New to Buddhism with questions

Hello friends,

I am very new to Buddism, so please kindly excuse my naive question.

I find the fundimental teachings (Four noble truth, Eight fold path, non-self, dependent origination) and practices very helpful and was naturally drawn to it.

However I am a bit taken back by some supernatural aspects in some of the Mahayana sutras (like the Lotus Sutra or the Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra).

I was wondering is “faith” a nessessary for practicing the Buddhist way? Or can one pick and choose and only belief the part of the scipture he/she believe in?

Thank you very much.


Whether you take something on faith, suspend belief or just outright disbelieve it, the common thread there is a lack of definitive knowledge. Best course of action is something Ajahn Nyanamoli says often in his talks, which is to find what is least likely to be wrong and go from there. A wonderfully fascinating effect of spending years with the suttas is that they blossom and deepen over time - meanings will change and grow with effort and development in generosity, virtue (precepts) and sense restraint.


From my experience of long time reading Mahayana sutras,
Those are not meant for beginner. Except some that clearly give basic teaching and pureland/ Sukhavati sutras, most of Mahayana sutras are for advanced practitioners.

  1. Sometimes they mention and refer to doctrines that you must find in early sutta. So you need to be familiar with those.

  2. Sometimes they describe experience or obstacles, that I think happen after you practice for quite some time. So, not for beginner.

  3. Things described that doesn’t make sense - maybe it is literary feature, or it is describing some kind of higher experience. Again, this need to be interpreted, and certainly cant be taken at face value.

  4. Goal of Mahayana is universal salvation, brought by one’s own hand. To do this you need to develop aspiration to save all beings from suffering.
    But how can one develop this aspiration if one does not even understand suffering, even for oneself?
    So one need to understand the four noble truth before going into Mahayana.
    These teachings of 4 noble truth is found in early sutta.

Conclusion. Put aside those Mahayana sutras for now. Beginners should start by reading early sutta. The best edition we have is the pali canon, you can read them at suttacentral.


Like Prajnadeva, I have had significant Mahayana exposure, and I think he is spot on. I would have said exactly the same thing.

Some additional basic points:

  1. Mahayana sutras were composed by other people and were not taught by the Buddha. By contrast, a certain class of texts, the early Buddhist texts, (EBTs) contain texts which can be reliably attributed to the Buddha. There are EBTs in Pali, Sanskrit and Chinese, but the Pali suttas are useful start in that they are a complete collection in an Indian Prakrit.

  2. Mahayana is also a group of movements within Buddhism, not a single movement. It includes a huge number of different ideas. So there are different schools of Mahayana texts, like Tathagatagarbha, Prajnaparamita, Yogacara, Pure Land etc.

IMHO The sanest way to approach Mahayana texts is to treat them as as distinctive genres (e.g. the Lankavatara Sutra is actually a Yogacara text) and to map the intellectual development within that genre historically. To understand the intellectual history is a major commitment (e.g. to actually understand where ideas like eight consciousnesses in Yogacara come from, it’s helpful to know Theravada abhidhamma first).

In any case, to understand Mahayana historically, you will still end up back at the EBTs or Abhidhamma.

Sometimes the origins of Mahayana texts are so opaque that it is no longer possible to trace who composed them or for what purpose.

Presumably the EBTs also include the Buddha’s original messages of emptiness, lovingkindness and salvation & a complete path to awakening.

So it is best just to focus on the EBTs first.

→ someone once gave me this exact same advice on the internet (thankyou Jeremy Chow of Singapore) and it basically solved 95% of the questions I had about Buddhism.


The Theravada perspective starts and ends with right view, and is a developing process between the two. The practitioner must start with what they believe in and that is initial right view on which everything is founded. Then they gradually develop further right view through reading and actual investigation. In this process what has not been yet experienced is naturally held on faith, so faith is an element at all but the final stage when insight into a particular problem is achieved, and that’s how steps forward are made. The difference with Buddhism is that faith must eventually be proven by experience. The Buddha himself found awakening through investigating specific thoughts and their results, and the practitioner should also focus on these:

"The Blessed One said, "Monks, before my self-awakening, when I was still just an unawakened Bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’ So I made thinking imbued with sensuality, thinking imbued with ill will, & thinking imbued with harmfulness one sort, and thinking imbued with renunciation, thinking imbued with non-ill will, & thinking imbued with harmlessness another sort.

