One of the reasons I am a Buddhist, is in how the DL answers the first question about science and Buddhism. He is asked, "What if science confirms something that contradicts your faith?"
James: How many belief systems out there are willing to adapt when new scientific proof contradicts their teachings? Not many. The Dalai Lama's sane and realistic response echoes one of my favorite sutras, the Kalama Sutra. It also happens to be a large chunk of the foundation of my Buddhist belief. In short, it is a sutra that echoes the scientific method of testing and observation. It is the Buddha talking about doubt, but not in the pejorative way that some religions do. He was asked by villagers in an Indian town, how do we know which teachers to believe? He told them not to believe teachers simply because they are teachers, or traditions simply because they are long held ones, nor from sutras simply because they are said to be beneficial. At the same time, we shouldn't trust either our own preferences because they are almost always based on wrong perceptions of what is helpful and less helpful.
So, how does he advise us to know if we should practice Dharma? After hearing or reading about the Dharma, he advises that we put the teachings into practice for a time and contemplate on how they affect our lives. I feel this is best explained in the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta:
Whenever you want to do a bodily action, you should reflect on it: 'This bodily action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction... it would be a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do. -From the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone. Translated by Thanissaro BhikkhuThis same sutta instructs us further on the matter and I encourage you to read its entirety; it's not that long, really, I promise). However, since we can't always rely upon our mind and practice to interpret actions as either skillful or unskillful, we should check the conclusions we reached from contemplation against the experiences of wise ones. How do you know if said, "wise ones" are indeed, wise and trustworthy? Well, try investigating the Cula-punnama Sutta for answers, which says:
And how is a person of no integrity endowed with qualities of no integrity? There is the case where a person of no integrity is lacking in conviction, lacking in conscience, lacking in concern [for the results of unskillful actions]; he is unlearned, lazy, of muddled mindfulness, & poor discernment. This is how a person of no integrity is endowed with qualities of no integrity. -From the Cula-punnama Sutta: The Shorter Discourse on the Full-moon Night. Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.Keep in mind, however, that the Kalama Sutta isn't Buddha saying to go out and do whatever you want because the "Buddha said I didn't have to listen to anyone." That is not what he is saying. This sutta doesn't replace doctrines like the Four Noble Truths, the Three Jewels and the Eightfold Path, but it does give us a realistic blueprint for how to practice spirituality without being duped by charlatans and zealots.
***By the way, "wise ones" aren't automatically Buddhist teachers or spiritual teachers, at all. The Cula-punnama Sutta goes on further to speak of other qualities of a wise person you can trust. It is quite exhaustive with examples, so if you want further details, I encourage reading the entire sutta. It's another short one, so please don't be daunted by the fact that these are ancient suttas. They are extremely understandable and approachable thanks to the tireless efforts of the great Theravada monk Thanissaro Bikkhu. All the quotes I've used in this post come from his greatly appreciated translations. I am also grateful to the Shambhala SunSpace who posted this video on their excellent blog. Thanks for the idea!!