illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
Such a guidance has been brought to my attention recently, and it is relatively frequent in Buddhism, but it also has a strong potential for being misunderstood, so I propose to explore a few facets of it. Food for thought!
The context in which such a guidance is given is usually in relation to teachers. So a facet is your own teacher telling you « Don't trust your teacher »!
This might seem contradictory, but at the same time this is no more contradictory than the classical kalama sutta (gplus.wallez.name/PUQ2AeReGEM). It does not mean « blindly ignore everything your teacher says », it means « enquire into what is said, convince yourself by testing what is said and by valid cognition, not by logical fallacies (such as the appeal to the status of your teacher). »
One has to remember that the Dharma itself is 'faulty', it is a useful raft but not a magic wand (the raft itself cannot even guarantee that you'll attain nirvāṇa, which is unconditioned, not even conditioned by a particular path to realise it!). The Dharma isn't anything inherent and permanent that can be grasped, can be clung to, proves 'satisfactory'.
The Dharma itself is conditioned, subject to being distorted, subject to disappearing even! For starters, the Dharma is a response to our ignorance: it is conditioned by our ignorance! If our key ignorance were different, the Dharma to liberate us from it would be different too. As such, the Dharma is within samsara, and so are teachers.
Once this is understood, then the Dharma and the teachers may well prove useful, constructive, wholesome but it would be erroneous to project (mental fabrication) that they're "reliable", not dukkha, that they're outside 'our' saṃsāra. For example, no matter the qualities of a teacher, a student might well be disappointed, simply because the student has ignorant expectations that are not met (cf. Sunakkhatta's complaint in DN 24 —suttacentral.net/en/dn24). If we're in saṃsāra by our ignorance, unfortunately this ignorance will even taint what we receive from teachers, bias our perception of it, make even the greatest gift potentially unpleasant (e.g. because it challenges the ego to which we still cling)!
So what's the key difficulty with trusting a teacher then? It massively increases the height of expectations, that the teacher should never be wrong, should always be nice, etc. It goes with many ignorant projections (gplus.wallez.name/TQnGGrq3wSb), in our delusional attempt to find something 'secure' and 'reliable' in the midst of saṃsāra (a delusional attempt to find permanency in a conditioned phenomenon, a delusional attempt to cling to what's wholesome). And when expectations are heightened, the fall will be greater, which in turn might lead to misguided responses, e.g. running away to find another teacher (some idealised version, who would prove 'reliable'), therefore constantly chasing an impossibility instead of facing one's own spiritual work to do here and now…
So, constructively, a teacher has to instruct "don't trust me"! The post scriptum to my post on the kalama sutta (mentioned above) is my personal version of such an instruction: I take away the usual fallacies on which students would rely to build some delusional trust: I put the focus back on the message, not my past, not 'who I am', not my preferences.
It should be relatively clear, however, that living in constant paranoia wouldn't embody an "awakened life"… so "do not trust anyone" should be interpreted as going to some middle way, some equanimous response, not toward another extreme ("mistrust everyone").
This second facet echoes the first facet we've just seen: "do not trust" means "keep your eyes open", "keep engaging", "don't take qualities for granted"; it does not mean "be paranoid". Going paranoid would increase a sense of separation, a sense of self, it would be counter-productive.
One of the antidotes to this "going paranoid" interpretation is simply to take the instruction literally: « trust no one, not even yourself! » which we could see as the third facet of this guidance.
The guidance is not saying "don't trust anyone except yourself", it's not saying "only you know what's good for you"… In this sense, it very much challenges your resistance / aversion to trusting others! In this sense, it tells you not to trust 'your' first impressions, 'your' reactions… 'you'! This 'you' is ignorant, biased, prejudiced, perpetuating saṃsāra; remember? So don't trust your own ignorance any more than you'd trust the ignorance of someone else! You have decisions to take, but try not to trust 'your' biases just because they're 'yours' when taking decisions! Try to attain valid cognition: keep looking, pay attention, notice causal patterns!
"Freedom from lust, aversion and ignorance", remember? The point of "don't trust anyone" is not to cultivate aversion! It's an antidote to the lust for the 'perfect' teacher, the 'perfect' partner, the 'perfect' self even! But it's not a seed to cultivate aversion!
