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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Having the Kalama Sutra as a Foundation.

My last post mentioned the Kalama Sutra and a discussion in the comment section had me analyzing this fundamental sutra further. Doug commented how the Kalama Sutra hit him like a bolt and is aiding him in gaining a deeper, and wider awareness of the Dharma.

I have mentioned here before that I have been (and still am) deeply influenced by science. I don't agree with some Buddhists who say the Dharma and science have nothing in common, or shouldn't in fact interact. I think the Kalama Sutra teaches otherwise. That is because it is an early form of the scientific method. It's similar in my mind to a, "scientific control" which allows one to access a particular process (Dharma practice) without too much bias from other influences. In Buddhist practice we're talking about such biases as our ego, an overly controlling teacher or peer pressure.

The Kalama Sutra gives us a framework to judge teachings by to see if they work. Including all the other sutras. In my opinion, it is the jumping off point for continued analysis of the other sutras. Others encourage starting from the Heart Sutra or the Diamond Sutra. I adore the Heart Sutra, and the others but I find that understanding the Kalama Sutra first to be a great help in understanding the others. But I digress. Do the teachings help me and the people around me suffer less? Do they help bring happiness and peace into life? The Buddha is advising us to test his teachings and those of all teachers that come after him because otherwise we are simply parroting someone else. It doesn't end suffering to simply be able to parrot someone else and recite all the teachings ever written or committed to memory. That's simple obedience and memorization. That takes you nowhere but back into the arms of the ego.

We have to experience it for ourselves. We have to let our minds marinate in their essence and observe how they affect our daily lives and interactions. If the teachings help us be nicer, happier and much more peaceful people; and if they help us suffer less than we know that what has been taught to us is beneficial and worth continuing to learn from. If, however, a teacher makes us feel worse about ourselves or contradicts our direct experience on the matter then you can know that the teacher is leading you astray.

The Buddha didn't want people to follow him or worship him but rather he wanted his fellow siblings (us) to experience the peace and relief from suffering that he experienced. Thus, because of this humble sharing of a sincere person he shows us that he is not Buddha because of some desire for self-aggrandizement or other stroking of the ego. Encouraging people to test his teachings and those who claim to follow in his tradition is the exact opposite of the blind obedience that some religious traditions engender. Where others want to tell you what to think, (and what to ignore) Buddha invites us to follow his map and see for ourselves if it leads anywhere beneficial. It's in our own hands and any teacher who won't encourage or allow for direct experience in their teachings is not one who would seem to fully understand the Buddha's invitation.

~Peace to all beings~

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Dylan said...

Here's an interesting piece on the Kalama Sutra by Bhikkhu Bodhi -

Jayarava said...

Hi James

I think we are in danger of over cooking the (so-called) Kālāma Sutta. Yes, it is a charter for an empirical approach, but to what?. But there are quite a number of limitations on this approach.

The Buddha seems to be only talking about the moral sphere in that discourse. He is telling the Kālāmas that they should decide what is ethical on the basis of what they know to be good. There was then, as now in our societies, some doubt as to the basis of morality. Specifically moralities based on ideas of karma and rebirth of which there were a number of variations at the time. This can be seen in the varied ways that karma is talked about in the Pāli texts themselves, and in texts which are likely to date from near that time like the early Upaniṣads, particularly the Bṛhadāranyaka. The Buddha was suggesting natural morality to the Kālāmas - i.e. that they don't go on ideology, but on "what they know to be right". But I don't think he goes beyond this into the sphere of meditation or wisdom and there we cannot use it as a measure for judging any teachings per se, but only for judging the suitability our own actions.

Because of the subjective nature of Buddhist morality - it's all about what's going on your mind when you act - it makes applying the scientific method quite difficult. Science is all about repeatability and on the level of individual actions, none is ever repeatable. So we tend to look in hindsight, and to try to assess actions collectively. At best it gives us broad brush strokes like: "refrain from acting when angry otherwise you will cause harm, or at least unhappiness." This is indeed the kind of truism that 'social scientists' come up with after years of research, which make us wonder why we fund such 'science'.

I've trained in both disciplines - Science (I have a B.Sc in chemistry) and Buddhism. I do find some cross fertilisation. But it's more a spirit of enquiry and observation, than a full blown application of scientific method. And since it is all very subjective, all about knowing my own mental states, the scientific method has little to get a purchase on. In short there is nothing to measure.

Learning from experience is not necessarily the scientific method - everyone does it. The only way to know if a teaching 'works' is to try it out for yourself.

They call him James Ure said...

Thanks Dylan. I have read that article before and found it beneficial. Though I do disagree slightly with the analysis. Bhikkhu Bodhi said:

"Now does the Kalama Sutta suggest, as is often held, that a follower of the Buddhist path can dispense with all faith and doctrine, that he should make his own personal experience the criterion for judging the Buddha's utterances and for rejecting what cannot be squared with it? It is true the Buddha does not ask the Kalamas to accept anything he says out of confidence in himself, but let us note one important point: the Kalamas, at the start of the discourse, were not the Buddha's disciples. They approached him merely as a counselor who might help dispel their doubts, but they did not come to him as the Tathagata, the Truth-finder, who might show them the way to spiritual progress and to final liberation."

I am not saying in my post that Buddhist should dispense with all faith and doctrine because of this sutra. I think you should be balanced with both faith and reason.

