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The Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.65) and two common mistakes!
May 7th, 2013
illustration

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

The Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.65) and two common mistakes!
(and a post scriptum on being a teacher without publicised lineage)


"Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon tradition, nor upon rumor, nor upon what is in a scripture, nor upon surmise, nor upon an axiom, nor upon specious reasoning, nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over, nor upon another's seeming ability, nor upon the consideration 'this monk is our teacher.' Kālāmas, when you yourselves know 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them."

Many buddhists, Theravādins or not,  are quick to quote this sutta, but not so much to apply it. There are two classical mistakes associated.


The first mistake, by far the most common, is to consider that one can cherry-pick the teachings of Buddhism, and that there is just one's own individual 'truth'…
A classic example for westerners would be the teachings in relation to rebirth… While "I cannot make sense of it, so let's leave it aside" might seem a sensible approach compliant with the sutta, it actually is an erroneous acceptation of it.

The Pāli Canon counts thousands of suttas. The buddhist teachings clearly state and discuss "right views" and "wrong views". They also clearly address 'ignorance' about impermanence, selflessness, suffering… while refusing to debate about other forms of ignorance (not that there is no truth to be found, but that these are not truths relevant to the cessation of suffering). There is no way the sole kālāma sutta would justify some grand relativism on thousands of suttas, some grand relativism according to which all views would be equally acceptable (as if the dignity of a human being automatically gave dignity to all his/her views, no matter how ignorant).
To pursue the example about rebirth, the right attitude is not "I cannot make sense of it, so let's leave it aside" but it is "I cannot make sense of it, so let's work harder to enquire into it"! The eightfold path expressly includes "right concentration", "right mindfulness" and… "right effort"!


The second mistake quickly arises after the cessation of the first one though! It is to consider that one should attribute some truth value to the Buddhist teachings a priori, and that "not getting it" only requires more effort in order to finally see the truth which "has to be" there…

It requires serious contradiction to interpret "Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon tradition, (…) nor upon what is in a scripture, (…) nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over, nor upon another's seeming ability, nor upon the consideration 'this monk is our teacher.'" as something along the line "buddhist teachings are true (whether you see it already, or not) and unquestionable, out of respect for the Buddha himself, or for anything inspiring and dependent on the Buddhist teachings."


So… what then?

For a start, the kālāma sutta asks you to question whether a particular text that reached us is truly the word of the Buddha [I'll leave out for now whether this should be interpreted as Siddhārtha Gautama, as as any one of the "three bodies" (notably the Dharmakāya )]. Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it's true?

Then the kālāma sutta asks you to make any 'truth' yours, i.e. based on your experience, your perception, your analysis, your enquiry, your silent illumination… It ultimately asks you to take responsibility for 'establishing' the validity of any 'truth' you consider as such.
Sure, your personal enquiry can benefit from conversations with teachers (and anyone / anything can be a 'teacher' to you, if you listen), or from recorded teachings, or from traditional questions and points and stories… but you remain the one 'interpreting' all these, you're the one responsible for this interpretation, for what you make of them.
A good way to know whether you established a 'truth' for yourself, or not, is your capacity, or lack of, to use this 'truth' in a context different from the context in which you acquired the cognition. Obviously, we're talking of another context in which it is nonetheless appropriate to use it!

The sutta rejects the logical fallacies, notably the "appeal to authority" (argumentum ad verecundiam) of a teacher —no matter how venerable, respectable, etc,— and the "appeal to the majority or popular sentiment" (argumentum ad populum) of a particular saṅgha that happens to agree with your unestablished opinion… The other logical fallacies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logical_fallacies) are also rejected under the "specious reasoning", "axiom" and "bias".
Of course, labelling 'fallacy' another opinion than yours is not enough for it to be a fallacy [a huge classic on the social web!]. So the sutta is not asking you to question the views of others and cling to your certainties by calling 'fallacies' all dissenting views; it asks you to take the greatest care in establishing your own views.

Without omniscience, we can never be sure that we had all the necessary elements to establish a particular view though, so a corollary is a willingness not to consider that a view we previously established (with the greatest care we were capable of, there and then) might no longer be established here and now (with new information, a new context, other circumstances and other conditions at play). Beware of the "bias towards a notion that has been pondered over."


In Sŏn (Korean Zen), it is often said "Great Doubt: great awakening. Little Doubt: little awakening. No Doubt: no awakening."

You have to trust any buddhist 'truth' because you discovered it yourself, because you took nothing for granted and still established it! The teachings and the teacher compassionately give you situations to explore, ideas to ponder, experiences to live in order to appropriate these truths, in order for your mind to appropriate the buddha-mind, to identify with the buddha-mind, to become the buddha-mind… but you're the one making the appropriation, no one else.


A classic 'trait' of nirvāṇa is in being 'unconditioned': a path or a teacher can help you lose delusions and ignorant views, but nothing and no one can make you see the truth: regardless of how many delusions have been dispelled, it is always possible to erect new barriers, new veils, new mirages. There is no warrantee from anything or anyone that you will see, which is why nirvāṇa is unconditioned. You're the one responsible for realising nirvāṇa: a teacher might open the door (i.e. remove the barrier, provide a raft) but you're the one crossing the threshold (cutting through, reaching the other shore). When the teacher crosses, (s)he is the one crossing, not you! Only you can cross for yourself.

