Why did the Buddha say that some
questions just shouldn't be asked?
One of the first stumbling blocks that Westerners often encounter when
they learn about Buddhism is the teaching on anatta, often translated as "no-self''. This
teaching is a stumbling block for two reasons.
First, the idea of there being no self doesn't fit well with other
Buddhist teachings, such as the doctrine of karma and rebirth: If there's no self, what
experiences the results of karma and takes rebirth?
Second, it doesn't fit well with the Western Judaeo-Christian worldview which assumes the
existence of an eternal soul or self as a basic presupposition: ie, if there's no self,
what's the purpose of a spiritual life?
Many books try to answer these questions, but if you look at the Pali canon
-- the earliest
extant record of the Buddha's teachings -- you won't find them addressed at all. In fact,
the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a self, he
refused to answer.
When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no
self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice
impossible. Thus the question should be put aside.
To understand what his silence on this question says about the meaning of anatta, we first
have to look at his teachings on how questions should be asked and answered, and how to
interpret his answers.
The Buddha divided all questions into four classes: those that deserve a categorical
(straight yes or no) answer; those that deserve an analytical answer, defining and
qualifying the terms of the question; those that deserve a counter-question, putting the
ball back in the questioner's court; and those that deserve to be put aside. The last
class of question consists of those that don't lead to the end of suffering and stress.
The first duty of a teacher, when asked a question, is to figure out which class the
question belongs to, and then to respond in the appropriate way. You don't, for example,
say yes or no to a question that should be put aside. If you are the person asking the
question and you get an answer, you should then determine how far the answer should be
The Buddha said that there are two types of people who misrepresent him: those who draw
inferences from statements that shouldn't have inferences drawn from them, and those who
don't draw inferences from those that should.
These are the basic ground rules for interpreting the Buddha's teachings, but if we look
at the way most writers treat the anatta doctrine, we find these ground rules ignored.
Some writers try to qualify the no-self interpretation by saying that the Buddha denied
the existence of an eternal self or a separate self, but this is to give an analytical
answer to a question that the Buddha showed should be put aside.
Others try to draw inferences from the few statements in the discourse that seem to imply
that there is no self, but it seems safe to assume that if one forces those statements to
give an answer to a question that should be put aside, one is drawing inferences where
they shouldn't be drawn.
So, instead of answering "no'' to the question of whether or not there is a self
interconnected or separate, eternal or not-- the Buddha felt that the question was
misguided to begin with.
Why? No matter how you define the line between "self'' and "other'', the notion of self
involves an element of self-identification and clinging, and thus suffering and stress.
This holds as much for an interconnected self, which recognises no "other'', as it does
for a separate self. If one identifies with all of nature, one is pained by every felled
It also holds for an entirely "other'' universe, in which the sense of alienation and
futility would become so debilitating as to make the quest for happiness -- one's own or
that of others -- impossible.
For these reasons, the Buddha advised paying no attention to such questions as
exist?'' or "Don't I exist?'' for however you answer them, they lead to suffering and
To avoid the suffering implicit in questions of "self'' and "other'', he offered an
alternative way of dividing up experience: the Four Noble Truths of stress, its cause, its
cessation, and the path to its cessation.
Rather than viewing these truths as pertaining to self or other, he said, one should
recognise them simply for what they are, in and of themselves, as they are directly
experienced, and then perform the duty appropriate to each.
Stress should be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation realised, and the path
to its cessation developed. These duties form the context in which the anatta doctrine is
If you develop the path of virtue, concentration, and discernment to a state of calm
well-being and use that calm state to look at experience in terms of the Noble Truths, the
questions that occur to the mind are not "Is there a self? What is my self?'' but rather
"Am I suffering stress because I'm holding onto this particular phenomenon? Is it really
me, myself, or mine? If it's stressful but not really me or mine, why hold on?''
These last questions merit straightforward answers, as they then help you to comprehend
stress and to chip away at the attachment and clinging -- the residual sense of
self-identification -- that cause it, until ultimately all traces of self-identification
are gone and all that's left is limitless freedom.
In this sense, the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy
for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying
happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside. Once
there's the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about
what's experiencing it, or whether or not it's a self?
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff or Acharn Geoff), is an American-born Theravada
Buddhist monk. He was ordained in Thailand in the forest tradition in 1974. He is now
abbot of Metta Forest Monastery near San Diego, California. He is author of The Mind Like
Fire Unbound, The Buddhist Monastic Code, and The Wings to Awakening. For more information
about his work, visit www.accesstoinsight.org.