What the Buddha Wouldn't Say


Along with all my other rants about the way Buddhism is misunderstood, one bunch of misunderstandings and misconceptions that I can’t blame on the Victorian translations are the ones that come bundled with the word “religion”. Because all the dominant religions in the West are “Abrahamic” and derived from Judaism, we have a very deeply ingrained belief that all religion uniformly believes in a single God or chief god. In fact, a dictionary definition gives:

the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods: ideas about the relationship between science and religion.

a particular system of faith and worship: the world’s great religions.

Then along comes Buddhism. Not only does Buddhism not prescribe a belief in a particular god, when questioned about it, old Siddhartha got very cagey about talking about it at all. Various sutras talk about various believers in other things coming to debate the Buddha, and traditionally there are ten (or fourteen if you’re in a Mahayana tradition like me) things that Buddha repeatedly refused to get into. These became known as the Fourteen Unanswerable Questions, (Sanskrit: Avyakrta) and so as not to keep you in suspense, these are:

  • Is the world eternal? Is it not? is it both? Is it neither?
  • Is the world finite? Is it infinite? Is it both? Is it neither?
  • Is the self identical to the body? Is it different or separate from the body?
  • Does an enlightened being continue to exist after death? Or not? Both? Neither?

Theravada Buddhists leave off the both or neither questions on the first two, which is why they only have only ten unanswerable questions. Clearly, Mahayana is superior.

Yes, that was a joke.


This isn’t something where the Buddha sat down one day, arranged himself in the lotus position, and said, “Okay, these are the questions I won’t answer.” Instead, they were collected from various records of what Buddha said. When asked these sorts of questions, Buddha refused to be drawn into the conversation. When asked why, he answered that it wasn’t productive to debate these sorts of questions.

By the way, notice that these apply directly to reincarnation, which is another topic that the Buddha was less than forthcoming about. He regularly told stories about his previous incarnations — which became sort of Buddhist bedtime stories, called the Jataka Tales — and at the same time refused to commit himself on this whole reincarnation thing.

When you won’t commit to an answer to this sort of question, though, it’s confusing. Is the universe eternal, or was it created? (And if it was created, by whom?) Buddha didn’t say. Does a Buddha exist after death? There he was a little less cagey, as while he wouldn’t answer that question directly, he did say at various times that no one could say what the state of final nirvana was like, that it couldn’t be said or conceived.

Add to that, Buddha wasn’t or isn’t a God. Some stories say he had supernatural powers, but then there are stories about an invulnerable man who can fly in our society. He always denied being some kind of special being, which is one hell of a way to start a religion in Western terms. He was, like Zaphod Beeblebrox, just this guy.