Damaged brains escape the material world

Increased feelings of transcendence can follow brain damage, a study of people with brain cancer suggests.

As feelings of transcending the physical world can be part of some religious experiences and other forms of spirituality, the finding may help explain why some people seem more prone to such experiences than others.

The brain region in question, the posterior parietal cortex, is involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation

To further probe its role, Cosimo Urgesi, a neuroscientist at the University of Udine in Italy, turned to 88 people who were being treated for brain cancer.

Brain surgery

These volunteers suffered from two kinds of cancer: gliomas, which affect the brain cells that surround neurons, and meningiomas, which affect the membrane that wraps the brain itself.

Doctors removed neurons from the 48 glioma patients to stem the spread of their tumours, whereas the people with meningiomas had tumour cells removed, but no neurons.

Both before and not long after the patients received this surgery Urgesi’s team gave them a battery of personality tests. In particular, the researchers were interested…

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in a personality trait known as self-transcendence.

People score highly for this trait if they answer “yes” to questions such as: “I often feel so connected to the people around me that I feel like there is no separation”; “I feel so connected to nature that everything feels like one single organism”; and “I got lost in the moment and detached from time”. The same people also tend to believe in miracles, extrasensory perception and other non-material phenomena.

Personality change

Urgesi’s team found that the 24 people with gliomas in the posterior parietal cortex tended to score higher on the self-transcendence test after surgery than they had before. By contrast, the scores of people with gliomas in the anterior region of the cortex, and of people with meningiomas, did not change after their surgery.

This suggests that it is the removal of neurons from the posterior parietal cortex which is responsible for the personality change, and not simply experiencing a serious illness or undergoing brain surgery, Urgesi says. He suggests that the removal reduces activity in this brain region and that this may increase feelings of transcendence.

Moreover, Urgesi noticed differences in the way the patients dealt with their illnesses. Those who had lost posterior parietal tissue tended to be less troubled by their cancers and their own mortality. Meanwhile those who had had their anterior portion removed tended to react more bitterly, Urgesi says. “They could not accept it.”

Urgesi speculates that naturally low activity in parietal regions in people without either brain damage or cancer could predispose them to self-transcendent feelings, and perhaps even to religions that emphasise such experiences such as Buddhism.

Out of body

“The idea of spirituality equalling the self-transcendence scale is perhaps a bit controversial,” says Uffe Schjødt, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Aarhus University, Denmark.

But he adds that the study “does fit with previous work in the neuroscience of religion”. For example, studies in Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns and people experienced in meditation have shown that the posterior parietal cortex plays a role in prayer and meditation.

Urgesi also notes that electrically stimulating the temporoparietal junction – an area near the posterior parietal cortex – is known to induce out-of-body experiences , which also involve a breakdown in someone’s representation of their physical self and their environment.

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Mysticism: where the dharma rubber hits the road

Mount Saint Helens, Washington State, USA

In Sunada’s view, mysticism isn’t about indulging in out-of-body experiences as a way of escaping the world. It’s about meeting the world head-on and learning directly from it. It’s about as practical as it gets.

If you’ve been reading my blog articles for a while, you may have gathered by now that I’m a rather down-to-earth sort of practitioner, with a keen interest in how meditation and Buddhist practice interplays with the practical aspects of our daily lives. So when I heard that this month’s topic was Mysticism, well, my first impulse was to take a pass. How does Mysticism relate to everyday life? Like Bodhipaksa (as he mentions in his related article), my first stop was a dictionary. And I was somewhat surprised by what I found. It gave the following definition:

Mysticism: a doctrine of an immediate spiritual intuition of truths believed to transcend ordinary understanding.

With this definition in hand, I’ve changed my view of what mysticism is all about. It’s actually a central part of Buddhist practice, and very much a practical matter. It’s our experience of spiritual intuition that moves the teachings from the realm of intellectual thoughts and concepts into one of personally meaningful truths that inform how we live our lives.

One of those experiences happened to me in 1995 during a vacation to the state of Washington, and a visit to Mount St. Helens. St. Helens had erupted catastrophically fifteen years earlier, causing the most destructive volcanic event in all of US history. After several weeks of rumbling earthquakes and steam-venting, it finally in May of 1980 erupted so violently that its entire north face blew off. Hot gases and ash spewed outward for miles in diameter, instantly roasting and flattening everything in their path.

