Do we have to abandon rational thinking? A conversation about thinking, intuition and faith

A student writes:

I understand that to abandon rational thinking is a necessary preliminary to develop belief in all that can apparently only be realised through intuition?

Lama Shenpen replies:

That statement requires a great deal of unpicking! To be rational we have to be sane – and to be sane we do not have to be thinking – so I would not agree that we have to abandon all rational thinking.  Sane people think – rational people think. So why do you say we have to abandon rational thinking?  I would say we need to abandon clinging to views, opinions and intellectual conclusions when opening to the true nature of reality – this relates to the contemplative approach to ‘knowing’ and is a hard won discipline – not a matter of deciding that one has to abandon rational thinking. That is a very dangerous position to adopt.


Although intuition is certainly ‘another way of knowing’, as opposed to rational thinking…

Lama Shenpen:

It is our intuition that makes us rational – there is no rational argument that proves there are other beings external to my experience – the solipsistic point of view. Yet I would not regard a solipsistic person as rational or sane – on the other hand, a person with no rational capacity in terms of being able to follow a rational argument, might communicate deep love and affection in a way that I find intuitively meaningful and rational.


…intuition has been repeatably shown (Western style) to be an unreliable way of seeking the truth, too easily swayed by cognitive bias and positive determinism (lots of recent work on this)…. 

Lama Shenpen:

I think this is another use of the word ‘intuitive’.  I think I know what you mean. Often people think they know things intuitively and it turns out that they don’t – it was just a guess.  In that case we are talking about a method of coming to a conclusion or view about the world that can be shown to be either right or wrong. I don’t know what experiments you are referring to but I can imagine it would be true that when people claim to be able to know things intuitively it often turns out to be wrong or only right as many times as they would have been by chance.

When we talk about Jnana* being intuitive we are not talking about another way of coming to an intellectual conclusion – it is outside that framework altogether. Intellectual conclusions or rational thinking emerges from jnana – first there is jnana and then from that we draw conclusions – or not. It’s our choice.


I am reticent about the critical part played by intuition and faith in Tibetan tradition…

Lama Shenpen:

Perhaps what you call ‘Tibetan tradition’ and ‘institutional structures’ all relates to this point and perhaps the role of the Guru or transmission.  Maybe my upcoming book on Guru Principle will shed some light on all that for you.

As for faith – I suspect you think of it in terms of accepting a belief system – such as all the tantric deities in Tibetan Buddhism including all the elaborate rituals.  None of this is essential to the Awakened Heart Sangha ethos. These are means by which some people chose to help them deepen their understanding.

The important point is that the AHS as a whole be a vehicle for bringing the authentic Dharma into the world for those who are looking for it. 

*Jnana (Tib:  ye shes) – often translated as ‘primordial wisdom’.  It refers to the living quality of nonconditioned Reality as non-dual, or non-conceptual awareness inseparable from its content – i.e.  it is the whole of Reality. 

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