Sometimes no answer is the best answer

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

During his long career as a teacher who answered all kinds of questions put to him from his monastic as well as lay followers, the Buddha is known to have occasionally refused to answer certain questions. One of the best-known examples of the Buddha’s refusal to answer questions is recorded in the Culamalunkya Sutta, in which the Buddha refuses to answer ten questions put to him by the monk Malunkyaputta. Included among these ten questions are such questions as: whether the world is eternal or not eternal, whether the world is finite or infinite, whether the soul is the same as the body or the soul is one thing and the body another.

Why did the Buddha refuse to answer these questions? One reason for the Buddha’s refusal seems to be the speculative nature of these questions to which only speculative answers could be given. But a more important reason is that these questions are irrelevant to what the Buddha considered to be the imminent task for the people to find the solution to the question of suffering that permeates life: “Whether there is the view ‘the world is eternal’ or the view ‘the world is not eternal,’ there is birth, there is aging, there is death, there are sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair, the destruction of which I prescribe here and now.”1 Using the well-known simile of the man wounded by a poisoned arrow, the Buddha convinces Malunkyaputta that a question such as whether the world is eternal or not eternal “is unbeneficial, does not belong to the fundamentals of the spiritual life, does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.”2 And in the Mahasaropama Sutta, the Buddha employs another well-known simile of the heartwood to teach his monks that “it is this unshakable liberation of mind that is the goal of this spiritual life, its heartwood, and its end.”3

Included among the ten questions asked by Malunkyaputta, in addition to the ones mentioned above, is the question about life after death, which is couched in the form of a question as to what happens to a Tathagata after death. Needless to say, this is another question to which the Buddha refuses to provide an answer for the same reason he gave to other questions. The Buddha’s refusal to answer the question of life after death reminds us of Confucius, another sage in the tradition of Eastern thought, who also refused to answer such a speculative question. When asked by Chi-lu about death, Confucius replies: “You do not understand even life. How can you understand death?”4 While Confucius differs from the Buddha in that his primary concern was about the question of establishing social order, it is clear that he, too, refused to answer certain questions as speculative and unbeneficial.

The tradition of Western thought, especially that of science, has not been shy about asking all kinds of questions, some of which would no doubt be labeled as speculative and unbeneficial in the tradition of Eastern thought as represented by the Buddha and Confucius. Take, for example, the question of whether the world is eternal or not eternal, to which the Buddha refused to give an answer. Centuries of passionate endeavors by Western scientists to find an answer to this question have resulted in a remarkable answer known as the big-bang theory, which states that the world, or the universe, began at a finite past with the event called the “big-bang”.

As a scientific theory, it is an idea, or a model, about how the universe began, whose validity is still being debated among cosmologists today. But the problem with an answer such as a big-bang theory is that it raises further questions. Especially troublesome is the question of what the universe was like before the big bang, to which even scientists hesitate to answer. Thus, Stephen Hawking states: “If, as is the case, we know only what has happened since the big bang, we could not determine what happened beforehand. As far as we are concerned, events before the big bang can have no consequences, so they should not form part of a scientific model of the universe.”5

It is interesting to note that this statement by the physicist Hawking is almost in agreement with the words of Pope John Paul II: “Science cannot of itself solve this question (concerning the universe’s beginning): there is needed that human knowledge that rises above physics and astrophysics and which is called metaphysics; there is needed above all the knowledge that comes from God’s revelation.”6 We should perhaps say that Hawking the physicist is “almost” in agreement with Pope John Paul II because the last part of the Pope’s statement does mention the role of God the creator of the universe as he would as the head of the Catholic Church.

To the extent that there are certain questions to which no satisfactory answers can be given, we are reminded of an answer given by Shylock in Act IV of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “I am not bound to please thee with my answer.” Though given in a completely different context of a legal strife, we need to remind ourselves that sometimes no answer is the best answer, whether the question concerns mundane affairs or extramundane affairs. The refusal to answer certain questions does not deny the importance of seeking knowledge of the world around us, whether by direct experience or by scientific method. What is being denied is the possibility of finding satisfactory—and beneficial—answers to all the questions about ourselves and the universe, for the very act of asking questions is meaningful only in the context of cosmic evolution which has given us life on a tiny speck in the universe called Earth.

  1. Bhikkhu Boddhi, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005, p.232.
  2. Ibid., p.233.
  3. Ibid., p.237.
  4. Confucius, The Analects, London: Penguin Books, 1979, XI.12.
  5. Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time, New York: Bantam Books, 1988, p.46.
  6. Pope John Paul II, “Cosmology and Fundamental Physics”, October 1981.