My husband and I hiked to the peak of a nearby ridge where we came upon an unobstructed panoramic view of massive destruction on a scale beyond belief. As far as I could see, everything was dead and ash-covered. From where we stood, what I knew had once been a dense forest of 40-foot pine trees appeared as though someone had thrown down millions of charred toothpicks. Bare blackened sticks were all that remained — all lying on the ground. But strangely, they were all neatly pointing in the same outward direction from the epicenter of the blast. It was a terrible but beautiful and awesome sight.

Mysticism is a central part of Buddhist practice, and very much a practical matter.

I have no idea how long I stood there taking in that vista. In my stunned silence, time had stopped. In one sense, I felt incredibly small and insignificant in the face of such vast power and devastation. But at the same time, I also felt empowered by its greatness. In an odd way that I can’t explain even now, I felt like I was a part of this greatness, that somehow its magnificence was something that was very much alive and part of me. It was my first intuitive inkling of life as something universal. I wasn’t a separate and independent being, but part of something much greater that incorporated the earth and sky as much as my own puny body.

These kinds of encounters can happen at any moment, in the most ordinary of circumstances. It can happen when talking with a close friend, when a shared moment seems to dissolve all boundaries between us. Or when reading a moving novel, or listening to evocative music, or seeing a work of art that touches us – when we get a glimpse into something in a way that we can’t put into words, but it hits home deeply within ourselves. We’re taken out of our small self-centered viewpoint and see something bigger, something beyond, something universal. I’m sure many of us have had experiences of this sort at one time or another. We may not know what to make of the experience as it’s happening. It may take years or decades for it to mature into something we can even begin to talk about. But something inside gets stirred.

I wasn’t a separate and independent being, but part of something much greater.

I know that Buddhism appeals to many people, myself included, because its teachings are rational and for the most part built upon observable phenomena. But to leave it at that would be to categorize Buddhism as a philosophy or an intellectual pursuit – which falls far short of its true significance.

To truly take up the practice of the dharma is to open ourselves up to the invitation of those intuitive experiences. We can’t make them happen, of course. But we can stay open and receptive, keep a stance of curiosity and wonder, and refrain from our habitual ways of sizing up situations and overlaying them with expectations or fears. As we practice this more and more, our skills at observing and perceiving become clearer and more refined. And that in turn allows us to see more deeply for ourselves the truth behind the Buddha’s words. We begin to change as well, as we become wiser in our ways of responding to our experiences, and that inspires us to go further still. And the cycle continues upward. This is true practice of the dharma.

So, mysticism is not about going into weird trances or out-of-body experiences as a way of escaping from our world. Far from it! It’s really a way of delving more and more deeply in the world, meeting it head-on, and learning from the school of hard knocks, as the saying goes. It’s about learning and growing from life itself. I can’t think of anything more practical than that.

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“Gesture of Awareness,” by Charles Genoud

Gesture of Awareness, by Charles GenoudHow useful can books be in stimulating spiritual realization, when such realization must be grounded in experience? Paramananda takes a skeptical — yet appreciative — look at a new book attempting to pointing the way to non-duality.

It seems a little ironic that I find myself in two minds about Genoud’s book — ironic because this slim volume is all about “being” in one mind. It is not that I in any way disagree with what Genoud is trying to point the reader towards, which is the essential non-dual nature of reality. It is more that I am just a little skeptical that such “pointings” are of much use when they appear in a generalized form such as a book.

We all love those Zen stories along the lines of the Master giving the student a sharp whack and the student waking up from his deluded state. What we tend to forget is that the student has in all likelihood been sitting zazen for eight hours a day for the last ten years, with the Master observing him closely, before he administers the “enlightening” blow.

What concerns me then is the effect of such “direct” methods on those that are not ripe for the blow. Here I am of course risking being thought of as some sort of spiritual elitist, which particularly in our modern culture is often viewed with much disdain.

As I have started on this track I might as well nail my colors to the mast: I, for instance, felt the incredible popular “The Power of Now,” by Ekhart Tolle, probably sent people up the garden path. It might be that someone could attain “insight” if hit over the head with the book at just the right time but I do not think that they will do so by reading it. There is not only a paradox at the heart of spiritual “truth,” there is also one at the heart of such books, which is along the lines of: Those who think that they have “got it” have certainly not got “it.” Moreover I fear that what they have got is just a more sophisticated ego.

