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In a quest to find the Buddhist meaning of life, I stumbled upon The Unanswered Questions and the Unwise Reflections (Sabbasava-Sutta), and I am surprised that The Buddha actually advised against thinking about these questions:

Am I? Am I not? Did I exist in the past? Did I not exist in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, did I become what in the past? Shall I exist in future? Shall I not exist in future? What shall I be in future? How shall I be in future?

The reason given is that it causes attachment to self, and some others say because they are founded on false premises.

Firstly, this is the Wikipedia, so I am not 100% sure of its accuracy, but as per my interpretation, this means that, for example, "Self" is only a concept or theory that may be false and incompatible with reality, and a question like "Who Am I" is then founded on the false premise of the "Self" concept. In short, it preoccupies us with confusion. All good so far.

Even though what I gather generally is that Science and Buddhism are consistent in approach, is Science's relentless search for answers bad for people as well? Does The Buddha (1) recognise the possibility of finding the truth for these questions, or (2) is it impossible to find the truth, or (3) is it detrimental for us to know the truth?

Is there a better (than Wikipedia) explanation why we should not reflect on these questions?

P.S. this question was partly inspired by the 14 questions left unanswered question, which I think does not answer my question. In the quoted text, it does not state what Buddha thinks of the "findability" of the answers to those questions. It only states that Buddha thinks the answer will confuse us, therefore choose to be silent. However, we are 2000 years later now and we may have better science to explain certain phenomenon. Are Buddhist scientist advised or permitted to delve into such questions?

Furthermore, I am specifically asking about the "Unwise Reflections" in Wikipedia in the bottom section, rather than the 14 questions.

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"Does The Buddha (1) recognize the possibility of finding the truth for these questions, or (2) is it impossible to find the truth, or (3) is it detrimental for us to know the truth?"

To be sure, we are talking about questions like "Did I exist in the past? Shall I exist in future? How shall I be in future?" etc.

In context of Sabbasava-Sutta, these are not questions, these are unwise reflections. They are thoughts that don't lead to liberation-by-wisdom. Why? Because like you yourself indicated in the question, they are founded on false premise. What false premise?

That "I" is an entity.

Because "I" is not an entity, the notion of "existing" or "not existing" does not apply. Therefore the questions are invalid. Normally, contemplating questions that are based on a premise, assume validity of the premise. Since in this case the premise is not just false (which it is), but is also considered harmful (because it is a major part of fundamental confusion that is the basis of suffering), assuming its validity is considered counterproductive.

Instead, one is advised to research into the premise itself. What is this notion of "I"? Is body I? Is emotions I? Is thoughts I? Is memories/experiences/imprints I? What makes an entity, entity? When we watch the mind in meditation, what is it that does the watching? Or if there is no "what", then how does the watching work?

Because you seem to be very new to Buddhism, it is totally normal for you to not know the basics, so instead of trying to cover all that ground, let me give you a pair of shoes. Check out "anatta" in Theravada, and also the notion of "emptiness" in Madhyamika.

  • I think ChrisW did a good interpretation/explanation, but your answer has a more logical flow. Too bad I can only check one as answer, thanks to all. I think this answer also summed up the other 2 questions I posted so far. – Jake Oct 3 '14 at 15:35
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Is there a better (than Wikipedia) explanation why we should not reflect on these questions?

Perhaps a better explanation is the Sabbasava Sutta itself.

The 'unwise reflections' are diverse (16 if you count them) opinions about the 'self':

"This is how he attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?' Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: 'Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?'

This causes views or opinions about the self:

"As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self... or [etc.]

These views aren't helpful:

This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.

The are other views to be attended to instead:

"He attends appropriately, This is stress... This is the origination of stress... This is the cessation of stress... This is the way leading to the cessation of stress. As he attends appropriately in this way, three fetters are abandoned in him: identity-view, doubt, and grasping at precepts & practices. These are called the fermentations to be abandoned by seeing.

(i.e. the 'four noble truths').

And the rest of the sutta describes dwelling with restraint; using things moderately; tolerating various things; abandoning various things; destroying (not tolerating) various evil thoughts; developing various virtues.

When the practitioner is successful, then he or she will have abandoned 'fermentations' by the various things above (restraint, use, tolerating, abandoning, destroying, and developing), and will have achieved the goal:

He has severed craving, thrown off the fetters, and — through the right penetration of conceit — has made an end of suffering & stress."


Even though what I gather generally is that Science and Buddhism are consistent in approach, is Science's relentless search for answers bad for people as well?

Buddhism doesn't try to answer everything.

