Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Do not believe until you... Help! The Kalama Sutta, Help!

Do not believe until you...

Help! The Kalama Sutta, Help!1

By Buddhadasa Bhikkhu


All people in the world, including the Thai people, are now in the same situation as were the Kalama people in Kesaputta township, India, during the time of the Buddha. Their village was in a location through which many religious teachers frequently passed. Each of these teachers taught that his personal doctrine was the only truth, and that all others before and after him were wrong. The Kalamas could not decide which doctrine they should accept and follow. When the Buddha once visited their village, the Kalamas brought up their problem with him: they did not know which teacher to believe. Consequently, the Buddha taught them what is now known as the Kalama Sutta, which we will examine here.

Nowadays, worldly people study many different approaches to economic, social, and technological development. The universities teach just about everything. Then, regarding spiritual matter, here in Thailand alone we have so many teachers, so many interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings, and so many meditation centers that nobody knows which teaching to accept or which practice to follow. Thus, it can be said that we have fallen into the same position as the Kalamas were in two millennia ago.

The Buddha taught them, and us, not to accept or believe anything immediately just because it fits with any of a number of criteria. He listed ten such criteria for them to be wary of, so they could avoid becoming anyone’s intellectual slave, even of the Buddha Himself. This principle enables us to choose for ourselves the teachings that are truly capable of quenching suffering (dukkha). The ten examples the Buddha gave in the Kalama Sutta follow.

1. Ma anussavena:

Don’t accept and believe something to be true just because it has been passed along and retold for many years. Such credulity is a characteristic of brainless people, of "sawdust brains," such as those in Bangkok who once believed that disasters would befall people born in the "ma" years. (The years of the small snake, big snake, horse, and goat — five through eight in the old twelve-year Thai cycle — all begin with "ma.")

2. Ma paramparaya:

Don’t believe in something merely because it has become a traditional practice. People tend to imitate what others do and then pass the habit along, as in the story of the rabbit that was terrified by a fallen mango (like Chicken Little’s falling sky). When the other animals saw the rabbit running at top speed, they were frightened too and ran after it. Most of them ended up tripping and tumbling off a cliff to their deaths. Any vipassana (insight) practice that merely imitates others, that just follows traditions, will bring similar results.

3. Ma itikiraya:

Don’t accept and believe something simply because of reports and news of it spreading far and wide, whether through one’s village or throughout the whole world. Only fools are susceptible to such rumors, for they refuse to exercise their own powers of intelligence and discrimination.

4. Ma Pitakasampadanena:

Don’t accept and believe something just because it is cited in a pitaka (text). The word "pitaka," although most commonly used for Buddhist scriptures, can mean anything written or inscribed on a suitable writing material. The teachings memorized and passed on orally should not be confused with pitaka. A pitaka is a certain kind of conditioned thing made and controlled by human beings, which can be improved or changed by human hands. Thus, we cannot trust every letter and word we read in them. We need to use our powers of discrimination to see how these words can be applied to the quenching of suffering. There are discrepancies among the pitaka of the various Buddhist schools, so care is called for.

5. Ma takkahetu:

Don’t believe something solely on the grounds of logical reasoning (takka). Logic is merely one branch of knowledge that people use to try to figure out the truth. Takka or Logic is not infallible. If its data or inferences are incorrect, it can go wrong.

6. Ma nayahetu:

Don’t believe or accept something merely because it appears correct on the grounds of Naya or what is now called "philosophy." In Thailand, we translate the Western term philosophy as prajna. Our Indian friends cannot accept this because "naya" is just a point of view or opinion; it isn’t the supreme understanding properly referred to as panya or prajna. Naya or nayaya is merely a method of deductive reasoning based on hypotheses or assumptions. Such reasoning can err when the method or hypothesis is inappropriate.

7. Ma akaraparivitakkena:

Don’t believe or accept something simply because of superficial thinking, that is, because it appeals to what we nowadays call "common sense," which is merely snap judgments based on one’s tendencies of thought. We like to use this approach so much that it becomes habitual. Some careless and boastful philosophers rely on such common sense a great deal and consider themselves clever.

8. Ma ditthinijjhanakkhantiya:

Don’t believe accept something to be true merely because it agrees or fits with one’s preconceived opinions and theories. Personal views can be wrong and our methods of experiment and verification may be inadequate, neither of which lead us to the truth. This approach may seem similar to the scientific method, but can never actually be scientific, as its proofs and experiments are inadequate.

9. Ma bhabbarupataya:

Don’t believe something just because the speaker appears believable, perhaps due to creditability or prestige. Outside appearances and the actual knowledge inside a person can never be identical. We often find that speakers who appear creditable outwardly turn out to say incorrect and foolish things. Nowadays, we must be wary of computers because the programmers who feed them data and manipulate them may put in the wrong information, make programming errors, or use them incorrectly. Don’t worship computers so much, for doing so goes against this principle of the Kalama Sutta.

10. Ma samano no garu ti:

Don’t believe something simply because the monk (more broadly, any speaker) is "my teacher." The Buddha’s purpose regarding this important point is that nobody should be the intellectual slave of anybody else, not even the Buddha Himself. The Buddha emphasized this point often, and there were disciples, such as the Venerable Sariputta, who confirmed it in practice. They didn’t believe the Buddha’s words immediately upon hearing them; they only did so after reasoned reflection and the test of practice. See for yourselves whether there is any other religious teacher in the world who has given this highest freedom to his disciples and listeners! In Buddhism there is no dogmatic system that pressures us to believe without the right to examine and decide for ourselves. This is the greatest uniqueness of Buddhism that keeps its practitioners from being anybody’s intellectual slave. We Thais should never volunteer to follow the West as slavishly as we are doing now. Intellectual and spiritual freedom is best.


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