In this Reddit post Is Buddhism about cognitive linguistics and cognitive psychology?, I am advised that practice is far more important than intellectualizing. I understand that the core teaching of Buddhism is to stop clinging on dharma, and I would miss the main point of it if I don't practice it, but I'm not sure if intellect is less important than it. Sure, after you get to the opposite shore, you want to left your raft behind, but when you are still paddling in the middle of the river, you should take care of it.

But after I explain my point, it seems that it goes into one ear and out another. Why is that? Is it actually bad to use intellect? Telling me to not using intellect sounds like asking me to think about the shore when the job is to paddle. I just want to find a way to paddle more efficiently.

I am reading Nagarjuna's Middle Way if that matters.

intellectualism or anti-intellectualism and Buddhism
How to ask other Buddhists doing analysis, rather than advising me to stop analyzing?
Why does Buddhism seem to have an anti-thought bias?

  • Maybe the dharma is important as a raft, but the practices of meditation and compassion are like the oars.
    – Jay Moore
    Nov 7, 2019 at 15:57
  • I've heard that for stream entry, meditation is unneeded and contemplation on the (meaning of the) higher Dhamma is enough — that seems to point to intellectual understanding being primary but not the goal. Jun 4, 2021 at 11:32

9 Answers 9


You should always keep in mind the differences between the Buddha's dispensation, and the teaching of, let's say, Socrates, Plato and other Hellenistic philosophers, which were, apparently, contemporaries of the historical Buddha.

While Greek philosophers were trying to use their intellect to understand the world surrounding us, sometimes as a means for living a better life, and others just for the sake of knowing more, the Buddha was part of a living tradition of ascetics and mystics that were trying to get free from Samsara (this latter concept having multiple descriptions and definitions, according to the tradition telling the story).

The Simpasa Leaves sutta point to the general direction of Early Buddhism: deliverance from suffering. All the efforts, both practical and intellectual, were directed to that very end; all the teachings, debates and analyses had Dukkha and the end of Dukkha as its axis.


Intellect is an essential part of Buddhism, as well as critical thinking and empirical endeavours. Your views about the world inform to and are the basis of your perceptions and thought, which in time are the ground for your intentions and actions. And that's why the cultivation of the mind is so important to the Path. But this cultivation is not a mere absoption of information, but a practice for understanding suffering, the causes of suffering, the ending of suffering and the path leading to it. Everything else goes beyond the point.

This is why it's so hard to classify Buddhism as a religion or as a philosophy. It has a bit if both, while being none. If comparison have to be made, Stoicism would be a good point to start if you are looking to the west, and early Daoism, if you look to the East. Both paths were pretty practical, both in reflexion and in deeds.

EDIT: This post from a discussion on DhammaWheel might shed some light on the question of the involvement of Buddhism in matters that may fall outside the "original dispensation" (on quotations, because we'll never know for sure if the NikayAgamas contain the original teachings just as the historical Buddha taught them).


Have a wonderful day!

  • This nails it. Thank you so much. If I see the sufferings as interesting and see it with a curious eye, then does it make sense to intellectualize the teachings? From the Daoist perspective, you can always transform your sufferings into an opportunity that you are long seeking for.
    – Ooker
    Feb 18, 2019 at 2:15
  • First, I think you should define precisely when something is "intellectualized". As PeterJ wrote, intellect itself is neither bad nor good. What Buddhism show us is how to use that intellect skillfully and in a wholesome manner. In the Path, the knowledge that helps to destroy the taints of craving, aversion and ignorance is the knowledge worth reflecting on. Any other knowledge can have social and personal value and utility, or can be used as leisure. The key is to be mindful of your intentions when executing any act, even when trying to learn new things. Kind regards! Feb 18, 2019 at 15:59

Here's a very suitable sutta for this question. Self-explanatory.

From Dhammaviharin Sutta (AN 5.73):

Then a certain monk went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, "'One who dwells in the Dhamma, one who dwells in the Dhamma': thus it is said, lord. To what extent is a bhikkhu one who dwells in the Dhamma?"

"Monk, there is the case where a monk studies the Dhamma: dialogues, narratives of mixed prose and verse, explanations, verses, spontaneous exclamations, quotations, birth stories, amazing events, question & answer sessions. He spends the day in Dhamma-study. He neglects seclusion. He doesn't commit himself to internal tranquillity of awareness. This is called a monk who is keen on study, not one who dwells in the Dhamma.

"Then there is the case where a monk takes the Dhamma as he has heard & studied it and teaches it in full detail to others. He spends the day in Dhamma-description. He neglects seclusion. He doesn't commit himself to internal tranquillity of awareness. This is called a monk who is keen on description, not one who dwells in the Dhamma.

"Then there is the case where a monk takes the Dhamma as he has heard & studied it and recites it in full detail. He spends the day in Dhamma-recitation. He neglects seclusion. He doesn't commit himself to internal tranquillity of awareness. This is called a monk who is keen on recitation, not one who dwells in the Dhamma.