As for this sutra being specifically for the Kalamas and not applying to actual Buddhists; I would disagree because many who first read the sutra aren't yet Buddhist practitioners and are investigating Buddhism.

Additionally, to say that certain sutras are only for Buddhists and others for non-Buddhists is a form of dividing people and denying the oneness of all beings that Buddha taught. All of us can learn from the sutras whether we are full-blown, card carrying Buddhists or not. To say some teachings are just for Buddhists seems somewhat elitist.

All of us come to Buddha to dispel out doubts and answer our questions of life. Not just Kalamas. To suggest otherwise is to say that Buddhists don't need to dispel doubts or answer questions. It seems to suggest that Buddhists already have it all figured out, which clearly isn't true.

Bhikkhu Bodhi goes on to say, "Thus, because the Kalamas had not yet come to accept the Buddha in terms of his unique mission, as the discloser of the liberating truth, it would not have been in place for him to expound to them the Dhamma unique to his own Dispensation: such teachings as the Four Noble Truths, the three characteristics, and the methods of contemplation based upon them. These teachings are specifically intended for those who have accepted the Buddha as their guide to deliverance, and in the suttas he expounds them only to those who "have gained faith in the Tathagata" and who possess the perspective necessary to grasp them and apply them.

Here the Bhikkhu is saying that the four noble truths are only for Buddhists? How then do you teach someone then about Buddhism (as the 4 noble truths are apart of the very foundation of Buddhism) without mentioning the four noble truths? The idea that Buddha would categorize those seeking his wisdom doesn't jive with my own experience of others sayings of his in other sutras.

And I gain that insight from using the admonitions in the Kalama sutra to use (in-part) one's own experiences as a guide. Not the only guide but a necessary tool to help figure out what makes sense and what doesn't.

Then Bhikkhu Bodhi seems to contradict himself and agree with the line of thinking that I was expounding upon (continued below)...

They call him James Ure said...

(continued below)...

"Thus the discourse to the Kalamas offers an acid test for gaining confidence in the Dhamma as a viable doctrine of deliverance. We begin with an immediately verifiable teaching whose validity can be attested by anyone with the moral integrity to follow it through to its conclusions, namely, that the defilements cause harm and suffering both personal and social, that their removal brings peace and happiness, and that the practices taught by the Buddha are effective means for achieving their removal.

By putting this teaching to a personal test, with only a provisional trust in the Buddha as one's collateral, one eventually arrives at a firmer, experientially grounded confidence in the liberating and purifying power of the Dhamma. This increased confidence in the teaching brings along a deepened faith in the Buddha as teacher, and thus disposes one to accept on trust those principles he enunciates that are relevant to the quest for awakening."

Here he seems to be backing up the idea of using the Kalama Sutra as a "control" to assess further the core of Buddha's wisdom and enlightenment. He calls it an "acid test" (a scientific test). Just like the idea of it being a form of the "scientific method."

In the end, you have to make up your own mind about this sutra by putting it to the test. Like all of the Buddha's teachings in the Sutras.

While I do put a lot of weight behind the Kalama Sutra I also advocate (as the Bhikkhu does) cultivating faith and adhering to doctrine that one finds helpful.

I don't agree that the Kalama Sutra only applies to non-Buddhists. If it's not a sutra that Buddhist practitioners should listen to then why is it in the "sanctioned" Pali Canon?

They call him James Ure said...

@Jayavara. Just because Buddha is mainly speaking to the Kalamas about karma and rebirth doesn't mean that the wisdom can't be applied to other teachings that one is doubting. For example, the heart sutra applies to many situations. As does the Diamond sutra and others.

I think compartmentalizing his teachings as addressing only the people he is directly speaking to; and about only that specific situation presented is limiting the impact of the Dharma. We are limiting the Buddha's scope. Faith also requires us to have faith in ourselves that we can adapt his teachings to guide us in all situations.

Otherwise, none of us should be following ANY of the sutras because they were all spoke to people that are long dead. So how can any of the sutras apply to us if we are to only look at them in the context of who he was historically addressing.

To teach otherwise seems to be focusing more on protecting a particular tradition or dogma than encouraging direct experience based on the faith in Buddha as a wise teacher.

As we know, there are many varied schools of Buddhism. So, if it's possible to have such diverse styles of practicing the Dharma then surely it's possible to interpret the sutras several ways. And apply them to several time periods and situations. It feels like limiting the scope of Buddha's wisdom.

I would somewhat disagree with you that all actions aren't repeatable. If Buddha is specifically saying in the Kalama Sutra that testing his teachings will help you realize whether they helps cause less harm or not then I think testing them to see if greed (for example) causes harm is pretty repeatable.

As millions throughout varied ages have discovered the same reality that greed is harmful using the directions from Buddha to not accept anything that causes you harm.

I don't mean to say that the advice in the Kalama Sutra is EXACTLY like the scientific method. But that there are similarities, which would seem to be beneficial in understanding the wisdom of the Dharma to the modern mind that is so influenced by science.

I agree that the only way to know if a teaching works is to try it. Just like the only way to know if a scientific hypothesis is right is to try it in a test. That's why I compared such advice to the scientific method. Again, they aren't exactly the same but both provide a way to test ideas based on direct, concrete actions.

DCW said...

Words attributed to Bhagavaa (sammaasambuddha) in the Pali Nikaayas is the Dhamma of the Bhagava. Dhamma is totally and absolutely beyond science and scientific method.
The subject matter of Dhamma is not the physical world.

D C Wijeratna,

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