Somewhat loaded question... According to Buddha, what is more reliable -- textual reference or one's own direct insight that came from experience?

If one's own insight is in conflict with a text, should one trust the text or one's own insight? Is there anything Buddha said about this?

  • 1
    My personal preference is always for direct insight - but if a text contradicts, I make it my next object of contemplation to see how that view could also be right. Often truth can look vastly different when viewed from different angles, that's often the only difference since the text too was someone's direct insight. Sorry, don't have a sutta for you, hence a comment, not an answer. NB: I am speaking of direct insight arising from beyond intellectual thought. Mere intellectual thinking can often be flat out wrong, much better to go with the text in those cases.
    – Buddho
    Sep 6, 2015 at 21:36
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    I realized this is one of those "debate" type questions that seek opinions and not real answers. I would like to close this as to set a good example for others.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Sep 10, 2015 at 12:09

6 Answers 6


The Kalama Sutta says that you should "know for yourselves".

It also suggests that one should consider the opinion of "the wise". Elsewhere too it's said to be important to have admirable people as friends.

Something like the Sarakaani Sutta suggests that faith (faith in the "text", perhaps) is beneficial; but that it's also possible to "destroy three fetters". The commentary says,

These are the first three of the five lower fetters, i.e., sakkaaya-ditthi "personality-view" or belief in a permanent, really existing self; vicikicchaa "doubt" (once the "personality-view" has been shattered, there can be no further fundamental doubt about the Dhamma); and siilabbata-paraamaasa "attachment to rites and rituals" (siila + vata).

If you reach the state of "lack of doubt" I think that implies you trust your own insight.

There's a long definition of Vicikiccha (perhaps several definitions).

Some of the things you shouldn't doubt include the Buddha, Sangha, and Dhamma (which might mean, "you shouldn't doubt the text", i.e. "insight confirms the accuracy of the Buddha’s teaching"). But then the last paragraph i.e. ...

Why, Mahaanaama, if these great sal trees could distinguish what is well spoken from what is ill spoken, I would proclaim these great sal trees to be Stream-Winners...

... implies that a stream-winner is defined by the ability to "distinguish what is well spoken from what is ill spoken".

Also the Kaccayanagotta Sutta says that right view is a knowledge that is independent of others

By & large, Kaccayana, this world is in bondage to attachments, clingings (sustenances), & biases. But one such as this does not get involved with or cling to these attachments, clingings, fixations of awareness, biases, or obsessions; nor is he resolved on 'my self.' He has no uncertainty or doubt that just stress, when arising, is arising; stress, when passing away, is passing away. In this, his knowledge is independent of others. It's to this extent, Kaccayana, that there is right view.


Whenever there's a conflict between the text and your personal experience, several things could go wrong.

  1. What you think as direct insight could easily be a misjudgement on your part. ex: 500 years ago, if an average person read in a book that the earth goes around the sun or the earth is round, he would've felt such teachings go against what he took to be his direct experience. A meditator can sit for an hour and feel pain in his legs the whole time and think that pain doesn't go away until he does something about it. And when he moves his legs, the pain goes away. So he could take that view as insight.

  2. Same text can be interpreted in different ways by different teachers. So it could be that you or your teacher is interpreting the text wrong. This is one place where the commentaries are useful. Cross check your understanding of the text with the commentaries to see if it deviates a lot. If it does, most probably you got it wrong. Reevaluate your understanding to see whether it leads you to detachment.

  3. Compilers of the text heard it wrong or understood it wrong. This is highly unlikely as the text(Tipitaka) has survived several Buddhist councils which were headed by many enlightened monks. So this is the last thing one should be worried about.

The Buddha never relied on text even to record his teachings but he did rely on direct insight to get his students to Nirvana. One can't reach liberation without direct insight. Text is very conceptual and of course the Buddha taught to transcend conceptual reality because it can't be relied on to give %100 truth but direct experience can be relied on as perfect truth.


