There are different versions of these unanswered questions within Buddhist literature.
The Buddha refused to answer these questions. He responded with the following metaphors:
A similar list of fourteen unanswered questions is identified in the Sanskrit Mahayana tradition.[note 2]
This list adds four additional questions to the list of ten questions identified in the early sutras; it is grouped into four categories.
The Buddha remained silent when asked these fourteen questions.
The Buddha states that it is unwise to be attached to both views of having and perceiving a self and views about not having a self. Any view which sees the self as "permanent, stable, everlasting, unchanging, remaining the same for ever and ever" is "becoming enmeshed in views, a jungle of views, a wilderness of views; scuffling in views, the agitation (struggle) of views, the fetter of views."
Selves and Not Self, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Excerpt from Talk 2)
Tonight I'd like to talk more about why the Buddha refused to get involved in the issue of whether there is or is not a self. This will involve discussing in more detail two of the points I made last night.
The first point is that the Buddha's teaching was strategic, aimed at leading to a specific goal: total freedom in the minds of his listeners. The second point is that, as part of this larger strategy, the Buddha had strategic reasons for putting questions of the existence or non-existence of the self aside.
Part of his teaching strategy was to divide questions into four types, based on how they should be best approached for the purpose of putting an end to suffering and stress [§9]. The first type includes those that deserve a categorical answer: in other words, a straight "yes" or "no," "this" or "that," with no exceptions. The second type includes questions that deserve an analytical answer, in which the Buddha would reanalyze the question before answering it. The third type includes questions that deserve a counter-question. In other words, he would question the questioner before answering the original question. And the fourth type includes questions that deserve to be put aside as useless — or even harmful — in the quest to put an end to suffering. And, as I said, the questions, "Is there a self? Is there no self?" are ones he put aside.
Here's the passage where he explains why:
"Then Vacchagotta the wanderer went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings and courtesies, he sat down to one side. As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One, 'Now then, master Gotama, is there a self?' When this was said, the Blessed One was silent. 'Then is there no self?' The second time the Blessed One was silent. Then Vacchagotta the wanderer got up from his seat and left.
"Then not long after Vacchagotta the wanderer had left, Venerable Ānanda said to the Blessed One, 'Why, Lord, did the Blessed One not answer when asked a question by Vacchagotta the wanderer?'"
And here's the Buddha's response: "Ānanda, if I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans and contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism [the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul]. If I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans and contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of the self]. If I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?"
And Venerable Ānanda said, "No, Lord."
Then the Buddha said, "And if I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self, were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: 'Does the self that I used to have now not exist?'"
— SN 44.10
Notice that only one of the Buddha's reasons for putting these questions aside concerns the person asking them: Vacchagotta would be bewildered by the answer. The other three reasons state that any answer to these questions would either side with wrong views, or would get in the way of an insight that, as we will see, is an important step at an advanced stage of the path.
Also notice that the Buddha is not giving an analytical answer to either of Vacchagotta's questions, nor is he giving a counter-question, such as, "What kind of self do you mean?" This rules out the idea that the not-self teaching is aimed at negating specific ideas of self — in other words, that the answer would depend on what you mean by "self."
However, most popular misinterpretations of the not-self teaching give just this kind of answer to these questions. In other words, "It depends on what kind of self we're talking about. Certain types of self exist, whereas other types don't." What this means is that these misinterpretations say that the Buddha didn't answer Vacchagotta's categorical question because it required an analytical answer. But as we have seen, the Buddha knew how to give analytical answers to categorical questions whenever he needed to. And he had his reasons for putting these questions on the existence or non-existence of the self aside.
But because these popular misinterpretations are so pervasive, it's important that we look at them in some detail, to see why they are misinterpretations: how they misunderstand the Buddha's approach and place obstacles in the path. Otherwise, it's all too easy for us to fall into these misunderstandings ourselves.
One misinterpretation is that the Buddha's not-self teaching is aimed specifically at negating the view of self proposed in the Brahmanical Upanishads — that the self is permanent, cosmic, and identical with God — but the Buddha is not negating the fact that we each have an individual self. In other words, he's saying, Yes, you have an individual self, but, No, you don't have a cosmic/God self.
The second misinterpretation is the exact opposite: The Buddha is negating the idea that you have a small, separate self, but he's affirming the existence of a large, interconnected, cosmic self. In other words, he's saying, Yes, you do have a connected self, but, No, you don't have a separate self.
The third misinterpretation is similar to the first, but it introduces the idea that a self, to be a true self, has to be permanent. According to this interpretation, the Buddha is affirming that the five aggregates are what you are, but these five aggregates don't really qualify to be called a self because they aren't permanent. They're just processes. In other words, No, you don't have a self, but, Yes, you're a bunch of processes; the aggregates are what you are.
None of these interpretations fit in with the Buddha's actual teachings, or his actual approach to the question of whether there is or is not a self. They misrepresent the Buddha both for formal reasons — the fact that they give an analytical answer to a question the Buddha put aside — and for reasons of content: They don't fit in with what the Buddha actually had to say on the topic of self and not-self.
