One of the Buddha’s most important teachings deals directly with unimportant teachings. Any why unimportant? Because they do not lead to understanding, they do not lead to the cessation of suffering, instead only further stirring the already murky water of samsaric existence.
Which teachings are unimportant? Isn’t that a bit harsh? This is not to say that they are useless fodder, but rather that they were set aside by the Buddha and have no place in Buddhism proper.
Collectively referred to as avyakrtavastuni – the undetermined, unelucidated, unprofitable questions – they are usually listed as tenfold:
1. The cosmos is eternal.
2. The cosmos is not eternal.
3. The cosmos is finite.
4. The cosmos is infinite.
5. The soul and body are the same.
6. The soul and body are different.
7. The Tathagata exists after death.
8. The Tathagata does not exist after death.
9. The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death.
10. The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death.
These ten are also occasionally referred to as antagahika micchaditthi – the ten wrong views not conducive to the path.
The Avyakata-Samyutta of the Samyutta Nikaya within the Sutta Pitaka deals with these positions undeclared by the Buddha. An overview is included here as introductory and contextualizing material.
In the Khema Sutta (SN 44.1), King Pasenadi, an esteemed political figure at the time, speaks with the nun Khema. When asked by the king whether the Buddha exists after death, Khema replies that no answer (e.g., yes, no, both, or neither) was given by the Buddha. The king, having his doubts, goes straight to the source for clarification. The Buddha confirms Khema’s response and states the same as she: that neither existence nor non-existence, nor both, nor neither, apply to an awakened being.
In the Anuradha Sutta (SN 44.2), a group of wanderers approaches the monk Anuradha to declare that they have heard the Buddha is described as existing, not existing, both, or neither after death. Anuradha corrects their misconception, stating the Buddha does not uphold any of these views, that none of them apply to him. Unconvinced, the wanderers refuse to believe Anuradha and depart, so later Anuradha visits the Buddha to ask how he should have responded. The Buddha begins by describing 1) the aggregates (form, feeling, perception, fabrications, consciousness) as impermanent, 2) that which is impermanent as unsatisfactory, and 3) that which is unsatisfactory as empty of self. He then states that none of the aggregates should be regarded as defining a person. Any other definition of self outside the aggregates would also not suffice, nor would a definition of self as the sum-total of the aggregates. Therefore, he says, it is unhelpful to ponder the matter of existence or non-existence after death as it presumes some sort of self that either exists or does not exist, thus missing the point of the Buddha’s teachings pertaining to the transcendence of suffering.
In the Sariputta-Kotthita Sutta (44.3, 44.4, 44.5, 44.6), the monk Maha Kotthita visits the monk Sariputta, among the Buddha’s foremost disciples. Maha-Kotthita repeats the same questions regarding existence, non-existence, and so forth, but all are undeclared by the Buddha, says Sariputta. Bewildered, Maha Kotthita asks why this is so, and Sariputta replies that all such questions are mistaking the Buddha as one or a combination of the five aggregates, and the Buddha has taught that there is no self within the aggregates to either live eternally or to be annihilated. On the second occasion that this question is asked, Sariputta remarks that one who sees the aggregates as they actually are present, the origination, cessation, and the path leading to cessation, has no position on the matter. On the third occasion, Sariputta responds that one whose passion for the aggregates is removed sees no reason to speculate on matters of self. Finally, on the fourth occasion, when asked, Sariputta explains that only those who cherish the aggregates, cherish becoming, cherish clinging, cherish craving will have the thought of existence/non-existence/both/neither.
In the Moggallana Sutta (SN 44.7), the wander Vacchagotta questions the monk Maha Moggallana on whether the cosmos are eternal, not eternal, finite, infinite, if the body and soul are different or the same, and whether the Buddha exists, does not exist, both, or neither after death. Maha Moggallana responds that none of these positions are declared by the Buddha, as one who understands clearly does not take any of the sense organs to be “me” or “mine.” Vacchagotta checks this declaration with the Buddha, who confirms it.
In the Vacchagotta Sutta (SN 44.8), Vacchagotta again approaches the Buddha with the same set of questions, and the Buddha explains how these positions arise from misidentifying the aggregates as the self. Vacchagotta then returns to the monk Maha Moggallana and the same is repeated, with Vacchagotta’s mistaken positions dismissed.
A primary reason for these non-answers when asked about existence, non-existence, and other such matters is that any answer will invite logical contradictions and metaphysical speculation that distracts from the path of renunciation and transcendence. As the Buddha explains to his disciple and attendant, the monk Ananda:
“Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those priests & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism [the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those priests & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?”
“And if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: ‘Does the self I used to have now not exist?'”
Ananda Sutta (SN 44.10)