If your teacher could carry your mind, it would be a different situation, but… "Show me your mind and I will pacify it" as Bodhidharma would ask Huike!

––––

So… do you cling to the idea that particular masters are intrinsically better than others (regardless of the conditions and circumstances of different students, regardless of what you need to learn from where you're at, now)? That some schools are inherently better than others? That some lineages provide warrantees because there is an accompanying certificate (regardless of the fact most certificates were fake in China at some point and no one can establish any lineage to be authentic; regardless of the number of scandals which recently rocked various buddhist traditions despite the teachers being certified and members of prestigious and 'selective' associations of teachers)?

Dōgen Zenji came back to Japan "empty handed" from China (http://www.tricycle.com/GreenKoan50). There is nothing transmitted by the mind-to-mind transmission. Do you think some certificate of Awakening is the answer to Línjì Yìxuán 's call to the "true person of no rank"?

When challenged by Māra, Siddhārtha Gautama took the Earth as witness (http://bhikkhuni.net/present/2012compilation/earthday-earthwitness.pdf). A possible interpretation is that 'reality' is the measure of attainment, not any 'reference' one might provide. Stay grounded! Regardless of any past attainment, one cannot rest on its laurels: the actuality of a wholesome life is here (and now). Any past attainment was the beginning of a new, wiser way of life, rather than some 'arrival' to a destination (http://gplus.wallez.name/eVFH1vmfz3g).

The ultimate teacher is 'life' itself, and your experience of it, not the Buddha or anyone else. Of course, the narratives and teachings of the Buddha are a part of your experience. The narratives and teachings and encouragements of current teachers are a part of your experience. Hopefully, they are nurturing parts; but the ultimate teacher is your 'experiencing', your attention (http://gplus.wallez.name/4ZErtpLxZC2), your awareness… no one else, nothing else: you have buddha-nature!



#Buddhism   #Dharma   #buddhistcircle  
(complete sutta, with links to supportive essays, at
 http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html)
(photo: © Wonderlane, 2008.
 http://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderlane/2698841837/ )
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Post Scriptum on being a teacher and priest without publicised lineage:

In my view, to tell anyone to let go of their certainties and pay attention to life is not best achieved by them developing a certainty that what I say is 'authoritative'. So I chose not to disclose my lineages or my teachers.
Most of you observed that I mostly quote from Theravāda, Sōtō, Rinzai, Sŏn and Gelug-pa traditions; most of you know that I meditate, I go on retreats led by others, I travelled, and I can use the internet to its full potential; most of you know that I'm academically studying to broaden my horizon to even more schools. And I think that's enough…
I actually would not see positively a situation where 2500+ followers accept what I write as 'authoritative'; I'd much rather create 'doubt' and support enquiry. My role is then to provide material for reflection and for questioning, "food for thought", not so much answers. I try my best to provide good food, but you're the ones digesting and I'm not able to track the allergies of so many people. I think most of you understood this, a long time ago! I'm not here to tell you what to do, or what to think, or what this-or-that 'should' be! When I am 'assertive', it is in the hope to move from one question to another, not to "close the debate" (of life)!

Regularly, some people think or claim that they know how a scholar, a teacher or a priest (or any other label you might think of) should behave or should be 'certified' / 'confirmed'.
If you believe them and have the desire, just follow them; you're a grown-up, it's your call!
If yourself think this way, there's little use in attempting to corner me with labels, I won't answer about lineages and papers just because you think you or anyone else are 'entitled' to know; you're not, and no one is forcing you to follow my contributions.
From my perspective, "if someone tells you there is only one path to nirvāṇa (whatever the proposed path might be), reject the idea" (http://gplus.wallez.name/AMTiDhCZeAa)!

As a teacher, I pick my pedagogical means, and 'uncertainty' is one of them for the time being. There are enough teachers providing certainties and certificates out there, including from the very same lineages as mine! I don't criticise these other teachers, they and I simply cater to people with different circumstances and appetites; such diversity is nothing new (http://gplus.wallez.name/h9c4AL1pdzs and http://gplus.wallez.name/7c84JanktA2): "dharma gates are innumerable".

I too came back "empty handed" from my own trainings. This keeps me grounded: no past understanding, certified or confirmed, is carried identical to the present… 'Impermanence' is not just a nice word that one can safely ignore!

I make no claim of being 'Enlightened'; I simply strive to follow
the bodhisattva path (http://gplus.wallez.name/Asnsd7UxggZ),
in practical / mundane terms (http://gplus.wallez.name/BFDc6d6skGG),
in this very world (http://gplus.wallez.name/MjQy8tbttWW).

I just practice; I cultivate, I share, I teach, I bear witness, I care…
This is all I offer to you; no warranty whatsoever on the tin, but I'd be glad if we shared our journey for a while!

––––
For those interested, I had written a post, called the "teaching stone", which still is appropriate for all followers and students, including myself:
 http://gplus.wallez.name/K6NZcWtzScK