For example, with the first misinterpretation — that the Buddha is denying the cosmic self found in the Upanishads — it turns out that the Upanishads contain many different views of the self, and the Buddha himself gives an analysis of those different kinds [§11]. He finds four main varieties. One is that the self has a form and is finite — for example, that your self is your conscious body and will end when the body dies. The second type is that the self has a form and is infinite — for example, the view that the self is equal to the cosmos. The third type is that the self is formless and finite. This is similar to the Christian idea of the soul: It doesn't have a shape, and its range is limited. The fourth view is that the self is formless and infinite — for example, the belief that the self is the infinite spirit or energy that animates the cosmos.
The Buddha says that each of these four varieties of self-theory comes in three different modes as to when and how the self is that way. One is that the self already is that way. Another is that the self naturally changes to be that way — for example, when you fall asleep or when you die. The third is that the self is changeable through the will. In other words, through meditation and other practices you can change the nature of your self — for example, from being finite to being infinite.
Multiply the four varieties of self by their three modes, and you have twelve types of theories about the self. All of these theories the Buddha rejects. He doesn't agree with any of them, because they all involve clinging, which is something you have to comprehend and let go. This means that his not-self teaching is not just negating specific types of self — such as a cosmic self, a permanent self, or an ordinary individual self. It negates every imaginable way of defining the self.
As for the second misinterpretation, that the Buddha is actually affirming the cosmic or interconnected self, the evidence I've already given you shows that that cannot be the case. There is also a passage in the Canon where he says specifically that the idea of a cosmic self is especially foolish [§12]. His argument is this: If there is a self, there must be what belongs to a self. If your self is cosmic, then the whole cosmos must belong to you. But does it? No. Does it lie under your control? No. Therefore it doesn't deserve to be called yours.
As for the third misinterpretation — that the five aggregates aren't a self because they aren't permanent, but nevertheless the five aggregates are what you are — the Buddha says repeatedly that it's not fitting to identify the aggregates as "what I am" [§19]. As we will see later, he explains the five aggregates as the raw material from which you create your sense of self, but that it's not skillful to think that they constitute what you are.
Another problem with this misinterpretation is that it opens the Buddha to charges of lying in the many passages where he does refer to the self in a positive way — as when he says that the self is its own mainstay. If there really is no self at all, why does he talk about it as if it exists? To get around this problem, the interpretation introduces the distinction between two levels of truth: conventional and ultimate. Thus, it says, when the Buddha is talking about self, he's doing so only in a conventional way. On the ultimate level, no self exists. The problem with this distinction is that the Buddha himself never uses it — it was introduced into the tradition at a much later date — and if it were so central to understanding his teachings, you'd think that he would have mentioned it. But he didn't.
There's also the problem that, if the aggregates were what you are, then — because nibbāna is the ending of the aggregates — that would mean that when you attain nibbāna you would be annihilated. The Buddha, however, denied that nibbāna was annihilation. At the same time, what good would be the end of suffering if it meant total annihilation? Only people who hate themselves or hate all experience would go for it.
And as for the idea that only a permanent identity deserves to be called a self: It's not the case that the Buddha would tell you to create a sense of self around the experience of something unchanging or permanent. As we will see, at an advanced level of the practice he tells you to develop the perception of not-self even for the phenomenon of the deathless, which is something that doesn't change [§30; see also Talk 6]. The problem with the act of self-identification is not just that it's mistakenly focused on impermanent objects when it should be focused on permanent objects. It ultimately shouldn't be focused on anything at all, because it always involves clinging, regardless of what it's focused on, and clinging involves suffering and stress. The whole point of the Buddha's teaching is to put an end to suffering and stress.
So when the Buddha refused to answer Vacchagotta's questions, it wasn't because he had an analytical answer in mind that he couldn't explain to Vacchagotta but would perhaps explain to others. It was because, in order to avoid getting involved with issues that get in the way of putting an end to suffering, these questions deserved to be put aside no matter who asked them. In fact, there's another sutta passage that makes precisely this point: No matter who you are, if you try to answer the question, "Do I exist?" or "Do I not exist?" or "What am I?" you get entangled in views like, "I have a self," or "I have no self," which the Buddha calls "a thicket of views, a wilderness of views [§§10, 19-20]." The image is clear: If you're entangled in a thicket or a wilderness, you've wandered far from the path and will have trouble getting back on course.
The main point to take from all of this is that the Buddha is not interested in defining what you are or what your self is. He's a lot more compassionate than that. He wants you to see how you define your own sense of self. After all, you're not responsible for how he might define your self, and his definition of your self is not really your problem. But you are responsible for the way you define yourself, and that very much is your problem. When you define yourself through ignorance, you suffer, and you often cause the people around you to suffer as well.
As a first step in putting an end to this suffering, you have to bring awareness to the process by which you create your sense of self so that you can clearly see what you're doing and why it's causing that suffering. This is why the Buddha aims at getting you to understand that process in line with his two categorical teachings. He wants you to see how your act of self-definition fits within the four noble truths, and to see when it's skillful and when it's not, so that you can use this knowledge to put an end to suffering. When it's skillful, you use it. When it's not, you regard it as not-self so that you can stop clinging to it and can put it aside [§19].
- by Bhikkhu Thanissaro