Genoud does, however, attempt to avoid appealing to its readers’ tendency towards inflation (a tendency we all have) and his approach is both subtle and intriguing. His book is probably as good as a book of this sort can be. In fact it is very good. It is elegantly written with a visual and poetic form. What is most appealing to me about it is that it attempts to help the reader realize the truth of “emptiness” through direct experience of the body. Here Genoud is, I feel, on to something very important.

As I feel that the majority of people in the West who take up spiritual practice are dis-embodied: that is they are not in an intimate feeling relationship to their own bodies. If I am only partially correct any spiritual approach that does not address the body is unlikely to bear fruit.

However there is an aspect of the book that I did find problematic, besides the general point I have made above, and this is to do the relationship between the body and the imagination. Genoud seemed to have no place for the imagination. It seems to me that it is the imagination that links the felt experience of the body to the “thought” experience of the mind. This being the case there is no spiritual life, no compassion, without the imagination, Our ability to feel compassion depends on being able to feel our own suffering and then through an act of imagination, put ourselves in the shoes of others. I am not sure where the imagination is in Genoud’s approach. For a book that displayed such imagination in structure and form I felt that Genoud too readily dismisses, or at least neglects, the imagination.

However the book did make me feel that a retreat with its author would be a challenging and worthwhile experience. The style of the book is such that I feel a little like I was on retreat I do hope that people read it and then go and sit with its writer, who is clearly a teacher worth experiencing further.

Paramananda Paramananda has been a member of the Western Buddhist Order since 1985, and is a widely respected meditation teacher.

He was chairman of the West London Buddhist Centre 1988–1993, and chairman of the San Francisco Centre 1994–2002.

Paramananda’s books include Change Your Mind and A Deeper Beauty.

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David Brazier: Mysticism and action

David BrazierWhen we meditate we withdraw the senses from the world and step back from activity. Does this mean that meditative practice is escapist? Are meditative experience and engagement with the world mutually contradictory? David Brazier, Zen teacher and author, examines the false dichotomy of mysticism and engagement.

Mysticism and action need each other. After his enlightenment, the Buddha did not retire to a cave or commit suicide. He went forth and for forty more years lived out the inspiration that came from the vision that had come to him. Religion in its true sense is precisely that – the living out of the vision in the real world.

When people hear the word vision, they are often inclined to think that something escapist or fantastic is being described. The Buddha, however, had his feet on the ground. His mysticism sprang from the hard experience of open-hearted living.

The guts of the Buddha’s message is this: the deepest experience of life is not to be obtained by escaping from concrete reality but by entering more deeply into it. To train in religion as Buddhism understands that term means to enter into a deeper and more intimate relationship with concrete reality than most people have even dreamt of. It is the purpose of spiritual training to bring one to this point of intense encounter.

To live the Buddhist faith is to live in direct, intense, intimate encounter with reality. This is more than bittersweet, it is simultaneously bliss-inspiring and heart-breaking. It is to know and feel in one’s bones how every moment of life partakes both in the great grief and in the wonder of ever-fresh awakening.

  Engagement inspires vision and vision inspires engagement.   

Buddhist training repeatedly turns the trainee back towards reality. It may be the reality of a beautiful sunset. It may be the reality of a cat killing a mouse. It may be the reality that the teacher also farts sometimes. In any case, it is the reality of Quan Yin appearing “on the street, and in the shops.” It is the Buddha lifting his foot and stretching out his arm. When the trainee knows in his or her bones the stretching out of the arm and the lifting of the foot, he or she will be plunged into a spiritual free fall from which there is no possibility of rescuing even a shred of the ego’s carefully constructed defense system. This is a fall into a place that is as terrible as it is wonderful.

The task for the New Buddhism is to bring the enlightened vision into the light of day, by transforming vision into action in the real world. Every person has at least a glimpse of some bit. Each worker on this building site may not have the whole plan, but everybody does have a piece of it. The love and compassion that he or she finds in his or her own heart represent that piece. If each of us acts on that, although the individual may not have the whole plan yet, the pieces of the jigsaw will gradually add up. If you take part in the attempt wholeheartedly, one day, when you least expect it, the whole pattern will suddenly become clear. That is Buddhist mysticism.

