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Unanswered Questions The Khema Sutta
When a question was put to the Buddha that was rooted in ignorance, and a response could only further ignorance, the Buddha would often leave the question unanswered.
The Buddha did not make a definitive declaration, or left unanswered, questions that should not be answered as the declaration or direct answer would likely develop additional confusion or distraction, or the question itself is rooted in ignorance. Answering directly would reinforce ignorance and would not lead to understanding and release from clinging. The Buddha would often simply remain silent when a question put to him was an improper question or would lead to a “thicket of views.”
In the Khema Sutta King Pasenadi heard that a senior disciple of the Buddha’s, the Bikkhuni Khema, was visiting the area. He asked if Khema be summoned to him. Khema agreed and met with the King. (Bikkhuni is a nun. This is off-topic but notice the importance that women had within the Buddha’s Sangha.)
King Pasenadi had an interest in different “spiritual” teachings spreading in Northern India and had a series of questions for Khema:
The Khema Sutta
Samyutta Nikaya 44.1
“Bikkhuni Khema, does the Tathagata, the rightly self-awakened, one exist after death?”
Khema responds “Great King, the Tathagata has not declared that he exists after death. Further, he has not declared that the Tathagata does not exist after death.”
“Khema does the Tathagata both exist and not exist after death?”
“Great King, the Tathagata has not declared that he both exists and does not exist after death.”
“Well, dear lady, why is it the blessed and most learned one has not declared answers to these questions? What harm could there be in providing guidance?”
“Great King, I will question you in response to your questions. Please answer as you see fit. Do you employ an accountant who could count the grains of sand in the River Ganges and could that learned accountant declare the number of grains of sand in the River Ganges?”
“No, dear lady, I do not employ an accountant that could answer that question.The grains of sand in the river Ganges are to numerous and to difficult to fathom.”
“Well, could your accountant declare the number of buckets of water in the great ocean?”
“No, dear lady, I do not employ an accountant that could answer that question. The great ocean is too deep and boundless and too difficult to fathom.”
“The Tathagata, great King, having abandoned all clinging and destroyed the roots of future becoming is freed from form. The Awakened One is deep, boundless and difficult to fathom. The questions you asked do not apply to an awakened one. Any feeling or perception or mental fabrication, any consciousness that would be used to pose these questions are themselves rooted in ignorance. Rooted in ignorance there can be no useful answer.”
End of Sutta
King Pasenadi saw the deep wisdom in this answer and was delighted with this answer. He thanked Khema and departed. A short while later he went to the Buddha and asked the same questions. He received exactly the same response from the Buddha. King Pasenadi thanked the Buddha for his teachings and deep wisdom and for the consistency that his disciples preserved his teachings. The King bowed to the Buddha, delighted, and returned to his duties as King.
For the 45 years of his teaching The Buddha consistently declared that he “teaches the understanding of stress and confusion, and the cessation of stress and confusion, nothing more.” The Buddha consistently avoided answering questions that were rooted in ignorance and would only develop additional confusion and distract from awakening. He consistently avoided answering questions that were rooted in a confused ego-personality and would only lead to a more entrenched ego.
Looked at closely the questions of King Pasenadi’s questions arise from anatta, what the Buddha teaches is not a self. The King’s questions seek to further establish a self after the current form, the physical body animated by the six-sense base, ceases to exist.
These questions, and the Buddha’s refusal to support further confusion and suffering with a declarative statement point to a problem with modern Buddhism and the need to reconcile impermanent phenomena to the Buddha’s teachings, including the impermanent phenomena of anatta.
Not every question needs to be, or should be, explained, or fit into a philosophy. The Buddha did not try to explain all phenomenal occurrences. Much confusion and continued “I-making” has occurred in later-developed and individual and culturally influenced forms of Buddhism by attempting to provide an explanation for anicca, anatta, and dukkha.
Most later-developed forms of Buddhism have diminished or dismissed the Buddha’s original teachings by insisting that these three linked facts of human existence be explained in a way that will allow for the ego-personality, anatta, to maintain itself through eternity.
In the Samyutta Nikaya 22:45 the Buddha teaches: “The five clinging-aggregates (what is formed from ignorance and believed to be a self) are anicca, impermanent. All phenomena is impermanent. All that is impermanent is dukkha, unsatisfactory and confusing. Whatever is dukkha is without a self. Whatever is dukkha is not a self, it is anatta. Whatever is anatta is not mine and is not my self. This should be seen as it really is. Perfect wisdom reveals the truth when grasping and clinging have ended, when one is detached from the suffering of delusion. When one understands this fully, one is liberated.”
By misunderstanding and misapplying Dependent Origination to create clinging to all impermanent objects through a doctrine of “interdependence” anatta is further entrenched in anicca and dukkha is proliferated.
Dependent Origination shows that from ignorance, from lacking understanding of reality, through 12 observable causative links, suffering and confusion is born. The Maha-Patticca-Samupadda Sutta shows how from wisdom gained through the Eightfold Path ignorance ends and dukkha ceases.
A component of ignorance is conditioned, clinging mind’s inclination to ignore that which would challenge its entrenchment and wrong view. King Pasenadi’s questions were entrenched in wrong view. Any attempt to answer questions rooted in wrong view will only proliferate ignorance and further entrench anatta in anicca and further dukkha. Any attempt to reconcile these questions, to make them “fit” into a philosophy will only proliferate ignorance and further entrench anatta in anicca and further dukkha.
The Buddha’s teaching on liberation and freedom through the Eightfold Path guides one through refining mindfulness to what is most important to consider, and avoid what would prove to continue distraction and suffering.
It is through attachment and clinging that suffering originates and continues. The great freedom that is gained through the Eightfold Path is the wisdom of knowing what can and should be abandoned in thought, word, and deed. Peace.
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.