There are a number of questions the Buddha refused to answer, including, is the world eternal, not eternal, both or neither? is the world finite, not finite, both or neither? does the Tathagata exist after death, or not, both, or neither? is the self identical with the body, or is it different from the body? These questions are similar to ultimate questions of other religions, so it is clearly of importance that the Buddha refused to answer them. He described them as ‘a net’ and refused to be drawn into such a net of theories, speculations and dogmas. Such theories and dogmas usually end in unease, bewilderment and suffering, and it is only by freeing oneself of them that one achieves liberation. It was because the Buddha was free of bondage to all theories and dogmas that he achieved enlightenment. By refusing to be drawn on dogmatic views the Buddha is demonstrating that these questions are simply not an important focus for Buddhists and that they are phrased in, and asked out, of spiritual ignorance. The questions relate to some kind of unchanging permanent Self. Since Buddhists hold that there is no such unchanging permanent Self, then the questions have as much logical sense as asking an innocent man if he has stopped beating his wife – they are unanswerable.
The ‘ultimate’ is not something often discussed in Buddhism. This is because the Buddha, after much meditation, concluded that everything in both the physical world and the phenomenological world is characterised by three things, the Three Marks: Dukkha / Duhkha (suffering); Anicca / Anitya (impermanence); and Anatta / Anatman (Not-Self). Therefore, if everything is changing and impermanent there is nothing permanent and unchanging like the ultimate ‘God’ in monotheistic religions, the soul in Christianity , or atman in Brahmanism. Theravadins consider Nibbana to be the opposite of the Three Marks, but Mahayanists view even Nirvana as being empty of Self.
The Anatta teachings have significant implications for the concept of ‘me’. Anatta / Anatman means not-self, the absence of limiting self-identity in people and things. Its opposite is the idea of a Soul or Self which survives transmigration – something that the Buddha explicitly rejected. What is normally thought of as ‘self’ is an agglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents (the Five khandhas / Skandhas). This idea is vital to Buddhist soteriology since it is belief in a separate self that leads to grasping for things as ‘mine’ and it is this grasping that that leads to delusion that hides how things really are. In the Sutta Nipata, the Buddha teaches that losing the delusion of self is equivalent to Enlightenment: “a wise noble disciple becomes dispassionate towards material form, becomes dispassionate towards feeling, becomes dispassionate towards perception, becomes dispassionate towards formations, becomes dispassionate towards consciousness. Becoming dispassionate his lust fades away; with the fading of lust his fear is liberated; when liberated there comes the knowledge. He understands, birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what was to be done is done, there is no more to come”. (3:66)
Mahayana Buddhists see Buddhas and many Bodhisattvas as being transcendent. This leads to devotional activities and worship. In Pure Land Buddhism, for example, faith in the Buddha Amitabha (or Amida) is emphasised. Adherents believe that faith and devotion will mean Amitabha will help them be reborn in the Pure Land he created in which Enlightenment is guaranteed.
Buddhism should be viewed as a response to suffering and the human condition. The Buddha taught that by direct experience he had come to understand the human condition and had discovered a means of transcending it – with the human condition being characterised by the Three Marks (Dukkha / Duhkha, Anicca / Anitya and Anatta / Anatman). Where beings are reborn within this samsaric cycle is not based on fate, but on their previous thoughts and actions (kamma); what keeps them in the cycle of rebirths is craving and ignorance of the way things really are. If one can eliminate these things one achieves liberation – Nibbana / Nirvana. The method of eliminating craving and ignorance is through moral behaviour, disciplining the mind through meditation and investigating Buddhist doctrine by reason. Therefore, the Buddhist response to suffering is practical advice on how to live life in order to escape it. The individual Buddhist’s response is to put faith in the teachings of the Buddha; if he follows them, he too will escape from samsara.