Dear Joe,

Why did the Buddha not answer questions directly sometimes? And did he always do this with all questions?


Hello Lauren,
    First of all I can’t speak for the historical Buddha.  My Buddhist answer would be,”ask him” but I’ll spare you that go round.  As far as what the historical Buddha actually said we will never know.  There are estimates between one and three hundred years after his death that anything was written down and it was all passed down word of mouth.  Some of the greatest writings about him were written up to five hundred years after his death so how accurate do you think they are?

There is a fundamental basis for Buddhism with the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path and most of Buddhism is based upon that in some form.  The Tripitaka, the earliest collection of Buddhist teachings written down about 150 years after the historical Buddha’s death is what Theravada Buddhism is based on.  Zen, my area, is not concerned for the texts, sutras or whatever, but focuses on realizing the dharma as the Buddha did.  It sees doctrine and text as an impediment to awakening.

That having been said I can tell you that throughout time legitimate Zen masters have answered questions with questions and in what seems to be an indirect manner.  Let me try to explain this having gone through it myself.  You go to a Master and say, “What happens when I die”?  The Master responds, “Who is it that was born”?  To the student the question was not answered and to the master it was.  The question has a huge presupposition in it; that you know who you are and what it means to die.  As one teacher said to me, “when did YOU come into being?”  He was not asking when my birthday was but when I became self aware, when did my self consciousness arise.  From the Eastern standpoint we in the West put the cart before the horse.  We say, “when I die I will go to heaven’ and the Master asks ‘who is the I that goes to heaven?”  We want an answer to our question but our question itself is faulty.  The Master can’t answer directly because that which is asking is problematic.  He tries to show you that your very standpoint on the question is itself specious.  Than standpoint is itself creating the problem.

When my father died I was with Masao Abe sensei.  I said to him, “Abesan, my father is dead”.  He answered,” Where is your father?”  I replied, “Dead”.  He said, “From what standpoint do you say dead?  What makes you alive?  You stand on a mountain and look down in the valley and say, “that is a valley, not the mountain”, and then you go down in the valley and look up and say “that is a mountain, not a valley”.  Which one is it?  You cannot separate them.”  The valley creates the mountain and the mountain the valley.  Life and death are inseparable, they create each other.  To say what death is as opposed to life makes no sense ultimately.  We try to understand with thought that which thought can’t understand.  Simple yes and no answers only confound the problem.  A good Master hands it back to you.  You say, “I am sick” he replies, “what is sick?”  You reply, “stomach’, he replies, ‘Is stomach you? If I remove your stomach are you less you?”  You reply, “Ok, so my stomach is sick”. He replies, “Who is it that claims she has a stomach, who stands behind you to say this. There is something separate from stomach to own it, to claim I have it?  Who is that?”

This is not about belief, telling someone to hold onto something as truth or reality.  It is pushing someone to realize their fundamental nature, to awaken to the core of reality.  Only you can open your eye to this reality.  The Buddha, any awakened one, is trying to push the student to this.  Any answer given to you as the answer is not an answer.  It cannot be explained it can only be realized.  You can be thirsty and no explanation of water will ever quench your thirst, no one else can do it for you and no one holds the secret, it’s open to everyone.  The Buddha’s try to bring you to this awakening.

I hope this helps you.  Take care.  Happy Liberation Day!


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Joe McSorley


I can answer questions dealing with Taoist philosophy and Zen and not the historicity and religion of Buddhism and its different schools. I studied under Dr. Richard DeMartino and Masao Abe of the Kyoto School of Zen.

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