The Buddha tended to tell his disciples not to waste their time and energy in metaphysical speculation. Whenever he was asked a metaphysical question, he remained silent. Instead, he directed his disciples to more practical efforts.
One day, when he was questioned on the problem of the infinite vs the finite, the buddha said:
“Whether the world is finite or infinite, limited or unlimited, the problem of the liberation of your suffering remains the same. Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow, and the doctor wants to take out the arrow immediately, but suppose this wounded man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot him, his age, his family, and why he was shot in the first place. What do you suppose would happen?
If he was to wait until all of these questions were answered, then he might surely die before coming to an understanding. Life is so short, it must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculation that does not bring us any closer to the truth.
Speculation and inquiry is a beautiful thing… but first, let us remove the arrow.”
Coming from the Buddhist teachings of the “14 unanswerable questions” this parable is often taken as a lesson on grounding teachings and being practical in one’s search for answers.
As is often the case with the Buddha, his philosophies and approach to life were grounded not in theories or speculations, but in practical application and the desire to help solve real-world problems. Guttama often saw Suffering as simply another problem in life… one that required solving, perhaps even the most important problem to solve. As such, he used this parable to help us understand the difference between what was a useful use of our time, and what wasn’t.
After all, life is said to be an experiential journey… How can we participate in it if all our time is taken up answering the exact and precise nature of the world we live in? In other words, whether you believe the world is eternal or not, spiritual or material, you can’t deny that we all have to face the reality of birth, old age, sickness, death, and suffering at some point….no amount of why or how questions will change that.
When Guttama became enlightened, it wasn’t through a revelation of esoteric knowledge that could be explained or talked about..it was an insight into the true nature of reality through direct personal experience that he tried to share….in much the same way, spiritual speculation is worthless without first grounding it in personal insight and an understanding of how it can help the world and yourself. Perhaps there’s also something here about tackling the biggest problems first. By understanding our suffering and working to solve it, it opens up our short time here for asking better and more practical questions about how we can better our own lives and the lives of others.
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