Exerpts from Mahaparinibbana sutta DN 16:

The Four Great References
7. And there the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: "Now, bhikkhus, I shall make known to you the four great references. Listen and pay heed to my words." And those bhikkhus answered, saying:
"So be it, Lord."
8-11. Then the Blessed One said: "In this fashion, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu might speak: 'Face to face with the Blessed One, brethren, I have heard and learned thus: This is the Dhamma and the Discipline, the Master's Dispensation'; or: 'In an abode of such and such a name lives a community with elders and a chief. Face to face with that community, I have heard and learned thus: This is the Dhamma and the Discipline, the Master's Dispensation'; or: 'In an abode of such and such a name live several bhikkhus who are elders, who are learned, who have accomplished their course, who are preservers of the Dhamma, the Discipline, and the Summaries. Face to face with those elders, I have heard and learned thus: This is the Dhamma and the Discipline, the Master's Dispensation'; or: 'In an abode of such and such a name lives a single bhikkhu who is an elder, who is learned, who has accomplished his course, who is a preserver of the Dhamma, the Discipline, and the Summaries. Face to face with that elder, I have heard and learned thus: This is the Dhamma and the Discipline, the Master's Dispensation.'
"In such a case, bhikkhus, the declaration of such a bhikkhu is neither to be received with approval nor with scorn. Without approval and without scorn, but carefully studying the sentences word by word, one should trace them in the Discourses and verify them by the Discipline. If they are neither traceable in the Discourses nor verifiable by the Discipline, one must conclude thus: 'Certainly, this is not the Blessed One's utterance; this has been misunderstood by that bhikkhu — or by that community, or by those elders, or by that elder.' In that way, bhikkhus, you should reject it. But if the sentences concerned are traceable in the Discourses and verifiable by the Discipline, then one must conclude thus: 'Certainly, this is the Blessed One's utterance; this has been well understood by that bhikkhu — or by that community, or by those elders, or by that elder.' And in that way, bhikkhus, you may accept it on the first, second, third, or fourth reference. These, bhikkhus, are the four great references for you to preserve."


From MN 70, the Buddha taught about the Gradual Training:

Monks, I do not say that the attainment of gnosis is all at once. Rather, the attainment of gnosis is after gradual training, gradual action, gradual practice. And how is there the attainment of gnosis after gradual training, gradual action, gradual practice? There is the case where, when conviction has arisen, one visits [a teacher]. Having visited, one grows close. Having grown close, one lends ear. Having lent ear, one hears the Dhamma. Having heard the Dhamma, one remembers it. Remembering, one penetrates the meaning of the teachings. Penetrating the meaning, one comes to an agreement through pondering the teachings. There being an agreement through pondering the teachings, desire arises. When desire has arisen, one is willing. When one is willing, one contemplates. Having contemplated, one makes an exertion. Having made an exertion, one realizes with the body the ultimate truth and, having penetrated it with discernment, sees it."


Since in the Buddha's time there were no Buddhist texts this is indeed a loaded question. And the second unanswerable is unanswerable from a putative Buddha's point of view, because there were no texts for him to have a view of.

On the other hand Prof.s Richard Gombrich, K R Norman and, to lesser extent, Johannes Bronkhorst pointed out the the Buddha of the Pāḷi Canon seems to have known some Brahmanical texts. Some he cited as an example of wrong view (texts relating to ātman) and some he cited as a parody (Agañña Sutta). Later the parodies were often taken seriously (the joke was forgotten and the Agañña becomes official cosmology).

The question is badly formed. It ought to be "What is the role of texts in Buddhism?" Texts play many roles in Buddhism.

  1. Recipes for lifestyles and practices
  2. Inspiring stories
  3. Corporate memory - a record of what Buddhists have thought over centuries
  4. Maintaining group identity

These days we also tend to mistake method for doctrine and specific doctrine for universal doctrine. The classic case of this is the 12 Nidānas. They were originally a list for reflection on experience. But they became reified into a doctrine of what experience is. And then further degraded into a universal theory of conditionality, and again to be a universal theory of causality.

The texts we have inherited are a ragtag collection of bits and pieces, ostensibly preserved orally for some centuries before being written down. They are full of internal contradictions and often philosophically incoherent. But of course Buddhists do not like to talk about this much.

One must always take the texts with a grain of salt. They are literary products; tall stories, legends, and myths; full of miracles, magic, and supernatural beings. They represent the imagination of Iron Age religieux in North India.

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