Avyākṛta in sanskrit.

The Buddha remained silent when asked these fourteen questions. He described them as a net and refused to be drawn into such a net of theories, speculations, and dogmas. He said that it was because he was free of bondage to all theories and dogmas that he had attained liberation. Such speculations, he said, are attended by fever, unease, bewilderment, and suffering, and it is by freeing oneself of them that one achieves liberation.

This is the standard Pali or Theravada interpretation of these questions: just don't ask.

But it strikes me that a non substantial silence in response to questions is a bit of a cop out.

The silence actually reminds me more of the omnipotence paradox than the silence of e.g. Vimalakirti in the Mahayana sutras.

The easiest response is to say that the silence in response to these questions is an expression of the right way of asking them, i.e. not asking. But it simply seems wrong to say that there's way to ask what happens at his death given that the Buddha is not annihilated.

Unless we accept a form of pragmatism it seems that the actual answer to these questions is silence. That the limit of the world / space / the self / the buddha, is in some aspects only representable by the quiet mind.

So are the unanswered questions, actually answered?

  • 1
    These questions are all valid but also invalid. It is like asking which color is right for my final exam in painting? The real answer is - it is irrelevant as long as my painting will be great. Same here. Buddha just saw them as irrelevant. Which they are. Moreover they are not just irrelevant - they are the form of choice. Universe can be both infinite and finite. Depending on the state of mind. That is what he was silent about. Mind which is thinking theories - creates them and gets trapped by them. At the level of Buddha's state of mind there is something else. Something more than theories. – Asphir Dom Sep 15 '14 at 16:11
  • 1
    Buddha saw the only and real truth in now and here this is the whole point of his life and struggle. To bring people from there and tomorrow to look at what is here now. That is why it is irrelevant what will happen with him after death. – Asphir Dom Sep 15 '14 at 16:18
  • i like your first comment less convinced by the second tho. have you read the platform sutra ? – user6917 Sep 15 '14 at 17:05

In his book Western Approaches to Eastern Philosophy, Troy Wilson Organ spends an entire chapter on the Buddha’s silence regarding the nature of Nirvana. Organ says: Thus, there came to be known as the avyakrtavastuni -- the undetermined, or
unelucidated, or unprofitable questions. The most comprehensive list of forbidden speculations is found in the Brahma Jala Sutta of the Digha Nikaya. Here are listed sixty-two ways in which “recluses and Brahmans...reconstruct the past and arrange the future.” The Buddha says they “are entrapped in the net of these sixty-two modes; this way and that they plunge about, but they are in it; this way and that they flounder, but they are included in it, caught in it.” Buddhists are warned to avoid the net altogether.

Organ then goes on to list 6 possible reasons for the Buddha’s silence (and I would argue Nagarjuna). These include 1) Buddha agreed with the then prevailing beliefs, 2) Buddha disagreed with the then prevailing beliefs, 3) Buddha held no beliefs, 4) Buddha simply wouldn’t say what his beliefs were 5) Buddha found language wanting to express his knowledge, and 6) Buddha would not be diverted from his mission. In light of the last reason I think a seventh and better answer is Buddha did not want his students diverted from their mission. What your belief was -or is- is not important to the problem at hand, or its solution. He and Nagarjuna did not want them spending their time engaged in “unprofitable questions”.

There is a story often quoted that the Buddha once responded with the following answer (my paraphrasing)- If you find yourself caught in a burning building, what do you do? Do you stop and speculate how the building came to be, when it was built, who built it, and what it is made of? Do you then speculate as to how the fire came to be and what it’s nature is and what the nature of fires are to buildings? Or do you try to get out of the building? If someone on the outside is shouting “save yourself, jump out the window!” Do you stop and ask them why you should jump, or ask them to explain to you what the nature of the outside is before you jump? Buddha believed that we are all in bodies with death the inescapable outcome. This was purpose enough for us to heed his shouts to jump to Nirvana. Nagarjuna, being a Buddhist, gave argumentation through the Mulamadhyamakakarika for people to jump. He, like the Buddha, stopped short on the nature of Nirvana simply because it diverted from the main message - to escape death, and the endless rounds of birth and death. Nagarjuna felt that the nature of sunyata was an “unprofitable question”. There was no need to give answer as to the nature of the “outside” - there was reason enough to escape the burning house.

