What Was Behind the Buddha’s Silent Answer?

Whether there is self or not,
it is attachment to self
that perpetuates suffering.

– Stonepeace

As recorded in the Ananda Sutta, a wanderer called Vacchagotta once asked the Buddha if there is a self, to which the Buddha remained silent. Next, he asked if there is no self, to which the Buddha also remained silent. Upon his departure, the Buddha’s attendant disciple Ananda asked why didn’t he answer either questions. The Buddha replied that if he were to say there is a self, that would conform to eternalism, which is the mistaken view that there is an eternal unchanging soul. If he were to say there is no self, that would conform to annihilationism, which is the mistaken view that with death is the annihilation of consciousness. And if he were to say there is a self, that would not be aligned with the realisation that all phenomena (mind and matter) are not-self. And if he were to say there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would have become more bewildered as to whether the self he used to have does not exist now.

Eternalism proposes that there is a part of our being that does not change from life to life. This the Buddha clearly did not endorse, as he had analysed our being into the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousnesses) in the Anattalakkhana Sutta – all of which are fluxing and dissatisfactory, thus unsuited to be a substantial self. Annihilationism proposes that there is no part of our being (aggregates) that remains from life to life. This the Buddha also did not endorse, because the aggregates do exist – in terms of change. That is to say, though our forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousnesses are not fixed from one moment to another, they exist in the moment. In this sense, there is ultimately no fixed self (Anatta) to speak of, while conventionally speaking, there is a self that we need to relate to practically; albeit not cling to, since it changes.

The Buddha taught a subtle ‘Middle Way’ truth between the erroneous extremes of eternalism and annihilationism, as based upon the truth of impermanence (Anicca). Though we have body and mind (conventional self), we have no fixed body and mind; we are ultimately not-self. As such, the questions of whether there is a self or not could not be answered simplistically. Perhaps the Buddha didn’t explain the above to Vacchagotta because he was too attached to wanting yes or no answers despite the complexity of the truth. As such, even if the Buddha elaborated on the meaning of his silence to him, it wouldn’t be useful – which is why silence became the best answer – for him to contemplate its intention. Vacchagotta was probably not sharp enough to discern and reconcile differences between the relative truth of a conventional self and the absolute truth of ultimate non-self. Are you like Vacchagotta too?

Right speech includes appropriate silence;
not just appropriate words.

– Stonepeace


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