The Silence of the Buddha

 

INTRODUCTION

 

At the center of the Buddhist philosophy is something of a parable entitled “The Silence of the Buddha.”  It refers to fourteen questions the Buddha refused to answer.   Different accounts offer slightly different positions in that perhaps he declined to consider, or rather declined to even acknowledge them. 

 

But whatever his precise motivation, there are actually only four issues posed but the first three are said to have four possible answers and the fourth to have two possible answers.  The questions and allowed variants are

 

1.      Is the universe eternal, or not, or both, or neither?

2.      Is the universe spatially finite in size, or infinite, or both, or neither?

3.      Will the Buddha (Tathagata) exist after death, or not, or both, or neither?

4.      Is the “self” (soul) identical with the body, or not?

 

That some of the choices are illogical or unreasonable may simply have been a means to discredit the question and beyond that to attack the fundamental utility of logic and reason.  In any event, the cloud of confusion created effectively frustrates any serious consideration of the issues.

 

In modern times, the first two questions are currently the subject of productive scientific inquiry but Buddha (c.563-483 B.C) apparently took the view they were not just difficult but unknowable by any means.  Other explanations, that these questions were irrelevant to the relief of suffering, or that he was agnostic, or that they were a harmfully deceiving distraction are less insightful.

 

That logical problems with infinite regression could have been considered in developing a view of the cosmos was not apparent, as it had been from the time of Abraham (c. 2000 B.C.) to Moses (c. 1400 or c. 1200 B.C.) as described in the Book of Genesis.   In any event, Buddha’s teachings were first written down from hundreds of years of oral tradition in about 29 B.C. in the Pali Cannon.

 

As a consequence, while Buddhism claims an indifference to science, it rather demonstrates a passive aggressive attitude.  This is perhaps in keeping with the core requirement of Buddhism to withdraw from the world in sort of a self-pity couched in rambling witticisms that more obfuscate than enlighten.  The happiest state of mind is claimed to be an extreme indifference to all suffering, including any necessarily ineffectual and tiring attempts to prevent it.  The best result to be hoped for is a sort of non-existence or state of “nirvana” in which all feeling and sensibility and judgment are eliminated.  What remains is only an existence free of all cares.

 

The last two questions are philosophical rather than practical and address the issue of man’s self-awareness or consciousness.   To the extent that our minds are not strictly governed by natural law, to allow for free will, they have a qualitative difference with physical reality and not being governed by the same rules do not necessarily perish with the death of the body.

 

But again in a striking departure from the Judeo-Christian tradition, which posits a strict moral component to man’s consciousness, Buddhists have a more relativist approach to right and wrong emphasizing the reduction of instantaneous emotional strife.  These are enshrined in the “Five Precepts” which mimic the Ten Commandments formulated nearly millennia earlier are as follows

 

1.      Abstain from killing

2.      Abstain from taking what is not given

3.      Avoid sexual misconduct

4.      Abstain from false speech

5.      Refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness

 

But as there is no logical foundation for these laws, the are not amenable to logical analysis nor derivable from simpler considerations.  Indeed the inherent worship of nature is invalidated by the discovery of natural law which govern physical reality and which imply a supernatural creator.   At its basis, Buddhism recognizes a profound supernatural aspects of karma and reincarnation which implies the existence of of a cosmic moral judgment.   So those who are drawn to Buddhism for its apparent freedom of thought and ritual and self-directed belief are invariably disappointed.

BUDDHA’S DENIAL OF LOGIC

 

Formal systems of logic most notably described by Aristotle (c. 383-322 B.C.) such as deductive reasoning remain the cornerstone of all mathematics and the scientific method.   In contrast, Buddhism wallows in a near infinitude of hairsplitting lacking coherence and organization and ultimately utility to practical application. 

 

Aristotle’s laws or axioms of logic served as the cornerstone of rational thought and the development of science and ethics in stark contrast to the fuzzy-minded gibberish of Eastern Mysticism, which tries to excuse ignorance in an empty helplessness of bluster and convoluted language that can mean anything and thus nothing.   Otherwise truth and falsehood are meaningless and our travels pointless.

 

1.      The Law of Identity.

Things exist and have definite properties at a specific time and place which are intrinsic and invariant.   By invariant we mean, for instance, that if an orange had a round shape yesterday, then it will always have been round at that time.  Further these aspects of reality are something we can know and meaningfully discuss.  Note that ambiguity can arise from the use of ambiguous naming conventions but ambiguity cannot exist in the “facts” themselves.   Thus for example, the statement that “the ball is blue” cannot have the same precise meaning as “the ball is not blue.”

 

2.      The Law of Non-Contradiction.

Let us represent a precise statement saying that something has a particular property as “A” and saying that something does not have that property as “not-A.”  Then either “A” or “not-A” must be true.   Both cannot be false at the same time.

 

3.      The Law of the Excluded Middle.

This is the “exclusive or” of logic also called mutual exclusion.  That is saying “A” or not-A” is true means only “A”, or only “not-A”, is true.   Thus if one of these is true, then the other must be false.  Both cannot be true at the same time.

 

These laws were further developed in the 19th century by reformulating their truth and utility in to a formal mathematics.  But even still they remain the bedrock on which all rational thought rests.

 

The net result is that Buddhism lacks a sense critical reasoning, or indeed any rational system, without which there is any objective truth.  And further, only wallows in unreason and fuzzy meaningless falsehood.   Buddhists see life as nothing but suffering and strive for relief by trying not to want anything.  Buddhists try to withdraw from the world by pursuing illogical questions rather than applying logic and engaging with the world to gain concrete knowledge (scientific method)