A Commentary on the Shorter Māluṅkyāputta Sutta


This discourse from the Majjhima-Nikāya, or Middle-Length Discourses, shows us the Buddha in dialogue with a monk called Māluṅkyāputta, a person for whom metaphysical views are evidently important.[1] What the Buddha says to Māluṅkyaputta tells us exactly why speculative views are not relevant to the spiritual life, and it does so by means of a memorable simile. There are several discourses in the Pāli canon which feature him, and in one he appears as an old man who approaches the Buddha to get a pithy, direct teaching about the nature of reality. The Buddha gives him one, and the old monk soon reaches awakening.[2] So Māluṅkyāputta, we might say, was someone who was prone to take the wrong approach to the meaning of the Dharma, but who certainly got it in the end.

The discourse begins with Māluṅkyāputta on his own, in meditation, thinking about things. He comes to the conclusion that he needs to find out what the Buddha thinks about certain metaphysical issues that the Buddha appears to have left unexplained or undeclared (avkyākatāni), and he decides that if the Buddha does not engage in these issues to his satisfaction, he will leave the monastic order. He visits the Buddha and asks him whether:

  • the universe is eternal;
  • the universe is not eternal;
  • the universe is finite;
  • the universe is infinite;
  • the soul and the body are identical;
  • the soul and the body are different;
  • a sentient being exists after death;[3]
  • a sentient being does not exist after death;
  • a sentient being both exists and does not exist after death;
  • a sentient being neither exists nor does not exist after death.

 This is a standard list found in the Pāli discourses, and it presumably represents the kind of things speculative philosophers of the Buddha’s time thought about. These days our questions might be slightly different. We might wonder, for instance, whether:

  • the universe will keep on expanding for ever
  • the universe will at a certain point contract again
  • there is life elsewhere in the universe
  • there is life only on planet earth
  • the mind is produced by the brain
  • the mind is something apart from the brain
  • there is a God
  • there is no God
  • there anything about us that survives after death
  • nothing about us survives after death

Who could deny that such issues are not fascinating and difficult? Indeed, much academic research – perhaps the entire life-work of certain philosophers or theologians – is concerned with trying to make some progress with these issues. But when Māluṅkyāputta puts his case to the Buddha, the Buddha is very uncompromising. He calls Māluṅkyāputta a foolish man and gets him to admit that in fact he, the Buddha, had never promised to engage with such issues; Māluṅkyāputta might try to get the Buddha to explain these unexplained or undeclared (avyākatāni) issues, but he would die before the Buddha would explain them.

It might appear that the Buddha is himself taking up a philosophical position here, something like a Buddhist version of Kant’s critique of pure reason, which set limits to what we can know by thinking along. But I doubt that this is the case. To understand the Buddha’s strong metaphysical reticence, I suggest that we consider what Māluṅkyāputta was looking for. He was looking for certainty ­– for definite answers. For someone like Māluṅkyāputta, as for many people of a philosophical bent then and now, metaphysical certainty is associated with a kind of existential comfort, of knowing one’s place in the nature of things. Perhaps for other sorts of people, other sorts of fantasies provide comparable existential comfort. And a certain degree of progress in metaphysical certainty, and hence in existential comfort, is possible.

But this is not the point of the Dharma. The Buddha makes this point with one of his brilliant extended similes. This one is generally known as the simile of the poisoned arrow: 

