Transcendental Q & A

BuddhaMany homeless wanderers came to the Buddha to ask him questions; his answers ranged from the practical to the downright cryptic. Subhuti considers one of the most mysterious dialogues recorded

I’m going to start by giving you a quiz, a set of questions. The first question is: is the world, the universe, infinite or finite in terms of space? Is there a point where the universe ends, or not? The second question is, of course: is the universe infinite in time, or not? Was there a beginning and will there be an end – or not? Is it eternal, or is it temporally finite? No doubt some of you are pretty sophisticated and have already got quantum physics on the go and all that. But just see what your response is to those two questions, just note your thoughts.

The third question perhaps tickles the fancy of the psychologists and neurologists. Is the mind – which is not quite the right word for it in this context, but let us say ‘mind’ – the same as the body, or not? Are the body and mind identical, or are they different? The fourth question is more difficult because it already implies a certain amount of knowledge of Buddhism, but I’ll ask it anyway. The Buddha, we know, is supposed to have gained Enlightenment, Bodhi. And he lived and walked upon his earth for many years after his Enlightenment, but eventually he died, probably in his eighties. So the question is, what happened to him after he died? Did he exist? Did he not exist? And just in case you think the question is not already difficult enough: did he both exist and not exist after he died, or did he neither exist nor not exist after he died? That is just a bit of garnish on the meal!

These questions were put to the Buddha 2,500 years ago. He was approached by a wanderer who went by the name of Vacchagotta. We are given nothing more than his surname, but he crops up again and again in the Buddhist scriptures, and he is clearly of a thoughtful mind. He he questions the Buddha again and again, and you can trace an intellectual or spiritual history of Vacchagotta when you look at the discourses in which he appears, because gradually the penny is dropping; he is gradually getting it. He starts off addressing the Buddha as ‘Bho-gotama’, a rather over-familiar but reasonably honorific way of talking to someone. I don’t know what our equivalent would be – perhaps ‘Mr Gotama’. But the process continues over many years, apparently, and he ends upf course going for refuge to the Buddha, eventually gaining Enlightenment, becoming an ‘Arahant’. Anyway, very early on in his inquiry, he came across the Buddha and asked him these four questions. And boy does he get a strange answer.

The Buddha says, when asked if the world is infinite, ‘I don’t say that’. Is it finite? ‘I don’t say that either’. The Buddha is refusing to accept the horns of the dilemma on which Vacchagotta is trying to impale him, upon which we are all impaled. If the world is not infinite, surely it must be finite. If it is not finite it must be infinite. But the Buddha says no, neither of those applies. So, is the world finite in terms of time, or not? Again, the Buddha says that neither of these applies: ‘I do not say either of these’. And then, is the mind – the word in Pali is ‘jiva’, which means something more like ‘life-force’, so ‘mind’ is a fairly good paraphrase – is the experience of being alive, the sense of being alive, the same as the body or not? Again, the Buddha says, sorry, I don’t buy either of those alternatives.

Poor Vacchagotta! You feel really sorry for him. The scriptures are very spare, but one imagines that Vacchagotta, if he has any hair – and he was a wanderer so may have cut it off – is tearing it out by now. Come on! – he’d be thinking. It’s got to be one or the other. But the Buddha just won’t accept either, replying only, ‘I do not say so’. So again, for these four alternatives for whether the Buddha exists after death, he won’t accept any of them. He simply says, ‘They are all ditthi’. They are all speculative opinions, all theories – and they are not just theories, they are a ‘thicket’ of theories, a wasteland of theories, a tangle of theories, a desert of theories. In other words, he is not very keen on them.

All the time we see things from a certain point of view; we interpret our experience. And our interpretation is built upon our experience. When I talk about whether the world is finite or infinite, what I am doing is using my experience of endings. So in spatial terms, I am taking my experience of coming to the end of this room, reaching the door and going out. When I am talking temporally, I am talking about my experience of, for instance, this talk ending. We experience boundaries, endings, in space and time. Which is useful, particularly if you want to get out of the room, if you want to decide what to do next. It sort of works. But upon that a speculative view is built. So we start to speculate about time and space themselves – as if space was a room, and as if time was an interval between a beginning and an end.

So we extrapolate from our rather more immediate experience our common-sense construction of time. We construct a larger notion about space and time themselves. Actually, you never experience space, you never experience time. What you experience is the duration of one element against another; you experience the relationship of one thing to another. But you never experience space itself, or time itself. So you are applying to space and time something that is derived from your experience within space and time.

