Does it claim to perfectly describe the nature of this world and all of mankind without contradiction as other religions do?

I read this article: http://approachingaro.org/certainty .

The author says:

Buddhism is unique, as far as I know, in insisting that the kind of answers we want cannot be had, anywhere. Emptiness—inherent uncertainty—is at the heart of Buddhism. For this reason, Buddhism is sometimes described as “The Way of Disappointment.” If we follow it sincerely, Buddhism repeatedly crushes our hope that somehow it will satisfy our longing for answers; for ground we can build on; for reliable order.

I know this may just be an opinion. If this is true, it seems contradictory to me. It's in and of itself a claim of certainty that we, as human beings, can never attain certainty.

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    Aug 25, 2015 at 19:54

3 Answers 3


That's a ridiculous statement. How could you follow something sincerely that wasn't built on solid ground? If the dharma wasn't certain, pursuing it would be a complete waste of time. While it might not answer larger, existential questions like "why are we here", it is a fairly reliable point of departure.

Uncertainty is, however, a very important part of practice. In fact, doubt and frustration are one of the most salient features of the path. Buddhism doesn't seek to give answers. Instead it asks us to reevaluate our assumptions. It's very aim is to disrupt the order we've conjured around ourselves.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Buddhism tries to perfectly describe the nature of the world. The very act of describing it inevitably reduces it to ideas and descriptions. What Buddhism does attempt to do is give us an opportunity to see the nature of the world perfectly.

  • 1
    Actually one of the biggest reasons I was attracted to the Dhamma in the first place is because I was shocked by how perfectly and succinctly it answered the question "why are we here".
    – user5770
    Aug 25, 2015 at 20:01
  • You think? I don't know. I've always found the creation myths of Buddhism to be a little lacking. They certainly aren't as exciting as those found in Hinduism. ;-)
    – user698
    Aug 26, 2015 at 13:00
  • since the creation myths of Hinduism and pretty much every other religion were dependently originated, I would say that dependent origination is the mother of all creation myths. Except that it's not a myth.
    – user5770
    Aug 26, 2015 at 18:20
  • I'm not so sure I'd say Western creation stories are dependently originated. Ignorance doesn't necessarily factor into "let their be light" for instance. There is a reading of the Adam and Eve story that says the apple was actually a symbol for ignorance, but that's kind of apocryphal. Even the Buddha's own description (i.e. in the Aganna Sutta) doesn't quite use the 12 links - at least not explicitly.
    – user698
    Aug 26, 2015 at 20:02
  • All conditioned phenomena (literally everything in the world) are dependently originated. Even the twelve links description of dependent origination itself is dependently originated.
    – user5770
    Aug 26, 2015 at 20:07

The author of that quote, David Chapman, is a very interesting man! An expert on artificial intelligence, a philosopher, and novelist, as well as a long time Buddhist. But the idea that we can never have complete knowledge is not specific to Buddhism. It is built into mathematics for example, as set out in Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems. Then we have the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which limits our knowledge of the quantum states of sub-atomic particles.

I think what David is trying to get at here is that the answers to our big questions cannot be had on the same level as the question. Unawakened beings do not see experience clearly enough to ask good questions. So for example we might be asking "What will make me happy?" And we'll expect the answer to be something simple, and probably related to pleasurable sense experience (this belief is deeply ingrained even in people who profess to believe it is not true). But search as we may we cannot find the one thing that will make us happy. Some forms of Buddhism tell us that happiness is not attained through acquisition, but through relinquishing. The question "What will make me happy?" can never have a satisfactory answer because it's framed in a worldview that precludes ultimate happiness.

The idea of "groundlessness" is a strong feature of Tibetan Buddhist teaching. Another author who talks like this is Pema Chödrön. My take on this might be different to David's and Pema's. All that we know about anything comes through experience. When we say "things arise in dependence on conditions" we mean experiences arise in dependence on conditions. And experiences themselves, are neither existent, nor non-existent. When we have an experience nothing "new" comes into being and when an experience ceases, nothing existing ceases to exist. Experiences are empty of self or anything related to self, they are empty of self-existence (i.e. an existence for which the thing itself is a condition). Therefore in experience there is nothing which is stable or lasting. When we say "things are impermanent" we mean experience is impermanent. And because experience is impermanent it cannot offer permanent solutions - not to unhappiness or suffering or any of our other problems. Experience simply cannot be relied on.

Some Buddhists do claim to "perfectly describe the nature of this world". But a close reading of early Buddhist texts and, for example, the Perfection of Wisdom texts, makes it clear that they are not concerned with the nature of the world oe reality, but with the nature of experience. The idea that Buddhism describes the nature of the world is an error that crept into Buddhism very early on, and there have been repeated reformations to re-establish the focus on experience.

  • 2
    FYI and on the subject of up-voting answers or not, I sometimes wish your answers would be slightly more careful to obviously address the OP's question: does Buddhism claim to be a perfect description "without contradiction"? If it is perfect then how is there inherent uncertainty? If the heart of Buddhism is "inherent uncertainty" then is that a paradox: is that statement itself a "claim of certainty", etc.? I don't disagree with what you wrote but I'd be surer that it's a useful answer to the OP, if you tied it a little more closely/explicitly to the OP's question.
    – ChrisW
    Aug 26, 2015 at 13:45

If this is true, it seems contradictory to me.

I suspect it's based on Buddhism's claim that everything (or, more specifically than "everything", all "conditioned things" -- however that includes all the things which the mind perceives i.e. ideas) are imperfect: or not imperfect but, more specifically, "impermanent" and "disappointing".

It's in and of itself a claim of certainty that we, as human beings, can never attain certainty.

Well no, there is said to be a Way (depending on which Buddhist tradition, perhaps more than one way) towards liberation.

I guess the resolution to the apparent paradox is the object of certainty.

Perhaps the world is uncertain (e.g. if things and ideas are impermanent, and keep changing, then you find disappointment and not certainty in things and ideas).

But Buddhist doctrine says that: it literally says, that "things are impermanent and disappointing".

Apparently a sufficiently enlightened Buddhist will experience certainty about the doctrine, i.e.:

  1. Skeptical doubt - Doubt about the Buddha, his teaching (Dharma), and his community (Sangha) is eradicated because the sotāpanna personally experiences the true nature of reality through insight, and this insight confirms the accuracy of the Buddha’s teaching. Seeing removes doubt, because the sight is a form of vision (dassana), that allows one to know (ñāṇa).

Another clue in the phrase you quoted is, "the kind of answers we want cannot be had" -- I understand that to mean that there are answers of which we can be certain ... but they're not the kind of answers which we 'want'. :-)

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