Silence of the Buddha

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What is often referred to as the silence of the Buddha has become almost proverbial and has been widely commented on by both academic and popular writers. Some have claimed that the Buddha remained silent when asked questions about ultimate reality because he wanted to avoid idle speculation, because he was agnostic or even because he did not know how to answer. Others have said that he was silent about God, because `the Divine is beyond words'. One writer says: `Buddhists misunderstood Buddha by taking His silence for negation. The silence of Buddha about God was misunderstood and Buddhists felt that Buddha indicated the absence of God through silence. When you have concluded that God does not exist at all, then, what is the object of your meditation? If you say that the self is the object, there is no benefit in taking interest about yourself since you are always interested in yourself.'

The respected Catholic thinker Raimon Panikkar wrote: `The ultimate reason for the Buddha's silence seems to me to be rooted neither in the inherent limitation of the human subject, nor in the imperfection of our cognition, nor in the mysterious, recondite nature of reality. Instead, it seems to me that the ultimate reason for the silence of the Buddha resides precisely in the fact that this ultimate reality is not.' These and numerous other interpretations give the impression that maintaining a `paradoxical' or `mystical' silence in response to questions was a major feature of the Buddha's teaching style and one of the main ways he communicated the truths he had realized. The reality is very different.

The Buddha was an advocate of silence, but not in response to questions, metaphysical or otherwise, but as an alternative to the idle chatter that often takes place in a social context (M.I,161). He also encouraged silence in the face of anger and provocation (S.I,162). Occasionally he would go into solitude for half a month during which time he probably didn't speak (S.V,12). One of the few original sources ever mentioned in discussions on the Buddha's supposed silence is his dialogue with the wandering ascetic Vacchagotta. This man asked the Buddha a series of questions - Is the universe finite, infinite, both or neither? Is the soul the same as the body? Is it different from the body? Does an enlightened person exist after death?...etc. To each of these questions the Buddha replied `I am not of that view Vaccha' (Na kho aham Vaccha evamditthi). Finally Vacchagotta asked the Buddha why he had no opinion on these matters and he replied because such questions and any answers that could be given to them are `just opinions, the grasping of opinions, the jungle of opinions, the wriggling of opinions ... They do not lead to giving up, turning away, dispassion, stopping, calming, higher knowledge, to awakening nor to Nirvana.' Far from responding to Vacchagotta's questions with silence the Buddha was vocal and articulate. He clearly explained that he has no opinion one way or another on the questions put to him and gave his reasons why; because trying to answer such questions would just distracts attention from the things that really matter (M.I,484-8). This dialogue is hardly an example of the Buddha being silent.

In fact, there is only two places in the Tipitaka where the Buddha declined to answer questions put to him. On another occasion Vacchagotta asked the Buddha: `Is there a self?' The Buddha was silent. Vacchagotta continued: `Then is there no self?' and again the Buddha did not respond. Perhaps annoyed or disappointment Vacchagotta got up and left. Then Ananda asked the Buddha why he met these questions with silenc. He replied: `If when asked if there is a self I had answered "yes" I would have been siding with those teachers who are eternalists. And if I had answered "no" I would have been siding with those teachers who are annihilationists. If I had answered "yes" would this have been consistent with the knowledge that everything is without self?' `No Lord' replied Ananda. `And if I had answered "no, there is no self" an already bewildered Vacchagotta would have been even more so and would have thought: "Before I had a self and now I don't have one." ' (S.IV,400). In this dialogue the Buddha clearly and simply explained why he remained silent; because he didn't want to be identified with any particular philosophical standpoints and because he did not want to further bewilder his inquirer. The only other example of the Buddha remaining silent when questioned is his encounter with Uttiya who asked whether everyone will eventually attain enlightenment. The Buddha remained silent and Ananda answered for him (A.V,194). No reason is given for the Buddha's silence in this case but it would seem that he considered the question irrivalent to the task at hand.

All the fanciful and speculative explanations about the Buddha's supposed silence are based on these two incidents. They have their origin in either a failure to examine original sources or more probably in a desire to co-opt the Buddha into the writers' particular beliefs, rather than in anything the Buddha ever said or chose not to say.