  The deepest experience of life is not to be obtained by escaping from concrete reality but by entering more deeply into it.   

Engagement inspires vision and vision inspires engagement. Going forth is what makes us realize how much work we have to do upon ourselves. Doing work upon ourselves inspires us to go forth. Mystical experience does not come from chasing after it. It comes as a by-product of carrying out the Buddha’s original intention to the best of one’s ability. If we do so, the larger picture will in due course dawn upon us. Everybody can have a part in this. Those who wish to do it wholeheartedly, however, should not be lulled into thinking that it is an easy road. The ego is not built for nothing. The world beyond the ego is a much higher energy proposition.

The primal longing is that which arises in us as a result of encountering the affliction in the world (dukkha-samudaya). This longing is not an imperfection. It is a Noble Truth. Generally it runs to waste in the sands of distraction, the ego and oblivion. The Buddha, however, offers the alternative of garnering and cultivating it (dukkha-samudaya-nirodha) so that it matures into a higher intention, an aspiration and finally a vow. This vow can take hold of one’s life and set one upon the right track (marga). This track leads to samadhi, the consummate vision.

We should not allow such visions to go stale. They were made to lead us back into a total involvement with life. Mysticism is vibrant aliveness. If you come to Buddhism for visions, therefore, think first what they may get you into and consider whether you are ready for that and, correspondingly, if you come for engaged activism, ask yourself first if you are willing to undergo the religious training that will genuinely ground you in universal compassion and the Buddha’s true intention.

David Brazier is a British author and psychotherapist known for his writings on Zen Buddhism and psychotherapy. He is the leader of the Amida Trust. This essay is composed of extracts from his book, The New Buddhism (Palgrave, 2001).

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Aldous Huxley: “Uncontrolled, the hunger and thirst after God may become an obstacle…”

Aldous Huxley

If meditation practice leads to the cessation of desire, then how are we to pursue spiritual goals? Are there good and bad kinds of desire? Can desire be spiritually helpful? Bodhipaksa explores a saying by Aldous Huxley in an attempt to shed some light.

“Uncontrolled, the hunger and thirst after God may become an obstacle, cutting off the soul from what it desires. If a man would travel far along the mystic road, he must learn to desire God intensely but in stillness, passively and yet with all his heart and mind and strength.” – Aldous Huxley

When an American university asked me to give a talk on Buddhism and mysticism I was, well, mystified. Buddhism, for me, was an immensely practical and mostly logical approach to the problem of living a satisfying life, while I understood mysticism to consist of an escape from day-to-day living and a retreat into a realm of sometimes confused and confusing inner experience. I’d no idea what I was going to say.

But then I decided to look up the dictionary to find out what mysticism was, and to my relief found that it directly overlapped with my understanding of what Buddhist practice entailed. The definition I came across was something like:

Mysticism: the belief that the spiritual apprehension of knowledge unavailable to the intellect may be attained through contemplation.

While Buddhist practice is indeed very pragmatic and involved with the minutiae of how we respond to our moment-by-moment experience, it does of course involve meditation, and meditation is a very practical way of changing our experience so that we can come to a deeper understanding of our lives. In other words, through “contemplation” we come to the “spiritual apprehension of knowledge.” Furthermore the insight we achieve through meditation, while it can be directly perceived through the intellect, can’t be completely understood by the intellect alone. For example, I can know intellectually that all things are impermanent, but it’s only when I sit quietly and observe the impermanence of my experiences, my thoughts, my emotions, even my body itself, that the truth of impermanence starts to sink in at a deeper level.

So Buddhism was, I found rather to my surprise, a mystical religion.

…we absolutely must wish passionately to be Enlightened if that’s ever going to take place

Of course there are different varieties of mysticism. Huxley saw mysticism as being the way to experience God directly through one’s experience, rather than through one’s intellect. I don’t believe in the existence of Huxley’s God and in my own mystical practice I pursue a different goal. Or perhaps what we experience is the same, but we interpret that experience in different ways, Huxley calling it “God” while I call it “Reality.”

But Huxley’s quotation is not primarily about God anyway. It’s about different kinds of desire, and how they can help or hinder us in our quest for direct experience of Reality (whether or not that Reality is understood as involving a God).