"And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with sensuality arose in me. I discerned that ‘Thinking imbued with sensuality has arisen in me; and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding.’—Majhima Nikaya 19

A description of the complete path, the level being discussed here is chapters VII & VIII:

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Mahayana writers were engaged in creative myth-making, essentially. You don’t have to take it literally.


So there’s a few interesting things here. If we understood all the teachings we would be fully enlightened, right? So I would question it from the other way. Why would anyone practice something that they have no faith in? In that way it is clear that we always cherry pick the bits that appeal wherever we are on the path. One of the lovely things about the teachings is that it leads us onwards towards the goal.


Sometimes I read Mahayana Sutras too, but as @prajnadeva said, you should have firm root in early Buddhist teachings like four noble truths and others. For the supernatural aspects I just put it aside and try to grasp the philosophical teaching of these texts.

Faith (which is acquired by understanding there is dukkha and it’s cessation) is a vital condition for attaining liberation and ending of dukkha, as it is said in SN 12.23:

Suffering is a vital condition for faith. Faith is a vital condition for joy. Joy is a vital condition for rapture. Rapture is a vital condition for tranquility. Tranquility is a vital condition for bliss. Bliss is a vital condition for immersion. Immersion is a vital condition for truly knowing and seeing. Truly knowing and seeing is a vital condition for disillusionment. Disillusionment is a vital condition for dispassion. Dispassion is a vital condition for freedom. Freedom is a vital condition for the knowledge of ending.


@cdpatton Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. This is one of my issues, knowing when to take the writing literally and when to view them poetically. Starting with what I can accept and grow from there seems to be a good method (suggested by various friends here).

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@paul1 Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and quotes from the Sutta. Until recently, I do not have any experience in the Theravada tradional (being Chinese, I was raised in a deeply Mahayana influcenced culture), however from what I experience so far, I am quite drawn to it. Therefore, the material you shared should help me a lot. Thank you very much.

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@SDC Thank you very much for sharing your experience. Your suggestion of starting from least likely to be wrong (or what I already believe it) and go from there is very practicial and helpful method. Patience seems to be one of the key quality.

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@seniya Thank you very much for your insights. I agree that I should have a firm root in EBT first :smiley:
I am glad that discovered a portal for me to get started.

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@Suvira @prajnadeva Thank you very much for your insight. Since your respones covers similar area, please kindly forgive me responsing in the same post.

The reason why I started with Mahanyana sutras is because being Chinese, these sutras (and the Mahayana “spirit”, eg. bodhisattva path) are so infused in our culture, I didn’t know other options existed (Although there is the Chinese Agama, they are not as widely availble in modern Chinese).

However, (mostly because of my lack of knowledge, practise and experiences)I have difficulty with:

  1. tracing the teachings within various Mahayana schools (concepts like Pure Land (eg. nichiren), Buddha Nature, Zen) to original teaching by the historial Buddha

  2. Mahayana’s texts and commentors attitudes towards Theravada School (eg. Bodhisattva being the superior path)

  3. claimed linage of Mahayana texts to the historial Buddha

My confusions lead me to discover the world of EBT and Theravada School (and sutta central :blush:), and like you suggested, this really should be my starting point.

Some of my Mahayana friends questions me “Does it matter if these texts cannot be traced back to Gotama as long as they are in the spirit of his teaching?” I honestly do not have an answer to this.

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@stu Thank you very much for your insight. Yes, I agree that it is hard to avoid cherry picking. I guess I do not have confidence in my ability to cherry pick since there are so much I do not know.

Just from the standpoint of understanding Mahayana sutras, I would say a reader should start with some background reading in EBTs. Mahayana writers assumed their readers already knew the early sutras well enough, so they don’t explain the basic teachings unless they had some commentary that they wanted to add to them. Rather, they were often critics of early Buddhist orthodoxy, sometimes directly challenging accepted orthodoxy with iconoclastic ideas. When the Lotus Sutra says arhats don’t really enter Nirvana or depicts two Buddhas in the same scene, the author was intentionally flouting of accepted orthodoxy.

It’s a similar situation with the Prajnaparamita sutras, but those writers were sort of mocking the Abhidharma texts that try to define every dharma by saying it’s impossible because dharmas don’t really exist beyond their names. They want us to drop Abhidharma philosophy and get back to meditating. As modern readers, this goes right by us because we’ve not likely to have ever read an Abhidharma text before reading a Prajnaparamita sutra.


