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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 4: Deepening the Understanding of the Path > The Fourteen Questions to Which Buddha Remained Silent

The Fourteen Questions to Which Buddha Remained Silent

Alexander Berzin
February 2007

There are fourteen unspecified points (lung-du ma-bstan-pa bcu-bzhi), which are points about which Buddha did not specify an answer when asked. Often this set of fourteen is referred to as the “fourteen questions to which Buddha remained silent.” 

The Mahayana Version

To those who believe in a true findably existent “me” or “self” (bdag, Skt. atman) and a true findably existent universe, Buddha did not answer when they asked are the “I” or the “self” and the universe:

  • eternal,

  • not eternal, since they undergo gross impermanence at the time of their destruction,

  • as both, in the sense that some beings and their environments, like the Creator Brahma and his heaven, are eternal; while all else, such as his creations, are not eternal and end at the time of their destruction,

  • neither, since it is impossible to  know? 

Are “I’s” or “selves” and the universe:

  • finite,

  • infinite,

  • both finite and infinite, in the sense that limited beings (sentient beings) are infinite in number, but the universe is finite in size,

  • neither, since it is impossible to know? 

Does the “I” or the “self” of a Buddha:

  • continue to exist after death,

  • not continue after death,

  • both, in the sense that the body does not continue, but the life-force (srog) does,

  • neither? 

Buddha did not answer these because there is no such thing as a true findably existent “me” or “ self” for either limited beings (sentient beings) or a Buddha, and no such thing as a true findably existent universe. Therefore, there can be no question whether such things are eternal or not eternal, or finite or infinite. It is like asking do rabbit-horns, turtle-hair or chicken-lips last forever or only a limited time. If Buddha said the “me,” and so on are eternal, these people would fall to the position of eternalism. If he said they are not eternal, they would fall to the position of nihilism, since they would not understand his answer. Therefore, it was more skillful not to specify an answer at all. 

To those who believe in a true findably existent body and life-force, Buddha did not answer when they asked are the body and life-force:

  • the same entity,

  • totally separate and different entities? 

He remained silent for a similar reason, since they would only misunderstand anything he said. 

The Theravada Version

An earlier, abbreviated list of ten unspecified points appears in the Pali canon in the Sutta of Shorter (Instructions) to Malunkya (Pali: Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta, within the The Collection of Middle-Length Discourses (Pali: Majjhima Nikaya). In this version, the monk Malunkyaputta was continuously distracted by metaphysical speculation during his meditation. In order to turn him back to his intensive meditation practice, Buddha remained silent when Malunkyaputta asked whether:

  • the universe is eternal,

  • the universe is not eternal,

  • the universe is finite,

  • the universe is infinite,

  • after death, a Buddha continues to exist,

  • after death, a Buddha does not continue to exist,

  • after death, a Buddha both continues to exist and not to exist,

  • after death, a Buddha neither continues to exist or not to exist,

  • the body and the “self” are the same entity,

  • the body and the “self” are totally separate and different entities.