What Huxley is saying, in effect, is that you need to have a desire for the realization of spiritual experience, but that the wrong kind of desire will actually get in the way of that experience. So what’s the right kind of desire and what’s the wrong kind? How do we tell them apart? How to we make sure we cultivate the right kind of desire?

The difference is not in intensity. Huxley describes the unhelpful kind of desire as “hunger” and “thirst” while the necessary kind is experienced “intensely” and “with all [one’s] heart and mind and strength.” One can passionately wish to be Enlightened. In fact we absolutely must wish passionately to be Enlightened if that’s ever going to take place.

The difference lies, most fundamentally, in the quality of consciousness that is doing the desiring. On the one hand we have unhelpful desire, which is like “hunger” and “thirst” in that it’s a relatively primitive kind of desire. It wants to grasp and possess. It sees something it wants and it tries to appropriate that object to itself. It thinks of itself and the thing desired as separate and real entities. Its grasping is a kind of survival mechanism; it thinks that its own perpetuation will be made more likely by having appropriated the object of its desires.

In Buddhism you sometimes get the image of trying to catch a feather on a fan.

On the other hand we have the spiritually helpful kind of desire. This is the opposite of grasping. It involves, in Huxley’s words, “stillness,” and it must be receptive (Huxley says “passive,”which has unfortunate connotations) as well as active. It might be useful to have a metaphor here.

In Buddhism you sometimes get the image of trying to catch a feather on a fan. Now obviously if you make a vigorous effort to catch the falling feather with the fan (if you have a “grasping” attitude) you’ll simply push the feather away and achieve the opposite of what you intended. To catch a feather on a fan you have to be subtle and intelligent. There has to be activity, so that the fan gets into the right place for the feather to land on it. Then there needs to be stillness, so that the fan can approach undisturbed. There has to be receptivity; you have to let the feather come to you. This combination of activity, stillness, and receptivity allows us to achieve the goal.

Likewise, in approaching mystical states of mind we have to make an effort. We have to want to approach the goal. And the desire must be intense. But it also must be intelligent. It must lead to the still point where we have done what has to be done (and no more) and where we are positioned to simply wait, with openness and receptivity, for the feather to land.

At different times different approaches are needed. At first we might need to take relatively vigorous action, holding ourselves back from grossly harmful actions and working to pacify the unruly mind. Desire itself, as Huxley says, must not be “uncontrolled.” We need to grasp the fan of the mind. We must move it decisively yet gently to intercept the path of the feather of reality. We need to intelligently observe how our own actions affect the feather’s course — observe how the very act of meditating can distort our ability to experience reality — and make increasingly subtle movements to compensate. At last as the fan becomes perfectly positioned we can become still, and we need simply to wait.

Both activity and receptivity need to be blended. When we have activity towards a goal without also having receptivity we are in the grip of mere “hunger,” while activity intelligently blended with receptivity leads us down the path of practical mysticism and, ultimately, to the direct apprehension of reality.

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Faith: credible mystery

Photo by Mathijs Beks on Unsplash
Examining the place of faith in Buddhism, Nagapriya outlines why it is a crucial tool for understanding.

“For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but believe so that I may understand. For this too I believe: that unless I shall have believed, I may not understand.”

For St. Anselm, belief or faith was the starting point from which his spiritual inquiry began, the foundation upon which it rested, not its result. He saw his belief as something to understand, confirm and unfold, not something he needed to justify to himself or the world. In an age where reason is king and supreme judge, St. Anselm’s reliance upon faith may seem medieval, even intellectually naive. And yet, for me at least, it is resonant. It seems to encapsulate the essential paradox of faith: that it is the precondition of spiritual understanding, not its goal.

I came to Buddhism as a floundering human being, not as a logician seeking proof of the Buddha’s ‘theories’. Before I knew anything about Buddhism, a seed of faith was already there: I hoped there could be a way out of my spiritual crisis. A dyed-in-the-wool skeptic might consider even this as evidence of credulity, but I think it is more reasonable than resignation or despair. Since I did not know if there was a way out of my existential predicament, I was faced with a choice: to accept there was none, or to hope there was and to look for it. If I had chosen the first the discovery of meaning would have been impossible, the second at least offered a chance. Even the strongest reasons will never persuade a skeptic that a spiritual path is worth undertaking.

