As Dominique Side puts it, perhaps one of the ‘most striking things about Buddhism is the way that the Buddha began teaching by talking about everyday reality rather than the grand philosophical questions that we usually associate with religion.’
Questions: is the universe finite or infinite? Are we wholly physical beings or is there an immortal soul? What happens after our death—do we exist in some sense or cease to exist? Are these the questions?
Traditionally conceived, religious doctrines and philosophical theories offer various answers to such seemingly intractable questions. Yet Gautama Buddha (c. 480-400 BCE) considered such questions to be little more than hollow metaphysical speculation. Ever the pragmatist, he maintained that religious teachings should not serve to satisfy the vanity of the intellect; instead, such teachings should lead one towards a freedom from suffering. Any religion or philosophical doctrine that does not aspire to such a liberation is of little of worth: thus he argued.
These ideas are brought to life in The Parable of the Poison Arrow. Therein, a student ponders key metaphysical questions and speculates as to his teacher’s ability to provide satisfactory answers, thereby bringing into doubt education itself:
[E]merging from his seclusion in the evening, Ven. Māluṅkyaputta went to the Blessed One [the Buddha] and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One, “Lord, just now, as I was alone in seclusion, this line of thinking arose in my awareness: ‘These positions that are undisclosed, set aside, discarded by the Blessed One… I don’t approve, I don’t accept that the Blessed One has not disclosed them to me. I’ll go ask the Blessed One about this matter. If he discloses to me that “The cosmos is eternal,” … or that “After death a Tathāgata [a Truth-attained One] neither exists nor does not exist,” then I will live the holy life under him. If he does not disclose to me that “The cosmos is eternal,” … or that “After death a Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist,” then I will renounce the training and return to the lower life.’
The Buddha responds thus:
“Māluṅkyaputta, did I ever say to you, ‘Come, Māluṅkyaputta, live the holy life under me, and I will disclose to you that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul & the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathāgata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathāgata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathāgata both exists & does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist’?”
At this juncture, the Buddha offers his parable:
“It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahman, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-coloured… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fibre, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.”
Making plain his parabolic teaching, the Buddha concludes:
“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 disclose to me that “The cosmos is eternal,” … or that “After death a Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist,”’ the man would die and those things would still remain undisclosed by the Tathāgata.
Questions to ponder post-reading:
- Is it a waste of time to indulge in metaphysical speculation?
- Is there meaning in attempting to answer the unanswerable?
- What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?
- What is the role of a teacher?
- What is the role of the student?
- Theory or praxis? Is this the question?
- The Buddha and Socrates were (near) contemporaries and yet geographically separated by thousands of miles: what might be said to mark them apart and/or a part of a similar philosophical project?