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  • Jan

How do we know what is true?

A Theosophical View of the Kalama Sutta

The Kesariya Stupa, where the Kalama Sutta was allegedly first given.

There are people dressed in religious robes who tell us they know what is true because they know what God says about it. Yet they can't agree among themselves about what God supposedly said. They can’t even agree on what team God wants to win during World Cup. There are equally as many people dressed in suits and ties, who get up on stages and claim they know “the way” to enrich your life. But they’re more interested in book sales than answering difficult questions.

Others claim that science is the only way to know truth, because scientists don’t generally talk about God and prefer finer instruments to acquire knowledge. But they too are constantly having to revise their statements based on new discoveries. Their work is even further distorted by special interests, vaguely qualified “experts”, and social trends. One week we hear scientific research proves something is good for our health, next we hear it is not. At one time we heard margarine was better than butter. But then we find out the scientists were paid off by a major corporation to distort their findings. If we can't establish certainty on simple items like margarine and butter, how can we be certain of anything?

For those who have lost faith in organized religion and are constantly frustrated by the distortions of scientific research, there is an entire market who claim to hold the solution to happiness. The front table of every bookstore is filled with books promising the answer to true harmony of mind, body and spirit. One month the table features a New York Times bestseller translated into 27 languages. The next month, there is another, this one translated into 28 languages. Blogs and video essays crop up all over the internet, targeted to “help” you.

Crash courses, lifehacks, horoscopes for your cat, New Age gurus, psychological professors of questionable repute; they’re all there, all trying to sell you on their way of life. If the first publication had such an ingenuous, solve-all answer, why the need for the second? Why is there yet another article by the same author on the same subject but phrased slightly differently, or a six hour video essay following the previous four hour one? Why so many books on this topic that they cover the entire table and fill about six bookshelves at the back of the store? How do we tell which, if any of these, is worth the $30.00 sale price?

It's not a new quandary. Over 2500 years ago a group of Indians called the Kalama people confronted a man named Gautama, whose followers were touting as an enlightened sage known as the “Buddha”. The countryside was swarming with wandering preachers, sages, rishis, gurus, pandits, sants, and sadhus -- all of whom had passed through and claimed they knew the “truth”. He was just one more. Why should they trust him? The Kalamas were fed up. One sage says one thing, another contradicts them. How can a person tell who's right? Gautama, seeing the frustration of the Kalamas and thinking it quite worth discussing, gave his answer which we now call the Kalama Sutta.

No Blind Faith

Gautama was a deep-seated deconstructionist. He broke with unthinking acceptance of religious ideas using the same rigour that had impressed so many to leave other ways and come into his community, the Buddhists sangha. To the Kalamas, who were waiting for his discourse, he gave a fairly comprehensive list of who and what not to trust on blind faith:

Gautama, an Indian philosopher who lived around the 5th Century BCE

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain;

uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful.

Come, Kalamas.

Do not go by reports (information, opinions heard from others),

by legends,

by traditions,

by rumours,

by scriptures,

by surmise, conjecture and axioms,

by inference and analogies,

by agreement through pondering views,

by specious reasoning or bias toward a notion because it has been pondered over by an expert, or by the thought, 'This monk is our teacher. When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them.

The First Self-Help Guru

In Gautama’s dissertation to the Kalamas we come across a curious term: skillful means. He doesn't say "follow me and I'll save you" or, "I’ll take care of your problems", or "I speak for a God who can help you.” Rather, he takes an approach we would now ascribe to a self-help guru: how to ask questions.

Being an early existentialist, Gautama was firstly concerned with suffering, or dukka. But he didn’t just mean suffering in general. He pointed to existential angst from the encounter with nothingness. That dull, low feeling that there is no meaning in life. No great reward, no heaven, no God. Nothing. When the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said "God is dead," Gautama had already given the basis to respond. So what? No big deal. We never needed Him anyway. He said there is a way out of this malaise of ours, but it requires skillful means. We can only cope with our existential crisis if we develop our skillful means and the reasoning whereby to functionally apply them.

If we look at the list of instructions Gautama gives to the Kalamas, what can we say is most relevant, first and foremost?

“...by traditions”

Gautama took a dim view of tradition, social or religious. In the Canki Sutta he describes those who follow an old text that has passed down from generation to generation as being like a row of blind men facing backward, each holding on to the one behind. Although tradition might be helpful for a community to maintain a sense of history and belonging, it should be reexamined and reevaluated, so as to adapt to the needs of each successive generation. Some traditions become bad over time. Some were never good. And some are healthy, but all must be examined.

“...by scriptures”

This was particularly radical in Gautama’s time, and remained so in many periods until nearly the 20th century: Don't believe something because it is written in the scriptures of any religion. Neither the Bible, the Torah, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, or even the Buddha’s own canon were to be trusted. Breaking away from the norm of most religious leaders, Gautama was highly critical of even trusting his own teachings.

“...by specious reasoning or bias toward a notion because it has been pondered over by an expert”

In recent years we've seen the rise of the reactionary pundit. They claim that their supposed expertise with a particular topic gives them some authority as to what is “correct” for others. They try to control narratives far outside their expertise, using pseudoscience and aggressive, often bigoted reasoning to attack people they disagree with. They pass themselves off as “experts” because they have an advanced university degree or are regarded highly by a specific interest group, and that often gives them cachet as public speakers, regardless of how outrageous or malicious their claims and motives are.

