Friday, March 07, 2008

Devotion to Buddhist Enlightenment?

One day, while the Buddha was meditating, a monk, Malunkyaputta, came to the Buddha to ask what might be called “eternal questions.” Among the questions the monk asked were: Is the cosmos eternal or not? What is the nature of the soul? What is the nature of the Buddha? The Buddha dismissed these questions as questions upon which he had not commented. Buddha then gave his reasons for his silence: "And why are they [the answers to your questions] undisclosed by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That's why they are undisclosed by me.” 1 Buddha also related a parable about a man who was struck by a poison arrow, and spent his last moments asking for information about who had shot him. What was the man’s profession? What clan did he come from? What were his physical characteristics? What was the arrow made of? What were the feathers on the arrow made of? Even as the man was asking his questions, he died without ever getting the answers he sought. 2

I will examine why Buddha remained silent to Malunkyaputta’s questions, and the Buddha’s belief in the foolishness inherent in irrelevant spiritual pursuits. Then, the paper will examine some similarities in the Buddha’s focus on the Way that can be found in other religious traditions. Later, I will examine Buddha’s goal for his followers, then a look at how the current human condition, given the similarities in religious traditions, can benefit from Buddha’s goal.

Why no answers?

Why the Buddha would have not have answered Malunkyaputta’s questions, the total number of which is given as ten 3 or fourteen 4 depending on the translation and whether longer questions are actually broken into more shorter questions, is a popular question among students of Buddhism. These questioners look for a deeper reason than the one that the Buddha himself gave. There are four general theories to explain the silence of the Buddha in the face of these universally pondered inquiries from Malunkyaputta. One theory is that the Buddha was silent because he was only interested in practical matters, and had no time to ponder imponderables. Another theory is that Buddha simply did not know the answers. Malunkyaputta, the monk of the parable, seemed to think this was the reason for the Buddha’s silence. 5 Malunkyaputta, exasperated, said to the Buddha: “But if he doesn't know or see whether the cosmos is eternal or not eternal, then, in one who is unknowing & unseeing, the straightforward thing is to admit, 'I don't know. I don't see.'” 6 The monk then repeated this accusation. He seemed clearly perturbed that the Buddha would not answer, although, in fairness, Malunkyaputta eventually went away satisfied. The final words of the parable are: “That is what the Blessed One said. Gratified, Ven. Malunkyaputta delighted in the Blessed One's words.” 7

Still another theory for the Buddha’s silence is that the Buddha did know the answers to the questions asked, but his listeners did not possess the vocabulary and comprehension to understand the explanation should he give one. Therefore, the Buddha never bothered to speak the things that he knew. A final theory is that the Buddha would not answer the question because the monk’s act of asking such a question was evidence that the questioner was still striving and grasping, and the Buddha would not be a party to such actions. 8

Ultimately, the most compelling justification for the Buddha’s silence is the one given by the Buddha himself. The Buddha would only speak if he had something of import to pass to his listeners. There was nothing hidden in the silence, because there was nothing in the silence worth knowing. The Buddha only said exactly what he meant, and he meant everything that he said. Nothing else was of any importance. “And why are they disclosed by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That's why they are disclosed by me.” 9

Foolishness of irrelevant spiritual pursuits

The questions asked by the poisoned man in the parable were entirely irrelevant to finding a cure for his poison, or finding a cessation of the suffering the man was feeling, but he persisted in the questions, nonetheless. Asking these questions was the embodiment of foolishness. Squandering one’s last moments in the quest for answers to unanswerable and in fact pointless questions is the opposite of wisdom. Speculating about the “eternal questions” is a fool’s errand because there are no definitive answers offered to mortals although there is plenty of conjecture. As one commentator remarked, “in the final analysis, such speculation remains a matter of belief or opinion, for in this life these questions cannot be settled with any certainty. Furthermore, seeking answers to unanswerable questions diverts precious time and energy away from the real of heart of spirituality: the quest of wisdom and compassion. To be wise and compassionate does not require that we settle the many metaphysical questions we might pose.” 10

Similarities of the Buddha’s Way found in other religious traditions

Other religious traditions share the Buddha’s disdain for seeking answers to these large questions. Paul Tillich, a Christian theologian made the point that spirituality requires that a man must put aside that which he considers wisdom, and seek holiness as does a child. Tillich’s idea is that man will be unsuccessful in trying to discern the answers to large questions but must ask those questions in order to be prepared to recognize that the path to fulfillment is paradoxically in not finding the answers. The path is one in which the mind accepts that reason will not provide the answers that the brain can craft. Tillich called this paradox the “divine foolishness.” “This certainly is ecstatic and paradoxical, and it should not be brought down to the level of a divine-human chemistry. But it should be understood and experienced as an expression of the divine foolishness that is the source of wisdom and the power of maturity. “ 11 Tillich here was recapitulating an idea first offered by Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians: " Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.” 12

