I know Buddhism promotes skeptical investigation, and finding things out with a personal conviction about them, i.e. not believing the Buddha on hearsay but rigorous examination.

I wonder: how is such a certainty achieved? I would think the combination of shamatha and vipassana is the answer, but I wonder what EXACTLY is the closest determinant of a feeling of certainty, whether sensory (seeing something and feeling quite certain of the perception) or cognitive (feeling certain of some analytical reasoning).

Personally, I feel like I often achieve a feeling of certainty, but it usually fades into doubts and alternate hypothesis. I can't seem to generate a sturdy sense of truth.

I appreciate any answer to this question. Thank you.

7 Answers 7


Thanissaro Bhikkhu explained this very well in one of his works, can't find the link at the moment. He said, Liberation is more like a hands-on skill than a pure sterile insight. As with any skill, the understanding and the dexterity grow in lock-step supporting each other. You learn through trial and error, and as you watch the results of your attempts, you infer the mechanisms at play. At the same time, you study theory - explaining the mechanisms - which sheds light on your practice.

Certainty comes as a result of having acquired the skill. This may or may not come from theory, and may or may not be something you can explain in words. Conceptual model is the optional part that aids one's practice and helps transmit the teaching forward, but cannot give the sense of certainty by itself.

In Vajrayana schools, certainty also comes from the lineage blessings through a ritual known as empowerment (abhisheka).

  • You mentioned something here, too, about certainty. Maybe that's of a different kind, though, i.e. about "theories" rather than "hands-on skill".
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 18:34
  • 1
    Yes... that was the certainty of stream-entry... that comes from having exhausted all theories and having finally faced "the elephant in the room". As with samatha and vipassana, learning the theory and mastering the skill grow together and support each other, so both happen before and after stream-entry, but, for me, stream-entry is a turning point from mostly learning to mostly mastering.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 14:21

"I wonder what EXACTLY is the closest determinant of a feeling of certainty, whether sensory (seeing something and feeling quite certain of the perception) or cognitive (feeling certain of some analytical reasoning)."

When you look at at the sun, you know with certainty the sun is there. Or when you think about something in your mind, you know with certainty the thought is in your mind. This is the feeling of certainty.

To get this feeling I'm talking about you must get insights through shamatha and vipassana, then you need to ask yourself questions and the answers will logically come if you gained enough insight from meditation.


It is sufficient to understand the psychology of mindfulness meditation to be appropriately motivated to practice it. But relative certainty about this psychology can be based only upon skill in very advanced states of mindfulness meditation during which a person can systematically observe the unconscious processes that create karma. This advanced practice is traditionally practiced after Enlightenment by meditating on the Theravadin Abhidharma. The reasonable person seeks evidence, not certainty. No knowledge is certain. At best, knowledge can only make sense given the evidence. This is the nature of the mind.


I use hypothesis testing. Conceptually, theoretically, philosophically, physically, spiritually, scientifically ... I test things against their most staunch adversary in all different points of view. And I demand the most back-breaking, ego busting opposite viewpoints that I can find.

Of course this becomes an almost impossibly hard standard to meet when examining philosophical or theoretical or spiritual areas and checking for their basis in fact and science. So I guess my final test is always true, modern science and then focused more on data than explanations. But at least being a plausible physical theory other than "magic". That's a must.


The Buddha found certainty by only trusting what could be directly observed and verified (is the 'falsified' a pleonasm?). The characteristic of impermanence (anicca), for directly observed things (not inferred 'things' like Plato's Forms or God), is present for all that has been seen at all scales, whether a proton a sandwich or a black hole, whether at the time of the Buddha or now. One can posit permanence somewhere beyond what is observable (the Hubble volume these days), but it would be a hypothesis outside of all observation up to now.

That impermanent experience, is unsatisfactory (dukkha) is simply logical, as even happy experience ends.. (this is subject to the economic problem, 'unlimited wants, limited resources', but then space-time is not a resource we can extend anyways)

Direct observation of non-self (anatta) with regards to 'oneself', is inferred until nibbana.

The modern world offers more well defined insights along the lines of the Buddha from the scientific method imo, as the two share a core requirement for observational verification. You have Copernican, Gallilean, special, general relativity and relational QM, which explain conditioned experience progressively more and more accurately. Science is heading towards having to accept anatta soon because what is directly observed now is no different from what was observed 2500 years ago - impermanent and empty of self referential information.. or likely more 'impermanent and describes observed experience less accurately if observer independent or self referential properties are assumed'!

Both the scientific method and the Buddha however, cannot offer 'certainty' for conditioned phenomena. QM states that the Sun will not come up tomorrow with some probability (say quantum tunnel into a black hole), statistics cannot reject the null hypothesis at the 100% significance level. It is not necessary to be skeptical about impermanence with regards to conditioned phenomena however, because there is not a single bit of observable and verifiable counter-evidence up till now.


Doubt(Vicikiccha) is a defilement. Do Vipassana meditation. Samatha is not necessary. Once you attain the first stage of enlightenment(Sotapanna), doubt will be completely cut off. Do not stop the meditation to think up theories regardless of what you saw or felt. That will either take you in wrong paths or slow you down at best. If a thought of doubt enters the mind, note it as doubting... doubting... doubting... until it goes away and then get back to your default place of focus. Keep meditating until you reach Nibbana.


The lack of certainty is doubt, one of the five hindrances.

In this essay on the Five Hindrances, Ajahn Brahm advises on doubt:

Doubt refers to the disturbing inner questions at a time when one should be silently moving deeper. Doubt can question one's own ability "Can I do This?", or question the method "Is this the right way?", or even question the meaning "What is this?". It should be remembered that such questions are obstacles to meditation because they are asked at the wrong time and thus become an intrusion, obscuring one's clarity.

The Lord Buddha likened doubt to being lost in a desert, not recognising any landmarks.

Such doubt is overcome by gathering clear instructions, having a good map, so that one can recognise the subtle landmarks in the unfamiliar territory of deep meditation and so know which way to go. Doubt in one's ability is overcome by nurturing self confidence with a good teacher. A meditation teacher is like a coach who convinces the sports team that they can succeed. The Lord Buddha stated that one can, one will, reach Jhana and Enlightenment if one carefully and patiently follows the instructions. The only uncertainty is 'when'! Experience also overcomes doubt about one's ability and also doubt whether this is the right path. As one realised for oneself the beautiful stages of the path, one discovers that one is indeed capable of the very highest, and that this is the path that leads one there.

The doubt that takes the form of constant assessing "Is this Jhana?" "How am I going?", is overcome by realising that such questions are best left to the end, to the final couple of minutes of the meditation. A jury only makes its judgement at the end of the trial, when all the evidence has been presented. Similarly, a skilful meditator pursues a silent gathering of evidence, reviewing it only at the end to uncover its meaning.

The end of doubt, in meditation, is described by a mind which has full trust in the silence, and so doesn't interfere with any inner speech. Like having a good chauffeur, one sits silently on the journey out of trust in the driver.

You must log in to answer this question.