What is called ‘the silence of the Buddha’ has become almost proverbial. Numerous writers, academic and popular, have mentioned it, given their opinions about it and tried to plum the meaning behind it. According to Raimon Panikkar, “The ultimate reason for the Buddha’s silence seems to me to be rooted neither in the inherent limitation of the human subject, nor in the imperfection of our cognition, nor in the mysterious, recondite nature of reality. Instead, it seems to me that the ultimate reason for the silence of the Buddha resides precisely in the fact that this ultimate reality is not.” Contrary to what Panikkar thinks the Buddha affirmed the is-ness of ultimate reality (Nirvana) in his famous saying, “There is an Unborn, an Unbecome, an Unmade an Unconstructed. If there were not this Unborn, this Unbecome,…etc” (Ud.80) and elsewhere.
Edmond Holmes was certain that 2500 years of Buddhists scholarship got it all wrong but that he finally straightened it out. “…Buddha kept silence, when metaphysical questions were discussed, not because he had nothing to say about great matters, but because he had far too much, because he was overwhelmed by the flood of his own mighty thoughts, and because the channels of expression which the riddle-mongers of his day invited him to use were both too narrow and too shallow to give his soul relief. As it is on the plane of spiritual emotion, so it is on the plane of spiritual thought. ‘Silence,’ says one of Shakespeare's characters, ‘is the perfectest herald of joy. I were but little happy if I could say how much.”’
Father A. Chandrakanthan has a different interpretation. “A philosopher once visited Buddha and asked him: ‘Without words, without the wordless, will you tell me the truth?’ Buddha kept silence. After a while the philosopher rose up gently, made a solemn bow and thanked Buddha saying: ‘With your loving kindness, I have cleared away all my delusions and entered the true path.’ When the philosopher had left, Ananda, a senior disciple of Buddha, enquired: ‘O, Blessed One, what hath this philosopher attained?’ Buddha replied: ‘A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip!’ For Buddha, Silence as the inevitable path that leads to the Truth is not distinct from the Truth itself. That is, as the way to the Truth, Silence already contains the reality of the Truth. They are two aspects of the same reality. It is no wonder that even in Christian tradition silence is spoken of as the language of God. In Christian terms, we may say that for Buddha, Silence is the sacrament of the Truth.” This is fairly typical of the garbled, trite, ‘greeting card’ versions of the Buddha’s words that circulate as his genuine profound teachings.
And of course we couldn’t have a silence without someone trying to smuggle God into it somewhere. Another writer says, “Buddhists misunderstood Buddha by taking His silence for negation. The silence of Buddha about God was misunderstood and Buddhists felt that Buddha indicated the absence of God through silence. When you have concluded that God does not exist at all, then, what is the object of your meditation? If you say that the self is the object, there is no benefit in taking interest about yourself since you are always interested in yourself.”
Moving on, and perhaps in a downwards direction, we find popular writers have had a lot to say about the Buddha’s silence as well. According to Sri Chinmoy the Buddha said, “Sometimes silence is the best answer.” The Punjabi poetess Amrits Pritam, an admirer of Mother Meera and Osho has written, “Where the dance of Meera and the silence of Buddha meet, blossoms the true philosophy of Osho.” Allan Smiths in his Philosophy of the East says “The Buddha elevated silence to a philosophy. It was the very essence of his teaching.” According to the Proverbs of Buddha website he said “Silence is an empty space, space is the home of the awakened mind.” Given all this you couldn’t blame someone for thinking that the Buddha often affected an enigmatic silence when questioned and that much of his teachings was communicated through silence, perhaps accompanied by a knowing smile.
Now we have some idea of what others have said about and thought of the Buddha’s supposed silence let’s see what original sources say. The Buddha was an advocate of silence, not in response to questions, metaphysical or otherwise, but simply as an alternative to the idle chatter that often takes place in a social context. He said to his monks, “When you meet together either talk about the Dhamma or maintain a noble silence” (M.I,161). He certainly encouraged silence in the face of anger and provocation (S.I,162). Occasionally he would go into solitude for half a month during which time he probably didn’t speak (S.V,12). Nothing particularly ‘philosophical’ or ‘mystical’ about any of this!
One of the few original sources ever mentioned in discussions on the Buddha’s supposed silence is his dialogue with the wandering ascetic Vacchagotta. This man asked the Buddha a series of questions - Is the universe finite, infinite, both or neither? Is the soul the same as the body? Is it different from the body? Does an enlightened person exist after death?...etc. To each of these the Buddha replied “I am not of that view Vaccha” (Na kho aham Vaccha evamditthi). Finally Vacchagotta asked the Buddha why he had no opinion on these matters and he replied because such questions and any answers that could be given to them are “just opinions, the grasping of opinions, the jungle of opinions, the wriggling of opinions…They do not lead to giving up, turning away, dispassion, stopping, calming, higher knowledge, to awakening nor to Nirvana.” Far from responding to Vacchagotta’s barrage of questions with silence the Buddha replied coherently by saying that he has no opinion one way or another about them. He was not silent. Then he gave a clear and understandable reason why he has no opinion about them; because they are just opinions that distract attention from the things that really matter (M.I,484-8). Nothing particularly ‘paradoxical’ or ‘metaphysical’ about that either!
In fact, there is only one place, I repeat, one place, in the whole Tipitaka where the Buddha declined to answer a question or questions put to him. On another occasion the same Vacchagotta asked the Buddha, “Is there a self?” The Buddha was silent. Vacchagotta continued, “Then is there no self?” and again the Buddha was silent. Perhaps a bit peeved or disappointment Vacchagotta got up and left. Then Ananda asked the Buddha why he met these questions with silence and he replied, “If when asked if there is a self I had answered ‘yes’ I would have been siding with those teachers who are eternalists. And if I had answered ‘no’ I would have been siding with those teachers who are annihilationists. If I had answered ‘yes’ would this have been consistent with the knowledge that everything is without self?” “No Lord” replied Ananda. “And if I had answered ‘no’ there is no self’ an already bewildered Vacchagotta would have been even more so and would have thought, ‘Before I had a self and now I don’t’” (SIV,400). So once again, clearly and simply, the Buddha explains why, on this single occasion, he remained silent when asked a question; because he didn’t want to be identified with particular philosophical standpoints and because he did not want to further bewilder an inquirer. All the theoretical, fanciful and speculative explanations about the Buddha’s so-called ‘paradoxical’, ‘enigmatic’ and ‘mystical’ silence are based on this one incident. So it would seem that people have created an imaginary ‘silence of the Buddha’ and then filled it with their own noise. In some cases they have done this because they have never bothered to check original sources, and in others because they have wanted to co-opt the Buddha into their own philosophical beliefs.