What not to ask a Buddha


Certain views in the Nikāyas are not condemned because of what they propose, but because of the influence that the view has on its holder. One could say that the means of gaining knowledge is intimately bound up with the way one acts and the way one acts is intimately bound up with the knowledge that one has. Wrong-views ad wrong beliefs are wrong because they produce unwholesome actions. This explains the preoccupation with the notion of attā, the ‘self’ in explaining wrong-views and misguided beliefs. Belief in the ‘self’ leads away from wholesome action. This attitude produces actions based upon craving and attachment and these actions do not lead to knowledge. This also suggests why familiar groups of views such as those that are described as ‘unanswered’ (avyākata) are classified as ‘wrong-views.’


The two philosophical categories or classifications necessary in our understanding of the ‘unanswered’ questions are the ideas of ‘annihilationism’ (uccheda) and ‘eternalism’ (sassata), which, as considered in the early texts, are described as particularly destructive. These classifications are found in the discussion of the ‘personality-view (sakkāya-diṭṭhi). One explanation of these two views is the following from the Sammohavinodanī:


‘To state that, ‘I have a self’ (atthi me attā vā) is the view of eternalism (sassata-diṭṭhi) which assumes the existence of a self at all times. However, to state ‘I have no self’ (n’ atthi me attā) is the view of annihilationism (uccheda-diṭṭhi) because it assumes the annihilation of an existing being.’[1]


This suggests that the view ‘there is no self’ is as much a wrong-view as the view ‘there is a self’. To posit or deny a self are wrong-views. To say that right-view is the understanding of ‘not-self’ (anattā) is to state something quite different. It suggests that there should be no attachment to the idea of a self; this insight neither posits nor denies a self. Philosophical and religious beliefs are primarily a form of greed and attachment. And they are primarily and most destructively views and beliefs about the nature, endurance and annihilation of the ‘self’.


For example, there is a discussion in the Vibhaṅga (Vibh 340) of the ‘inclination (of thought) of beings’ (sattānaṃ āsayo). This is to depend on ‘views of becoming’ (bhava-diṭṭhi-sannissitā), and ‘views of non-becoming’ (vibhava-diṭṭhi-sannissitā), according to the ten avyākata (the unanswered questions).[2] According to the Vibhaṅga, there is an inclination for the mind to take a position. One of the simplest ways to understand correct views and beliefs (sammā-diṭṭhi) is to take it as expressing the middle-way. It is to see the rise and fall of dhammas, of all mental and physical phenomena, of all things. With the notion of wrong-views and beliefs (micchā-diṭṭhi) the texts perhaps intend to suggest a rigidity of thought, in which only rise, or only fall is seen. The suttas suggest that if only rise is seen then the mind will incline to ‘eternalism’ (sassata-diṭṭhi), and if only fall is seen then the mind will incline to ‘annihilationism’ (uccheda-diṭṭhi).[3] These ideas are expressed by the ten avyākata:


The ten avyākata

1. The world is eternal;

2. The world is not eternal;

3. The world is finite;

4. The world is infinite;

5. The soul and the body are the same;

6. The soul is one thing, the body is another;

7. The Tathāgata (the Buddha) exists after death;

8. The Tathāgata (the Buddha) does not exist after death;

9. The Tathāgata (the Buddha) both exists and does not exist after death;

10. The Tathāgata (the Buddha) neither exists nor does not exist after death.[4]


In the Vibhaṅga (Vibh 366-7) there is a consideration of the unwholesome action that arises from holding to any of these views. This takes the form of an explanation of ‘seeking (a) supreme practice’ (brahmacariyesanā)[5] described as holding to the ten avyākata.[6] It is said that unwholesome actions of body, speech and mind occur with these views (akusalaṃ kāyakammaṃ, vacīkammaṃ, manokammaṃ). Wrong-views and beliefs give rise to unwholesome actions of body, speech and mind. As I argued above, this invalidates certain views as correct means of knowledge.[7] They are also questions that a Buddha will not give answers to as they do not lead to the overcoming of suffering.

What then do we learn from this part of the teachings of the Buddha? One thing is the common theme throughout Buddhist philosophy of needing to set a certain context in which Buddhism will engage with debate with other traditions. There appears to be a constant refinement of the very apparatus used in philosophical debate. If these are not in place, or if objects not pertinent to the Buddha’s debate are, then he will often remain silent. The major concern of the Buddha is that any idea of a ‘self’ (attā), which is eternal, unchanging an unconditioned, will invalidate the discussion about which a Buddhist wishes to engage in. It is not what to ask a Buddha about for the Buddha, it seems, wants to cure philosophy from the ‘self’.