Suppose, Māluṅkyāputta, that someone was shot by an arrow smeared with poison, and their friends and companions, family and relatives, had a surgeon attend, but that person were to say, I shall not have this arrow pulled out until I know exactly by whom I was shot, whether ruler, priest, trader or labourer.[4] Or they were to say, I shall not have this arrow pulled out until I know exactly by whom I was shot, what their name and what their clan… whether they are tall or short or medium height… whether they are black-skinned, dark-skinned or golden-skinned… in what village or town or city they live… until I know by which bow I was shot, whether a longbow or a crossbow… until I know by which bowstring I was shot, whether it was of plant-fibre, reed or milk-leaf… until I know by which arrow-shaft I was shot, whether it was of natural wood or of cultivated… whether the arrow-shaft was tipped with feathers from a vulture, a heron, a raven, a peacock or a stork… whether the sinews that bound the arrow-shaft were from a cow, a buffalo, a lion or a monkey… until I know by which arrow I was shot, whether its head was sharp-edged, barbed, made of iron, toothed or leaf-shaped.[5] Māluṅkyāputta, all this would remain unknown to that person, and they would die. Likewise, Māluṅkyāputta, anyone who says, I will not live the spiritual life under the Blessed One while he has not explained to me whether the universe is eternal or not [and the other metaphysical questions] – all this would remain unexplained by the Realised One, and that person would die.

 It is important to notice that the various questions are not in principle unanswerable, but that they are not the right questions to be asking. Likewise, what the Buddha does explain and make known, as he goes on to say, is the conditions whereby suffering and unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) arise, and how these conditions can be brought to an end. Metaphysical questions are in this sense just irrelevant to the spiritual life as taught by the Buddha.

I notice from this discourse that the Buddha does not tell Māluṅkyāputta what to think. Māluṅkyāputta, being someone who likes to think about things, would probably not appreciate being told what to think. Instead, the Buddha gives Māluṅkyāputta direct guidance on how to think. He points Māluṅkyāputta away from the search for certainty to the possibility of living with metaphysical uncertainty. Such a strategy is counter-intuitive for many of us. It means putting aside questions and issues which are self-evidently connected with a knowledge of the true nature of things. The reason for this strategy is that by doing so we come to a better understanding of the situation we are in, the situation which has prompted our questioning and our longing for certainty. We might say that the Buddha recommends to Māluṅkyāputta that he cultivate what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’, which is ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.[6]

Negative capability is that capacity which makes conscious our longing for certainty and our desire for existential comfort, and turns it around. Instead of putting effort into finding the answers to metaphysical questions, we put our effort into understanding our present experience, with its uncertainties and its sufferings, which have their causes and conditions, and which the Buddha’s teaching is concerned with coming to know. The Buddha summarises all this to Māluṅkyāputta in the conclusion to the discourse:

Therefore, Māluṅkyāputta, you should remember what I have not explained as what has not been explained, and remember what I have explained as what has been explained. And what, Māluṅkyāputta, have I not explained? Whether the world is eternal [or not eternal, whether infinite or not infinite, whether the soul and body and different or identical, and whether a sentient being exists, or does not exist, or both, or neither] has not been explained by me. And why have I not explained this? Because, Māluṅkyāputta, it is not profitable, it is not a starting point for the spiritual life, because it does not conduce to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to higher knowledge, to full awakening, to nirvana; therefore I have not explained it.

And what, Māluṅkyāputta, have I explained? That here there is suffering, Māluṅkyāputta – this I have explained. That there is an origin of this suffering – this I have explained. That there is cessation of this suffering – this I have explained. That there is a practice leading to the cessation of this suffering – this I have explained.[7] And why have I explained this? Because, Māluṅkyāputta, it is profitable, it is a starting point for the spiritual life, because it conduces to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to higher knowledge, to full awakening, to nirvana; therefore I have explained it. Therefore, Māluṅkyāputta, you should remember what I have not explained as what has not been explained, and remember what I have explained as what has been explained.

In this way, the Buddha explains how Māluṅkyāputta should bear in mind the teachings of suffering (dukkha), its origin and its cessation, and the path to its cessation, as a way of thinking about things; a way that is OK with uncertainty, that bears with what is actually happening, that looks into present experience for the secret of what really matters.

 Based on a talk at Cambridge Buddhist Centre on 25 April 2013

[1] The discourse is no.63 in the Majjhima-Nikāya; its full name is Cūlamāluṅkyaputta-sutta; a full translation by myself can be found at https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/76092054/M%2063%20Short%20Malunkyaputta.pdf, and an alternative translation by Ven. Thanissaro at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html.

