Irrelevant questions

From time to time I come across people, both in person and online, who ask questions such as, “How do Buddhists think the universe came into being?” or, “Do Buddhists think the universe was created, or do they think it is eternal?”

Such questions may be of interest from a scientific standpoint, but from a Buddhist standpoint things look different. Our main concern as Buddhists should be to follow the Dharma (or Dhamma in Pali), rather than to create or adhere to dogma. That being the case, questions such as those above are ultimately irrelevant, which is why the Buddha refused to answer them.

The best answer to a question of this kind that I have seen on social media is one where the person replying simply allowed the Buddha to speak for himself. I have copied this response below. It is worth reminding ourselves occasionally of what our priorities, as Dharma/Dhamma practitioners, should be.

“Well then, lord, if — having other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims,  other teachers — it’s hard for me to know whether perception is a person’s self or if perception is one thing and self another, then is it the case that the cosmos is eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless?”

“Potthapada, I haven’t expounded that the cosmos is eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless.”

“Then is it the case that the cosmos is not eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless?”

“Potthapada, I haven’t expounded that the cosmos is not eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless.”

“But why hasn’t the Blessed One expounded these things?”

“Because they are not conducive to the goal, are not conducive to the Dhamma, are not basic to the holy life. They don’t lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That’s why I haven’t expounded them.”

“And what has the Blessed One expounded?”

“I have expounded that, ‘This is stress’… ‘This is the origination of stress’… ‘This is the cessation of stress’… ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.’

“And why has the Blessed One expounded these things?”

“Because they are conducive to the goal, conducive to the Dhamma, and basic to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That’s why I have expounded them.”

Excerpt from
Potthapada Sutta: About Potthapada” (DN 9), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Once the Blessed One was staying at Kosambi in the simsapa forest. Then, picking up a few simsapa leaves with his hand, he asked the monks, “What do you think, monks: Which are more numerous, the few simsapa leaves in my hand or those overhead in the simsapa forest?”

“The leaves in the hand of the Blessed One are few in number, lord. Those overhead in the simsapa forest are more numerous.”

“In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous [than what I have taught]. And why haven’t I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.

“And what have I taught? ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress’: This is what I have taught. And why have I taught these things? Because they are connected with the goal, relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. This is why I have taught them.

“Therefore your duty is the contemplation, ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress.’ Your duty is the contemplation, ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.'”

“Simsapa Sutta: The Simsapa Leaves” (SN 56.31), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

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