"Four questions are recorded which it was held that' Sakyamuni 'had refused to answer. These are, whether the universe is eternal or not, whether it is finite or not, whether life is the same as the body, and whether one who is emancipated (a Tathagata) exists after death.' Encyclopaedia Britannica, 14th edition (1929)
1. The universe is neither eternal nor not eternal. Eternity simply does not apply to a construction of conditioned coproduction, which takes place neither in time nor out of time.
2. Neither finity nor infinity is an attribute of a universe. They are attributes only of certain number systems, etc, in mathematics, so answer is as to 1.
3. Answer depends on how and where you define 'life'.
All these first three are superficial questions, of practically no consequence.
Question 4 is less superficial, but still very muddled. 'exists after death'. 'exists' (is outstanding) where and to whom or what?
Awareness is universal, even in what he called Nirvana, and does not disappear with death.
Question becomes: is it recognizable as the same individual awareness as before? Obviously sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.
Definitional again: if you have lost your individuality, then you have lost your individuality. The Tathagata, by definition, is not qualified in any way. Existence, either before or after death, would be a quality, and thus not applicable to the Tathagata as such.
Remarkably few human beings have ever had the persistence to follow their explorations so far as to discover, and to understand completely and without apparent outside aid, the mode by which conditioned coproduction operates to produce an apparent universe.
The last person to do so was Sakyamuni, and he employed the title Tathagata to indicate a being with the ability to make this discovery. The word 'tathagata' means suchness (literally 'thus come' or 'thus gone'), or how consciousness must present itself to one who is liberated from all theories and preconceptions.
The Tathagata, as he said and I already knew, although operating through a human being, is not itself human, but is the nonhuman principle of awareness by which all existence manifests.
Considered as an Office, the knowledge it embodies is not plural, but identical to every holder of it. It is evident from his teaching that Sakyamuni knew the laws of form as clearly as I do, and equally evident that no one in the intervening two and a half thousand years discovered them.
It seems that these laws must be entirely forgotten by humanity before they are discovered again. The work of my predecessor was not known to me until I had fully recorded and published all the first principles of conditioned coproduction for myself. Indeed nothing but scraps, and popularized versions, of his actual teaching (as distinct from the training and the arbitrary rules of conduct he prescribed for the community over which he presided) were available in English before 1975, when the late Edward Conze published his extended translation of the Large Sutra. From this, and only from this, it is evident that Sakyamuni was fully aware of the laws of form. He correctly observed that these laws will operate to produce an apparent universe whether tathagatas appear in the universe so produced to explain its production or not.
He did not of course present them within the framework of mathematical conventions that I use, and it became increasingly less evident that he knew them, especially as most of his followers could not understand his teaching in this respect (as many of mine cannot understand mine), and laid emphasis on religious prescriptions and moral rules that are quite irrelevant today.
The knowledge that, given the possibility of distinction alone, a universe, in the recognizable form we call the universe, must inevitably appear, though fascinating, is still not enlightenment, because enlightenment must answer all questions, and this knowledge leaves unanswered the most important question of all: namely, how does the first distinction ever get drawn?
The answer to this is a secret that cannot be published generally, because every being knows it and communication of it is thus irrelevant and does not "feel" like an answer. It is what is obscuring it, different in every being, that has to be lifted away, and this can be done only by the ministration of a trained and enlightened teacher who first must see the exact nature of the obscuration in his student, and also must know exactly when the student is ready to have it lifted away.
Every thing perceived in the world of a given being is in the image of that being. What is 'outside' of the being has the same form (the same distinctive boundary) as what is 'inside', and when the being dies or is not yet conceived, the boundary disappears or has not yet appeared, so the world of that being, with the being itself, ceases or has not begun.
It may feel strange to contemplate that when we examine an aspect of 'nature', such as the class of Myxomycetes, we are looking exactly at an aspect of the form of ourselves, but it is so, since what we see appears only to the senses of certain beings, does not appear or appears different to the different senses of others, and is certainly nonexistent to nonexistent beings. The fascination of all science is only that we study our own nature, under the pretence that we are observing something else.
Each being experiences what he, she, or it regards as the world as if of a dream of one's own creation, and each of us is also an appearance in the 'dream world' of another. When the other dies, we too are lost from the dream. If we were prominent in that dream, we feel the loss acutely, and call it 'grief'.
Confronted with the apparent universe, we all asked the question, 'What is it?'
We then looked for the answer in exactly the wrong direction.
We all searched for a set of descriptions of what it looked like.
The proper way is to discover the instructions how to make it.
Of course we cannot follow these instructions, we cannot carry out the act of creation they decide, without becoming identical with what is created.
When the creator identifies with what is created, the creation must appear miraculous. And this 'must' is a mathematical must, it is purely definitional. If two "different" creators realize this identity at "different" times, there really can be no distinction between them, for what they "both" realize cannot be other than the same creation.
We say that the "two" creators are "each" a manifestation of the "one" Tathagata. And we say the Tathagata is not exactly the creation itself, but the underlying principle by which it appears.
The principle, conditioned coproduction operating through the laws of form, can never be different from what it is, and that is why the teaching of the Tathagata is ever the same. But whenever it appears, it appears different, each time like a first time, pristine, new, delightful, because this is how time is made.
George Spencer Brown