Recently I was chatting with some Christian friends and we were recollecting some of Jesus' teachings - I, particularly, specified a couple aspects of the New Testament that were downright absurd; one is resurrection: one group of Christians believe Christ had actually raised from the dead, and the other that it was a metaphor. The first view is obviously non-scientific, and one might actually argue it makes no sense.

I have been reading the nikayas myself and although I have found them to be beautiful, I cannot avoid detecting leftovers of Hinduism and absurdity in Buddha's sayings - if taken literally. I have already asked a question about the absurdity of interpreting rebirth literally, and was satisfied with Buddhadasa Bikkhu's view that it should be interpreted metaphorically - even though Buddha explicitly said that rebirth also happened after death (references can be found in the linked question). I now have read more suttas and am very dislocated with regards to many passages. I list some of them below.

Buddha affirms ugliness is a direct consequence of past lives (MN 135):

There is the case, where a woman or man is ill-tempered & easily upset; even when lightly criticized, he/she grows offended, provoked, malicious, & resentful; shows annoyance, aversion, & bitterness. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the break-up of the body, after death, he/she reappears in the plane of deprivation... If instead he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is ugly wherever reborn.

Buddha affirms conception is only possible with the presence of a lesser metaphysical creature to be reborn in the foetus (MN 93):

"'Do you know how there is the descent of an embryo?'

"'Yes, master, we know how there is the descent of an embryo. There is the case where the mother & father have come together, the mother is fertile, and a gandhabba [the being about to be reborn] is standing present. The coming together of these three is the descent of the embryo.'

Buddha affirms that Dhamma practise will turn a person into, let's face it, some sort of superman (DN 2):

With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to the modes of supranormal powers. He wields manifold supranormal powers. Having been one he becomes many; having been many he becomes one. He appears. He vanishes. He goes unimpeded through walls, ramparts, and mountains as if through space. He dives in and out of the earth as if it were water. He walks on water without sinking as if it were dry land. Sitting cross-legged he flies through the air like a winged bird. With his hand he touches and strokes even the sun and moon, so mighty and powerful. He exercises influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds.

If taken metaphorically, the last quote can make sense. The first and second are fruits of a mind that was born in the VI BCE, before the discovery of genetics and physiology.

A previous question has answers that say that to be a Buddhism a person has to have "unwavering faith in Buddha". Does that mean that to become a Buddhist I must give hand of science and start believing nonsense like this? Is it part of being a Buddhist believing everything the Buddha said is true, or must I be discerning and throw away things that are now know to be false?

I have already understood that the role of Buddha is taken to be showing mankind the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. These do make sense for me, completely... But I'm stuck with those esoteric aspects of Buddhism.

5 Answers 5


Sometimes, the Buddha puts in check any blind faith his listeners might have about himself or the dhamma itself. A notorious sutta here is the Cūlahatthipadopama Sutta, where he explains that the reasons for Pilotika to believe the enlightenment of the Buddha are insufficient to have him to state it to surely. In this case, he uses the simile of the elephant's footprint:

“Brahmin, suppose an elephant woodsman were to enter an elephant wood and were to see in the elephant wood a big elephant’s footprint, long in extent and broad across. A wise elephant woodsman would not yet come to the conclusion: ‘Indeed, this is a big bull elephant.’ Why is that? In an elephant wood there are small she-elephants that leave a big footprint, and this might be one of their footprints. [...]

On other occasion, the Buddha approaches people who are not his followers and starts his speech telling them to be careful about the reasons one believes in something. Such is the famous Kesaputtiya sutta also known as the Kālāma Sutta:

The Kesaputtiya Sutta is a classic discourse on Buddhist epistemology, that is, theory of knowledge, or an investigation into what constitutes valid knowledge and what does not. [...] A remarkable feature of the Kesaputtiya Sutta is the comprehensive manner in which it covers the range of human knowledge and experience, that is, the cognitive, the conative, the affective and the spiritual. The cognitive aspect of the Sutta is covered by the Buddha’s reassuring that the Kālāmas have the right to doubt what is doubtworthy and exhorting them on the 10 doubtworthy points.

-- Piya Tan

Another sutta that deals with the acceptance of views and how this acceptance affects one's life is the Apaṇṇaka sutta, which Thanissaro Bhikkhu has translated as "a safe bet".

One of these means [the Buddha resorted to] was the pragmatic argument, which differs from empirical arguments as follows. An empirical argument presents facts that logically imply that A must be true or false. A pragmatic argument focuses not on the facts related to A, but on the behavior that can be expected from a person who believes or rejects A.

The Buddha's main pragmatic argument is that if one accepted his teachings, one would be likely to pay careful attention to one's actions, so as to do no harm. This in and of itself is a worthy activity regardless of whether the rest of the path was true.

