This essay is about The Kalama Sutta which is sometimes referred to as the “Buddha’s charter of free inquiry”
In this, the Buddha lists criteria that he recommends we should use to decide which teachings to follow, and he also lists criteria which we should not use.
It is contained in the Anguttara Nikaya of the Tipitaka.
The sutta describes how the Buddha meets the Kalama tribe, and they say that they meet many holy men and teachers who all have differing teachings, and they are confused about which teaching to follow. He gives ten reasons that he does not recommend you use to choose and justify a teaching. He says that you should not follow teachings just because they are traditional, appear in a holy book, that they appear to be provable by philosophical reasoning, or because they are enunciated by your teacher, or an expert.
Instead he says you should only accept a teaching when you have direct experience that it is skilful, blameless, praiseworthy and conducive to happiness.I think it is particularly relevant to us as Westerners suffering from information overload, as we are bombarded all day long with different people’s opinions and theories, and it is so hard to navigate a way towards truth through this.It contrasts particularly with Christianity which states that you must believe everything written in the Bible because it is the word of God. This is an anathema to anyone brought up to question his deepest convictions.
I feel that in our culture, we have a spiritual void, because we used to have Christianity, and now we have a consumer society. The reason for this is because we have questioning rational minds, and cannot just believe the bible, even though part of us does have a yearning for spiritual experience.
We need a spiritual path that is founded on scientific and empirical principles. And in this sutta, the Buddha reveals that his path is indeed founded on these.
The Buddha again hinted at this as he was dying, and he exhorted his disciples to be “lamps unto yourselves” and “look not for a refuge in anyone besides yourselves”.Elsewhere he says “As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it (on a piece of touchstone), so are you to accept my words after examining them and not merely out of regard for me,”It is this more than anything that differentiates Buddhism from the other religions. There are many common themes of positivity, prayer, meditation and visualisation, but with this sutta, the Buddha is encouraging us to think for ourselves, and not to mindlessly follow his teachings.
One of the reasons he says we should not use is that the teaching appears in scripture. This is ironic, because his words have now themselves become part of Buddhist scripture. But in this process, it reminds us of the spirit with which we should approach the rest of Buddhist scripture. i.e. that we don’t have to just accept something because the Buddha says so.He also recommends that we do not believe things just because an expert or even one’s own teacher recommends it. Again I think he is spot on with this. A teacher can help to challenge us, inspire us, open us up to new ideas, support us, and help us grow. But he is still human, and therefore fallible. And if we just blindly accept that what he says is true we are shutting down our critical faculty. And it is this critical faculty that allows us to become wise.
Another reason which he says should not be used is philosophical reasoning. I would agree with this, as I think philosophy can often become very abstract and removed from reality. When it does this, it can often verge on becoming meaningless and arbitrary. One can see this battle appear much later on in the history of philosophy, as some philosophers such as Hegel get very carried away with abstract systems, whereas other philosophers try to destroy these systems, and bring everything back to Earth where it is based on direct experience.You can see this happening in the 18th century with David Hume and the movement in Western philosophy that is interestingly known as the “Age of Enlightenment”. And you can see echoes of it with Friedrich Nietzsche, and afterhim the logical positive movement. This is yet another area where the Buddha was far ahead of his time.
He recommends a much more verifiable and rational approach. By its nature, it cannot be totally scientific, replicable and objective as it is based on introspection. That is why we are ultimately left to make our own decisions.Another virtue of this approach is that people really own the ideas that they have learned themselves from direct experience. This is far more valuable than an idea that is learned parrot fashion.
I personally was blown away when I heard that the Buddha said this so long ago, and it is one of the reasons why I follow the Buddhist path rather than some other religion. Christianity and Islam spread not only by the threat of violence in this life, but also by the threat of eternal damnation if people did not convert and follow them. In other words they are based on fear, and being trained to follow and believe the priest class without question.
It is of course true that all religions contain their share of wise people and fools. My point is that Buddhism is founded on sound empirical principles, and nowhere is this more apparent than the Kalama Sutta.
By Lenac Divad