[2] This final discourse is found in the Saṃyutta-Nikāya 35:95, and I discuss it in my book This Being, That Becomes, on pp.50–2. The other discourses featuring Māluṅkyāputta are Majjhima-Nikāya 64 and Anguttara-Nikāya 4:254. There are also some verses attributed to him in the Theragāthā.

[3] The phrase ‘a sentient being’ is a translation of tathāgata, literally, ‘one who has become thus’. While this word usually refers to a Buddha, and is used by Gotama to refer to himself, the commentaries always explain tathāgata in the context of the avyākatāni as satta, ‘creature’, ‘sentient being’, or even as atta, ‘self’. See A Dictionary of Pāli, vol.II, p.286.

[4] That is, to which among the four varṇas or castes the person belonged.

[5] It is not certain what some of the Pāli words for these items mean, though the gist is clear enough.

[6] From a letter to his brothers of 21 December 1817.

[7] That is, the Buddha has explained the four noble truths.

10 thoughts on “A Commentary on the Shorter Māluṅkyāputta Sutta

  1. Hi Dhivan,
    I would say that this sutta conveys the number 1 most important insight offered by the Buddha. I like most of what you have written here as a starting point to introduce it, but this is barely scratching the surface of the immense ramifications. How far do metaphysical claims extend? Your list of modern equivalents misses a lot of other common ones in my view. How do we actually avoid them? What are the practical advantages of avoiding them? The answers to any of these questions are huge, but I have made it my business to try to tackle them in my own work.

    There’s one sentence here I would take issue with. “And a certain degree of progress in metaphysical certainty, and hence in existential comfort, is possible.” I think this involves a misunderstanding of what metaphysical certainty consists in. Metaphysical certainty involves clinging to an absolute that can only be confirmed or denied. It is not possible to make “a certain degree of progress” in it: all you can do is reinforce the group assumptions on which it rests by finding people who agree with it, but this does not give any further support for the metaphysical claim. Either all experience is interpreted as supporting it, or leads us to accept that doubt disables it completely. The Buddha’s prime reason for rejecting metaphysical speculation must have been the impossibility of making incremental progress in it, because of the entrenched dualism of metaphysics.

    • Thanks Robert. If you have written anything directly relevant, do include links so we can read further. Thinking about the sentence with which you take issue, I concede the point. What I was thinking of with the phrase ‘a certain degree of progress’ could be re-phrased as ‘some progress in analysing the likelihood of a certain metaphysical question being answered in a particular way’. However, having re-phrased my point in that way, it’s clear that you’re perfectly correct that such ‘progress’ is not progress in metaphysical certainty at all, but is only progress in providing arguments and reasons for preferring one position rather than another. And as you say, those metaphysical positions are always ultimately speculative.

    • Thanks for this Jayarava. I love your excursus about how we have come to translate sithilahanu as ‘stork’. It shows how sometimes we are working in the dark with Pāli. Fortunately here it is not too critical.

  2. The Malunkyaputta Sutta was probably the first piece of textual Dharma that I ever came across. For quite some time I enthusiastically endorsed the received opinion that the sutta gives the quintessential Buddhist attitude to philosophising. But my repeated re-readings has led me to deeper reflections of it and I now see it as a much more problematic work – highlighting some of the contradictions that are inherent in the whole of the Buddhist outlook.
    Some, of course, have seen it as being a basically anti-metaphysical – but this reading stands in stark contrast to the basic statement of prattitya-samutpada, repeated extensively throughout the cannon. The Buddha’s general formula of conditionality is clearly a metaphysical statement itself (i.e. it makes a broad generalised claim on the nature of reality).
    Secondly it is not clear that one’s metaphysical position is independent of methodology. And here one can push the metaphor of man struck with the arrow a little bit further to show that at least some of the questions are not quite as absurd as the Buddha makes out – different types of arrows require different methods of extraction; as indeed one’s own attitude to human liberation/salvation (soteriology) is partly contingent on one’s basic stance in relation to the nature of reality (metaphysics). Unfortunately space prevents me from expanding this complex theme further.
    Similarly too, while the Buddha declares the ten questions to be “un-declared” in practice Buddhists accept positive answers to at least some of them in the form of hidden unconscious assumptions behind their practice. For example it makes no sense at all for the Bodisattva to vow to save all sentient beings over endless lifetimes, if he (or she) does not believe that the world is going to continue indefinitely into the future. Now, it may well be argued that this is a practical consideration and what the Buddha was aiming at was the type of tangled knotted discussions the “infinity” debate has among theoreticians – and I would agree with this. My point is that, without realising it Buddhists, by their basic unconscious assumptions have erred on the side of infinity (in a practical sense). Other schools of religious thought e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, believe that the opposite – that world will come to an end very shortly, and they have produced a soteriology as far from Buddhism as you could possibly get!
    As the launching pad for further discussion the Malunkyaputta Sutta stands as second to none. The Buddha throws us back on our own recourses and forces us to dig into our own experiences of the practice. But such is his commitment to demolish all forms of the habit of certainty, that it is not at all certain what is his own attitude to metaphysics (if he even had one) actually was!