When applying this argument to the issue of rebirth and karmic results, the Buddha sometimes coupled it with a second pragmatic argument that resembles Pascal's wager: If one practices the Dhamma, one leads a blameless life in the here-and-now. Even if the afterlife and karmic results do not exist, one has not lost the wager, for the blamelessness of one's life is a reward in and of itself. If there is an afterlife with karmic results, then one has won a double reward: the blamelessness of one's life here and now, and the good rewards of one's actions in the afterlife. These two pragmatic arguments form the central message of this sutta.

-- Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Finally, the Brahmajāla Sutta is an important discourse that exposes what the Buddha calls wrong views. It is a great source to understand indirectly what the Buddha approves to be knowledge -- by understanding how he exposes faulty inquiries of many different kinds.

So, I hope suttas like these clarify that Buddhism does not demand one's blind faith on any matter. Not only it doesn't demand blind faith, but assertions about the Dhamma that have not being actually made known by those who proclaim it are subject to criticism (if the simile of the elephant's footprint is at all relevant).

Of course, all buddhists aiming at the goals of Buddhism have to have some faith in things beyond their current reach. That the goal (end of suffering) is reachable, and that the path presented truly moves one toward that goal are two obvious instances.

But this faith is the very same faith one has on math class, or say, rock climbing class: faith that the teacher knows his trade, that it's possible for you to learn it, and that by the end of the course, you will know it. There's then a gradual "substitution" of that faith by knowledge; as you learn, the more confident in the path and teacher you become. This is daily activity, we all do it, and in Buddhism is not different.

Now, consider the situation were the student really, really needs the class and ponders over the options carefully. Then, the "unwavering faith in the Buddha" is just this: without fully trusting the teacher, one comes to believe one won't learn the class as well as one expects, or worst, one may think they are not safe under the care of the teacher. So right there the motivation ends and one abandons that class. That is why this strong confidence is required for those truly dedicated to realize the attainments declared by the Buddha, otherwise they will doubt the very possibility of it and abandon the training.

Strong as it may be, however, the faith is provisional. It's mere confidence. And if the suttas above are at all important, they point to the very same attitude that mature scientists show: that we should never assert things we don't know as true if we have not come to know them as true -- we can always say "according to the suttas", but that's different than saying "this is true".

On the other hand, no one interested in finding truth should discard nonsense because it's perceived as nonsense. For one example, for centuries the idea that the earth moves around the sun, and that the earth is actually spinning was nonsense (to our senses, it still is: I don't feel I'm spinning at all, and I can clearly see the sun moving around).

No one should also believe in science for so many reasons. One of them, is that science is supposed to be known, not believed in (that was the whole point of the scientific revolution centuries ago) -- this is quite aligned with Buddhism.

But the point is that rebirth has never been under sufficient scientific scrutiny, enough to yield any conclusive information. The same can be said about the brain. That doesn't make the brain "non-scientific".

So, throw away what is false, yes. But one better be cautious so one is not mistaken about it -- since we usually are not cautious and we usually are mistaken.

Last but not least, there are other interpretations of the quotes you provided, and many people believe rebirth in the suttas to be either a mis-interpretation or that it's presence in the texts are due to other reasons. Secular Buddhism, for example, is one branch that takes the so-called supernatural elements with grain of salt.

But many monks are actually agnostic about rebirth or put this subject aside. Ajahn Brahmali from the forest tradition thinks that this is appropriate middle way on this matter.


You do not have to believe in these things if you do not want to but do not reject then outright also. Though maybe not all aspects, you might realize some aspects of Buddhism which you might have rejected earlier as acceptable through empirical verification through meditation and the Noble 8 fold path.

For the meditation to work and for you to practice in earnest without any psychological stumbling block you have to have faith in the techniques (Threefold Training) and your teacher. The faith in your teacher is that you know he is teaching you the right techniques and he knows what he is teaching. To start with this is all the faith you need, but you can and have to refine it as you take more steps in the path. Also through wise attention, the path (3 fold training) path is realised. [Yoniso Manasikāra Sampadā Sutta] So meditation is to develop wise attention.

  • Thanks for this answer, Suminda. Perhaps when a monk/nun is egoistic enough to show off his/her levitating abilities I'll start to question the physics I've learned... Until there, I'll just keep meditating. Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 18:13
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    What you can do for the time being is to put what you might not be palatable to you aside and start practicing to see if you get any benefit from the teachings. Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 8:19

There are several topics about faith on this site. I think that "faith" may be a preliminary state e.g. as described in this topic.

If you were drowning and someone throws you a rope, you need enough faith (or confidence, belief, understanding, lack of doubt) in the saviour and solution to take and use the rope. The metaphor is applicable whether you're drowning in water, drowning in sensuality, drowning in despair, or etc.