[1] Vibh-a 508.

[2] The ideas of bhava and vibhava can be taken as synonymous with sassata and uccheda.

[3] S II 17. See also the Vism XIII 74.

[4] sassato loko ti vā, asassato loko ti vā antavā loko ti vā, anantavā loko ti vā, taṃ jīvaṃ taṃ sarīran ti vā aññaṃ jīvaṃ aññaṃ sarīran ti vā, hoti tathāgato param maraṇā ti vā, na hoti tathāgato param maraṇā ti vā, hoti ca na ca hoti tathāgato param maraṇā ti vā, neva hoti na na hoti tathāgato param maraṇā ti, S IV 392, M I 426, S III 258, Dhs 208, ṁ 1175, passim. In the Pañcattaya-sutta the first four questions state that the self and world are eternal, not eternal, finite or infinite, e.g., sassato attā ca loko ca, M II 233. The commentaries often interpret the term ‘world’ as meaning ‘self’ (Ud-a 339). As Collins suggests, this gives the overall meaning to the first four questions (Selfless Persons, p. 283-4, note 1).

[5] There are said to be three types of seeking: seeking sense pleasure, becoming and supreme practice (tattha katamā tisso esāna: kāmesanā bhavesanā brahmacariyesanā, Vibh 366).

[6] tattha katamā brahmacariyesanā: sassato loko ti vā asassato loko ti vā–pe–neva hoti. na na hoti tathāgato param maranāti vā yā evarūpā diṭṭhi diṭṭhi-gataṃ–pe–vipariyesagāho, ayaṃ vuccati brahmacariyesanā, Vibh 366; also called the ‘extremist views’ (antaggāhikā-diṭṭhi).

[7] The four antānanta-vāda,from the Brahmajāla-sutta, have many similarities with these ten avyākata: ‘The world is finite and bounded’ (antavā ayaṃ loko parivaṭumo,D I 22). ‘The world is infinite and boundless’ (ananto ayaṃ loko apariyanto, D I 23). ‘The world is both finite and infinite’ (antavā ca ayaṃ loko ananto ca,D I 24). ‘The world is neither finite nor infinite’ (n’ evâyaṃ loko antavā na panânanto, D I 24). Bhikkhu Bodhi points out that in the sub-commentarial understanding of these views, loko signifies attā (Bhikkhu Bodhi, The All Embracing Net of Views, p. 23). In many of the micchā-diṭṭhi being discussed we find loko and attā as the ‘entity’ that the micchā-diṭṭhi apprehends, misinterprets or adheres to. The mind inclines towards extremes and takes as its object the self and the world. There are a further group of views from the Brahmajāla-sutta that I have not incorporated into this chapter to avoid excessive repetition. They are found in the Appendix (2). They are the following: ‘seven annihilationist theories’(satta uccheda-vādā); ‘eight theories on having non-apperception’ (aṭṭha asaññī-vādā); ‘eight theories of neither apperception nor-non-apperception’ (aṭṭha nevasaññī-nāsaññī-vādā); ‘five theories on nibbāna in the present existence’ (pañca diṭṭha-dhamma-nibbāna-vādā); ‘two theories (of occurrences) arising without a cause’ (dve adhicca samuppannikā).



3 thoughts on “What not to ask a Buddha

  1. The Brahmajāla-sutta was the very Sutra that amusedly enlightened me in this way: “Even the biggest Brahma is caught in this net, the net of Phassa (contact, projection), and that is the reason the sutra is entitled ‘The net that embraced to catch Big Brahma’ “.

    Today, a good catch up from your No.7 citation is Loka = Atta of Bikkhu Bodhi. That makes a very good sense. When it is true that Phassa lets us conceive ‘something’ is ‘I’, ‘the world’, or ‘the God’ (Bhrama), the latter two can’t arise without our foremost delusion of ‘I’.

    I guess the presumptive power of ‘I’ creates another presupposition of the Bhrama (God) in the religious Yogi’s mind. There actually is no entity other than “Phassa” that creates our grandest sensible object as the God. That God created is in fact, none other than the product from a lust of our ego, and is not a separate The One from us i.e., myself. ‘God’, ‘world’ and ‘me’ are all mental formations to know that there is ‘somethingness’ other than ‘nothingness’ or vice versa.

    As far as I can understand the sutra, Buddha was saying that all 62 false views originate from the knowledge of ‘I’ . They can arise due to the lack of attention of the view-holder to realize that they are mere replacements of ‘I’ in our mental formations.

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