One curious phenomenon in the Buddhist world is that many Buddhists seem to have extreme attachment to scripture. This is so despite the fact that Buddha himself referred to his own teachings as a raft and remarked that no one would carry the raft around after crossing over.
Buddhism is unique compared to the other world religions in many ways. One of its unique features is its teaching against attachment to doctrines. The Pali word for attachment is tanha, meaning “thirst” and “craving.” Walpola Rahula, in his book, What the Buddha Taught, informs us that there are many types of attachment. It is not restricted only to sensual pleasure. There is a clear Buddhist understanding that all forms of attachment lead to suffering, regardless of what kind.
Here the term ‘thirst’ includes not only desire for, and attachment to, sense-pleasures, wealth and power, but also desire for, and attachment to, idea and ideals, views, opinions, theories, conceptions and beliefs (dhamma-taṇhā). According to the Buddha’s analysis, all the troubles and strife in the world, from little personal quarrels in families to great wars between nations and countries, arise out of this selfish ‘thirst’. … As the Buddha told Raṭṭapāla: ‘The world lacks and hankers, and is enslaved to “thirst” (taṇhādāso).’
True, Buddhists are not one of the “peoples of the Book.” But still there is a fair amount of attachment to scripture, doctrines and specific schools of thought among Buddhists. There is also a sense of exclusivity — stubborn attachment to what the Buddha taught and rejection of what other spiritual teachers taught. This is a big irony, due to the Buddhist notion of “following the truth and not the speaker.” These are all examples of attachment to dharma. Not only are many Buddhists attached to the old, they also fail to integrate new insights and findings into their spiritual practice. Buddha taught roughly 2500 years ago. Since then human society has changed vastly and our lifestyle, customs, economy, culture and knowledge base have all undergone sea changes. In the meantime, there are new teachers, new pedagogy, new understanding and new ways of knowing. The rise of modern science, in particular, opens up the door for the pursuit of truth. Are we going to say that all we humans need to know in terms of truth has already been discovered by Buddha and there are no new insights and new knowledge since 2500 years ago? Just stop for a moment and let this sink in. How ludicrous is this position!
In the famous Kalama Sutta, Buddha cautioned us against blindly accepting what is handed down by way of tradition as true. He also cautioned us against blindly accepting the authority of the religious texts, no matter how revered they are. His position is that the student has to independently verify everything that is heard, taught or accepted by society. Of course, the appeal to authority is a common human problem. But it is a well-established logical fallacy. We see the same problem in our Christian brothers and sisters. In fact, Christians had a head start in their struggle with scriptures. Historical criticism, also known as Higher Criticism, which deals with the critical evaluation of sacred texts, started in the West as early as the 17th century. Christians are still struggling with it and fundamentalism has a stronghold in Christianity. Perhaps Buddhists can learn from their struggle.
The attachment to the “holy books” and traditional beliefs is a common human condition. Luckily for Buddhists, there is a set of “best practices” set up in the Kalama Sutta, which also serves as a kind of “constitution” which protects individual free inquiry. Let us use the principles in this sutta to think critically about the old and consider integrating the new.