Science tries to explain why the gravity on the moon isn't as strong as here; why chemicals react with some chemicals but not others; how photosynthesis produces oxygen; how the universe began and whether it will end; etc.

Buddhism is more like a single scientific procedure, a (repeatable) experiment, or a recipe: i.e. Buddhism is a way, teaches a way, to end suffering.

Within that context, and assuming that you want to end suffering, questions or view which don't lead to the end of suffering (which includes 'attending to' those views about the self) are called "unwise".


I don't mean to say that Science itself, or the pursuit of science, is wrong: it may be in the category of Right Livelihood.

  • "Within that context..." - understood. – Jake Oct 3 '14 at 15:27
  • @Jake The parable of the arrow gives essentially the same reason: The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him. and it's not the case that when there is the view, 'The cosmos is eternal,' there is the living of the holy life. And it's not the case that when there is the view, 'The cosmos is not eternal,' there is the living of the holy life. – ChrisW Oct 3 '14 at 17:08
  • @ChrisW I don't think the parable is sufficient as an answer itself. "In the same way, if anyone were to say, 'I won't live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not declare to me that 'The cosmos is eternal,'... the man would die and those things would still remain undeclared... does not therefore mean the man should live the holy life. This argument can be applied to any religion similarly e.g. "I will not worship XXX as long as XXX does not reveal himself to me; the man will still suffer under the rules of XXX and would die without knowing". – Jake Oct 4 '14 at 7:22
  • But when you said "Within that context [of the objective]", then it makes sense. – Jake Oct 4 '14 at 7:23
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    @Jake Therefore, I didn't immediately see the objective of reducing suffering. I find it difficult to imagine what "Buddhism" is, if not the Four Noble Truths; every one of which truths is related to dukkha (suffering). IOW when I think of Buddhist doctrine I immediately see as being intended, having the objective, to reduce suffering. – ChrisW Oct 4 '14 at 21:23
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In regards to the unanswerable questions, here is the original Sutta that lays them out:

"There are these four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them. Which four?

"The Buddha-range of the Buddhas[1] is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.

"The jhana-range of a person in jhana...[2]

"The [precise working out of the] results of kamma...

"Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.

"These are the four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them."

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.077.than.html

By saying that they lead only to "madness & vexation" I think it is clear that this text is saying that these questions don't really have any answers.

Now let's move on to the part from the Sabbasava Sutta:

"And what are the ideas unfit for attention that he attends to? Whatever ideas such that, when he attends to them, the unarisen fermentation of sensuality arises in him, and the arisen fermentation of sensuality increases; the unarisen fermentation of becoming arises in him, and arisen fermentation of becoming increases; the unarisen fermentation of ignorance arises in him, and the arisen fermentation of ignorance increases. These are the ideas unfit for attention that he attends to.

...

This is how he attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?' Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: 'Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?'

"As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self... or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self arises in him as true & established, or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine — the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions — is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will stay just as it is for eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.002.than.html

From context I think it's quite clear that the Sabbasava Sutta is talking specifically about focusing on views about a self, which according to Buddhism is just a concept.

You ask the question:

Does The Buddha (1) recognise the possibility of finding the truth for these questions, or (2) is it impossible to find the truth, or (3) is it detrimental for us to know the truth?

I think that the right answer is that none of these questions actually have answers because they presuppose things that aren't true or a general formulation might not be possible (for example, the results of Karma are unanswerable because in order to give an answer for a specific case you would need to be able to see all of that person's Karma, which goes back infinitely far into the past. Only a fully enlightened Buddha is able to do that, and even then, that is for a single specific case. Because even a single case is infinitely complex, it is impossible to come up with a "unified theory of Karma" that can give a complete explanation.)

  • "none of these questions actually have answers" -- Is the buddhist view in this statement considered a universal truth for all eternity, or just the truth at that time it was conceived? Is there a possibility that we can calculate results closer and closer to eventually get the answer? – Jake Oct 3 '14 at 14:02
  • @Jake I think it's for all time. I don't see how you could ever calculate anything about the 'self' for instance. Or are you thinking more specifically about the question of the origin of the world? – Bakmoon Oct 3 '14 at 14:53
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while science and Buddhism share some similar methodology, their ultimate goals aren't the same. Science aims to increase knowledge and understanding of how the natural world works while Buddhism aims to eradicate all defilements of the body, speech, and mind and to put an end to suffering. Further details are available from Ven. Thanissaro's great essay called "Questions of Skill" ( http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/questions.html )

  • Science and Buddhism are similar when inquiring. But science is materialistic and Buddhism is "experientialist". While for science reality relies on matter, for Buddhism reality relies on experience. – eric Mar 4 '15 at 23:08

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