I mean, the Lion King is also in the “spirit of Shakespeare”, but I guess if you want to do Shakespearean studies at some point it’s necessary just to actually read Hamlet.

(Or Chinese literature version: no matter how many Hong Kong drama adaptations you see of the Water Margin, it’s not actually the Water Margin.)

I think there is an element of basic respect for the historical Buddha involved in taking what he taught seriously. Without studying the early texts, how would your friends even know whether the later texts are actually in the spirit of the original teaching or not?


I understand. Chinese Buddhism for a long time has been ignoring their EBT collection, and the sutra that was circulating are Mahayana sutras, and they are even from different genres.

I think it is better to give you options first. :smiley: There is the Three Capacity of Buddhist Practicioner framework.

  1. Small capacity person. They are the one who practice dharma to avoid rebirth in lower realm (hell, animal, hungry ghost). By avoiding evil and do good deeds, and taking refuge in Buddha Dharma Sangha, they hope to be reborn as human or devas.
    This is minimum requirement for Dharma practicioner. To lower this requirement means going to hell.

  2. Medium capacity person. They practice to be freed from samsara, the cycle of birth and death. To be free from suffering permanently. By practicing morality, meditation, and insight, they want to cut all mental affliction, and attain Nirvana.
    Understanding 4 noble truth and dependent origination is included in this scope.

  3. Great capacity person. They want to help others to also be liberated from samsara. Becoming Buddha. This is the goal of Mahayana.

Now, the framework here is presented as gradual path. For Mahayana aspirant, the capacity should grow from small, to medium, and finally to Great.
For some, maybe they are satisfied in small capacity, or medium capacity, and that is also correct.
My point is, you don’t need to be “Mahayana”. Choose the path that feel best for you.

Now, about your questions. Explaining the whole cause and effect and lineages and development of many Mahayana sutras are … great and lengthy exposition, involving different competing theories too. If you are really interested, you can research it slowly.

The more immediate question. “Does it matter if these texts cannot be traced back to Gotama as long as they are in the spirit of his teaching?”

  1. Well yes, especially in China, because Chinese had produced apocryphal sutra. They are something written by Chinese in the form of Buddha’s sutra, but clearly not original sutra, and not translation. The most famous one is “The Filial Piety Sutra”
    Is it in the spirit of Buddha’s teaching? yes. But we should be clear of certain element or foreign ideas in that text.
  2. If you are familiar with Mahayana myths, of course the Mahayana Sutras can be traced back to the Buddha himself, as they claim it.
    For example, Prajnaparamita Sutra (Diamond Sutra, Heart Sutra) were kept in other realm before being brought back to human world. Nagarjuna brought it back from Naga realm.
    But even with this story, there is a question, why should it be kept away for 500 years? The myth said, because in that period, it will be needed to correct wrong view that arise, and it is already predicted by the Buddha. And then history told us Prajnaparamita sutra is directly answering to Abhidharma movement.

See, even the myth said that Prajnaparamita Sutra is for people who already study Abhidharma.
And before we study Abhidharma, it is better if we study EBT first.

Anyway, do you know that the first sutra said to be translated to Chinese is EBT? It is compilation of EBT material called The Sutra in 42 Section

Lots of choices in English translation.
It is still popular sutra today, and it is the first one introduced to China, because its content is basic.

If you cant access Chinese EBT collection because language barrier, there are some already translated in English. PDF download is free. gama-middle-length-discourses-volume-ii/


Fuku, this has been a most interesting thread - thank you for starting it. I’m new here also, but thought I might share a few thoughts.

It is possible I missed its being said above, but do keep in mind that there are plenty of supernatural elements in the EBTs as well; if not quite as much as one might find in Mahayana texts, I’d still guess that Theravadin sources are pretty close in terms of these things. As a former Catholic I’ve found these ideas (miracles, devas, hell-beings, even fairies) very easy to accept, as they’re often not all that far from the traditional Christian world view, in the sense that there is far, far more to reality than hits the everyday eye. But it can present an obstacle for some modern people. The nice thing about Buddhism in general, and Theravada in particular, is that one doesn’t have to believe these things, at least at the beginning. You can start from where you are. All of the teachings will “work” without adding the supernatural elements. I don’t know how comfortable you are with reading English, but if you are interested in familiarizing yourself with “the big view” as found in Theravada, I’ve found Ajahn Punnadhammo’s book, The Buddhist Cosmos, both fascinating and helpful in this area.