  3. Hi Padmadipa,
    Good to see yout thoughts on this issue.

    “The Buddha’s general formula of conditionality is clearly a metaphysical statement itself (i.e. it makes a broad generalised claim on the nature of reality).” Agreed. For me that’s a good reason for not accepting pratityasamutpada as a general claim. Understanding of specific conditions is useful, but general claims about conditionality are not.

    “it is not clear that one’s metaphysical position is independent of methodology”. It doesn’t have to be absolutely independent, but one can make progress towards independence. Avoiding metaphysics in practice is a work in progress, but metaphysical claims themselves, because of their absolute nature, cannot be works in progress.

    “one’s own attitude to human liberation/salvation (soteriology) is partly contingent on one’s basic stance in relation to the nature of reality (metaphysics)”. Here I disagree. One can rely on metaphysics to support identification with a group that shares a position, but it is not necessary to do so to adopt an attitude (I would say a moral or spiritual attitude, not a soteriological one). Metaphysical claims by their nature cannot be provisional, but the assumptions on which we base our attitudes and actions can be provisional. Assumptions made in practice of many kinds can also be provisional – though I certainly wouldn’t include the Bodhisattva vow amongst those. The effective practice of wisdom and compassion seem to me to depend not on metaphysical assumptions, but on the suspension of all such assumptions, whether negative or positive: to be compassionate we need to encounter what people are actually like beyond our fixed assumptions, and the be wise we need to engage with conditions beyond our assumptions.

    • Hi Robert,

      Thanks for your input, I appreciate your comments. I suppose what I was driving at is to question the interpretation of the Malunkyaputta sutta as being fundamentally an anti-metaphysical treatise. (Akin, say, to something like Hume’s Treatise which is decidedly an attempt to argue against the use of metaphysics in philosophy). To me the Buddha seems to be just simply giving advice that one should not get tangled up in endlessly speculative abstract theoretical issues in that they are not conducive to the spiritual life: and from a philosophical point of view, that is a far lesser claim.

      So to take a modern example, it would not matter to one’s spiritual practice whether one subscribed to either the Big Bang or the Steady State theories of cosmology. But at the same time most practical Buddhist lives are not as metaphysically free as their proponents would suppose. And that underpinning our Buddhist practice there are a mass of hidden assumptions, many of which would fall into my definition as being broad generalizations about the nature of reality. So throughout the history of the Buddhist tradition, as well as I would think the majority of practicing Buddhists today, there is the hidden (and not so hidden) assumption that the universe is very, very large indeed. For all practical intents and purposes this amounts to the same thing as saying that the universe is infinite, whatever the theoretical difficulties with the notion of “infinity” may be. By a similar argument one can show that another hidden assumption is that the universe is also (again practically speaking) eternal.

      Now the Malunkyaputta Sutta is problematic in so far as these two qualities – infinity and eternality – are declared by the Buddha to be “un-declared” (irony on the issue of “declaration” intended!) Where as the tradition that the Buddha founded has given them both a positive “thumbs up”. I see this as contradictory.

