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Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera
The Buddha's Silence
When the questioner himself was not in a position to understand the real significance of the answer to his question and when the questions posed to Him were wrong, the Buddha remained silent.
The scriptures mention a few occasions when the Buddha remained silent to questions posed to Him. Some scholars, owing to their misunderstanding of the Buddha's silence, came to the hasty conclusion that the Buddha was unable to answer to these questions. While it is true that on several occasions the Buddha did not respond to these metaphysical and speculative questions, there are reasons why the Buddha kept noble silence.
When the Buddha knew that the questioner was not in a position to understand the answer to the question because of its profundity, of if the questions themselves were wrongly put in the first place, the Blessed One remained silent. Some of the questions to which the Buddha remained silent are as following:
The Buddha who had truly realized the nature of these issues observed noble silence. An ordinary person who is still unenlightened might have a lot to say, but all of it would be sheer conjecture based on his imagination.
The Buddha's silence regarding these questions is more meaningful than attempting to deliver thousands of discourses on them. The paucity of our human vocabulary which is built upon relative experiences cannot hope to convey the depth and dimensions of Reality which a person has not himself experienced through Insight. On several occasions, the Buddha had very patiently explained that human language was too limited and could not describe the Ultimate Truth. If the Ultimate Truth is absolute, then it does not have any point of reference for worldlings with only mundane experiences and relative understanding to fully comprehend it. When they try to do so with their limited mental conception, they misunderstand the Truth like the seven blind men and the elephant. The listener who had not realized the Truth could not fathom the explanation given, just like a man who was blind since birth will have no way of truly understanding the color of the sky.
The Buddha did not attempt to give answers to all the questions put to Him. He was under no obligation to respond to meaningless questions which reflected gross misunderstanding on the part of spiritual development. He was a practical Teacher, full of compassion and wisdom. He always spoke to people fully understanding their temperament, capability and capacity to comprehend. When a person asked questions not with the intention to learn how to lead a religious life but simply to create an opportunity for splitting hairs, the Blessed One did not answer these questions. Questions were answered to help a person towards self-realization, not as a way of showing His towering wisdom.
According to the Buddha, there are several ways of answering various types of questions. The first type of question is one that requires a definite answer, such as a 'yes' or 'no'. For example, the question, 'Are all conditioned things impermanent?' is answered with a 'Yes'. The second type of question is one requiring an analytical answer. Suppose someone says that Angulimala was a murderer before he became an "Arahant". So is it possible for all murderers to become Arahants? This question should be analyzed before you can say 'Yes' or 'No'. Otherwise, it will not be answered correctly and comprehensively. You need to analyse what conditions make it possible for a murderer to become a saint within one lifetime.
The third type of question is one where it is necessary to ask a counter question to help the questioner to think through. If you ask, "Why is it wrong to kill other living beings?' the counter question is, 'How does it feel when others try to kill you?' The fourth kind of question is one that should be dropped. It means that you should not answer it. These are the questions which are speculative in nature, and any answer to such questions will only create ore confusion. An example of such a question is, 'Does the universe have a beginning or not?' People can discuss such questions for years without coming to a conclusion. They can only answer such questions based on their imagination, not on real understanding.
Some answers which the Buddha gave have close parallels to the kind responses which are given in nuclear science. According to Robert Oppenheimer, 'If we ask, for instance, whether the position of the electron remains the same, we must say 'no'; if we ask whether it is in motion, we must say 'no'. The Buddha has given such answers when interrogated as to the conditions of a man's self after his death; but they are not familiar answers in accordance with the tradition of seventeenth and eighteenth century science.'
It is important to note however that the Buddha did give answers to some of these questions to His most intellectually developed disciples after the questioner had left. And in many cases, His explanations are contained in other discourses which show us, who live in an age of greater scientific knowledge, why these questions were not answered by the Buddha just to satisfy the inquisitive minds of the questioners.
Source: Buddhist Study and Practice Group, http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Clubs/buddhism/
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