My writings lately on the Kalama Sutra being a Buddhist version of the "scientific method" have sparked a discussion about its essence. Found here. And, so, I decided to make a new post using my comments addressing the points of the readers Dylan and Jayavara. Dylan mentioned a discourse of the Kalama Sutra by the Theravadan monk Bhikkhu Bodhi. I won't speculate on Dylan's intentions in posting that link but I do disagree slightly with the Bhikkhu's analysis on the sutra. I want to make it clear that I'm not ascribing any of the following Bhikkhu Bodhi comments as being the same of Dylan. In the discourse, the Bhikkhu seems to reject the idea of using the Kalama Sutra as a guide for knowing when a teaching of Buddha's is helpful. 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.
James: I am not saying in my post that Buddhists 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 Kalama people and not applying to actual Buddhists; I would disagree because many who first read the sutra are already Buddhist practitioners. 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, Buddhist or just investigating Buddhism. To say some teachings are just for Buddhists seems somewhat elitist. All of us come to Buddha to dispel our 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.
James: Here the Bhikkhu seems to be saying that the four noble truths are only for Buddhists. How then do you teach someone 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 and with other teachings 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 and observations as a guide. Not the only guide but a necessary tool to help figure out what makes causes less harm and what doesn't. Then Bhikkhu Bodhi seems to contradict himself and agree with the line of thinking that I was expounding upon.
James: 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" (which is 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?
Then, my friend Jayavara said the following when addressing my last post: 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.
James: 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 or investigating. 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 in a particular sutra; 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 Buddha's 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 only 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 help 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. I also don't suggest that we should only follow our direct experience and intuition. Of course, faith and trust in our teachers is important as well.
PHOTO CREDIT: Students in the Emory Tibet Science Initiative take turns, looking through a microscope. Emory University.