A speculative view is one that is derived from our ordinary common-sense experience and explodes way beyond its capacity to yield unproblematic truth. So the Buddha is effectively arguing that space and time themselves, if thought of as wholes, lead to problems. He didn’t describe what he meant by that, he simply said these are speculative views. He wasn’t at this point interested in proving or disproving it. Later Buddhism becomes more interested in elaborating the thinking and showing why this is the case. But the Buddha simply said that thinking in those terms – in terms of space, for instance, as a thing that can therefore be infinite or finite – is going way beyond our intellectual remit, way beyond what thinking can do. And it is the same with time.

It is the same also with jiva, the life-force, the sense of being alive, and the body. Herethe Buddha again suggests that to speculate about their relationship is to accept naively a distinction between them. Which isn’t to say that they are not different. I can touch my body, feel it in movement. So I have a sort of external experience of my body. But I also have an internal experience of my body. I have an experience of being embodied, of being alive. But when I separate out these two kinds of experience I have a problem of how to relate them. That problem is a problem in thought, and therefore has to be resolved in thought – and when it is resolved in thought it leads simply to further problems. It is a speculative opinion.

The final problem posed by Vacchagotta to which the Buddha said that any answer was a speculative one, was what happened to the Buddha after death. It is significant that he is talking about what happened to the Buddha after death, because the Buddha would have asserted that for anybody else another life would arise, that after death there would be a ‘re-becoming’, an ‘again-becoming’. So the significance of Vacchagotta’s question is that in the case of the Buddha there is no again-becoming. The Buddha made that quite clear.

So what happens when somebody gives up all clinging, understands the nature of reality as it is, and dies? The Buddha is simply saying that thought can’t provide you with a satisfactory answer. Any of the thoughts that you give to what happens will be wrong. They will be one-sided, they will only get part of it, not the whole thing.

Why? What is he getting at? Why can’t he answer, for goodness’ sake? These are straightforward questions! Does he go on forever, or does he stop? Either the mind is located in the body, or the body in the mind, or they are separate. Either the jiva continues after death or it doesn’t; or maybe there is even some sort of subtle blending of the two, or not. But the Buddha says that all of these are speculative opinions built upon abstractions from our direct experience. We take our direct experience and break it up into manageable chunks, which we turn into concepts. These are very useful, they allow us to manipulate experience: without them I would be dumb, I’d have nothing to say, you nothing to understand.

We extrapolate from our direct experience concepts which make our experience portable. That is fine as long as you know what you are doing. As long as you are aware that what you are dealing with is concepts, abstractions, generalisations, which do not have any reality. They don’t exist.

In some situations I have said something like, ‘Everything is impermanent’, and somebody will say: ‘Ah yes, but what about impermanence?!’ They’ve taken an abstraction, a way of indicating something that when applied to experience is true, and they think of that abstraction as a thing in itself.

In what terms, then, can we think about the Buddha? In what terms can we think even about our own experience? What the Buddha is really indicating, what he is pointing to, is the fact that things are not as they seem to be. We have already constructed our experience in such a way that when we start to extrapolate from it, we end up with absurdity. But we have already accepted a sort of falsification. Experience comes pre-packaged with the assumption that I am having the experience: that there is an ‘I’ who stands behind, independent of, experience, having experience. So it is as if there is a world that is experienced, but that exists independent of that experience; and as if there is an ‘I’ that owns the experience and that exists independent of the moment of experience.

That assumption is natural, it is built in, and in a way you could say it is extremely useful, it makes it possible to experience. We need to assume, we need to interpret the external dimension of our experience in terms of what you could call a ‘unity of object’. If all my experience were discrete, my experience of

this room now would have no relation to my experience of this room now. I have to assume that there is some endurance of the object in space and time, independent of my experience of it, so that when I turn my back it is still there. I heard recently an andecdote about the English linguistic philospher A.J. Ayer. The story goes that before the end of his life he became rather eccentric, and was caught on occasion trying to junp into empty rooms to see if they were still there when he wasn’t. Needless to say, he failed!

So we assume that this moment of objective experience relates to previous moments of objective experience, which all belong to a single, stable universe. It works of course, otherwise how on earth did you get here? How do I keep on speaking right now? How do you continue to listen? There must be an assumption of continuity in the object, independent of the experiencing moment. But notice the word ‘assumption’. Really, all our experience is some kind of representation, it is an appearance. And the Buddha says that if we take that appearance literally, we get into trouble because we are accepting literally the externality of the objective dimension of the moment of experience, and we are taking literally the internality of the subjective element of the moment of experience. We are fixing them, and then starting to wave them around and hit ourselves and everybody else on the head with theories built upon them. And whilst a degree of theorizing may be useful – it may create iPads and atom bombs and smoothies, it may work in terms of getting yourself to a talk – it doesn’t do for understanding what ultimate reality is. It leads us astray. It is all, you could say, a model that we construct. So it has to be held and used in a provisional, ‘as-if’ sort of way.