Paradoxically, in order to develop faith we must already have faith or at least a seed of it. Faith has, however, become an intellectually discredited source of knowledge, dismissed as the refuge of the weak: for insecure people seeking easy certainties. Exposure to religious cults has no doubt intensified suspicion of anyone who proclaims their faith. We have learned to demand reason, science and hard facts. Faith and reason are seen as opposed: the one naive, credulous and unreliable, the other informed, rigorous and trustworthy. Ironically, western culture appears to have an unqualified faith in reason — especially the scientific method.

Buddhism has been popularly acclaimed as “the religion of reason,” even claimed as a philosophy that can be divorced from contaminating religious features. Buddhism, it is sometimes proposed, is entirely rational, as it does not depend on unverifiable beliefs, such as belief in the existence of a creator God. But such a description, while having an element of truth, knocks the stuffing out of Buddhism. Although Buddhism can be expounded rationally, what motivates the individual Buddhist to practice is certainly not reason. Reason could not have compelled me to abandon previously cherished goals and embrace a life of spiritual discipline. Reason articulates, supports and confirms the commitments that I make on quite different grounds. What inspires people to strive towards a spiritual ideal is not reason but an emotional conviction. Faith moves us to act.

 Paradoxically, in order to develop faith we must already have faith or at least a seed of it.  

But what does faith mean in the context of Buddhism? In what does a Buddhist have faith? And how is it generated? “Faith” is an emotive term: for some positively so, for others negatively. But we should not be put off by a word. It has much in common with such words as confidence, trust and conviction that most of us use happily. I find conviction especially resonant since it evokes the robustness, stability and, above all, passionate commitment that is the characteristic of faith.

Traditionally, the primary object of faith for a Buddhist is the Buddha and secondary objects are the Dharma and the Sangha. Collectively these Three Jewels are the principal ideals of Buddhism. The individual Buddhist has faith that the Buddha was Enlightened and that Enlightenment is an ideal realizable not only by himself or herself but also by all humanity. But how is it possible to have confidence in this? The Buddha died a long time ago, there is no means of verifying his attainment and, besides, how can we have confidence in someone’s attainment of a state that seems wholly beyond all we know? Buddhist faith rests upon three grounds: intuition, reason and experience.


Faith is an intuitive conviction that the Buddha was Enlightened, that his teaching is true, and that we can emulate his spiritual achievement. It is not an intellectual conclusion but a passionate assent expressed through devotion, service and discipleship. It is as though, deep down, the potential for Enlightenment within oneself resonates with the testimony of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. At first it is vague, even shaky, but through time it becomes firm, clear and robust. The more one pays attention to this intuitive conviction, in order to understand and then articulate it, the more it flowers into Wisdom.

At the age of 19, I was part-way through a Philosophy degree that — naively — I had hoped would enable me to discover ‘the meaning of life’. After my first year I had a deep realization that intellectual inquiry alone was a futile method for generating beliefs upon which to base my life. Moreover I realized that I did not believe in God and that no-one was going to save me. I was on my own. I could see no way forward until I encountered Buddhism. Somehow, without even knowing what Buddhism taught, I felt a conviction that this was the way out and, as the months and years rolled by, this intuitive faith settled into a steadier, more informed commitment.

 For me, the mystery of faith is not why it is, but that it is.  

Faith often arises seemingly from nowhere, without warning, like a flower blossoming in a wasteland. For me, the mystery of faith is not why it is, but that it is. Based on a fleeting encounter, on a book left lying around, or a chance meeting on a bus, the whole course of a person’s life can be irrevocably changed. This seems almost miraculous.

But is intuition to be trusted? While there can be no proof as to the truthfulness of one’s faith, this does not mean it is unreasonable or unreliable. A characteristic of human life is that much of what we think we know cannot be proved. Logical certainty is a rare thing and has only a small part to play in our lives. Most decisions are based on far less compelling grounds than those which inspired my commitment to the Buddhist path, but this is not to say they are unreasonable.


Reason functions as a means of testing and clarifying our convictions. While it is possible to have correct intuitions, it is also possible to have false ones, so until our intuitive faculty is sufficiently refined, reason remains indispensable. For example, I may have an intuitive conviction that I am on live television, that all my friends are actors and that my world is no more than an elaborate film set. Being a reasonable person I decide to investigate the matter, only to find that the evidence before me points unequivocally to the reality of the world, rather than to its being a fabrication. In such circumstances, it would be unreasonable not to accept that I am, in fact, living in the “real world” (though it remains a logical possibility that I have been systematically misled, as in the film The Truman Show). The fact that it may be possible for a belief to be false does not mean it is unreasonable to hold it. Most of our beliefs would be discarded by such a measure. The reasonableness of a belief is found in relation to the weight of the available evidence, not to logical certainty.