Another religious tradition expresses sentiments similar to those of the Buddha. Taoism, based on the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu includes many verses that make it seem like the writer was not interested in delving into the nature of that which cannot be observed or commenting too explicitly on these matters. Instead, the Tao, which literally means, “the Way,” was designed to provide guidance to those who would live the right way in this world. At the earliest period of Taoism, the practitioners were primarily interested in living the right way to the exclusion of other considerations. “If the essential defining characteristic in the diachronic analysis of an early Taoist tradition is that its members all practiced the ‘techniques of the Way’ – a term that encompasses apophatic inner cultivation aimed at a mystical realization of the Way and its integration into everyday life.” 13

The Tao offers practical advice to help keep those who seek the way on the right path. The Tao contains guidance that those who know the answers need not speak them. In chapter 34 it says: There is something mysterious and whole which existed before heaven and earth, silent, formless, complete, and never changing. Living eternally everywhere in perfection, it is the mother of all things. I do not know its name; I call it the Way. If forced to define it, I shall call it supreme.” 14 Later, in chapter 56, Lao Tzu offers the observation that “Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak, do not know. Close the mouth; shut the doors. Smooth the sharpness; untie the tangles. Dim the glare; calm the turmoil. This is mystical unity.” 15 The Tao advises silence when one knows, much as Buddha remained silent regarding the questions that were asked. Just as Buddha remained silent to focus on the more important work of finding the right path to enlightenment, so to do the believers in the Tao focus mainly on the path rather than a higher philosophy. The final stanza of the Tao sounds very familiar to the ear of students of Buddhism: “The Way of heaven sharpens but does no harm. The Way of the wise accomplishes without striving.” 16

The Buddha’s goal

Rather than answering the questions that did not have answers, the Buddha was more interested in the practical. He was interested, as was Lao Tzu, in leading those who would listen along the Way to enlightenment. The Buddha knew that the way to the cessation of suffering is difficult. Another giver of Truth, Jesus, described the quest along the way with these words: “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” 17 However, since the way was hard, and the showing others the path to the cessation of suffering, the Buddha knew that his followers had to husband their reservoirs of power. There was literally nothing that the Buddha could do for his followers except give them a roadmap along the “hard way,” whether those followers would make it to Nirvana was up to those who would follow the Way. “The Buddha has clearly stated that no one can do any thing for another for salvation except show the way. Therefore we must not depend on god and not even depend on the Buddha. We must know what are the qualities, duties, and responsibilities of being a human being. He said that if we have committed certain bad karma, we should nor waste precious energy by being frustrated or disappointed in our effort to put it right. 18

Mark Muess argues that Buddhism’s emphasis on finding relief from suffering, indifference to eternal questions and practical advice for living in a world full of strife and discord make Buddhism particularly relevant for modern society. It also allows one to find a way to put into practice beliefs one might hold from other religious traditions. Buddhism also allows one to find accommodation with whom one does not share political beliefs. “Buddhist spirituality is imminently practical. It provides discipline for the mind and the body, for treating others and oneself. It does not merely say, "Love others"; it shows us how to love others. It does not merely say, "Be wise"; it shows us how we may become wise. Because it is practical rather than theoretical, it may be compatible with other religious perspectives. It does not seek the repudiation of other spiritual and philosophical viewpoints.” 19

Relevance to current human condition

Conserving one’s energy to continue the quest for Enlightenment remains extremely relevant in the current time. The earth’s population is higher than it has ever been, while the proportion of those living in poverty and hunger seems to have stabilized. Nonetheless, in absolute terms, there are more miserable people now living than there have ever been. 20 There are more people with AIDS, there are more people without clean drinking water and there are more people displaced by war than ever previously. In absolute terms, there has never been are more urgent need for guidance in finding a way to relieve the suffering in the world.

Buddhism has particular relevance in this regard. Buddhism offers an escape from suffering, whatever the cause, and whatever beliefs the seeker has prior to following the Eightfold Path. Even though the Buddha revealed what he revealed thousands of years ago, what he revealed still has value for us today. “From the Buddhist perspective I think the analysis that the Buddha offered in his Four Noble Truths still remains perfectly valid. Not only does it need not the least revision or reinterpretation, but the course of twenty-five centuries of world history and the present-day human situation only underscores its astuteness and relevance.” 21

Clearly, Buddhism retains its relevance because human suffering has not changed even as the Four Noble Truths have not changed. Those not paying attention might conclude that with a world full of conveniences and technology, that human suffering should be on its way out. However, there is little practical evidence that human suffering is in retreat. That is because the nature of human suffering remains the same as when the Buddha first diagnosed the cause. The origin of suffering is attachment. Thomas Knierim neatly summarizes in modern English what suffering is. “The reasons for suffering are desire, passion, ardour, pursuit of wealth and prestige, striving for fame and popularity, or in short: craving and clinging.” 22 Knierim’s summary applies to people throughout history, but given the magnitude of wealth that is available in the world, and the magnitude of people in the world who do not have any real access to wealth but have only that brutal longing, there has probably never been an epoch more in need of a way to end suffering. This realization in itself makes Buddhism relevant.

Given that there is so much suffering in the world, and there is such a clear need for Buddhist principles, is it likely that Buddhism will be the answer to the suffering in the world? Is there a possibility that populations that have not been willing to or who have not had the opportunity to embrace Buddhism actually do so? Religious traditions in other cultures around the world have similar goals to that of the Buddha. Other religious traditions even use similar language in pursuing the way. There seem to be so many similarities in the approach to alleviate suffering in the world and in the desired end-state to make the time seem ripe for Buddhism to have a world-wide influence. One observer of Buddhism thinks that it is possible for Buddhism to have such an influence if it makes some minor changes and does more to proselytize. “I think

Buddhism will have to change itself somewhat, and there is no doubt about it. Still the main reason why Buddhism does not have many converts is because Buddhism has never emphasized too much on conversion. There are many who follow their own religion and follow Buddhist precepts. Even Dalai Lama maintains, one should not change his religion. Therefore it is not like pouring water on sand, rather Buddhism is not interested in sowing individual trees at all.” 23
The Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi agrees that Buddhism has much to teach both East and West, and both sides have a responsibility to reach out to one another to ensure the benefits are transferred from one to another. In fact, neither side, East nor West, has an excuse to remain isolated, because technology and communications have become ubiquitous. “In the present age access to these teachings and practices will cease to remain the exclusive preserve of the monastic order, but will spread to the lay community as well, as has already been occurring throughout the Buddhist world both in the East and in the West. The spirit of democracy and the triumph of the experimental method demand that the means of mind-development be available to anyone who is willing to make the effort.” 24 Bodhi goes on to make the case that all the suffering in the world points to one particular solution. He quotes the Buddha’s short discourse in the Satipatthana Samyutta to the effect that:

"Protecting oneself, one protects others,
Protecting others, one protects oneself"

Doing these things, not squandering energy on foolish speculation but instead, taking actions that advance everyone on the way to enlightenment is the best way to remain relevant in this current situation. 25


1 Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta. The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya in Buddhism at accessed 25 February 2008.
2. Ibid.
3. Nila-kantha-chandra. “The Poisoned Arrow” in the Cuckoo’s Call Blog Wednesday, September 13, 2006 at accessed 26 February 2008.
4. Berzin, Alexander. “The Fourteen Questions to Which Buddha Remained Silent” in The Berzin Archives February 2007 at accessed 26 February 2008.
5. The Wanderling. “AVYAAKATA: The Buddha's Ten Indeterminate Questions” in Awakening 101 (Date unknown) at accessed 26 February 2008.
6. Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta. Ibid
7. Ibid.
8. The Wanderling. Ibid.
9. Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta. Ibid.
10. Muess, Mark. “What Does It Mean to Lead a Spiritual Life? A Buddhist Perspective” Explore 2002 at accessed 25 February 2008.
11. Tillich, Paul. Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribners and Sons) 1963. Chapter 14.
12. Paul. “Letter to the Corinthians” King James Version Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) 1 Corinthians 3:18.
13. Roth, Harold David. Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-Yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism (New York: Columbia University Press) 1999. Pg 185.
14. Lao Tzu, “Tao Teh Ching - Line-by-Line Comparisons: Beck Translation” at accessed 25 February 2008.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Matthew 7:14, Revised New Standard Edition, Layman’s Parallel Bible Grand (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) 1991.
18. Thera, Dr K. Sri Dhammananda Nayaka Maha. “Buddhism As A Religion” at accessed 26 February 2008.
19. Muess, Ibid.
20. United Nations. “People and Poverty 2000: Globalization has yet to benefit the poor” in 17 October 2000 at accessed 26 February 2008.
21. Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “A Buddhist Response to Contemporary Dilemmas of Human Existence” in Access to Insight: Readings in Theravada Buddhism December 1993 at accessed 26 February 2008.
22. Knierim, Thomas. “The Four Noble Truths” in The Big (no date) at accessed 26 February 2008.
23. Verma, Chapla. Comments to TO, 17 February 2008.
24. Bohdi. Ibid.
25. Bodhi. Ibid.