Rational teachings of Buddha

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The Buddha's teachings / Buddhism are arguably the most rational of any of the major world religions. There are no creation myths, no denial of biological evolution, no calendar dating the earth to a mere 6,000 years, and no mythological explanations for bad weather, natural disasters, or other calamities.

To be fair, however, there are teachings in Buddhism about spirit type beings, impermanent gods or angels, and beings in other realms including ghosts and gods who go to war with other gods. But these other teachings are not the essence of Buddhism and are not important to the basic, foundation teachings found in The Four Noble Truths and other essential doctrines. And in fact some scholars have argued they may be there to appease the common folk at the time of the Buddha who were not ready for the more rational teachings of Buddha.

Accepting rebirth appears to be an essential component of the Dhamma, but for some it is difficult to comprehend or accept celestial beings as existing without further evidence or proof, but might accept some level of rebirth to the human and animal realm only and 'mental states' beyond that, not physical hells or heavens. Many Buddhists have no problem accepting the full gamut of the rebirth cosmology on some level of faith and some accept some portion of it and need further investigation. The Buddha might call the skeptical path a skillful means as he was open to including as many as possible on the Path out of suffering.


Dictionaries define rational as follows:

  • ra·tion·al
  • [rash-uh-nl, rash-nl]
  • adjective

1. agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible: a rational plan for economic development.

2. having or exercising reason, sound judgment, or good sense: a calm and rational negotiator.

3. being in or characterized by full possession of one's reason; sane; lucid: The patient appeared perfectly rational.

4. endowed with the faculty of reason: rational beings.

5. of, pertaining to, or constituting reasoning powers: the rational faculty.

In general, rational teachings would be those that are in agreement with reason, logic, and science. It would not be those things that are not testable, that are supernatural, including talk of gods, angels, myths, miracles, and other celestial beings. It is not that those other things are not true, they may be, but they are not in the domain of a testable theory, of logic and science.

Kalama Sutta: The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry

“Do not believe in something because it is reported. Do not believe in something because it has been practiced by generations or becomes a tradition or part of a culture. Do not believe in something because a scripture says it is so. Do not believe in something believing a god has inspired it. Do not believe in something a teacher tells you to. Do not believe in something because the authorities say it is so. Do not believe in hearsay, rumor, speculative opinion, public opinion, or mere acceptance to logic and inference alone. Help yourself, accept as completely true only that which is praised by the wise and which you test for yourself and know to be good for yourself and others.” (Anguttara Nikaya 3.65)

In this sutta, the Buddha outlines a procedure that many scholars have likened to modern scientific method, with its use of personal observation and testing. It is a somewhat controversial discourse, since it has been used by skeptics in an extreme way to leave out all forms of faith and it has been used by those who favor greater emphasis on faith to mistranslate some key words. The Kalama Sutta text suggests to not follow something merely because it is reported, part of culture, tradition, or even scripture. Logic and reason and some initial faith are okay and useful, but it is one's own investigation that is most important. The correct term regarding logic and inference in the text is "specious reasoning" which means not accepting on mere logic or inference, but that one should use reason and logic and then put it to the test. This is confirmed by Pali scholars and translators Ven. Soma Thera and Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi.


Further evidence for the Buddha's emphasis on investigation is found in other passages including:

"Here, bhikkhus, when he makes a thorough investigation, a bhikkhu thoroughly investigates thus: ‘The many diverse kinds of suffering that arise in the world headed by aging-and-death: what is the source of this suffering, what is its origin, from what is it born and produced? When what exists does aging-and-death come to be? When what does not exist does aging-and-death come to be?" (Samyutta Nikaya 12.51)

"Herein, bhikkhus, some recluse or brahmin is a rationalist, an investigator. He declares his view; hammered out by reason, deduced from his investigations, following his own flight of thought . . ." (Digha Nikaya 1)

Upali lived during the time of Buddha and was the follower of another religion and went to the Buddha in order to argue with him and try to convert him. But after talking to the Buddha, he was so impressed that he decided to become a follower of the Buddha. But the Buddha said:

Make a proper investigation first. Proper investigation is good for a well-known person like yourself.

“Now I am even more pleased and satisfied when the Buddha says to me: 'Make a proper investigation first.' For if members of another religion had secured me as a disciple they would have paraded a banner all around the town saying: 'Upali has joined our religion.' But the Buddha says to me: Make a proper investigation first. Proper investigation is good for a well-known person like yourself”." (Majjhima Nikaya 2.379)

The Four Noble Truths

Main article: The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths are the most important teachings of Buddhism, the foundation from which everything else follows. There is no ritualistic worship to do, no continual praise of some deity required; it just deals with the everyday suffering of life and the way out of this suffering.

In the discourse at Anguttara Nikaya 11.12 there are six qualities of the Dhamma mentioned, including that it is testable by practice and known by direct experience and that it welcomes all beings to put it to the test and to experience it for themselves.

The science of Buddhism

One extreme is to say that the Buddha was a scientist and that modern scientific discoveries are the result of the Buddha's teachings. Another extreme is to say that religion and science have no place together and that never the twain shall meet. Both extremes are mistaken. The Buddha was a philosopher and religious leader, but any religion or religious teachings must be compatible with science. The teachings do not have to be science itself, but must be compatible. For example, if a religious teaching states that the god Thor throws lightning bolts to earth when it rains and science shows that these are normal weather events and not supernatural events, then we need to throw that religious teaching out.

The Buddha was not a scientist, but the essential teachings are compatible with modern science. The Buddha states that there are “thousands of suns, thousands of moons, thousands of continents.” (Anguttara Nikaya 1.227)

This is compatible with what we know from astronomy and what we know of the known universe. There are countless other stars (suns) out in space, each with their own solar system. The Buddha also stated: “the infinite world spheres are incalculable” (KN, Buddhavamsa 1.64).

He recalls to mind his various temporary states in days gone by – one birth, or two or three or four or five births, 10 or 20, 30 or 50, a 100 or a 1,000 or a 100,000 births, through many cycles of cosmic contraction and cosmic expansion . . . Now there comes a time, when sooner or later, after the lapse of a long, long period of contraction, this world-system passes away. And when this happens beings have mostly been re-born in the World of Radiance, and there they dwell made of mind, feeding on joy, radiating light from themselves, traversing the air, dwelling in glory; and thus they remain for a long, long period of time. Now there comes also a time, friends, when sooner or later, this universe begins to re-evolve by expansion.” (Digha Nikaya 1 Brahmajala Sutta)

This quote from the Buddha is virtually exactly how modern scientists are describing the evolution and re-evolution of the universe.

The Buddha spoke of “beginningless time” and how there is no beginning. The Buddha said that “there is no first beginning, no first beginning is knowable.” (Samyutta Nikaya 15.1-2)

Bhikkhus, this samsara is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. There comes a time, bhikkhus, when the great oceans dry up and evaporates and no longer exists, when the earth burns up and perishes and no longer exists, but still I say, there is no making an end of suffering for those beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.” (Samyutta Nikaya 22.99)

When the Buddha spoke about different periods of history, he referred to the periods in terms of tens of thousands of years and in terms of physical, scientific periods as being millions of years. Later the fields of geology and physical anthropology would confirm these time periods of our cultural and physical history. When other ideas were floating around about the earth being six thousand years old, the Buddha was talking about these periods of time in millions of years and that there are several other planetary systems.

An aeon is long, bhikkhu, the Blessed One said. It is more than several hundred thousand years. Suppose, bhikkhu, there was a great stone mountain a yojana long, a yojana wide, and a yojana high, without holes or crevices, one solid mass of rock. At the end of every hundred years a man would stroke it once with a piece of Kasian (very soft) cloth. That great stone mountain might by this effort be worn away and eliminated but the aeon would still have not come to an end. So long is an aeon, bhikkhu.” Samyutta Nikaya 15.5

The great translator of the Pali Canon, Dr. Bhikkhu Bodhi, has estimated, based on the Buddha’s teachings that an aeon in the Buddhist scriptures is approximately one billion years. The Buddha has described different periods of time based on aeons in the same way scientists describe the natural world in terms of billions of years in the evolution of this planet and solar system.


It is true that in Buddhism there is an elaborate cosmology that includes potential rebirth as an impermanent god, a ghost, an animal, or other beings. But there are some in Buddhism who see these different realms as mental states and that belief in these other realms is not essential. And there is some evidence from the Buddha's discourses to back up such a position.

Mara, considered the personification of ego, sometimes evil, is actually a Pali term meaning "death." Mara’s three offspring are named Lobha, Dosa and Moha, meaning Greed, Hatred and Delusion (mental states). (Samyutta Nikaya 1 Mara-samyutta)

When the average ignorant person makes an assertion that there is a Hell under the ocean (or other freezing or burning, fire ridden place), he is making a statement that is false and without basis. The word 'hell' is a term for painful bodily sensations.” Samyutta Nikaya 36.4

As stated above, some level of acceptance of rebirth is important at least to the human and animal realms, as a skillful means and then wait and see with proper investigation if there is anything further to the validity of the rest of the cosmology.

Rites, rituals, ceremonies

Main article: Modern Theravada

Perhaps most people who prefer rationalism over superstition and religious practices, also shun all forms of religious rites, rituals, and ceremonies. The good news for skeptics and rationalists is that so did the Buddha.

It is bhikkhus, because he has developed and cultivated one faculty that a bhikkhu who has destroyed the taints declares final knowledge thus. What is that one faculty? The faculty of wisdom.” (Samyutta Nikaya 48)

Throughout the Buddha's discourses, wisdom reigns supreme, not empty rituals.

And which are the five lower fetters? Self-identity views; uncertainty; attachment to rites, rituals, and ceremonies; sensual desire; and ill will.” Anguttara Nikaya 10.13

The Buddha considers attachment to rites, rituals, and ceremonies a hindrance to enlightenment. One cannot reach the first stage of enlightenment while still attached to these rituals.

Water purification

Water purification rites such as the Christian baptism have been around for thousands of years before Christianity. The bhikkhuni Punnika using her wisdom and rational logic stated that if simple water purification could erase your sins then "frogs, turtles, serpents, crocodiles, and anything else that lives in the water" would be the most holy animals. She argued that it is good conduct that leads to good kamma and bad conduct that leads to bad kamma, not empty rituals. (Khuddaka Nikaya, Therigatha 12.1)


In nearly all cultures it is common to exclaim Gesundheit or Bless you! when someone has sneezed. Once the Buddha was giving a talk and sneezed during the talk. All at once all of the bhikkhus said, "May you live!" The Buddha asked, "bhikkhus, when someone sneezes has anyone actually got better or lived longer because of that remark?" The monks responded no and the Buddha told them to therefore, not say that anymore. But he did allow lay people and monks to say so for cultural, customary reasons among people who expected it. (Cullavaga V.33.3)


Main article: Evolution

In the Agganna Sutta the Buddha says that after the earth came into being it was completely covered with water, that the first life-forms floated on the surface where they fed on nutrition and that they gradually changed from simple to complex over a vast period of time (D.III, 84-88). To the theistic religions which teach that humans are a special creation by God, the idea that humans could have evolved from lower animals is deeply offensive.

Buddhists have always believed that animals are worthy of love and respect, that humans can even sometimes be reborn as animals or animals as humans and therefore they are quite comfortable with the concept of evolution.


Main article: Miracles

Most religions place a great emphasis on miracles and the miraculous powers that their founder had. The miracles include sending their God to destroy their enemies, healing the sick, raising the dead, walking on water, etc. The Buddha's teachings include some psychic powers that can be developed through advanced states of meditation, known as jhanas. But even these states were considered inferior to wisdom, to true understanding and the greatest miracle according to the Buddha was the miracle of instruction. (Digha Nikaya 11)

The Mustard Seed

In the famous Mustard Seed story, A woman named Gotami came to the Buddha crying that her son had died and she wanted the Buddha to bring her son back to life. The Buddha told her to find some mustard seed from a family that has never experienced a death in their household. Gotami was excited and went all over looking for mustard seed. She found mustard seed in every household she visited but could not find a household that had not experienced a death in the family. Finally she realized what the Buddha was teaching her and she asked for more instruction. The Buddha was teaching her that death is unavoidable and he also taught her compassion. Gotami had discovered that death is unavoidable and also that everyone grieves from this loss of loved ones, thus she developed compassion. (Th. Commy., 174 f.)

Walking on water

Once a monk approached the Buddha and stated that he had been meditating for over 30 years.

The Buddha asked, "what have you learned?"

The monk replied, "I have mastered the jhanas and now I can walk on water." The monk proceeded to walk on water across a lake and then back.

The Buddha said, "Is there a boat that can take you across?" The monk said, "yes." The Buddha asked, "what is the cost to take the boat to the other side?" "One-and-a-half cents" replied the monk.

The Buddha replied, "Then the value of your miracles is one-and-a-half cents."

The Buddha continued, "you could have taken a boat across for one-and-a-half cents to the other side and spent your time developing vipassana [insight] instead; and by now you would have been enlightened."

The Buddha answers in a very practical and pragmatic way, for example what is the use of the miracle and is there a less time consuming alternative. Instead of being in awe at someone walking on water, like a naive person may have been, the Buddha just bluffs it off as nothing special.