such a view.
Then Vacchagotta asks him why he does not hold such views. Here is an excerpt:

Vacchagotta asks:
?
Gotama ( ), seeing ( ) what () danger (), then (), have all

these views ( ) not been thus () resorted to ( ) [by you]?


Notes:
Sanskrit respectful address, equivalent to Sir

Sanskrit = wretchedness, from , poor or wretched


Sanskrit = seeing completely

, plural of Sanskrit = that which has come into view, from


= view, speculation
, negative of = approached, resorted to
The Buddha replies:
, ,

,

Vaccha (), this view () that the world is eternal ( ) is indeed
( ) a thicket of speculations (), a wilderness of speculations ( ), a
confusion of speculations (), a vacillation of speculations (), a
fetter of speculations ( ), associated with sorrow (), with distress
(), with loss of energy (), with fever ( ), and is not () conducive
() to dispassion (), non-attachment (), cessation ( ), peace
(), wisdom (), awakening ( ), and enlightenment ().

Notes:
Sanskrit

= indeed, certainly

Sanskrit = thicket of views

Sanskrit ? (uncertain origin), translated as wilderness


Probably from the Sanskrit This word occurs five times in the

RigVeda and has been translated by Syaa as moving in all directions.


Here is means unsteady
Sanskrit = made highly unstable, from =
vibration
Sanskrit means joining together; however used in
the Pali texts in the sense of bond or fetter
Sanskrit , from : = injury, obstruction, distress
Sanskrit , from (approaching) + (tiredness)

Sanskrit , from = burning, pain, distress (in Telugu, means


thirst, because the throat is parched)
The second part of this sentence ( ) has already been explained in the
previous section.
This passage is repeated for each of the ten propositions, at the end of which the Buddha
says:
, ,
Therefore, Vaccha (), seeing the danger ( ), I ( ) have not
resorted to ( ) any of these views ( ).
Whereupon Vaccha asks:
?
In that case (), is there () any view ( ) at all of the revered Gotama (
)?
Note: Sanskrit = is; Sanskrit
To which the Buddha replies:

, ,
Vaccha, the Tathgata has abandoned all views. Literally: Vaccha (), all views
() of the Tathgata () have indeed ( ) been removed ().
Note: , from = away from, and = led
, , , , ; ,
, ; , , ;
, , ; , ,

Vaccha (), this has been seen (

) by the Tathagata (

) such is form

( ), such is the arising of form ( ), such is the cessation of form

( ); such is sensation (), such is the arising of sensation (

), such is the cessation of sensation ( ), such is cognition


(), such is the arising of cognition ( ), such is the cessation of
cognition ( ), such are the aggregates ( ), such is the arising
of aggregates ( ), such is the cessation of aggregates (

), such is consciousness (), such is the arising of consciousness (


), such is the cessation of consciousness ( ).
Notes:
Sanskrit

= arising together

Sanskrit
Sanskrit

= setting

= form

Sanskrit = sensation, feeling


Sanskrit

Sanskrit

= cognition
= aggregates

Sanskrit
= consciousness (though in Sanskrit, it means specialized
knowledge or intelligence)

Therefore (), I say that (

) that the Tathgata ( ), becomes liberated

( ) with the destruction (), non-attachment (), obstruction ( ),


abandonment (), rejection () and non-acquisition () of all opinions
(), all churning (), and all tendencies () towards feelings
of I and mine, and conceit ( ).
Notes:
from Sanskrit
from Sanskrit

= destruction
= abandonment

from Sanskrit

from Sanskrit

= releasing, relinquishing, rejection


= rejection;

= acquisition

Conclusion
As mentioned in the introduction, these questions pertain to three topics: the nature of the
universe, the nature of the soul, and the nature of the enlightened being
The nature of the world
The Buddha kept stressing on the fact that whether or not the universe is eternal or
infinite, the fact is that there is suffering. Furthermore the solution to suffering is
independent of the nature of the world. Questions about the nature of the universe are
best left for scientists to answer, and that is precisely the purpose of science.
Considerable progress has already been made pertaining to ascertaining the age of the
universe, the evolution of life on earth, and so on. The Buddha also expressly rejects the
idea that the universe was created by God (
).
The nature of the soul
The Buddha makes it clear that he does not believe that there is a soul that is different
from the body. He also rejects the idea that consciousness moves from one body to
another after death, since consciousness arises based on conditions. However, he does
believe in some form of continuity since he talks about his previous lives. For example,
while narrating his experiences before his enlightenment to the brhmaa Jnussoni in
the Bhayabherava sutta (Majjhima Nikya 4), he talks about how much effort he put in
during the period prior to his enlightenment and the various stages of meditation he went
through, during which he had a recollection of his own past lives.
The nature of the enlightened being
The nature of the enlightened being (the Tathgata) defies any kind of description or
classification. This is elaborated further as the discussion with Vaccha continues.