There may be beliefs, however, for which there seems to be no decisive evidence either way. The belief that the Buddha was Enlightened is like this. There is no compelling evidence to recommend it — it is difficult even to know what it means — while, at the same time, there is no convincing evidence against it. The Buddhist scriptures say that the Buddha was Enlightened, but they may simply represent the wishful thinking of pious followers. Undoubtedly the Buddha (at least as presented by the Buddhist scriptures) exerted a profound influence on many people, but this proves nothing about his spiritual attainment: many charlatans have done the same. Hence, testing the belief that the Buddha was Enlightened using reason alone is inconclusive.

Does this matter? In practice I do not think it does. It is questionable whether one needs to hold any such belief to practice effectively as a Buddhist. Enlightenment represents the highest possible development of the human individual. Perhaps the minimum faith needed for Buddhism to become meaningful is trust that one can change for the better, that such change will lead to greater self-fulfillment and that Buddhism offers beliefs and practices that will encourage this to happen.


 The relationship between intuition, reason and experience is not always simple.  

Faith achieves its decisive confirmation through experience. Only when we realize for ourselves the truths that Buddhism propounds can we feel fully confident that faith has been justified. This is a progressive process. Consequent upon our initial faith, we decide to practice according to the Buddha’s teaching. After some time our experience begins to confirm the reliability of that teaching as we experience for ourselves the fruits that it promises. This enables us to place our faith in the Dharma more fully and even to trust in those teachings, for example rebirth, that are not immediately verifiable.

But what if experience does not bear out our intuition or seems to contradict it? Do we then abandon our belief? Buddhism teaches that through ethical practice we become happy, but there are surely many people who are ethical but miserable. We could suggest they are simply not ‘good’ enough, but what if they are the most virtuous people we know, yet still unhappy?

The relationship between intuition, reason and experience is not always simple, and it may be a long time before an intuition is confirmed in experience. This suggests that an essential aspect of faith is patience.

Finally, how does faith arise? A Buddhist teaching known as the 12 progressive links, which provides a positive account of the Buddhist spiritual path, offers some clues. The first element in this path is suffering, and in dependence upon suffering arises the second element, faith. To understand the link between these experiences better, I will introduce a term from Pali Buddhism: samvega or disillusionment. Bhikkhu Thanissaro expounds this term well:

Samvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.

The final dimension of the experience of samvega is crucial — the urgently felt impulse to escape from the emptiness of ordinary existence. That there is such a way out and that we can respond to it is what leads us towards the experience of faith and saves us from despair. The experience of samvega is not usually seen as a healthy response to the limitations of the world but as an inability to cope, even as mental illness. People may be told not to take life so seriously, to ‘make the best of it’, even given medication to dull their existential sensitivity. In this way a precious opportunity for faith is lost.

Perhaps it is only through a deep experience of samvega that faith becomes a serious possibility. Until we recognize that ordinary life is a problem, the possibility of a solution does not arise. As Wittgenstein remarked: It would be as though someone were first to let me see the hopelessness of my situation and then show me the means of rescue until, of my own accord, or not at any rate led to it by my instructor, I ran to it and grasped it.

Intuition, reason and experience function concurrently as means of establishing and then testing faith. Faith is not an optional extra but the indispensable ground on which spiritual practice is based. It is the fuel that drives one forward. Faith is an upward leap of the heart; a joyful celebration of human promise.

Without faith we would never take up a challenge or would lose heart when faced with adversity. The conviction that Buddhism offers a path towards spiritual fulfillment is a mysterious impulse that each Buddhist must cultivate, cherish, test and ultimately realize.

nagapriyaNagapriya is a long-standing member of the Western Buddhist Order who, amongst other things, lectures on Buddhism at the University of Manchester, England. His first book, Exploring Karma and Rebirth (previously reviewed on Wildmind), is widely available. His next book, an overview of Mahayana Buddhism, is due late 2008. Nagapriya has a blog at

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