With no intention to blaspheme (or adding to the recent intense discussion on H-Buddhism on the subject), I would appeal to a more nuanced look at one of the sources of Buddhist Sutras, namely the phenomenon of pratibhā, translated variably as “light, splendor, appearance, fitness, intelligence, presence, fitness of mind, audacity, thought, a founded supposition,” and last but not least “fancy and imagination.” In the context of Buddhist sutras, pratibhā or pratibhāna is sometimes interpreted as eloquence, an ability to persuade the audience through exceptional oratory skill, thus sometimes translated into Chinese as biancai 辯才. But with a closer look at the instances of pratibhā in the Buddhist texts, one may find that it is not so much an attempt to initiate a debate, an argument, or even a discussion. Rather, it refers in fact to one’s (not just the Buddha, but also the dhammakhathika-s) ability to conceive a brilliant and spontaneous idea, and only later to convey it (thus PTSD: paṭibhāṭi — to appear, to be evident, to come into one’s mind, to occur to one, to be clear”). It is more like the brilliant poetry, music and art created intuitively and spontaneously out of one’s creative impulse.

The Buddhists who are known for their pratibhā should thus be viewed as part the great Indic tradition of seers and poets, who have a long history of fantastic oral literature, with an abundance of works from the Vedas down to works of today which are most likely spontaneously composed or even improvised in situ. From the dawn of age, humankind has always marveled at such mysteriously beautiful works, which are brilliant at different levels. They appeal to us both at the level of intellect and at the level of the heart. There may be many explanations, but it appears to me that reasons often follow intuition, sensation and emotion when it comes to things which are “brilliant”.

The word “fantasy” itself has also a lot to tell. Although it has come to mean something unreal, illusory, and by extension, impossible, its original idea was in fact very close to the Indic pratibhā, namely, vision and poetic imagination. The focus is not what is impossible, but rather, what is possible in the human mind. It comes from the Greek word φαντασία which means “display, a visible marking”. In English, the Greek/Latin suffix -phany in “epiphany” and “theophany” is cognate with the verb φαντάζω “to make visible” which shares the same idea of revealing something which would translate into brilliance in mind of the audience or viewers.

The association of light and great ideas is both ancient and common, from the tradition of pratibhā to the proverbial light bulb in the head. An idea is bright when it allows the viewer come out of darkness, see things in their true color as the Diamond Sutra describes (見種種色), see how things are connected in ways that one has never imagined before.

The problem of the modern readers of Buddhist sutras concerns often the veracity of the things described therein. Is reincarnation real? Does one really develop supernatural powers in meditation? How about the Buddhist cosmos? Are all these compatible with our “scientific” view? The naive often want quick and simple answers and become confounded when presented any proximation of truth.

Modern readers often have an obsession with the “truth value” of everything, without the awareness of our constantly changing perception of the reality and the “truths” around us. Ideas which are not compatible with our ideas of the “real,” the “true,” and the “scientific,” are often discarded all too hastily. Scholars of the history of science demonstrate again and again how our scientific view is constantly evolving. But one thing that drives it forward relates often to the human imagination. We enjoy fictions and fantasy literature because they allow us to explore and experience the worlds which we have otherwise no access to. I am not asking the readers of Buddhist sutras to treat what they read as simply fiction and fantasy. Rather, I would say that even the non-Buddhists should appreciate the content of the Buddhist sutras as much as one would appreciate poetry, literature or even fiction and fantasy, if not more so. With appreciation and humility, it is not difficult to see the bright ideas the authors of Buddhist texts try to convey. They are fantastic. They reveal to us a world that is much greater than the one we are familiar with. They inspire and invite us to explore the vastness of the human mind.