Monday, July 30, 2012

Fragment 30072012

Notes on Buddhism

The Buddha commonly responds to questions with silence, or a refusal to answer. Even when the question is repeated three times, the Buddha does not respond. This has the effect, sometimes, of making the Buddha appear remote, unconcerned, austere; but the silence always has a pedagogical purpose in that it usually forces the questioner to re-examine the question, or to examine the premises on which the question is based. The suttas are full of incidents of this kind. Let's look at three examples, the first from the Vinaya Pitaka. (Vin. Cv. 10.1)

When Mahapajapati Gotami asks for permission for women to take the Dhamma, Buddha refuses, saying: "Do not ask for the going forth from the house life into homelessness for women..." Gotami thinks to herself: "The Blessed One does not allow it." She asks for the intercession of Ananda, who also asks the Buddha three times. Each time is met with silence. Then Ananda thinks to himself: "The Blessed One does not allow it. But suppose I asked the Blessed One in a different way?" He then asks if women are capable of receiving the Dhamma, and gets his answer, allowing women to receive the Dhamma. The pedagogical lesson here, for Gotami and Ananda, is that the premise on which the request is based was wrong: no one needs permission to follow the Dhamma, so asking for it is pointless. The pedagogical lesson for the reader is that what at first appears to be intransigence on the part of the Buddha and wiliness on the part of Ananda in reframing the question so as to allow the Buddha to give permission, is actually a lesson in challenging the assumptions on which questions and requests are based.

Our second example comes from the Sutta Pitaka (S 44.10). The wanderer Vacchagotta asks the Buddha: "How is it, Master Gotama, does self exist?" The Buddha does not respond. "Does self not exist"? No response. Vacchagotta gives up, and walks away. Ananda, who has heard the conversation, asks the Buddha why he did not respond. "If when I was asked 'Does self exist?' I had answered 'Self exists.' that would have been the belief of those who hold the theory of eternalism. And if, when I was asked 'Does the self not exist?' I had answered 'Self does not exist.' that would have been the belief of those who hold the theory of annihilationism" says the Buddha to Ananda.  There are a number of pedagogical lessons here. First, is that the wanderer is not versed in Dhamma and that his questions are not real questions based on real searchings, but questions about summation: he is seeking to confirm things he has heard about the Buddha's doctrines. The Buddha does in fact teach that self does not exist, but more importantly he teaches that this knowledge must be arrived at through application, through the practice of the Dhamma, and not through a quick handy summary from the Buddha. The second pedagogical lesson is that the wanderer's questions do not arise from the wanderer's own search for the truth of the Dhamma, but from his desire to collect theories, and to place the Buddha's teaching somewhere within the context of those theories – is the Buddha an eternalist or an annihilationist on the question of the Self?  What is significant here is that the wanderer does not stay to ask a third question, which is the usual number in such cases, but wanders off after he doesn't get an answer from the Buddha, showing that through his lack of tenacity in pursuing the enquiry he is not really interested in the Dhamma. He loses the opportunity to reframe his question, and in doing so shows that he is not really interested in the answers. It is for Ananda and the reader to pick up the lesson.

The third example comes from the Anguttura Pitaka (A10:95). In this sutta, another Wanderer, Uttiya, is in conversation with the Buddha. "How is it, Master Gotama, the world is eternal: is only that the truth and everything else wrong?" The Buddha responds thus: "That is not answered by me, Uttiya." This is in effect a silence: the Buddha states that he refuses to answer. A long string of questions and refusals to answer follow. Then Uttiya confronts the Buddha with his refusal to answer, and the Buddha says: "I teach the Dhamma to disciples from direct knowledge, Uttiya..." Uttiya persists: "Does that Dhamma provide an outlet from suffering for all the world, or for half or for a third?" The Buddha is silent. Ananda, who has been listening, draws Uttiya to one side and tells him: "Your question which you put to the Blessed One was framed in the wrong way; that was why the Blessed One did not answer it." The pedagogical lesson here, as in the previous example, is that knowledge of the Dhamma is not to be gained through Q&A after a powerpoint show, but through practice and application leading to direct knowledge.

What's interesting about these examples- and many other suttas where this kind of event happens- is the presence of Ananda. Ananda is usually the one who knows how to reframe the question, either for others, or for himself; and his role is frequently to draw the Buddha out, to reframe the questions for others, or to interpret the teaching for the reader/hearer. And of course it was the Blessed Ananda, Buddha's cousin, who first recited for preservation the Sutta Pitaka.

Why are these questions not answered by the Perfect One? Because they are asked by one who relishes form...and also being and clinging and craving, and does not know how these things cease.
(S 44.6)

The waters long to hear our questions put
Which would release their longed for answer, but.

W.H. Auden

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