Why Did Buddha Say What He Did Ganeri

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  • 7/24/2019 Why Did Buddha Say What He Did Ganeri


    This article was downloaded by: [University of Groningen]On: 14 June 2015, At: 03:06Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary JournalPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:


    Words that Burn: Why did the Buddha say what he didJonardon Ganeri

    Published online: 21 Nov 2006.

    To cite this article:Jonardon Ganeri (2006) Words that Burn: Why did the Buddha say what he did?, Contemporary Buddhis

    An Interdisciplinary Journal, 7:1, 7-27, DOI: 10.1080/14639940600877853

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14639940600877853


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  • 7/24/2019 Why Did Buddha Say What He Did Ganeri




    Jonardon Ganeri

    Before all else, that the soul be turned around as regards the fundamental

    direction of its striving. . .

    1 (Martin Heidegger)

    The Buddhas silences

    Vacchagotta, whose questions about the immortality of the soul and the

    eternality of the world the Buddha famously refused to answer,2 would

    nevertheless later say that the Buddha has made the Dhamma clear in many ways,

    as though he were turning upright what had been overthrown, revealing what

    was hidden, showing the way to one who was lost, or holding up a lamp in the

    dark.3 In the Milinda-panha, the Greek King Menander challenges the Buddhist

    monk Nagasena to explain how it could be that the Buddha was willing to remain

    silent and yet also assert that he had nothing to hide; that unlike other teachers he

    did not keep some things in his fist:

    Revered Nagasena, this too was said by the Lord: In regard to the Tathagatas

    teachings, Ananda, there is no teachers fist. On the other hand when the Elder

    Malunkyaputta asked the Lord a question he did not answer it. This question,

    revered Nagasena, will have two ends on one of which it must rest: either that of

    not knowing or that of keeping something secret. For if, revered Nagasena, the

    Lord said: In regard to the Tathagatas teachings, Ananda, there is no teachers

    fist, well then, it was through not knowing that he did not answer the Elder

    Malunkyaputta. But if though he knew he did not answer, well then, in the

    Tathagatas teachings there was a teachers fist. This too is a double-pronged

    question; it is put to you; it is for you to solve.4

    How can silence be anything other than a form of secrecy? Apparently only if the

    person questioned does not know the answer. Compare Clitophons accusation

    against Socrates: [O]ne of two things must be true: either you know nothing

    about it [sc. justice], or you dont wish to share it with me (Clitophon 410c67).

    Nagasena responds that there are foursorts of question: questions that require a

    definite reply, questions that require an analysis, questions that demand to be met

    Contemporary Buddhism, Vol. 7, No. 1, May 2006ISSN 1463-9947 print/1476-7953 online/06/010007-27

    q 2006 Jonardon Ganeri DOI: 10.1080/14639940600877853

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    with a counter-question, and, finally, questions that are to be set aside. The

    questions to be set aside are those for which there is no cause or reason to answer,

    for there is no utterance or speech of the Buddhas, the Lords, that is without

    reason, without cause. Nagasenas solution, then, is that some questions do not

    deserve an answer and the Buddha would not say something unless there

    was a point in doing so; the point, for the Buddha, being always related to the

    perlocutionary effects of his remarks on his audience. It is true that the Buddha

    does not wish to share his knowledge but the motivation is not a desire to

    preserve a secret, but rather the wish not to harm his questioner with the truth.5

    In so choosing to remain silent, however, does the Buddha not conceal the truthwhen in his judgement his teachings will not have the transformative effect

    intended for them? Clearly, the internal coherence of the Buddhas stance on

    silence requires that it is not zealotry but compassion that motivates him; his

    compassion is, as it were, a presupposition for the consistency of his position. Not

    every silence is a subterfuge; sometimes the silence is sincere. Lying permits of a

    similar distinction: some lies are acts of manipulation, but others legitimately

    protect the liar from the interrogations of one who does not have a right to the

    truth. The Buddha had no need to worry about the effects of others words on him

    but he did care about the effects his words had on others. This led him to remain

    silent; in the next section, we will ask whether his compassion also led him to lie.

    Vasubandhu supplements Nagasenas response with two further considera-

    tions.6 One is that the Buddha takes into account the intentions and prior beliefs

    of the questioner in assessing the effect any answer may have on them. These

    intentions and beliefs may be such that the questioner will misunderstand the

    answer, although it be true, however it is phrased. Vasubandhus second addition

    is to note that some questions are to be set aside, not because the Buddha does

    not know the answer, but because any answer would commit him to knowledge

    that is not to be had. The Buddha refused to answer the question What happens

    to a man after he dies?, and it is the case neither that he knows what happens but

    refuses to say, nor that he does not know what happens; rather, any answer would

    commit him to knowing there issomethingthat happens, and, for the Buddha, this

    is not a fact available to be known. To put it another way, questions are implicit

    arguments, and answers can only confirm or deny the validity of the argument

    implicit in the question but not challenge the truth of its premises. When the

    person answering the question believes that one of its implicit premises is false,

    the only option is to remain silent.7

    The face-value of the Buddhas words about the self, and their truevalue

    A specific problem I will now seek to address concerns the problem of the

    Buddhas truthfulness: did the Buddha sometimes lie, and if so with what

    justification? The philosophical problem of the compassionate lie, and the more

    general hermeneutical problem of the Buddhas truthfulness, are ones that had to

    8 J. GANERI

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    be confronted by the tradition of Buddhist hermeneutics.8 Although Nagarjuna

    tries, on one occasion, to define the compassionate lie out of existence, the

    problem is not so easily dismissible.9 A compassionate lie might well be morally

    justified but that does not turn it into a truth. The implication of the famous

    parable of the burning house in the Lotus Sutra, in which a father cajoles his

    children to leave the burning house with the false promise of toys, is that the

    compassionate lie is a skilful way to bring about the good.10 The parable suggests

    that the Buddhas words, although untrue, encourage people to escape the

    burning house that is a persons lustful attachment to the world.11 This in spite of

    some attempt to claim that no untruth is involved:

    [The Buddha asks Sariputra,] Sariputra, what do you think . . . was [the father]

    guilty of falsehood or not? Sariputra said, No, this rich man simply made it

    possible for his sons to escape the peril of fire and preserve their lives. He did not

    commit a falsehood . . . because if they were able to preserve their lives, then

    they had already obtained a plaything of sorts. And how much more so when,