According to the Buddha, it is true to say neither that there is something out there, nor that there isn’t. If you say that there is something out there, you imply that there is something which stands behind what appears. Of course you can’t discover that. At the same time if you say there isn’t anything out there, you are imputing to reality a nothingness.

The Buddha simply said, all you can say is that there is appearance. Appearance happens. But of course this begs another question. I have never actually seen this asked explicitly in Buddhist terms, but let me try to be the first Buddhist to do it.

What sort of answer would the Buddha have given, if Vacchagotta had got round to it? – ‘Okay, Mr Gotama, answer me, why is it that there is something and not nothing?’ Well, the Buddha’s answer would have been very much in tune with the previous answers. He would have said something – and I am quite safe in asserting this, because he never did! – along the lines of, ‘“Something”, again, is an abstraction’. It is an abstraction from our experience of appearances coming and going, and we abstract from that the notion of ‘something’. We abstract the notion of ‘thing’ from the experience of particular appearances. And then in the same way, we abstract from the notion of thing, a no-thing. But nobody has ever come across a ‘something’, or a ‘nothing’, existing independent of any particular appearance.

What I think the Buddha would have said, if Vacchagotta had got round to asking him, was that you cannot say ‘why’, in any abstract or ultimate sense, because that has no real meaning, o real reference. You would be trying to ask a question about an ultimate abstraction as if you could get outside that abstraction and deal with it as if it were a thing within things. You can’t do it. The Buddha might have said, I can tell you why, Subhuti, you are having this experience of all these people sitting in front of you with rather puzzled looks on their faces. At least, in principle I can tell you why: it is happening because of previous conditions. It is happening because each of you, foolishly, was minded to come here tonight and found the means to do so (the tube train, your feet, and so on); because the LBC council put on this programme; because this building was taken over by a group of Buddhists thirty-five years ago; because in the late nineteenth century Norman Shaw drew plans and the London County Council built the fire station. All these conditions have brought about this particular moment; this moment arises in dependence on conditions.

The Buddha would have said we can get more specific than that, too. Why is it that I have the experience of myself here in this particular reality? Indeed, he said, shortly after his Enlightenment, ‘I have been looking for the answer to this question for countless lifetimes. Many a lifetime have I wandered in samsara, in the field of conditioned arising. Again and again I have been reborn, seeking the builder of the house, the house of this moment of experience. Why is it happening? Who did it and why?’ And he said, we are told, while sitting under the tree of Enlightenment, ‘Now I have seen the housebuilder; now I have seen the house of this present moment of experience and all the succeeding moments, all arising in dependence on conditions. I have seen the condition of conditions. The condition of conditions is desire, craving and attachment’.

Craving and attachment. That is the condition in dependence upon which this moment of experience arises for me, and indeed for every one of you. It all arises because in the past – to accept the construction of time – we have become attached to an identity within conditioned existence. We have attached to an ‘I’, and we have desired to perpetuate, to continue, that ‘I’, and we have continuously sought an identity. That continous search for an identity sets up a momentum, a karmic momentum, which re-establishes a moment of arising, a moment of appearance.

There is no underlying no-reality, but there is no underlying reality either. There is a moment of appearance, which happens because of our desire in the past, and our clinging in the past. I am here now because I have clung to my identity in previous lives – taking that metaphor for real – because in previous lives I have done things, said things, thought things, clung to things, that have set up the whole momentum again. I am sitting here because I am for the time being committed to – if you like even positively attached to – the Buddha-Dharma as a means of escape from this prison of temporal existence, from this illusion, this field that provides, with all the pleasure that it can deliver too, an underlying bass note of suffering, an underlying bass note of discontent and imperfection. It is all happening because of my past desire.

So what characterises the Buddha is the complete cessation of that clinging. He no longer sees his experience, the appearance that comes to him, in terms of a real inner self and a real, independent, external world. And he stops clinging to them. He no longer is attached to them. Of course while he has a body, which is a result of his previous clinging, the appearance continues to take place, because our senses deliver this appearance to us. They deliver it not just as an appearance, but with the conviction of a somebody who is experiencing that appearance, and something that appears. So that continues for him, but he ceases to play the game, ceases to be convinced by it, and ceases to be attached. He has let go of it. And what keeps him going, the only thing that keeps him going, is his concern for others who are still embedded in it – his compassion.■

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