  • i agree that's the standard response but won't accept it cos i don't agree with the metaphor fwiw. thanks for the reference and the quote "reconstruct the past and arrange the future" – user6917 Sep 15 '14 at 8:17
  • i would be more inclined to five... given that the buddha is not withholding any answers. afterall, there aren't four vehicles but one that subsumes the three... this suggests to me that the a skillful means must be the absolute truth if it is true at all – user6917 Sep 15 '14 at 8:18
  • There are innumerable examples and references in Buddhism, Hindu, and Christian where it has been described that Sunyata, or Brahman, is beyond any description. #5 is the obvious answer, but I think #6 encompasses #5 also. Beliefs count for nothing, what counts is to be striving. A person who is striving for realization and has a false understanding of Sunyata is better than a person with a true understanding of Sunyata and not striving. The person that is striving is closer to achieving Sunyata than the person that is not striving. Upon Realization everything is understood. Therefore #6 – Swami Vishwananda Sep 16 '14 at 10:17

Buddha was silent because he had attained to insight (Vipassana), as a result of long meditation. Insight enables you to recognize the limitations of the mind. Socrates said the same thing when he declared ‘I know only one thing, and that is that I know nothing’. Life is essentially a mystery Nobody knows how the universe got here, or how we evolved within it. Yet that doesn’t stop the human mind from being curious, and puzzled, and embarking on all sorts of enquiries. Most people never arrive at any satisfactory end point to these enquiries. Many settle for made up answers (the bible, scientism, sutras etc etc). A meditator will eventually come to the realization that the mind is incapable of solving metaphysical questions, and will lapse into a calm, peaceful, knowing silence.

  • In light of Socrates' work in logic, it can't be correct to interpret Socrates' claim that "the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing" to be similar to some short list of unanswered questions: Socrates doesn't even really know his own name and shoe size according to this stance. Instead, Socrates is showing us that every claim, from "I have a head" to "fermions obey the Pauli exclusion principle" breaks down to an appeal to authority or some other appeal, at the bottom... and it's up to you, the asker, to decide whether that's an appeal you can live with. – elliot svensson Jul 14 '18 at 0:56

In the Buddha's time there was a prediction that a great thinker would come along later and deal with all these questions. That person is thought to be Nagarjuna.

Nagarjuna does not avoid metaphysical questions but carefully answers all of them. His answer explains why the Buddhas did not answer them. They cannot be dealt with piecemeal but must be addressed within a global theory or world-description. This is what Nagarjuna offers us.

He explains that the Buddha's teachings represent a neutral metaphysical position. This is the claim that all positive positions are both false and logically indefensible. Western philosophers have established their absurdity but from this (for some strange reason) do not extrapolate to their falsity. The disagreement between them and the Buddha is over the interpretation and not the the results of analysis, which are the same everywhere.

Nagarjuna asks us to take logic seriously and abandon views that do not survive analysis. When we do this we arrive at the Buddha's view and will then see why he avoided this topic in order to focus on soteriology. In the practices of Yoga metaphysics is unnecessary and so the Buddha's silence on this topic should not be read as the absence of a sound and well-developed philosophical scheme but a reluctance to waste time. His silence reveals his formal metaphysical position if we investigate its source but it would not be necessary to know it for the transcendence of life and death.

Lao Tsu explains the Buddha's silence when he notes 'True words seem paradoxical'. This was the Buddha's problem. He partially solves it by reserving paradoxical speech for the 'Third Turning of the Wheel', saving it for advanced students rather than confusing the minds of beginners with rigorous but seemingly contradictory speech.

Briefly put, the Buddha taught that we should abandon extreme metaphysical views. When we do this we arrive at Nagarjuna's neutral metaphysical scheme and this is the philosophical foundation of Buddhism.


Wittgenstein famously ended his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with exactly the same sentiment:

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.

(Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent)

That a famous philosopher, coming from a very different time, with a very different philosophical project comes to a similar conclusion one can say that this silence has to be taken seriously. One can say that his silence is at least authentic - rather than a 'cop-out'.

