January 27, 2011
The Buddha was known for occasionally frustrating his questioners with silence, which led to accusations of his ignorance about the topic being pursued. But to think this is to mistake the Buddha's intention. From Skill in Questions (the chapter is Questions Put Aside: II):
When a person consistently puts a question aside as a matter of principle, it may arouse suspicion that he is ignorant of or embarrassed by the answer. To maintain the questioner’s respect and trust, he has to provide a convincing case that the lack of answer is not a failing on his part. If he is asked for information or an opinion, he has to show why the question is not worth answering. If he is presenting a system of thought based on first principles, he has to show why his refusal to answer the question is not simply an attempt to mask a gap or inconsistency in the system.
As we have seen, the Buddha was not attempting to build a system of thought, so he was not caught in the latter dilemma. The consistency in his teaching was teleological, in that all the issues he discussed were aimed at a single end. As he repeatedly stated, all he taught was stress [dukkha] and the end of stress [§192]. Thus he was free to put questions aside on the grounds that they did not lead to that end. And, as we shall see, this was his primary reason for putting a wide variety of questions aside.
However, there were still instances in which he was accused of betraying his ignorance by refusing to answer a question. To this accusation he and his disciples responded strongly that he was actually acting from knowledge and vision. Precisely because he knew and saw, he knew that the question was best not answered. But this knowledge too was teleological, framed primarily in terms of cause and effect. It focused either on the kammic effects, present or future, of answering the question; or—in what amounts to the same thing—on the fact that the mental states giving rise to the question blocked the path to the end of stress.
For someone who had asked a question concerning action and its results, an answer framed in these terms might be immediately satisfying. But for a person who had asked a question about the existence or nature of such entities as the cosmos or the self, the Buddha’s claim to knowledge might still seem like a strategy of avoidance. This, however, is to miss the point. The Buddha wanted to focus attention on the kammic process of creating a perception of self or cosmos, for to view these processes as actions was to enter the path to the end of stress through the framework of the four noble truths. This, for him, was the most important knowledge one could have on these topics.
(We might note here that the principle of not answering questions directly or at all continued throughout Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in the Zen tradition, where words are considered inadequate to truly describe what Suzuki Roshi memorably called "things-as-it-is.")
In January, to accompany Thanissaro Bhikkhu's Tricycle Retreat The Ten Perfections, now in its fourth and final week, we'll be offering Skill in Questions for download.
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