There may be parts of the dharma (for example you mention the doctrines of rebirth, or of psychic powers) that are useless to you: you don't know how, you're unable to make use of them. Suminda's answer says, "You do not have to believe but do not reject"; and Thiago's, "actually agnostic about rebirth or put this subject aside". I guess my answer is that the parts which you are unable to use are simply irrelevant: they don't come up; they don't form part of the solution which is available to you.


The Buddha did not explicitly say that rebirth also happened after (physical) death. This idea only arises when the word 'marana' ('death') is misunderstood. The word 'marana' is defined as the 'death' of the idea of a 'being' ('satta'). Refer to SN 12.2. 'A being' ('satta') is defined in SN 23.2 and SN 5.10 as a 'view' or 'state of attachment'.

For example, you (i.e. the mind) believe you are a 'husband'. This is 'birth'. When your wife leaves you for another man or when your wife dies, your self-identity as a 'husband' dies. This is 'death' ('marana') and from this death comes sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief & despair. What has died is a certain sense of self or self-identity. 'Death' does not mean the death of the physical body. This is why all questions in the suttas about what happens to a Buddha after 'death' ('marana') are deemed to be invalid. Since a Buddha has no sense of 'self', a Buddha does not experience "death". What happens to a Buddha is the "termination of life" (rather than "death").

Bhikkhu Buddhadasa has not taught these things are metaphors. The word 'marana' is not a 'metaphor' because it is literally defined as a 'self-view' & the sorrowful ending of that self-view.

The Buddha does not affirm ugliness is a direct consequence of past lives in MN 135. Instead, MN 135 states ugliness is a result of past kamma (intentional action). Again, you have misunderstood the language in the sutta. The Buddha has taught literally a person is ugly due to anger. Also, there is no evidence the Buddha actually spoke this sutta.

Same girl. Pretty & ugly due to different kamma.

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If you want to understand MN 135 thoroughly, you can read similar suttas, such as AN 4.197, which use less complex language.

More importantly, you need to research in the suttas how the words 'beautiful', 'ugly', 'wealthy', 'poor', 'long-lived', 'short-lived', etc, are used in other contexts, where it will be found these words are used in both psychological & physical contexts.

The Buddha does not affirm conception is only possible with the presence of a lesser metaphysical creature to be reborn in the foetus in MN 93 & also MN 38.

In MN 38, the Buddha explicitly states three things are required for the creation of an embryo: (1) sexual intercourse; (2) the mother is in season; (3) the gandhabba is present. The word 'gandhabba' has its linguistic root in the word 'scent' or 'smell' and obviously means 'sperm'.

That said, the word 'gandhabba' has many uses in the suttas, such as used as a type of 'god'. For example, the Buddha was asked by a man after his enlightenment was he a 'gandhabba'. Maybe, in his radiance, the Buddha looked like a gigolo.

The term 'gandhabba' is very obtuse but in MN 38 is is quite clear to mean 'sperm'. In MN 93, the Buddha is talking to Brahmans thus the word 'gandhabba' here means whatever Brahmans believed it to mean (rather than what the Buddha took it to mean, such as in MN 38).

Correct. In DN 2, the Buddha affirms that Dhamma practise will turn a person into, let's face it, some sort of superman. These are merely psychic powers based on the use of thought & electricity. Just as a TV tower can transmit TV waves across the atmosphere, so possibly can the human mind or brain that has developed this ability. There is nothing superstitious about this.

You claim to be a 'scientist' yet seem to deny the brain may possibly have an ability to utilise electricity to transmit thought messages & images. What did Tesla say about the electrical fields of the Earth?

Before I practised meditation, I never ever used to literally fly in my dreams. But since I developed a certain level of mediation, I often literally fly in my dreams (which is an amazing feeling since it is literally flying; jumping off high cliffs and flying over cities & over beautiful green landscapes). While I do not have any psychic powers, at least I believe the mind can mentally manifest flight (rather than physically). The mind with physic powers possibly can do this volitionally (whilst I cannot. It only occurs non-volitionally during my sleep).

You are stuck with those aspects of Buddhism because you have devoted your life to science rather than to meditation. If you meditated more & attained stream-entry, all doubts would vanish.

