The Buddha’s ‘Silence’ on the Questions of the Inexpressible

by Aik Theng Chong, The Buddhist Channel, Jan 3, 2011

Singapore -- The Blessed One, the Buddha, declared that certain questions based on abstract general reasoning (metaphysical) are unanswerable, they are termed the Inexpressible.

The Buddha likened those who asked such questions as not wise, as it is like a man who when struck by an arrow and before treatment, would like to know what sort of arrow struck him, where it come from, who aimed it etc. It is likely that he would be dead before he can get any satisfactory answers to his questions. The moral drawn is that such enquiries are unnecessary and can prove detrimental to a spiritual life.

There are four sets of questions with its accompanying alternatives that are usually stated, they are:

(1) Whether the world is eternal, or not, or both, or neither. (Its origin and duration)
(2) Whether the world is finite (in space), or infinite, or both, or neither. (Its end)
(3) Whether the soul is identical with the body or different from it.
(4) Whether the Lord Buddha exists after death, or does not, or both, or neither.

To hold that the world is eternal, or not, or to agree to any of the other propositions is to theorized, it does not conduces to detachment, tranquility, peace or knowledge and wisdom of Nirvana. ‘This is the danger I perceive in these views which make me discard them all,’ The Blessed One said.

The third question is not about the individual who is subject to birth and death, but about the ultimate essence and separate existence of the soul as a transcendental entity. The opposite theory denies the above by identifying the soul with the body.

On the question of the Lord Buddha existence after death, it is generally about the unconditioned. To say that the Blessed One existed after death is to equate him to the ultimate essence of the universe. He is in another term, the Dharmakaya, he is free from all measure and form. That form by which the Buddha is usually known is no longer present. Again, the opposite theory denies the existence of any such reality and confined the real to the empirical historical Buddha, i.e., what the sense experience only.

The Buddha was aware of the conflict in Reason on the above four sets of questions, as the conflict is not on the empirical level and so is not capable to be settle by appeal to facts. When Reason tries to go beyond phenomena to explain what is the ultimate ground, it gets involve in endless conflict. Speculative abstract general reasoning brings about not only difference but also opposition. When one theorist says ‘yes’ to a question, another one can come along and say ‘no’ to the same question. He thus declares the Inexpressible to be insoluble.

When asked by the wandering ascetic Vacchagotta whether he has any theory of his own, The Buddha replied that he is free from all theories and that he knows the nature of form, and how form arises and how form perishes. Therefore, the Blessed One has attained deliverance and is free from attachment. As far as all imaginings, or false notions, or anything pertaining to an Ego, it has perished in him.

Here, The Buddha takes a middle position, which is actually not a position, but one that supersedes both ends of the extreme views and rises above them and onto a higher plane. The Blessed One, unlike those who subscribe to speculative doctrines, knows what form and the other four aggregates of existence are; he percept their origin, their nature as pain and the way to suppress them, i.e., The Four Noble Truth. He does not theorize about them. Other form theories about them, but do not know their inner constitution. Instead of forming speculative doctrine about form and the other four aggregates, The Blessed One was analytically aware of them. To know and to experience it is to be free from the notion of ‘I’ and the ‘mine.’ To become aware of a theory as such is not putting forward another theory, but to be self-conscious of it.

It is freedom, freedom from speculative doctrines and attachment to them.