This self-promoting idea by experts who say that because they are highly competent in one area, we should listen to them about all the big questions of Life is not new. Over a couple of thousand years ago Socrates unmasked this fallacy.

In his famous response to the answer by the Oracle of Delphi that Socrates was the wisest of men, Socrates, true to his principle of doubting everything until it passed the test of reason and experience, set out to question all of the men of Athens reputed for their wisdom, including politicians, poets and artisans— finding that indeed they were highly competent in a certain area, and didn't hesitate to claim competence in philosophy. Yet, on being tested, they had no wisdom.

Socrates was forced to conclude that the Oracle of Delphi was correct. His explanation rivals Mark Twain in wit: “I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

Academic commentators have called this phenomenon of fooling ourselves into believing we are experts in another field apart from our area of competence the "foolishness of the artisans". However, Socrates did not limit his comments to craftsman but to all experts.

“...or by the thought, 'This monk is our teacher.”

Ironically, you may come across interpretations of this sutta with an introduction that warns against interpreting it as an indication of encouraging free inquiry. You must, they say, interpret it in some supposed context that removes it from being a critique of one’s teachers. They might say something to the effect that because the Kalamas were not Buddhists, the instruction was intended for non-believers. Once you become a Buddhist, it's different. Then you should rely on what your teacher says, without criticism.

Gautama was clear however, that this advice applied to everyone, even his own teaching. He said elsewhere:

“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."

Similarly, Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor of England, said it this way in Latin: Nullius in verba -- “Take no one’s word for it.” His direction put scientific inquiry on a more effective track. The British Royal Society, an academy of elite scientists founded in 1660, adopted it for their motto.

To be clear, Gautama did not say to automatically reject everything from the sources he outlined. That would be as unthinking as accepting without question. Rather, his instruction was to think for yourself. Then we have to ask ourselves: How can we be sure we are really thinking for ourselves and not reacting to or against our social conditioning? How do we know we aren’t deluding ourselves with the notion that we know more than we do?

“However, Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘Such and such things are unskillful; faulty; criticized by the wise; and if adopted and carried out lead to harm and ill and suffering,’ you need to abandon them.”

Socrates, a Greek philosopher who lived around the 5th Century BCE

The key to all this is refining one’s own skillful means. To just about anyone, skillful means doing something well. Having competence, being experienced, even being regarded as an artisan may come to mind. How do we know if something aids us in our skillful means? Well, by one of those cosmic coincidences, at nearly this very same time, on the opposite side of the earth, that great doubter Socrates was introducing the Mediterranean to his method of continuous questioning.

Socrates has given us a bit of help in understanding skillful means as a way to investigate life’s perplexing questions. Branded a heretic by many, he shocked his fellow Athenians with the strange idea that happiness did not depend on winning the favour of the gods, but on their own wise and skillful conduct.

“Very well, in the working and the use of woodwork, that which produces the right use is just simply knowledge of carpentry, don’t you think so?”

Socrates pointed out the similarity of producing a good piece of furniture by the right use of tools to achieving happiness in life by the right use of finance, intelligence, and ability, all of which ideally depend on skillful means.

Of course, Socrates isn’t suggesting it’s just so simple as that. If we want to learn woodworking, we can’t expect to have an understanding derived from one sentence. Even brief verbal instruction and a good manual wouldn’t be sufficient. We would have to put what we learned into practice, apprenticing with knowledgeable craftspeople, and trying out the methods for ourselves. In so doing, we would find what worked for for us and what didn’t, and perhaps even discover new solutions, improvements on old ideas.

“Well then let’s have a look at what’s left,” I said. “Since all of us desire to be happy, and since we evidently become so on account of our use—that is our good use—of other things, and since knowledge is what provides this goodness of use and also good fortune, every man must, as seems plausible, prepare himself by every means for this: to be as wise as possible. Right?”

‘Yes,” he said.

Following up on Socrates some thousands of years later, but using the metaphor of motorcycle repair (Harleys were in short supply in ancient Greece), author Robert Persig gave us his take on getting stuck in preconceptions because of what he calls "value traps":

Of the value traps, the most widespread and pernicious is value rigidity. This is an inability to revalue what one sees because of commitment to previous value. In motorcycle maintenance, you must rediscover what you do as you go. Rigid values make this impossible.

How do we know who is wise, then? Can we Google it?

We start by asking questions. We ask people that we encounter -- in person, through our screens, by writing to authors and motivators. Who do we know that seems wise? They may be talented and charismatic, but do they have knowledge? Are they perhaps quite knowledgeable, but lack that most elusive quality of wisdom? Do they have empathy? Credulity? Are they consistent in what they say and how they act?

Gautama, like Socrates, is not giving us an answer, but telling us that we need to ask better questions.

The key to asking better questions and getting better answers is in the approach. When seeking answers about our existential questions, our daily lives, and our own reasoning, it may do us well to imitate the Greek and Buddhist philosophers and think like a woodworker (or, if you prefer, a motorcycle mechanic). What we believe and value should be attained through skillful means, not blind acceptance.

We must go forth, and doubt.

The Seal of Zen Theosophy