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Monday, September 27, 2010

In Defense of the Kalama Sutra.

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.

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.

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.

~Peace to all beings~

PHOTO CREDIT: Students in the Emory Tibet Science Initiative take turns, looking through a microscope. Emory University.

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Adam said...

Personally I like Thanissaro Bikkhu's commentary on this sutta, especially when he says:

"any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one's understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise. The ability to question and test one's beliefs in an appropriate way is called appropriate attention. The ability to recognize and choose wise people as mentors is called having admirable friends. "

That it isn't just about figuring it out for yourself, but to apply a system of investigation (which includes the use of a teacher or to regard the words of a wise person) when you come acrossed a teaching - any teaching. I think too often people see this sutta as a free pass to simply disregard teachings that don't make sense upon first glance or agree with their common sense or previous experiences. We must remember that "common sense" is usually grounded in our delusional self (5 aggregates and such)and has little bearing on teachings that point toward enlightenment and unbinding.

Just my 2 cents....

They call him James Ure said...

@Adam. I like that version too. I definitely think we shouldn't rely upon our own thinking alone because as you said it's not completely reliable. I agree that we need to balance it out with taking refuge in a wise teacher. They go hand in hand. They both aid the other; and ultimately the student.

I also agree that this sutra should not be used by people to simply do whatever they desire. That's not the point of the sutra nor what I am suggesting with my analysis. Thanks for adding to the conversation Adam. You mention a key point in that free inquiry must be balance with faith/trust in a teacher.

Mumon said...

It's not just the Kalama sutra - there's also the Mahaparinirvana sutra.

star said...

Hello James. I had a friend point out your post on the Kalama Sutta after I had written a series of three posts on the same sutta myself.
I think I understand that you object to Bhikkhu Bodhi's qualification that this sutta is directed specifically at the Kalamas, because that would, firstly, mean that the Buddha divided people into categories and, secondly, seems to mean he is saying it has no relevance outside the Kalamas.
In my reading of the Pali canon, I don't see the Buddha categorizing people in the sense that he put them in boxes and expected them to stay there; what I do see is that he started his discussion from wherever people are.He spoke to Fire Worshipers in metaphors of fire, he spoke to Brahmins about Brahma and about purity; he talked to believers in acquiring merit in terms of karma. This would not mean that he assumed only Fire Worshipers could understand his metaphor of fire; nor would it mean that Fire Worshipers could not understand anything other than fire; it just means that he spoke to them in their own language, so to speak, in the idioms they were comfortable with, that he felt they could best understand. So while the sutta may have been directed at the Kalamas, that doesn't mean only Kalamas should learn from it.
But it is helpful in understanding what the Buddha's point is in any given talk, to find out who he is talking to, both what the beliefs were that they were raised with, and what their general moral stance seems to be. When he reacts to people who have immoral views -- like the ones who believe that stabbing someone just moves molecules and has no moral effect -- he doesn't talk about the four noble truths and impermanence because that's pretty far from where they are. Instead he attempts to address the errors that are the basis for their positions in the first place, and the consequences of such evil views in the second.
When the Buddha talks to the Kalamas he seems to have judged them to be reasonably moral -- they wouldn't be asking the questions they did if they were not -- but he does not assume (as so many other preachers would) that the answer to their questions is simply to repeat *his* teaching; instead, he answers their actual question: "How do we sort it all out?" and gives them guidelines they can use to assess any moral system. He does toss a few small pointers in to his own teaching and he ends by showing them that if they follow the guidelines he has just given they will be okay whether there is a cosmic system that weighs our morality or not.
Direct experience is a very strong criterion for testing how effective our choices are in the world -- cause and effect being the very basis of the Buddha's insights, we are asked to apply the "scientific method" to our lives as best we can. But experience is so variable and our minds are so flexible that we can't count on that and that alone. This is, I believe, what's really key in the Kalama sutta. It suggests three things: To not accept tenets without testing them (this includes "what the teacher says"); to look keenly at our direct experience for verification; and to make sure we have good people around us as a reality check. Our minds are so good at convincing us we have got it right, that we really need "the wise" to keep us grounded. So while this sutta says, "Don't believe everything you're told" it also says, "But do ask the opinions of the wise" and then "Test against your experience" so that in the end you have a set of checks and balances.

They call him James Ure said...

@Mumon. You're right.

@Star. Well said, and I thank-you for your further insights into this important sutra, which is gaining popularity in the western, Buddhist circles. You said:

"It suggests three things: To not accept tenets without testing them (this includes "what the teacher says"); to look keenly at our direct experience for verification; and to make sure we have good people around us as a reality check. Our minds are so good at convincing us we have got it right, that we really need "the wise" to keep us grounded."

Agreed. I firmly believe that we should check our experience against those of the wise. I wouldn't recommend just using your experience alone--at all. Often I judge things for myself after reading and contemplating upon them. Then I check and see what my teachers (Thich Nhat Hanh, Gudo Nishijima, and others) say about them.

Paul said...

You know, I've contemplated the Kalama Sutra a bit as it is somewhat controversial.
I don't care if people label me for this or say I am not Buddhist because of it but I do believe that Sakyamuni was indeed saying EXACTLY that we should choose our own path. That we should NOT take his word for anything. Look at how he attained enlightenment, he tried several different lifestyles until he settled for the middle way.
BUT...and this is the point...HE found enlightenment that way. The aesthetics with whom he studied found enlightenment in their own way.

Putting it simpler, just because Elizabeth Whats-her-face found her happiness by going to Italy, India, and Bali, that would not be the same for everyone. She traveled to three countries for her realization yet someone may just look at a tree out of the window one morning and be enlightened. If that person had traveled off around the world they would have missed THEIR enlightening moment.

Enlightenment is just a word. What we perceive of being enlightened is what matters to each individual.

Sometimes learning how to do something means walking the wrong path.

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