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January 7, 2006

A Bone to Pick with the Buddha

The Buddha was once asked whether the gods exist. His response: "The question does not edify."

I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with the Buddha on this one -- my book project being founded on the premise that the question of whether the gods exist can be hugely edifying.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at January 7, 2006 1:40 AM


The Buddha would be fine with your disagreeing with him. I'm sure you've heard the expression, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." That's what I love about Buddhism - it goes out of its way to shock adherents and stop them from getting dogmatic and ossified in their beliefs.

Whether the Buddha is right or wrong in this case depends on how you define god. If there is a Christian-type god continually meddling with the universe, knowledge of the existence of this god is important. On the other hand, if there is some deist-type god remote from the universe, never making its presence known, then the Buddha is right, it seems to me.

I think what the Buddha was getting at is that right action is more important than right belief. Think of the Christians who admit that belief in their god is the only thing holding them back from stealing, fornicating etc. Are they truly moral people? I don't think so. How we treat one another should be independent of the question of whether supernatural beings exist.

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at January 7, 2006 3:26 PM

but the question does not edify, as in "instruct or improve someone."

I think the point of the reply was that the endless circling the two sides of the debate wind up in isn't useful. It's energetic, lively, interesting and unending. You don't "win" a debate about the existense of god(s), and you only have a finite amount of time to achieve enlightenment. Since a debate about the existence of a deity doesn't move you towards that goal, it (arguably) doesn't edify.

Over on 43 folders (a site about organization) they talk a lot about getting trapped in the act of getting organized, which winds up letting you procrastinate, which is the opposite of the usually desired effect. But it sure makes you look busy, proactive and organized.

I think the buddha's response hints that this is similar to the problem with the god/no god debate.

Posted by: Crosius at January 7, 2006 7:12 PM

When the Buddha was asked about any metaphysical question, he gave that same answer; he never promised, he said, to teach about whether or not gods exist, or whether or not this personality persists after death, or what happens to arahants when they leave this life. But such protestations were usually followed by a positive statement about what he did promise to teach, i.e. the truth that this emerging world is full of suffering; the truth that the suffering is caused by our craving for what we cannot have; the truth that the suffering could end if we could abandon craving; and the truth that the way to abandon craving is an eightfold way, comprised of right understanding, right purpose, right speech and right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right mindfulness and right focus.

The question of whether gods exist is not a skillful question for two reasons. First, the Buddha saw clearly that it could never be answered to everyone's satisfaction; it is a question that by its very nature is immune to the kind of tests that would be acceptable as evidence of objective existence.

And second, the question is unskilful because whatever answer you decide upon, you are still left with the problem of suffering, and the cause of suffering, and the end of suffering, and the way to that end. And those problems are solved by the Buddha's four noble truths. Whether or not the gods exist.

Posted by: Richard Blumberg at January 9, 2006 7:41 AM

What do you mean by "edifying"?

That is, not what the OED or Merriam Webster says...

Posted by: Peter Rock at January 12, 2006 5:42 AM

My weak Buddhist intuition tells me that Buddha didn't like questions that did have answers but weren't easily answered. Buddha liked questions like "If a tree falls in the forest..." much more.

Posted by: Noah SD at February 20, 2006 3:05 PM

I live at 63326 Commonwealth in Seattle. Been up here before?

Posted by: Mike Flacklestein at June 15, 2006 5:17 PM

Talking about what Buddha said is as silly as talking about what Jesus said. Everything reported in each case is a story.

Personally I think any path to enlightenment, eight fold or other, is baloney. Paths are where others walked, you will never find your own way on someone else's.

Whatever Buddhism is, and it is something different to every Buddhist, it finds the most truth in the paradox.

My response to the Buddha in this story would be, "I was hoping your answer would edify." Maybe if the storied Buddha had answered the damn question, you wouldn't need to write this book. As it stands, he left the field wide open for you.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 16, 2006 6:09 PM

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