"Then there is the case where a monk takes the Dhamma as he has heard & studied it and thinks about it, evaluates it, and examines it with his intellect. He spends the day in Dhamma-thinking. He neglects seclusion. He doesn't commit himself to internal tranquillity of awareness. This is called a monk who is keen on thinking, not one who dwells in the Dhamma.

"Then there is the case where a monk studies the Dhamma: dialogues, narratives of mixed prose and verse, explanations, verses, spontaneous exclamations, quotations, birth stories, amazing events, question & answer sessions. He doesn't spend the day in Dhamma-study. He doesn't neglect seclusion. He commits himself to internal tranquillity of awareness. This is called a monk who dwells in the Dhamma.

"Now, monk, I have taught you the person who is keen on study, the one who is keen on description, the one who is keen on recitation, the one who is keen on thinking, and the one who dwells in the Dhamma. Whatever a teacher should do — seeking the welfare of his disciples, out of sympathy for them — that have I done for you. Over there are the roots of trees; over there, empty dwellings. Practice jhana, monk. Don't be heedless. Don't later fall into regret. This is our message to you."


This is just from a personal perspective

In my early 20s my engagement with Buddhism was exclusively reading books and intellectualising about it. Fairly quickly I ran into the sand with it as I just couldn't see the difference between nihilism and Buddhism. It was only years later when I joined a Buddhist group and built up a regular meditation practice that I was able to move past this and engage again with Buddhism.

For me there are two activities

  1. Practising Buddhism - meditation, ethics and wisdom
  2. Being interested in Buddhism - reading books about it and wondering about the finer philosophical points

Nothing wrong at all with the second one but for me it isn't helping me practise and realise the end of suffering. Practicising and heavy intellectualising are different. I read that when it comes to wisdom - a good grasp of the 4 noble truths and the eightfold path is good enough. Once you are there then get working on your ethics and meditation. You can come back to the intellectual stuff (much) later.

As I say - this is just my own personal experience. Others will have a different view and I know that traditions such as Tibetan are a lot more keen on the intellectual stuff.


  • Was it nihilism because the Dhamma takes you towards not-self, but your natural (non-practising) tendency takes you towards identity views? Was it a kind of dissonance? And then meditation helped you reduce this dissonance?
    – ruben2020
    Feb 18, 2019 at 3:13
  • 1
    @ruben2020. Not so much. I've always being reasonably comfortable with not-self. It was more reading about the emptiness of all things and the lack of inherent existence in everything. Also no metta practice and general ignoring of compassion. That's how I remember it now anyway Feb 18, 2019 at 3:17
  • So dissonance is everyday life and we don't even see it as suffering. Do you think that our discussion actual makes us suffer?
    – Ooker
    Feb 18, 2019 at 3:55

In the post in question:

  • You use the parable of the elephant as an example (which is in a sutta about sectarian disputes)
  • You say that "Buddhism is strongly about this interaction between cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistic"

When I first read that I think that's an unorthodox and unrecognisable summary of Buddhism, or at least, it is so from the perspective of the suttas.

See also comments under this question, I think you assume that Nagarjuna's Middle Way is Buddhism -- and 'that "dharma has no self-nature" is a basic foundation in Buddhism' -- which I think isn't so.

I don't want to say that "Nagarjuna isn't Buddhism" but I think there's a school (Theravada) for whom Nagarjuna isn't canonical and to whom a statement like "dharma has no self-nature" is a bit far-fetched, possibly heretical, maybe novel at best, I don't know -- anyway, who aren't familiar with Nagarjuna's doctrine.

I think that a more-orthodox (according to the suttas) summary of Buddhism might be something like:

  • The Buddha taught about "suffering and cessation" (of suffering)
  • The way (to end suffering) has components including "ethics, mindfulness, and wisdom"

I think that's maybe the shortest summary.

I find it hard to see that definition in "interaction between cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics ... to identify incorrect sememes", so I sympathise with those who disagree with it as a definition. But I for one had never heard the word "sememe" before this, so maybe that definition makes more sense to you than it does to me. But perhaps you're not wrong, either, and that what you're saying reflects Buddhist doctrine that "right view" is important, and so is "seeing things as they truly are".

Still if that (i.e. "right view") is all you're talking about, I think that Buddhism is more than that.

Incidentally I don't see that the suttas identify "illusion of transparency" as a cause of dispute -- more likely conceit (e.g. "my view is superior to yours"). You might be onto something with "naïve realism", I think that papañca is identified as the cause of (e.g. sectarian) disputes, defined e.g. here and here, and "reification" might be part of that.

