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unanswerable

Fourteen unanswerable questions

The phrase fourteen unanswerable questions, in Buddhism, refers to fourteen common philosophical questions that Buddha refused to answer, according to Buddhist Sanskrit texts. Pali texts give only ten.

Fourteen questions

Questions referring to the world: concerning the existence of the world in time

  • Is the world eternal?
  • or not?
  • or both?
  • or neither?

Pali texts omit "both" and "neither".

Questions referring to the world: concerning the existence of the world in space

  • Is the world finite?
  • or not?
  • or both?
  • or neither?

Pali texts omit "both" and "neither".

Questions referring to personal experience

  • Is the self identical with the body?
  • or is it different from the body?

Questions referring to life after death

  • Does the Tathagata exist after death?
  • or not?
  • or both?
  • or neither?

Buddha's answer to the questions, according to the scriptures

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.

Implications

The fourteen questions imply two basic attitudes toward the world. The Buddha speaks of these two attitudes in his dialogue with Mahakashyapa, when he says that there are two basic views, the view of existence and the view of nonexistence. He said that people are accustomed to think in these terms, and that as long as they remain entangled in these two views they will not attain liberation.

The propositions that the world is eternal, that the world is infinite, that the Tathagatha exists after death, and that the self is independent of the body reflect the view of existence. The propositions that the world is not eternal, that the world is finite, that the Tathagata does not exist after death, and that the self is identical with the body reflect the view of nonexistence. These two views were professed by teachers of other schools during the time of the Buddha. The view of existence is generally the view of the Brahmins; that of nonexistence is generally the view of the materialists and hedonists.

When the Buddha refuses to be drawn into the net of these dogmatic views of existence and nonexistence, he has two things in mind: the ethical consequences of these two views, and the fact that the views of absolute existence and nonexistence do not correspond to the way things really are. The eternalists view this self as permanent and unchanging. When the body dies, this self will not die because the self is by nature unchanging. If that is the case, it does not matter what this body does: actions of the body will not affect the destiny of the self. This view is incompatible with moral responsibility because if the self is eternal and unchanging, it will not be affected by wholesome and unwholesome actions. Similarly, if the self were identical with the body and the self dies along with the body, then it does not matter what the body does. If you believe that existence ends at death, there will be no constraint upon action. But in a situation where things exist through interdependent origination, absolute existence and nonexistence are impossible.

Another example drawn from the fourteen unanswerable questions also shows that the propositions do not correspond to the way things really are. Take the example of the world. According to Buddhist teaching, the world does not exist absolutely or does not exist absolutely in time. The world exists dependent on causes and conditions--ignorance, craving, and clinging. When ignorance, craving, and clinging are present, the world exists; when they are not present, the world ceases to exist. Hence the question of the absolute existence or nonexistence of the world is unanswerable. Existence and nonexistence, taken as absolute ideas, do not apply to things as they really are. This is why the Buddha refuses to agree to absolute statements about the nature of things. He saw that the absolute categories of metaphysics do not apply to things as they really are.

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