When the Buddha refused to respond

July 10, 2024

Why don't you respond?

Here’s a somewhat surprising conversation between Gotama, the Buddha, and a wandering mendicant of the Vaccha clan, Vacchagotta.

[Vacchagotta:] ‘How is it, Master Gotama, is there a self?’

The Buddha remained silent.

[Vacchagotta:] ‘Then, Master Gotama, is there no self?’

The Buddha again remained silent.

Vacchagotta got up from his seat and went away.

Then, not long after the wanderer Vacchagotta had left, Ānanda said to the Buddha: ‘Why is it, venerable sir, that when you were questioned by Vacchagotta, you did not answer?”

The Buddha turned to his attendant Ānanda and said: ‘If I had answered, “there is a self”, this would have been siding with those who are eternalists ... and if I had answered, “there is no self”, that would have been siding with those who are annihilationists…’

Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 44:10)

This was one of a number of instances that can be found in the early texts where Gotama simply refused to give a view, even when asked directly. The implication we can draw from these actions, unspoken of course, was that the only response to such questions were metaphysical truth claims. Instead, we need to consider what change we can actually make. Clinging to self in this way doesn’t help. Rather, we need to work on what is not self. Paradoxically, when we continue to acknowledge the perception of self in our practice, this can help us to get relief from clinging onto questions such as the one above.

Photo by Poppy R Unsplash

We’ve all come across people who strike us as having a ‘big ego’. The reality, however, is that these unfortunates have a somewhat diminished sense of self which causes them to behave in socially unpleasant ways. Sometimes they upset us; at other times they may not bother us. On our cushion or chair, though, it’s hard to meditate without a healthy sense of self; it’s equally hard to cultivate the eight aspects of the path with a conflicted mind.

Is this a Catch 22? No, it’s not. Buddhist teachings give us the tools with which to deal with difficult thoughts, as well as pleasant ones; tools such as the four immeasurables of loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity.

In the Dhammapada, there’s a section on The Self. In verse 159 we read:

Your own self is

your own mainstay,

for who else could your mainstay be?

With you yourself well-trained

you obtain the mainstay

hard to obtain.

A consistent meditation practice makes it possible for us to develop a stable sense of self, one which supports us as we go through the process of letting go of challenging thought.

The statements that Gotama refused to give a view on are referred to as the ten undeclared topics. While they can be found in a number of suttas, it may be most useful to look first at Cūḷamālunkya Sutta. M. 63 and Udāna, 6.4–6. They are:

1 – the world is eternal

2 – the world is not eternal

3 – the world is finite

4 – the world is infinite

5 – the soul is the same as the body

6 – the soul is one thing and the body another

7 – after death a tathāgata exists

8 – after death a tathāgata does not exist

9 – after death a tathāgata both exists and does not exist

10 – after death a tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist

‘Tathāgata’ is a Pali word that’s found in early Buddhist texts. It’s a term that Gotama would use to refer to himself, but the precise meaning isn’t known. The Buddha does describe a tathāgata as someone who does not lie, someone who does what they say, and says what they do. Stephen Batchelor renders the word as ‘the one who is just so’.

Buddhaghosa offered a range of possible definitions of the word in The Path of Purification. The definition of his that seems to fit best in today’s world is ‘The great physician whose medicine is all-powerful’.

The context in which the statements that Gotama refuses to give a view on suggests he is addressing those big imponderable matters that trouble all human beings at some point in our lives, rather than a specific dharmic issue.

But while Gotama refused to be drawn on these particular topics, he did ‘declare’ the four noble truths, although calling them the four tasks or the fourfold task would express this far more usefully. It’s not at all outrageous to impute this from a careful reading of the sutta that is acknowledged as Gotama’s first discourse, ‘The Sutta on the setting in motion of the wheel of the dharma’.

In a talk given in October 2007 at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, Stephen Batchelor reflects on the nature of karma, and how the Buddha recognises that numerous conditions are responsible for our experience, rejecting metaphysical truth claims in favour of a pragmatic, therapeutic approach to living life in this world, here and now. Touching on these ten undeclared topics, he told retreatants:

I find the four last topics (regarding a tathāgata after death) as somewhat fishy. My sense is that these were incorporated later to replace the more problematic propositions (for traditional Indian Buddhists): ‘The self exists after death; the self does not exist after death’. Not only would such a formulation be more in keeping with the other topics, it would also be the sort of thing discussed by brahmins and ascetics who were not Buddhist.’

When we’re ready to get beyond metaphysical thought, such as ‘is’ and ‘is not’, it’s useful to see the self as a continuity of becoming, in philosophical terms a ‘moral agent’. The self is what meditates, and is cultivating care.

Can you think of situations where you wish you had responded differently, in a more caring way? I know I can.

Works referred to:

Saṃyutta Nikāya 44:10, pp. 1393–94 (Connected Discourses. Tr. Bodhi, Wisdom, 2000)

The Pali Canon: Source texts for secular Buddhism, compiled by Stephen Batchelor (unpublished, for retreatants, Feb. 2012)

Stephen Batchelor’s 2007 dharma talk can be found at https://dharmaseed.org/talks/2300

Main photo by Jamshaid Mughal on Unsplash



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One Reply to “When the Buddha refused to respond”

Thanks for that exploration, Ramsey. Your second last paragraph is spot on. Phenomenology develops the matter further and, to my mind, clinches what the Buddha was driving at. In particular Martin Heidegger in his 1926 Being and time. Instead of referring to the self or any other human person as a fixed entity, he refers to them as a continuing process: ‘being-in-the-world’ and ‘being-there’ (In-der-Welt-sein and Dasein in the original German). As dharma practitioners we take responsibility for how that process unfolds.

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