Another of the antidotes to this "going paranoid" interpretation is simply to rephrase the instruction in larger samsaric terms (similar to shifting the focus from the selflessness of persons to the emptiness of all dhammas): « trust nothing and noone » which reduces the feeling of 'personalising' the guidance. Trust nothing: keep looking! Don't assume you know! Instead, attend to reality as it is, be mindful of how things unfold, of how your views change, of how your perceptions introduce biases based on appropriating some past events as general rules for life, etc.!
One of the first three fetters (out of the "ten fetters") is doubt though. And abandoning doubt (what some translate as 'faith' or 'trust' in the Dharma) is seen as a necessary step for "stream-entry". How is this coherent with the above?
The kalama sutta points to the sort of 'faith', of 'trust', that is appropriate: it's not any form of 'trust'! The appropriate trust is based on gradually 'seeing things as they are', on valid cognition; the appropriate trust is not based on who the teacher is, not based on who you are ("I've done this and that, therefore I'm right"), not based on logical fallacies attached to 'persons' (assumed to hold permanent, inherent qualities)! Abandoning doubt is abandoning the pointless search for a 'perfect' answer! And, importantly, this does not imply "convincing yourself that you've found such a 'perfect' answer!"
Dropping doubt is an engagement into practising, being generous (in very real, practical terms… notably monetary terms), being kind and compassionate, observing one's mind and dropping views… and stopping the « Maybe there's even better than the Dharma? What about tantra? What about secular mindfulness without rebirth? What about this? What about that? » It's the cessation of aversion toward a 'faulty' path!
The cessation of trust isn't a fall into paranoid mistrust, and the cessation of doubt isn't some blind trust into an idealised version of what's at hand: it's 'just' (no more but no less!) an engagement to produce "right effort" without delaying further, without postponing (gplus.wallez.name/Gnbsbi5Bmgy, gplus.wallez.name/TT3LJxKmz6e).
Finally, when you group all the above facets together, "dont' trust anyone" is a call for you to take responsibility: when you decide to follow what a teacher says, it's your choice, don't pretend the responsibility only lies with the teacher! It partly does, for creating specific conditions, but not fully, as you still play a role in how you relate to these conditions! You cannot use 'trust' as an excuse to be stupid / blind / biased / negligent, nor can you use 'mistrust' (of others, or 'trust solely in oneself') as an excuse to cling to a samsaric status quo, to postpone "opening up" to others, to postpone weakening the barriers of selfhood (e.g. by fear of getting hurt).
Don't trust: reflect on how to best do something, why to do something, be wise and clever and appropriate, but engage nonetheless!
Your awakening is your responsibility. Sometimes, it requires to trust another, rather than your imperfect self… Sometimes, it requires to trust yourself, rather than an imperfect other… You have to look, to make choices, neither lusting for a perfect answer, nor avoiding the work (by postponing engagement until some ideal would be met). "Don't trust anything/anyone" is a call for you to stop blaming other people/things when the situation doesn't unfold the way you hoped it would, when reality doesn't comply with your wishes (for fast and easy awakening under the guidance of a perfect teacher, or for profound awakening by personal experience without guidance, or… or… or…).
Sometimes, you need a leap of faith to progress, you need to jump into the unknown (therefore, by construction, in spite of having nothing —known— to trust), but… you're still responsible for taking the jump, for discerning what/who you put your faith into, for discerning when such a faith is appropriate and when it's not, for establishing the faith in the first place. "How do you justify such a faith?" might prove a useful question. "Why do you do this?" might prove a useful question (and sometimes "why not?" is enough as an answer: it makes the arbitrariness and associated responsibility clear).
"Don't trust anything" is useful to help us reconnect with a profound fact: that we don't need to have all the information, to be 'certain', before we act. We do our best, and we iterate, that's the key.
The trust necessary to act, if any, is in what we learn from meditation: that when we become aware of having drifted, we can recenter on our intention (e.g. to monitor the breath) and try again! We act, and if the causal unfolding drifts from the outcomes we expected, we reconnect with our intention and we iterate: we try again, from the present, updated "starting point". We trust in our ability to re-engage each time we become aware of having drifted. We don't need perfection, we don't need omniscience, if we trust we can iterate and adjust along the way. For example, we can start embodying generosity, kindness or compassion long before having a perfect idea on 'how' to perfectly do so. If we missed something, we'll just try again, we'll learn and adjust through the ineffable and un-anticipatable variety of circumstances that could present themselves! The practice is in the doing, not in trusting we have the perfect answer, the perfect Dharma, the perfect teacher… A buddha is indistinguishable from his/her "acting as a buddha".
image: a gilt-bronze figure of Amitayus (in who you should trust ;-) )