The Buddha’s Silence-and the Problem of Evil

As a helpful interlude between Part 1 and Part 2 of “Buddhism’s Practical Answer to the Problem of Evil,” I thought I’d share this short piece by Godwin Samararatne on the larger issue of why, how, and when the Buddha answered questions. It should help give a wider context for discussing the Buddha’s solution to the perplexing problem of suffering and evil.

The Buddha’s Silence

by Godwin Samararatne

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:

Is the universe eternal?

Is it not eternal?

Is the universe finite?

Is it infinite?

Is soul the same as the body?

Is the soul one thing and the body another?

Does the Tathágata [enlightened one] exist after death?

Does He not exist after death?

Does He both (at the same time) exist and not exist after death?

Does He both (at the same time) neither exist nor not exist?

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 analyze 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.

Godwin Samararatne and HH the Dalai Lama

From dhamma talks given by the late Godwin Samararatne, a much-loved Sri Lankin monk of the Theravadan tradition

See:

Buddhism’s Practical Answer to the Problem of Evil-Part 1

Buddhism’s Practical Answer to the Problem of Evil-Part 2

♥♥♥

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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

13 Responses to “The Buddha’s Silence-and the Problem of Evil”

  1. amazing, always impressed by how lord Buddha handled these hard things, when people ask hard questions, i badly want to know how all of these things happen and the ultimate truth behind it. unfortunately i don’t have enough merit.

  2. Excellent stuff with wonderful information about the topic “The Buddha’s Silence-and the Problem of Evil”! I’m new here and loving the post! Thanks for sharing this great info!

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  3. thanks Steven for this series. . .this one reminded me of a story i heard from someone observing Amma.

    ” I was there with Amma by her side during darshan. one foreigner asked me to translate his question to Amma. for the past 16 years this man has been coming to Amma. he asked: “my discrimination and self-will are propelled by the ego, not by the will of the self or Amma. how can i go deep in my sadhana?”
    he was standing behind me. Amma smiled at him, gave such a look above my shoulders. her eyes were glowing with light. she just kept looking askance at him. it was so beautiful.

    the man waited for a verbal answer. waited for a long time. but Amma didnt say anything. later after darshan he came to me and asked why didn’t Amma answer??
    how do i know? i shrugged my shoulder.

    i started pondering over why even though he was asking a purely spiritual question, Amma did not answer him. his question, about his quest or search for truth, is the same question all the sastras deal with: analyzing every object down to its source and separating the ego from the divine. what can the master say about the truth? the best way to convey the truth is silence… “mouna vyakhya prakatita para brahma tatvam …… sishyasthu chinna samasaya.” so goes the dakshina moorthi stotram. it means through eloquent silence the supreme principle of brahman is explained and the disciples are sitting without a trace of doubt.

    do we really need a verbal answer? yes, because we are not evolved… but Amma wants us to be.”

    • Thanks for sharing this. I looked rather deeply into Hinduism at one point in my life, so some of the terms and ideas were familiar with me….I recall that sastra is a teaching or rule, though in Buddhism, a “shastra” is usually a commentary on a sutra….

      I think “Amma” means “mother”…as I recall there were a number of beloved “Ammas” in Indian history….is this “Amma” you speak of Mata Amritanandamayi, the “hugging saint?” Or does this refer to any earlier “Amma”?

      Anyway, a dear story and teaching. The Zen Buddhists, of course, love the story of the original Zen “transmission” when the Buddha just held up a flower and only one of the students “got it” and smiled….

      Finally, I have known some real bogus gurus and teachers, who didn’t answer legit questions because they couldn’t, but pretended the Buddha’s Noble Silence….their presence taught nothing! 🙂 LOL!

      • Yes, Steven that would be her. . .for the past ten years i have been energetically working full time with her and two other male Gurus from India. . . Love the teachings of the Great Mother, but overall it is Zen and Taoist that resonate the strongest, but as time passes so much falls away into the One. . .A number of years ago i began to see the teachers within but did not know who they where or if they where from this world, but then i was shown they were of this world so i went to them. They truly have helped to navigate an unknown world that opened up and their guidance and grace has been immeasurable. . .

        Steven i think it is the dark angels that we learn some of the greatest lessons from, or at least it has been for me. . . ” and this too.”—” and that too.”
        They truly know how to hold the mirror up in the most distasteful and liberating way. . .They are the ones that pulled me back into that which is within. . .

        I too had one of those really good “teachers” before i began working with my present Gurus. . .:) Phew!

