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The Buddha's Ten Indeterminate Questions

the Wanderling

Avyaakata, the 'indeterminate questions' are given as ten in number:

  1. Whether the world is eternal

  2. or not eternal

  3. Whether the world is finite

  4. or infinite

  5. Whether the soul and body are identical

  6. or different

  7. Whether the enlightened one exists after death,

  8. or does not exist after death,

  9. or both exists and does not exist after death,

  10. or neither exists nor does not exist after death

These are regularly described in the Nikaayas as 'theories' (di.t.thi) which the Buddha has 'set aside' (.thapita) and 'rejected' (patikkhita) . The Buddha gives a number of different explanations about why he does not elucidate these questions. Several of these are decidedly pragmatic in character, however with the Fire Parable, we encounter an explanation as to why the Buddha does not answer these questions.

A Samana --- or wandering ascetic, later to be defined in the time of the Zen schools by the Japanese word hsing-chiao (traveling on foot) --- by the name of Vaccha is puzzled by the fact that the Buddha has denied, in turn, each of these four alternatives --- 1) that the Enlightened one is reborn after death; 2) that he is not reborn; 3) that he is both reborn and not reborn; 4) and that he is neither reborn nor not reborn. Thus he asks these questions again, but this time the Buddha replies, "To say that he is reborn does not fit the case.... To say that he is not reborn does not fit the case," and so forth. At this point, Vaccha confesses that he is totally at a loss about what to think. The Buddha then proposes this simile: Suppose a fire which had been burning before you were to go out. If someone were to ask in which direction the fire had gone, north, south, east, or west, what would you reply? "The question would not fit the case." answers Vaccha. What we have here is something akin to a category mistake.


Certain types of physical objects are properly spoken of as 'going in direction---- ', for example, birds. rocks, and clouds. Thus we may explain the fact that a bird which was formerly present to the senses, is so no longer, by saying that the bird 'has gone north'. Under certain conditions such assertions are also possible with respect to fires--for example, in the case of a brush fire which was burning behind my house thirty minutes ago. This predicate cannot be applied in the case of extinguished fires, however, to do so would be to commit a category mistake. If a physical object is to be spoken of as 'going in direction ' it is necessary that it be an enduring physical object. It is of course arguable whether a fire counts as a physical object at all; but it is perfectly clear that a fire which has gone out due to lack of fuel cannot be thought of as an enduring physical object. That a fire was formerly present to our senses, but is no longer, might lead us to think that, as in the case of the bird, we may use the 'going in direction ---' predicate to account for the facts. But an extinguished fire is simply not subsumed under the appropriate category for the application of this predicate.

The Buddha is suggesting that similar considerations apply to the case of the Arahat after death. While the framework of ancient Indian thought allows us to ask of any deceased individual whether he or she is to be reborn, the question is meaningless with respect to the Arhat. Vaccha was confused by the Buddha's rejection of each of the four logically possible alternatives; it would seem that by necessity one of these must be true. Once we see, however, that such predicates as 'reborn' simply do not apply to the Arhat and that the deceased arhat is subsumed under a different category, the seeming oddity of the position vanishes. (source)

Discussion of the unanswerables and the famous "silence of the Buddha" on such things as the existence or non-existence of God to the question of the Arhat above, has been a popular topic in modern scholarship, and four main theories have been proposed to explain his refusal to provide answers. The four are presented again briefly below. Nagarjuna's treatment of the unanswerables does not seem to fit neatly any of the four and discussed following:

"The Enlightenment won by me is deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand," the Buddha thought on the night of his awakening. "...For human beings this would be a matter difficult to see... If I were to teach [it] and others were not to understand me, that would be a weariness to me, that would be a vexation to me." However, to say that the difficulty of teaching motivated the Buddha's reticence to speak is not to do him justice. Surely such an Enlightened being would be able to wield language to make it do his bidding. Further, it is stated clearly in the discourses that the Buddha did have the ability to tailor his use of language to fit his audiences.

The Buddha divided all questions into four classes:

  • Those that deserve a categorical (straight yes or no) answer.

  • Those that deserve an analytical answer, defining and qualifying the terms of the question.

  • Those that deserve a counter-question, putting the ball back in the questioner's court.

  • Those that deserve to be put aside.

The last class of question consists of those that don't lead to the end of suffering and stress. The first duty of a teacher, when asked a question, is to figure out which class the question belongs to, and then to respond in the appropriate way. You don't, for example, say yes or no to a question that should be put aside. If you are the person asking the question and you get an answer, you should then determine how far the answer should be interpreted. The Buddha said that there are two types of people who misrepresent him:

  • Those who draw inferences from statements that shouldn't have inferences drawn from them.

  • Those who don't draw inferences from those that should (source).

(For a more complete discussion of this, see Gadjin M. Nagao, "The Silence of the Buddha and its Madhyamic Interpretation," in Nagao 1991, 35-50)

  • The above might or might not be correct, and they might not even be compatatible or incompatible, but neither are they Nagarjuna's Direct Approach. Nagarjuna, simply, says that the answers to these questions are wrong. There may be theoretical reasons for rejecting the unanswerable questions, and there certainly are pragmatic reasons for not becoming entangled in such speculation. However, Nagarjuna's primary reason for rejecting them in his final section is none of these. He simply rejects them because they do not hold up to logical scrutiny.
Nagarjuna opens with a discussion of views about eternalism. All views of the survival of the self are based on the belief that the self existed in the past and/or that the self will exist in the future. However, it would not be appropriate to say that the self existed in the past, for this would require that the self who existed in the past is identical with the self who exists now, in the present. This has already been refuted in section eleven. However, the Buddha also said that it is incorrect to say that the self is not eternal. If the Buddha had denied continuity of existence, then, as discussed above, morality would be undercut, for "the fruit of action performed by one will be experienced by another."

Further, a self that existed in the present but not in the past would be uncaused, which would be an erroneous conclusion. Since neither of the above alternatives is appropriate, it would certainly not be appropriate to combine them and say that one both existed and did not exist in the past. Further, since there are no other alternatives besides existence or not existence, and since a middle ground between the two would be unintelligible, it is not appropriate to say that one neither existed nor did not exist in the past. Views regarding a future existence are to be treated in the same way. That which leads to the asking of the above unanswerable questions is the tendency to seek for some "thing," some real entity which can be characterized in terms of existence or non- existence. But, "if it is thought that there is nothing eternal, what is it that will be non-eternal, both eternal and non-eternal, and also what is separated from these two [i.e. 'neither']?"

While we are on the subject there are four what the Buddha called "unconjecturables that are not to conjectured about" that may be of some interest. Please go to:

ANATTA: The Concept of No-Self in Buddhism

ANGUTTARA NIKAYA IV.77: Acintita Sutra

The "I" in "Thus I Have Heard..."


Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.






ALL IS ILLUSION? A Chinese-Indian Dichotomy In Advaita and Zen




AVYAAKATA information excerpted from
A Note on the Early Buddhist Theory of Truth
University of Hawaii
Mark Siderits


SAMANA (Pali), SRAMANA (Sanskrit): Contemplative. Literally, a person who abandons the conventional obligations of social life in order to find a way of life more "in tune" (sama) with the ways of nature.