At the limits of thought, that is at the limits of what can be expressed there is only paradox. This conclusion is one chased by Graham Priest who developed a theory of true contradictions - dialethism.

Coming back to the Buddha, one of the questions he was asked is:

Is the world eternal?

...or not?

...or both?

...or neither?

This follows the logic of Catuskoti ; which elaborates the truth-conditions in Indian nyaya philosophy (true/false/both/neither) - or perhaps the origin of it.

After six centuries of debate, it was Nagarjuna who fixed 'answers' to these questions in terms of Sunyata (nothingness/fullness) and Pratiyasamutpada (dependent arising or becoming). They are noticably the first two terms in Hegels logic: Nothing & Being which are identified; and synthesised into Becoming; which points to a possible (and not neccessarily direct) influence.

Nagarjunas work, like Hegels work is cryptic, and unlike his compact.

So are the unanswered questions, actually answered?

To the extent that Nagarjuna does - yes (and one is possibly forced to add no, and both, and neither).

  • "At the limits of thought, that is at the limits of what can be expressed there is only paradox." but in what way is a paradoxical question answerable? – user6917 Sep 15 '14 at 8:09
  • an amusing enough answer, but i won't vote for it on the grounds that it seems like the question has been somewhat lazily sidestepped, just as i did your answer... sometimes we should embrace our opinions eh ? – user6917 Sep 15 '14 at 8:14
  • In what way lazily sidestepped? Swamis Vishwananda mentions the canonical exegesis of Nagarjuna as I did; now if you demonstrated a question that asked something specific about that - say the notion of svabhava...then that would be basis of debate. – Mozibur Ullah Sep 15 '14 at 8:47
  • as for paradoxes 'at the limits of thought': look at this article by Graham Priest where he explain it in more detail, or better read his book beyond the limits of thought - "This is a philosophical investigation of the nature of the limits of thought. Graham Priest shows that the description of such limits leads to contradiction, and argues that these contradictions are in fact veridical". – Mozibur Ullah Sep 15 '14 at 8:52
  • yeah i read some priest, unconvinced. – user6917 Sep 15 '14 at 9:11

Consider the parable of the arrow, or leaving a burning building. Clearly there is an urgent matter, suffering and the causes of suffering, the way out and how to take it. But, what about understanding poisons and antivenoms? What about better firecodes and evacuation procedures?

The imponderable questions advise against the holding of views, things which prevent us being present, and understanding things as they present themselves.

"Some people have interpreted Nāgārjuna here as positing some sort of ultimate Truth beyond the bounds of logic and traditional categorization, but this is almost certainly the wrong reading of Nāgārjuna. Rather, he wants to reject philosophical views altogether, putting nothing in their place" From https://absoluteirony.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/nagarjuna-nietzsche-rorty-and-their-strange-looping-trick/

I am reminded of Seung Sahn's Zen Compass also, which takes up oneness, emptiness, magical thinking, and only just like this, not as metaphysical truths or stances, not as views to hold, but as part of an embodied practice of letting go of suffering and the causes of suffering by unravelling our grip on them.

Karma in Buddhism includes both material causality, and psycological causation. This can be understood in the direction of preventing people getting poisoned by arrows, rather than categorising the world as distraction and pursuit of authority over others. Our cosmos is a burning building, and again we can approach it for understanding on how to be and the nature of mind, or as a distraction and to build weapons say that will make it burn faster.

We have to get our priorities straight. It isn't that we can't learn more about poisons or how buildings burn, it is that if we haven't fundamentally oriented ourselves towards the ethical life, towards compassion and liberation from suffering, then these matters will be a distraction, and causes of suffering. But, if we attend to our fundamental orientation first, they can be tools to aid it - though that may mean rewriting or dismissing them like Nagarjuna, as they are realised to not be fundamental in the way they claim to be.


It seems to me that the Socratic method is to ask questions and to never be satisfied until they are answered. The person who fails to answer a question consistently has demonstrated the limit of his or her knowledge (via paradox), or been exposed (via contradiction) as a liar.

There is a word for subjects about which a person is not allowed to ask the authorities: taboo. I would call taboos a form of oppression, since the public is expected to limit thought and logic when it arrives at a certain place.

So, I agree with you: listing a few questions that the authorities aren't going to answer is a cop out.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy