Love of All Wisdom

On faith in tooth relics

by on Sep.29, 2010, under Early and Theravāda, Epistemology, Faith, M.T.S.R., Natural Science, Rites, Supernatural

Pha That Luang in Laos, said to contain the Buddha's breast bone Via a Buddhist group at Harvard, I just saw an interesting article from Singapore in 2007, about the tooth relic located in a Singapore temple. For those who are unfamiliar, Buddhists (especially Theravādins) often venerate items said to have come from the Buddha’s body – his hair, nails, teeth. They are housed in stūpas, the tall, pointy and/or circular towers typically located in Buddhist temple grounds.

To a Western audience, at least, this phenomenon provokes an obvious question: did these relics actually come from the Buddha’s body? And in many cases – certainly the case of this Singapore temple – any serious empirical investigation can establish the answer as a pretty clear no. A recent encyclopedia article notes that the Singapore tooth isn’t even human, at least according to the standards we would use to assess any other tooth: it’s too long, and has the longer crown and shorter root characteristic of a herbivorous animal, such as a cow or buffalo. (This is before we consider that there’s no evidence that it came from Burma, as the traditional story of its provenance claims.)

In such a case I must disagree with John Strong when he is quoted as saying that the issue of the “historical authenticity” of Buddha relics “is pretty much an impossible one to resolve.” In many respects it’s actually quite easy to resolve: the tooth of a cow or buffalo cannot have been the tooth of a human being; the Buddha was a human being; all characteristics of this tooth are those of a cow’s or buffalo’s tooth; therefore this tooth did not come from the mouth of the Buddha. QED.

What might make it seem harder to resolve is that many people do continue to believe in the tooth relic’s provenance from the Buddha – and indeed, have supernatural (“theological”) justifications for why this would be the case. Strong points to a traditional belief that relics are “alive” and can multiply; according to such a belief, the Buddha’s real tooth could have spawned others in faraway places without people having to transport them there. Perhaps more importantly when the teeth relics look like animal teeth, the Pali suttas recount that the Buddha has a perfect body, with skin the colour of gold, so fine that no dust can attach to it. Surely such a perfect body could have had teeth larger than life; on a man so well versed in doing no harm, the teeth could have been like those of a gentle animal evolved to eat no meat.

According to the tenets of such traditional Buddhist beliefs, the tooth relic could be exactly that. Within that ancient belief system, there is an internally coherent way to explain that this cow tooth in Singapore could have been the tooth of the Buddha in India. But here’s the problem: as far as I can tell, to anyone who gives the question the serious examination it deserves, that ancient belief system is false. We have no reliable evidence anywhere of objects spontaneously multiplying, nor of human beings having perfect bodies. There may well be some element of truth in those beliefs – say, mental awakening may shine forth outwardly as a greater degree of physical beauty – but this is only a small degree of truth. As stated, there is no good reason to believe that tooth relics really do the things they are claimed to do.

There is one reason repeatedly given in these articles for such belief – namely “faith.” In the earlier article, one Singaporean is quoted as saying “The whole premise of faith is that you must believe — you don’t ask if it’s real.” There is certainly a strong emphasis placed on faith in premodern Buddhism; one is supposed to have śraddhā toward beings like the Buddha, which I have previously rendered “esteem” but can also be rendered “faith.” One has confidence in these beings, trusts them, gives one’s heart to them.

But “faith” doesn’t adequately answer the question either. I do acknowledge the importance of faith, on chastened intellectualist grounds: one’s own thoughts and behaviours can often be so self-defeating that one is best served by trusting in someone else. But then one must have the assurance that that other is worthy of trust; else they may turn out to be an even worse guide than one’s own reason. (The many well documented cases of guru sexual abuse are a testament to this.) People had faith in Stalin, as the saviour and messiah who would bring about a better social order, and similarly in Hitler and Pol Pot and other false gurus. Bad faith is a thousand times worse than the absence of faith. Yet some amount of faith is essential in a world overloaded by knowledge; this is true of science too, in that nearly all of us take at least some of our scientific beliefs on the grounds of our trust in scientists’ authority rather than our having done or observed the experiments ourselves.

How does one tell good faith from bad? That’s a much harder question. One needs to be cautious with giving one’s faith, at the very least. This is especially true for the traditions in which one was raised; it is not good enough to respond to critics of those traditions with “it’s my faith.” Maybe your faith is wrong – and the fact that you accept that faith because of your upbringing is an additional reason to believe that it is wrong, for it suggests a greater likelihood that you have faith because of your fallible personal circumstances instead of the inherent worth of the object of your faith. (This is not a circumstantial ad hominem fallacy; it is a matter of probabilities.) One sign of something being really worthy of faith is its robustness in response to criticism: it can acknowledge criticisms and respond to them in a way that makes sense in the critics’ terms, rather than making ever more tortuous attempts to explain the critics away. If a potential guru believes in the historical nature of relics which – on any grounds other than faith – seem to have no such genuine nature, that is a great danger sign. Faith in the purveyors of such apparent falsehoods should be approached with the greatest of caution.

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30 Comments for this entry

  • JimWilton

    This is an interesting topic. I would like to add a couple of comments.

    The first is the concept of the Buddha’s body as being “perfect”. This idea requires an understanding of what is meant by perfection — in particular perfection in a system that is based on an idea of absolute truth or truth that is beyond concepts of comparison or “this and that”.

    For example, are you familiar with the traditional marks of the Buddha? What is your view of the idea of perfection when one of the marks of the Buddha is webbed feet and toes and another is having feet that are as wide as they are long? Clearly, there is at least a sense that the idea of perfection in this context is something beyond a conventional sense of beauty as being the opposite of ugliness.

    At the same time, there is a sense in the teachings that what is valued in a relative sense has power. So, something like gold, although it has no intrinsic value, has power when it is offered by someone who values it. So sometimes comparisons or metaphors that use analogies to things of relative beauty or value are useful. At least that is my take on it.

    The second point, and this ties in with the value of faith, is that the notion of the power of relics is tied as much to the devotion of the practitioner as to any historical “authenticity” of the relic. In “Words of My Perfect Teacher” Patrul Rinpoche tells the well known story of the very devout mother of a Chinese merchant. On the eve of a trading trip to India, she begs her son to bring her back a relic of the Buddha. He consents but then forgets his promise. This happens again on the next trip (she begs, he promises and then he forgets). On the eve of the third trip, she begs and he promises again. Then she tells hinm that if he doen’t keep his promise — she will kill herself. Of course he forgets again and remembers on the return trip when he is just ten miles from his home. He says, “What am I going to do? My mother will kill herself if I don’t bring back a relic.” Then he sees the corpse of a dog rotting in a ditch by the roadside. He prys out one of the molars, wraps it in a silk scarf and brings it home to his mother. She is overjoyed and puts it on her shrine and prays so fervently to it every day with such unwaivering faith that the tooth begins to exhibit powers and her mind is transformed.

    In my view, faith is a powerful thing both because it requires an understanding of the ideal — of what a Buddha is (which necessarily implies that the practitioner has Buddha nature) — and because it is outward directed and therefore free of arrogance. The Buddhist respect for faith, I believe, has a lot to do with the respect that Buddhists have for theistic traditions. Buddhists have a sense that, even if a theistic tradition may not have a complete understanding, it can still be a profound and transformative path. If you come right down to it, many, if not most, Buddhists on a day to day basis relate to the teachings in a theistic way anyway. So theistic traditions have some value.

    But to view the historical authenticity of relics as something other than a support for faith is ridiculous. You might as well believe that there is a “god” who is going to save you.

  • Thill

    The analogy between “faith” in religion and “faith” in science is not a good one. When you trust the experts in science, you know that, despite the risk of human failings, they participate in an enterprise which has rigorous standards of testing and verification of claims. Since the claims have passed the ordeal of scientific scrutiny which anyone with the requisite training can undertake, it is rational to trust the experts when they affirm those claims.
    In religion, by contrast, a regress of appeal to authority is the norm. You are supposed to accept a claim or believe in something on the grounds that religious “authority” X says so. In many cases, it is the authority of a so-called holy book which is the final court of appeal. And if you ask what the authority of the “holy” book is based on, you get the answer that the book itself proclaims its own authority! So, this is the sort of process which underlies “faith” in religious claims. It is, obviously, irrational.
    I think on the question of good vs. bad faith or trust, a Russian precept which Reagan was fond of quoting settles the issue: Trust, but verify! In many contexts, trust is based on induction and its rationality depends on the strength of that inductive reasoning. In other contexts, we may start with a groundless trust, but if we want to remain sane and rational, we need to verify whether our initial trust is justified in light of evidence we find later on.
    Therefore, contrary to popular misconceptions, no form of “faith” or trust is impervious or immune, on pain of irrationality, to the impact of evidence available before or after the decision to trust in someone or something.

  • Thill

    The content of “faith” or trust obviously makes a difference to its rationality or irrationality. One must ask “faith in what?” or “trust in what?”.

    For example, if someone has “faith” that a human tooth relic will cure cancer, or that chanting sutras or mantras will do so, then, in the absence of any known or demonstrable connection between human tooth relics, sutras, and mantras, on the one hand, and cancer on the other, it is a highly irrational form of faith.

  • Thill

    It just occurred to me that the problem of faith or trust is a pseudo-problem if we think it is something different from the problem of the justification of belief. All faith or trust involves belief. And if belief is involved, then the question of evidence for the belief is the most important issue from the standpoint of rationality.

  • Thill

    Amod: “…one Singaporean is quoted as saying “The whole premise of faith is that you must believe — you don’t ask if it’s real.”

    This sums up the religious “faith” attitude and its irrationality for me. We are asked to believe in something and at the same time prohibited from asking whether what we believe in exists in reality!
    From the standpoint of the crafty priests who make these requirements, it isn’t irrational at all. How else could you con people into accepting the concoctions of your priestly mind without risk of exposure?
    The “cognitive dissonance”, to put it mildly, which ensues from this “faith” stance – holding a belief and suppressing the attendant desire to know whether the belief is true – explains many forms of religious pathology, notably fanaticism and intolerance. If I have suppressed my desire to know, how dare you indulge your desire to know!

  • michael reidy

    Was is a wisdom tooth one asks? These impedimenta, relics, weeping statues, dancing idols and the like are of great interest to the standard devotee. They can act as a focus for the mind that brings the consciousness on to a new plane. Such things are energised by the worship of centuries. Can this effect be demonstrated in any objective fashion? No it is entirely subjective which is not the same as to say that it is unreal. At this point I get slightly stubborn and cross; and mutter about how, though Logical Positivism keeps mutating, it never gets any smarter.

    The *Hindus speak of taking the darshan which is as I understand it not only the sight of the idol or guru etc but also feeling the accompanying vibration.

  • Thill

    I am sure that if you believed that you were an Avatar you would be mighty energized! I am also sure that if you believe that the tree in your backyard is a wish-fulfilling tree, your levels of confidence will shoot up to the sky and beyond!
    But consider whether these positive effects of such irrational beliefs justify their adoption, especially in light of the likelihood that the more of these “energizing” irrational beliefs you entertain, the closer you move to the fringes of sanity!

  • michael reidy

    This wanton assimilation of states of mind must cease. There is an altogether different sense attached to being inspired by the Holy Spirit and being talked to by the television. You do know that, don’t you? Of course you do.

    • Thill

      There seems to be some confusion in your mind about the distinction between justifying beliefs in terms of their “energizing” or other alleged effects, justifying them in terms of their content, and justifying them in terms of evidence.
      My point was that if you appeal only to the energizing effects of beliefs, then you have no way to rule out irrational beliefs which have that effect. And, of course, the fact that a belief pertains to the “Holy Ghost” and has positive effects on the holder of that belief tells us nothing about whether it is rational to believe in the “Holy Ghost”.
      So what if I feel all “mushy” inside as a result of believing that the “Holy Ghost” is communicating with me? That still doesn’t show that these sorts of spooky entities exist.

  • JimWilton

    A dollar bill is a good example of an object with an enormous power that is entirely created by the mind.

    What we are devoted to affects both our minds and the object of devotion.

    • Thill

      In the case of the dollar bill, if someone is starving because they can’t buy food, your dollar bill will make a verifiable difference to their condition. In the case of a tooth relic, your belief that it will cure diabetes makes no difference whatsoever to your own diabetes, if you have one, or to another person’s diabetes.

  • michael reidy

    Your idea of the rational and sane belief seems to tend towards the objectively testable and repeatable like a scientific experiment. ‘The meaning of a statement is the method of its verification’ sort of. What I am saying is that the subjective is also real and that your closing of accounts with reality is premature. You have shrunk reality to fit the parameters of your own viewpoint which unfortunately has taken the taint of offensive psychologising. Is it sensible to characterise believers as insane and irrational when you consider their biographies down the ages? The Quakers who waited on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit before setting to the work of the abolition of slavery were nuts. Really?

    • Thill


      “ofdfensive psychologizing” is a red herring here.

      You digress from the issue I raised: Do the positive effects of a belief show that it is true or that it is rational to hold that belief? If so, you must accept that any salutary effects the belief that aliens in distant galaxies are guiding the destiny of the human species may have on its adherents would show this belief to be rational!

      “A belief is true or rational only if there is evidence to support it.” Do you dissent from this? Are you saying that mere mention of the hoary or venerable nature of the content of a belief will secure its truth or rationality?

      Yes, if you claim that a tooth relic has curative powers concerning cancer or diabetes, you better have the requisite evidence to back it up. Mere subjective claims won’t count here since they could be delusions. If you want to take that route, admit the company of those who claim to have been abducted by aliens!

      “the subjective is also real” – depends on what you include in “subjective”, otherwise you will end up countenancing the reality of hallucinations and delusions! (They have reality only in the sense that they are hallucinations and delusions!)

      If you consider “voice of the Holy Ghost” to be real on grounds of subjective experience, you are compelled to accept the reality of the “voice of the Devil” on the same grounds on pain of double standards. Be fair to the “Holy Ghost” and the Devil!

      “Is it sensible to characterise believers as insane and irrational when you consider their biographies down the ages?
      Start with Jesus and Buddha! The first one is “on record”, if you accept “the testimony of the Gospels”, cursing a fig tree for failing to bear fruit off season!!!! That’s impeccable sanity from the “founding father” Himself!
      The second one, the Buddhist scriptures say, on his death bed asked a venerable monk standing at his feet to move aside so that the supernatural beings who have come in hordes to worship him while he lay dying can see that spectacle!!!! Again, impeccable sanity from the father of all Buddhas!

      • Thill

        “12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: 13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. 14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.”
        (Mark 11:12-14)

        7. At that time the Venerable Upavana was standing before the Blessed One, fanning him. And the Blessed One rebuked him, saying: “Move aside, bhikkhu, do not stand in front of me.”

        8. And to the Venerable Ananda came the thought: “This Venerable Upavana has been in attendance on the Blessed One for a long time, closely associating with him and serving him. Yet now, right at the end, the Blessed One rebukes him. What now could be the reason, what the cause for the Blessed One to rebuke the Venerable Upavana, saying: ‘Move aside, bhikkhu, do not stand in front of me’?”

        9-10. And the Venerable Ananda told his thought to the Blessed One. The Blessed One said: “Throughout the tenfold world-system, Ananda, there are hardly any of the deities that have not gathered together to look upon the Tathagata. For a distance of twelve yojanas around the Sala Grove of the Mallas in the vicinity of Kusinara there is not a spot that could be pricked with the tip of a hair that is not filled with powerful deities. And these deities, Ananda, are complaining: ‘From afar have we come to look upon the Tathagata. For rare in the world is the arising of Tathagatas, Arahants, Fully Enlightened Ones. And this day, in the last watch of the night, the Tathagata’s Parinibbana will come about. But this bhikkhu of great powers has placed himself right in front of the Blessed One, concealing him, so that now, at the very end, we are prevented from looking upon him.’ Thus, Ananda, the deities complain.” (Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha (excerpt) translated from the Pali by
        Sister Vajira & Francis Story)

        • Thill

          And the another member of the “Exemplars of Impeccable Sanity” claimed that he got some great news or “revelation” from a messenger of “The Bountiful” when he (not “The Bountiful” of course!) was famished and hallucinating in a cave. But if we take a look at this “revelation” to glean the nature of the entity who gave that “revelation”, what do we find?

          “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
          96:1 Read in the name of your Lord Who created.
          96:2 He created man from a clot.
          96:3 Read and your Lord is Most Honorable,
          96:4 Who taught (to write) with the pen
          96:5 Taught man what he knew not.”

          Wow! We are staring into the very depths of “The Creation” here! Where did the “clot” come from? “congealed blood” or “clot of blood” can only come from a living being. And which living being was that? And who created that living being?
          And who was the manufacturer of the pen held in his impeccably clean fingers by “the Merciful” when he demonstrated to man how to use it?

          • Thill

            And apparently the guy who couldn’t read was embraced so tightly and beyond the point of endurance by Mr. Gabriel that the guy started reading and writing like mad!
            If this is the sort of impeccable sanity you find at the very source or in the H.Q., you can safely extrapolate on the condition of the legions of followers!

    • Thill

      MR: “The Quakers who waited on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit before setting to the work of the abolition of slavery were nuts. Really?”

      For another perspective on the Quakers, please go to

      Richard Baxter: “Reader, I suppose thou wilt marvel that I trouble myself with so wild a generation as the people called Quakers are….They sent me five several papers, one of them containing the queries which I answer, and others of them almost nothing but a bundle of filthy railing words (“thou serpent,” “thou liar,” “thou deceiver,” “thou child of the devil,” “thou cursed hypocrite,” thou dumb dog”) with much more of the like. They chose out one day when it pleased God to confine me to my chamber by sickness, to come into our assembly and after morning sermon to fall a questioning the preacher, my assistant…they call him “the hireling that flieth,” it seems referring to John 10:12, and so confessing themselves to be the wolves. I find that they do so challenge and brag and triumph…And because they abhor syllogisms and disputings, and I was fain to deal further with them in their own questioning way: I had before offered to come and answer all their queries in their assembly, if they would consent that I might do it without disturbance. But instead of permitting that, they denied it, and sent me a letter of reviling, calling me over and over serpent and hypocrite and the like names….”

  • michael reidy

    You’re gone fractal on me and every bit of a bit has the same shape. Just to focus for a minute and get down to first principles which is what philosophy is supposed to be about, you divide propositions, utterances, and beliefs into the rational and the irrational. I propose a third way, a benign triad versus a deadly dyad: rational, irrational and the non-rational. Things like the Buddha’s tooth come under the schema of the non-rational. They are not amenable to the procedures of science and the phenomena they may throw up are sporadic and haphazard. No Buddhist is required to believe in them as far as I am aware. However there are non-rational dogmas that you could not reject and still be a Buddhist in good standing. Now the question is: does accepting them lead to an access of that curious non-rational thing called wisdom. What of that other thing that runs counter to the intuition that there’s something in it for me, compassion? Isn’t that the definition of true compassion – ‘because there is nothing in it for me this compassion is the supreme compassion’ to paraphrase a Buddhist sentiment.

    • Thill

      Michael,I think it was Ken Wilber who in his own muddle-headed way gave currency to the notion of the “Trans-Rational”, that which “transcends” rationality and is distinct from the irrational. But I suspect that the concept of “non-rational” is vacuous because all alleged instances of the “non-rational” can be reduced to either the rational or the irrational.
      if that which contradicts or opposes the rational is the irrational and you want to claim that the “non-rational” is distinct from the irrational, you must hold that the “non-rational” is that which neither opposes nor contradicts the rational. As a consequence, you must also hold that “non-rational” beliefs do not contradict available evidence.
      So, getting back to the magic-minded belief in the alleged healing efficacy of the alleged tooth of the Buddha and such, are your words “sporadic” and “haphazard” substitutes for “random” and “coincidental”? If all you have are random or coincidental instances of efficacy, you can hardly deem the belief in the healing efficacy of the Buddha’s tooth or nail rational or even “non-rational”. I am sure you are aware that in the realm of magic-minded beliefs fallacies of false causation run amok! It is positively irrational to hold causal beliefs on the basis of random instances or coincidences. You do know this, don’t you? Of course, you do!
      Further, the belief in the healing efficacy of the Buddha’s tooth or nail flat out contradicts the evidence of commonsense and science. Hence, it must be deemed irrational rather than “non-rational”.

      • Thill

        MR: “What of that other thing that runs counter to the intuition that there’s something in it for me, compassion?”

        Yes, it’s a great question: Is compassion rational?
        I think it is rational for the reason that life in a world without compassion would be “nasty, brutish, and short”.

        • JimWilton

          Thill, are you proposing that life without compassion would be “nasty, brutish and short” for the experiencer of compassion? Or for the “object” of compassion?

          If the former, I would not view that motivation as compassion. Would you agree? If so, we are left with compassion being an action that is rational only if you are of the view that compassion transcends “self” and “other” — a view that you have rejected in the past.

          • Thill

            JW, I was applying to compassion the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s argument that without a social contract inclusive of norms and laws, humanity would be in a “State of Nature” in which life would be “nasty, brutish, and short”.
            My point, which I can’t elaborate now, is that without compassion, humanity would also be in a condition or world in which life is “nasty, brutish and short”. This is an argument for the value of compassion and the importance of its cultivation.
            You ask if this is the motive as well for compassion. Do I practice compassion in order to prevent my life from becoming “nasty, brutish, and short”? Or do I practice it in order that the lives of others don’t become “nasty, brutish, and short”? One could be motivated by both sorts of considerations, those pertaining to the self AND others.
            So, it’s not a matter of the alleged “transcendence of self and others”. That doesn’t make sense if you consider the nature of compassion.
            The motivations for compassion pertain to the self AND others. It is an inclusive value.

            • JimWilton

              Compassion is much more of the heart than the head. Your philosophy (and your friend Mr. Hobbes’ philosophy) is so tied to rationality.

              You know what compassion is — but you over think it. We aren’t compassionate because of anything. The rationalization comes afterward. We see a dog hit by a car and our heart breaks. There is no logic in it.

              • Thill

                Compassion is not a momentary reaction of pity to what you see. It is a complex state with both cognitive and affect elements. It involves the head and the heart. Hence, a philosophical reflection on its aspects is in order.

                • JimWilton

                  Philosophy is not all logic and can accommodate experience as well as logic.

                  In the Buddist view, compassion has nothing to do with pity. The English word, meaning “shared suffering”, is a good word; the experience is a spontaneous experience from the heart from one human being to another.

                  So-called compassion that is based on logic is a fabricated thing that is akin to pity. It is based on a sense of beneficent “me” helping poor “you” and is the ego oriented view of a non-ego based experience.

                  Logic can be useful in analyzing the mind and in conceptually understanding compassion (as we are trying to do in this conversation). However, it is helpful to understand the limits of logic. Logic can never understand any genuine experience — whether it is the experience of compassion or the taste of a banana. Thinking you have understood the experience of compassion through logic is like thinking you have visited Paris because you have looked at a map.

                  • Thill

                    You are attacking a strawman. Of course, experience gives us the contents of our reflections. As human beings, we reflect on our experience. Logic is indispensable in that reflection and is used to understand the relations among statements you make about experience. If you make statements about compassion, e.g., it “co-arises with the experience of emptiness” and such, then logic tells you about the implications and assumptions of that statement and if you make more statements of that ilk, logic tells you about the connections, or lack thereof, among your statements.
                    You asked me a question: Is the practice of compassion beneficial for the self or the others? I answered, in essence, that it is beneficial for both the self and others.
                    Compassion can both arise spontaneously and as a result of reflection on this truth. Why do you assume that it must only arise spontaneously or without reflection?

                    • JimWilton

                      I don’t assume that compassion arises spontaneously, it just does. That is my essential disagreement with Thomas Hobbes. In his view, human nature is corrupt and only the channeling of self-interest through a social contract creates peace in civil society.

                      I actuality, logical constructs — beginning with the concept of a “self” — are what allow us to rationalize behavior as beneficial that is very destructive. All wars are begun in this way. It is fair to say that even tyrants for the most part do not follow Shakespeare’s model for Richard III and acknowledge their evil. Instead tyrants tend to rationalize, believing that they are doing god’s work (or the atheist equivalent of god’s work).

                      Intellect — as long as it is based on establishing territory — is essentially untrustworthy. That is why in Buddhist iconography Manjushri has a double edged sword. The imagery is of an intellect that is employed equally against “other” and against “self” — leaving no territory. Enlightened intelligence is an intelligence that takes equal joy in the accomplishments of others as in one’s own accomplishments.

                      The trouble is that you have to look into your experience. That is why Buddhism does not exist without meditation practices. But we can get a sense of it by reflecting on our experiences even without a formal meditation practice. That is why I suggest that the first moment of seeing suffering establishes the point. Everyone’s heart reaches out to a crying child. When we see images on the news of suffering in Haiti after an earthquake, we feel compassion spontaneously. It is only afterward (sometimes a fraction of a second after) that we rationalize and say, like one Christian fundamenatalist did, that it is god’s punishment for past sins.

  • michael reidy

    The idea of the non-rational goes back at least as far as Otto (The Idea of the Holy). For him it may remain as an idea which is motivating but not precisely real in the narrow sense which you espouse. Believers who have had noumenal experience are like the Buddha with his earth witness mudra. In a minor way.

    The triadic in philosophy would go back to Plato. Then there are the gunas of the Sankhya.

    • Thill

      Thanks for pointing this out. I had forgotten about dear old Otto.
      After giving us his conception of the “non rational” as that which eludes apprehension in terms of concepts, Otto goes on to claim that the “Numinous” captures the “non rational” aspect of the “Holy”.
      He then gives us an analysis of the elements of the “Numinous” thereby undermining his earlier claim that the “Numinous” is “non rational” or eludes apprehension in terms of concepts!
      Further, each of those elements is an idea or conception even if accompanied by or giving rise to an overwhelming emotion or feeling.
      Such is the fate of the “Non Rational”, the “Ineffable”, the “Presuppositionless”, the “Non Conceptual” and other exotic concoctions of philosophical fancy!

  • michael reidy

    Even though the translation of The Idea of the Holy which I have has as its subtitle An Inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational the Wikipedia expert translates it as ‘on the irrational in the idea of the divine…’ which is to miss the point of the book or a reflection of unconscious bias. Rudolf Otto as I understand him was of the opinion that there is a movement from the purely numinous religion of the O.T. and the Koran into the rational light of the Modern era. I remember once warning advaitins some years ago that historical criticism was coming soon to a cinema near them.

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