  • A breakdown to my original post is what I'm actually looking for, but in this question technically it's off-topic. Should I accept it? I think it's better if you post this as a comment in that post. I agree that this may be a little nitpicking though
    – Ooker
    Feb 19, 2019 at 16:30
  • I don't really know what cognitive linguistics are, nor anything much about Nagarjuna's Middle Way, so I can't comment on that, can't break that down.
    – ChrisW
    Feb 19, 2019 at 16:47
  • nope, it's not necessary that you can break down cognitive linguistics, it's just that you have provided much more relevant information to my idea. Again, this may be nitpicking, but I think this answer is better posted in there than here
    – Ooker
    Feb 19, 2019 at 23:15
  • Are you saying you'd like me to repost this answer on r/Buddhism -- perhaps, because it answers that question ("Is Buddhism about...?")? And I think you're saying it "technically" doesn't answer this question (Why won't people accept...?").
    – ChrisW
    Feb 20, 2019 at 7:37
  • yes, that's right
    – Ooker
    Feb 20, 2019 at 8:10

Venerable Nāgārjuna calls nirvāṇa "the ending of body, the ending of speech, the ending of mind" (T1564.23c16). No room for chatter, no room for activities, no room for proliferation.

Ven Nāgārjuna asks us to 'just stop.'

'Just stop what?' the uninstructed disciple asks.

'No,' says the sage, 'just stop.'

Just stop. That's the lesson. IMO at least, and I've spent a fair amount of misguided time trying to 'logic through' Madhyamaka.

4 answers, regardless of what the question is: 1)yes, 2)no, 3)yes and no, 4)neither yes nor no

4 denials of an answer, regardless of the question: 1)not yes, 2)not no, 3)not yes and no, 4)not neither yes nor no

We have to "just stop." There is no answer. Stop asking questions. Stop everything.

That seems to be the lesson IMO.

  • This would be a rather negative way of putting it. By denying the four extremes we are not giving up on logic, we are using logic to refute false views. The correct view would not be an extreme view. That is, we deny the extremes for the sake of a neutral theory or position, not for no position at all. There is much misunderstanding on this point.
    – user14119
    Nov 14, 2019 at 15:20

I usually like to explain it this way. The thinking, rational mind is a tool, like a hammer or a saw. Tools are useful, and they should be well-maintained; we don't want a rusty hammer or a dull saw when we happen to need to use one. The problem with the thinking mind, however, is that we tend to forget it's there. Imagine if you walked through your daily life with with a hammer or a saw in your hand all the time. You'd scare people; you'd break stuff; you'd keep trying to do things with those tools that those tools are not at all suited for.

Buddhist practice teaches you to put that tool (the thinking mind) away in the shed. Being intellectual about Buddhism isn't bad, per se, and can be quite useful and interesting in the proper place. But in the end, using the intellect to understand Buddhism amounts to using the wrong tool for the job (like trying to knock a hammer out of your hand by hitting it with another hammer in your other hand). It's ultimately self-defeating.

A lot of Buddhist practitioners have an unwarranted aversion to intellect. That is an attachment like any other, and perhaps an unavoidable stage in spiritual development. It's likely useful to reject the mind entirely until you've mastered releasing it. But learning to put down the mind is key. 


It was against the rules for monks to speak without knowing if something is true or false.

If you yourself don't understand or know something then it's just the same as lying or misleading others.

‘If a monk falsely claims for himself a superhuman quality, knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, saying, “This I know, this I see,” but after some time—whether questioned or not, but having committed the offense and desiring purification—should say: “Not knowing I said that I know, not seeing that I see; what I said was empty and false,” he too is expelled and excluded from the community.’” (Uttarimanussadhamma Pli Tv Bu Vb Pj 4)

What is the point in discussing something without experiencing it? What is the point of mere words if the world is empty of a sammasambuddha, paccekabuddhas, arahants, or those near-enlightened beings who have attained higher jhanas and developed iddhi?

The goal in Buddhism is to achieve arahantship here and now not merely read about it or discuss it.

After you experience something and actually know it yourself then speak about it. From direct experience you should also be able to correctly reason things.

  • I think I have experience mindfulness, but not really into it. Is that good? What do you think?
    – Ooker
    Feb 18, 2019 at 2:30

How many years do you already hang around in Dhamma areas and still not grasp the basics?

As it is with chosing teachers. Good if following those who let it rain.

Only one who walks arives and the villagers just wast their times, discussing what they are to lazy to do and see for themselves.

[Given not for trade exchange, stacks, Buddh-ism and intellectual "sex" but for liberation]


It's like you want to do X, Y and Z to get to the other shore but really all you need is Z but you insist on the X and the Y too when the Z is pure of the X and the Y. So someone says just do Z and your like but what about X and Y?

It's so simple but then we get intellectual and start believing things.

Intellect can be useful but we cling to what our intellects say and that is precisely what keeps us from seeing what is clearly! What is, isn't conseptual. What is, isn't a product of soneone's intellect.

All you have to do is see what is without having the intellect carry you off in a direction were all you see are made up concepts.

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