      I do not have a problem with ascribing to such practical metaphysical truths as I hold that:

      a) They are useful in that they help to orientate the individual practionier in a broader framework.
      b) They are reasonable and they are provable (in the sense of empirical proof: that is that the balance of empirical evidence is overwhelmingly in their favour).

      (Incidentally the same would also be true of the general formula of prattiya-samutpada; but would not be the case for the traditional view of the karma-rebirth nexus – i.e. evidence for rebirth is extremely patchy and thin, and certainly not overwhelming).

      Finally if we believe that the Buddhist spiritual life is also the philosophic life – in the Socratic sense of an examined life – then we have a responsibility to try to be as aware as possible of the assumptions we are using. And implicit in my original comments is the charge that by claiming that their views are somehow metaphysically free, I see unfortunately, many of my fellow Buddhists as shirking that responsibility.

  4. Hi Padmadipa,
    I get the impression that we have a very different understanding indeed of what ‘metaphysical’ means, and of the salience and practical impact of metaphysical views. The infinity of the universe is a metaphysical view, but it just being very large would not be. The whole point of a metaphysical view is that it is beyond observation, so there is a crucial difference between metaphysical claims with infinite scope and mere generalisations with a degree of observable support.

    I’m also struggling to see in what way Buddhists rely even on the idea of the universe being very large in any context other than specialised discussions about astronomy. The infinity of the universe was perhaps more relevant to people’s thinking in the Buddha’s time, but at the moment I would put the following examples of metaphysical beliefs top as the ones that I observe having the most practical effect on people’s attitudes, because they provide the basis of implicit or explicit principles that people frequently use to make judgements:
    1. Freewill and determinism
    2. Absolute justification of ethics and relativism
    3. Divine revelation and its denial
    4. Belief in the absolute self and its justification and its denial

    If we take the underlying point in the Malunkyaputta Sutta, the practical problem with metaphysics is not just about “getting tangled up in endlessly speculative abstract theoretical issues”. That would be an unjustifiably weakened account of the problem, because the problem is not limited to the examples the Buddha gives in his time and context. Rather he is pointing out the practical unhelpfulness of metaphysical beliefs, in a way that is entirely consistent with the Middle Way teaching. The problems of eternalism and nihilism is not just that they are speculative – they set us off on a practically unhelpful track in all sorts of ways. There is a complex relationship between pairs of affirmed and denied metaphysical absolutes and eternalism and nihilism, but it is nevertheless clear from that relationship that the message is moral and epistemological, not just a minor protest about intellectual time wasting.

    I think you are wrong to identify metaphysical assumptions with assumptions in general. Some assumptions are more justified than others, and metaphysical ones are specifically the type of assumptions that are not open to examination from experience. The right sort of assumptions are helpful, yes, but metaphysical ones just tend to stop us addressing conditions. I also cannot fathom how you think metaphysical beliefs are provable. The whole point of the Buddha’s objection depends on them not being provable. Even if you’re only focusing on the intellectual time-wasting aspect, metaphysical beliefs are a waste of time exactly because they are not provable (or disprovable – unfalsifiability is in my view more significant).

    I do not see Buddhists generally going around claiming that their views are free of metaphysics – although I do think there is a lot of confusion about metaphysics. As I said in my previous post, being free of metaphysics is a work in progress for anyone who recognises it as a problem. The key point is to be clear that avoiding metaphysics is desirable, and that the Middle Way centrally involves the avoidance of metaphysics. For me that is the key to understanding what the Buddha distinctively offered the world, because the avoidance of metaphysics, and thus the addressing of conditions through experience, is the central moral good and the basis of epistemological objectivity.

    • Thanks Padmadipa and Robert for articulating your different points of view so clearly here. I would say that it is no surprise that we have some doubts and different interpretations of a discourse composed so long ago in India. However, it has been helpful for me to read your views on where and how the Buddha’s anti-metaphysical teaching can be qualified, extended and interpreted.

  5. Pingback: The Legendary Life of the Buddha – Infinite Ocean

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