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  • As usual, I like and dislike your answer. The first part of it was truly enlightening - I should be careful about the terms, The suttas you recommended cleared my views, and I must admit "gandhabba" is indeed used in many suttas I've read and with different (sometimes unintelligible) meaning. Thank you. Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 18:02
  • Nevertheless, I do have evidence that the human mind cannot transmit and absorb waves like a TV set. This evidence is called waveguides. It is usually studied in advanced electromagnetism. We do some calculations and deduce something called a cutoff frequency, and based on calculations using the brain as a source and the head as a waveguide (more precisely, a resonant cavity) we arrive at the conclusion that the brain would roast before emitting something meaningful - and more, we have absolutely no way of receiving frequencies, since the induced neural currents are far too low. Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 18:05
  • So yes, I have turned now to meditation because I believe in the Four Noble Truths and am experiencing myself a huge change of perspective in many aspects... But I can't see myself denying that the proofs of physics can be overcome by meditating. I still prefer to thing that in DN 2 the Buddha was using metaphors. One cannot expect a man to talk about flight before the time planes and physics were discovered. Also, I (and no one, I think) ever saw a monk flying around. Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 18:09
  • OK. Thanks. Good answer about the electromagnetism. Personally, I know nothing about it. However I do believe in psychic powers (which is not due to scripture or theory). Regardless, it is not important. SN 12.70 & DN 11 explain the unimportance of psychic powers. Regards. Also, there are many questionable (unauthentic) suttas, imo. Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 19:31

Discernment or blind belief?

Buddhism is definitely demanding discernment and against blind belief (or blind faith).

Buddha affirms ugliness is a direct consequence of past lives (MN 135)

How a person's visage apprehended is generated by the mind, so to speak. A mind, is not just the thinking faculty. Think of the human thinking faculty, those formats of thinking, where do they come from? Many of the basic surviving abilities are not learnt, but born with. A bird is born to fly, a fish to swim, these abilities are there already, they are there at birth. Can the mind affect the physical, i.e., the visage? If one keeps thinking having a stomachache, surely after a while one will feel bad with the stomach. The mind has it's part that you are aware what it's doing, like thinking of stomachache; but it has the part that you aren't aware what it's doing, e.g., blood circulation. There are even deeper mind activities not detectable. Thus the mind capable of affecting the visage is not a myth. The nature of your mind at this moment is the totality of the past, past lives. Death is the physical deterioration, the mind keeps it's continuum whether you are dead or alive.

Buddha affirms conception is only possible with the presence of a lesser metaphysical creature to be reborn in the foetus (MN 93)

I don't think lesser or greater is the right saying, it needed the "gandhabba" is valid. Grandhabba is the mind without the physical body, a form in the interval between death and rebirth. Unfortunately "mind" is only loosely a substitute for "gandhabba" in English. Here the "gandhabba" can be previously a fish, a cow, or a human, any sort of life form.(!) The foetus can be a pig, a pigeon, or a human, too.(!!) In the future when scientists are creating "cow-headed fish" (I believed they do now) in the lab, the "gandhabba" has to be presented too. Think of it, why a creature must it develop from organic base, whether by cell-cloning or in vitro fertilization. Do you think by combining and mixing the finest inorganic material such as titanium in nano scale life can be generated from? (It's possible when some "gandhabba" - mind/entity can inhabit even an inorganic object but I don't think you are ready for this and too complex for now) What's going on when life comes about? Do you think at this moment science has all the answers booked?

Buddha affirms that Dhamma practise will turn a person into, let's face it, some sort of superman (DN 2)

It is. You probably don't know, in the philosophical sphere those such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer were influenced by Buddhism esp. the "superman" notion. Niet. wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Scho. The World as Will and Representation. They willed for this superman power indeed. In fact any master claimed to master the practice must be able to demonstrate some sort of Rddhi powers, at least able to heal some sort of illness. In the ancient monastic life an accomplished Bhikkhus always visited by patients he should be able to heal. The healing is simply by, say, laying hands on the head or any place with afflictions. I don't think you are accepting this saying neither it's my task to convince you :). An Arahat is required to demonstrate the 18 kinds of "superman power" if they achieved Arahat-hood, recorded in many places in the Sutras/Suttas. Take one example, seeing, the succeeded practitioner his eyes can do both microscopic and telescopic functions. When we are fumbling with the iPhone, those functions in the iPhone were used to be the abilities of the succeeded practitioner. Else what are those meditations and long pain sittings for? Going to a gym at least can build the body with stronger muscle. Buddhist practice is training/building the mind, so to speak. Although "superman power" should never be the goal else one fallen.

"unwavering faith in Buddha"

This phrase is a bit strange. Buddhism has many branches, the methods could be varied. It's true and false. loosely saying, I think when practicing for the Pureland at the verge of dying, yes; or Tibetan during the Guru-yoga, yes. Ch'an, probably, no. And there is record about Ananda not succeeded after years attending at the side of the Buddha, finally he realized that even the Buddha was his cousin/brother(?) the Buddha wouldn't be able to give his achievement to Ananda, he must learn by himself and arrive by himself.

To conclude, a skeptical mind and discerning align with the teaching. However, an open mind is the key to the gate for knowledge beyond what science proclaimed. Science keeps refuting itself and it's own discovery, that means science not the ultimate truth.

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