Finally, and forgive me if I missed its already being mentioned, the Dhamma Wheel site is another great resource for discussions and questions if and when they arise.

Best of luck on your path!

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Yes. Patience. Diligence. You’ll also see words like “cultivate” and “develop”, and it is really crucial that these be understood as far more than that “mere reasoning”; far more than just the mere working out of ideas and finding the “right” ones. There is certainly that reasoning involved - you have to choose, and through either faith and/or intellect are the ways in which we will decide whether or not to pursue the Dhamma; but once we have resolved upon a direction of striving, that is when the real work begins. Work that keeps things trending towards a wholesome side of this reason is how things keep moving and become more refined:

One makes an effort to abandon wrong view and to enter upon right view: this is one’s right effort. Mindfully one abandons wrong view, mindfully one enters upon and abides in right view: this is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three states run and circle around right view, that is, right view, right effort, and right mindfulness. - MN 117

Never be afraid to admit that you want to be free from suffering - that you want to go in the direction of liberation. That’s the entire point. Besides, if things develop rightly that original reason will eventually be abandoned. Why? Because no matter what, things had to have started when the view was wrong.

Sage advice from Ananda:

Take a mendicant who hears this: ‘They say that the mendicant named so-and-so has realized the undefiled freedom of heart and freedom by wisdom in this very life. And they live having realized it with their own insight due to the ending of defilements.’ They think: ‘Oh, when will I too realize the undefiled freedom of heart and freedom by wisdom in this very life. …’ After some time, relying on craving, they give up craving. That’s why I said what I said. - AN 4.159

Since ignorance is beginningless (AN 10.61), it is actually very helpful to come to terms with just how broad and overbearing that wrong view is, and once that has been accepted we won’t make the serious mistake of staying settled firmly upon what seemed right when we first started the practice. Or to say that another way: you won’t held by the pressure of assuming you need to know everything before you even start. It will make more sense to take what is least wrong and start the work of purifying it through generosity, precepts, restraint, reflection, mindfulness, etc.

I hope this helps. :slightly_smiling_face:

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Some thoughts I had on this,

While the Mahayana sutras do have a more expansive cosmology, it is it not necessarily that much different than that of the EBTs. It is a many worlds cosmology, with many realms and different types of beings, including many Buddhas. The idea that there may be other Buddhas (or highly spiritually developed beings) in other world systems is not emphasized in the EBTs, but it is not incompatible with it I think. I’ve always thought that it is also pretty compatible with our current view of the universe, especially if you accept any of the “many worlds” or “parallel universes” ideas out there.

What makes Mahayana distinct is the idea that these awakened beings in other realms are actually active in our world in some way. That, and the fact that Mahayana sutras include much more baroque and extensive expositions of their cosmology, and include way more miraculous events, whereas many EBTs do not emphasize this or even contain miracles. So Mahayana texts seem harder to believe than EBTs (which have less miracles and cosmological stuff) and some Mahayana sutras acknowledge this, saying how it is rarer for people to accept Mahayana and so on. However, Mahayana sutras also contain various ideas that give them a lot of hermeneutical flexibility, mainly the idea of upaya and the two truths (as well as a general critique of the use of language for explaining the ultimate reality). These ideas allow Mahayanist exegetes to interpret the sutras in different ways, and hence, like Patton said, you don’t need to take it literally (but also, you shouldn’t take anything literally since all reality is empty!).

Also, even though there many different interpretations of the EBTs, in Mahayana, this is turned up to eleven. There are extensive doctrinal and philosophical differences among the various Mahayana texts, they do not all agree with each other. So most Mahayana traditions have highly developed hermeneutics and philosophies in order to explain these seeming contradictions. So, with Mahayana, you are never expected to read the texts cold. Instead, one studies with a teacher, or least looks at the commentarial and philosophical tradition.

For example, the Prajnaparamita sutras are read together with the works of Nagarjuna and other Madhyamikas, as well as the Indian commentaries on the PP texts themselves (in Tibet: The Abhisamayalankara, in China: The Dazhidulun).

But anyways, I agree that one should first get a foundation in the basic Buddhist teachings before jumping into Mahayana stuff, since Mahayana texts assume knowledge of early Buddhist ideas, and then proceed to expand, critique, engage with or play with them.