        Something i have wondered about Steven. . . why is it we always hear about ‘bad’ teachers but rarely hear about ‘bad’ devotees? I can definitely fall into the later category. . .

        • Dear Sparrow, sorry for the delay in responding your lovely reply.

          I’m so glad you’ve found teachers that you can work with and that you were led to what you needed next. The way of bhakti is a powerful path and the one that probably resonates most deeply with me.

          I think I understand what you mean by “dark angels” and yes, they can teach us a lot…. I know that I bring into my experience the very thing I need to learn about, and I suppose that this can sometimes take the form of a person or teacher who appears as as angel of light, but is a Lucifer, so to speak.

          But somehow, and I don’t know if I can put this into words, I think there’s a difference and a big divide between what comes to us from what’s unresolved within us, and is the result of our spiritual growth and struggles and that which comes only to feed on us and use us—the spiritual predator, so to speak.

          With these denizens, the price of what may be learned is way too high, and some dear souls never really recover in this life from encounters with false teachers that leave one violated in one’s innermost being…Jesus remark that “whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” doesn’t just apply to children, it applies to the “little ones” in all of us, our precious spiritual sense, the most precious thing we possess…if someone violates that in an innocent, then the karma is indeed hellish for the violator….

          As for your last query, I think we don’t hear about “bad” devotees because it is mankind’s wisdom and understanding that the spiritual teacher is supposed to be deeply moral and to embody what he or she claims to teach….students are, ipso facto, considered to be in need of the teacher’s teachings and example, and though they are expected to follow and live by the teachings, their frequent falls and disasters are par for the course by both society and the patient, compassionate teacher.

          This doesn’t mean teachers can’t sometimes vigorously and skillfully shake students up or point out moral lapses. Nor does difference of expectations between teachers and students let devotees off the hook as far as discipleship. There’s certainly plenty about that in most religious faiths…Jesus had lots to say about how his followers should live and act, and in the Vinaya Pitakaa of the Buddha there are all kinds of rules and regulations about behavior for monks, and even what could get one thrown out of a sangha….

          Finally, I’m glad you said you can fall into that category! 🙂 I see who you are, and whatever in you is a “work in progress”, the light is shining bright through it all.

          Sure, I can “miss the mark” too, but more and more I tend to think less in terms of “now I’m a good student (or devotee, in bhakti) and “now I’m a bad one.” I find that comes with too much baggage and it can also be lever for manipulation by a teacher (“You bad student! How could you disobey me? Don’t you love me?”)

          Sorry, but what a crock! That’s just acting out unresolved parental issues projected on the guru, who is more than willing to act out being the parent. LOL! We’ve all got enough “inner” parents and judges without having some outside one playing on our heartstrings. I also tell people to head for the hills if they run into that kind of emotional manipulation with a teacher or guru.

          Favoritism, “inner circles” of devotees, humiliation of a student in front of other students, emotional manipulation, personal claims on a students money and belongings, and of course, sexual abuse —all of these can be hidden behind a teacher using the “good devotee/bad devotee” stick on his or her students.

          Well, that ran a little long, didn’t it! It’s just that what you said and asked brought a lot to mind. Sorry if I rambled.

          As always, dear Sparrow, thanks for stopping by.

          Steve

  4. Jesus was awesome at avoiding stupid questions too. and I think he was better for it, as we can be. Silence such as this can only lead to good. I’ve been learning the art of non-resistance, the art of saying you’d like my shirt, take my tunic also.

  5. Truly this silence is a mark of great wisdom.

    • Hey Eli, Thanks for stopping by. I’m still learning that wisdom of silence. 🙂

      When I saw your remark, and thought of your ministry, I couldn’t help thinking of the times Jesus refused to say who he was and his thundering silence before the questions of Pilot and the questions of his cruel persecutors. “He opened not his mouth.”

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  1. Buddhism’s Practical Answer to the Problem of Evil – Part 1 | Metta Refuge - 2011/06/25

    […] The Buddha’s Silence-and the Problem of Evil […]

  2. Is this skillful?-The Most Important Question in Buddhist Practice « Metta Refuge - 2010/01/21

    […] The Buddha’s Silence-and the Problem of Evil […]

  3. Buddhism’s Practical Answer to the Problem of Evil-Part 2 « Metta Refuge - 2010/01/21

    […] also posted a short “interlude” called “The Buddha’s Silence-and the Problem of Evil” to give a broader context for understanding how, why, and when the Buddha answered or […]

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