How should we study Buddhism? What kind of mindset should we adopt if we are not religious followers, but want to learn about the timeless wisdom embodied in the Buddha’s teachings?
These are the questions I asked myself when I started a Facebook group, titled What the Buddha Taught. The title is based on a book originally published in 1959 by a prominent Buddhist scholar, Wapola Rahula. It has been used as a standard textbook for a college-level introductory course in Buddhism. While the bulk of the contents is based on the Theravada tradition and the Pali Canon, the book serves to give a succinct overview of what original Buddhism might look like. In particular, I like the book’s philosophical and non-religious approach. It is appropriate for both the religious students and the secularists. I particularly like its first chapter, which introduces the “Buddhist attitude of mind.” In my opinion, this is the best chapter in the book. For it clearly distinguishes Buddha’s founding spirit from the spirit of other religions such as Christianity and Islam — Buddha encouraged critical thinking.
It is for this reason that What the Buddha Taught is a perfect textbook for non-religious people, academics, and secularists. I have been inspired by this book. I have read it over a dozen times. Following Buddha’s founding spirit of free inquiry, my Buddhist study group does not automatically assume that everything in the Buddhist scriptures is authentic or true. This is not warranted for sacred texts which date back to several millennia ago. In addition, Buddha never declared himself to be God or a messenger of God. For this reason, we should not assume that the Buddha knows everything, or that he is always right. As secularists and non-religious people, we can learn about what the Buddha taught (or what is attributed to him) in a quasi-academic manner. I think the best way to study Buddhism is to do it in the way that Bible scholars study Christianity, using a scholarly, rational, and scientific approach. We should not cease to use our intellect and our ability to do critical thinking. We won’t adopt a pious or unquestioning mindset. It was the Buddha himself who advocated the spirit of free inquiry. This spirit of free inquiry is best summarized in the Kalama Sutta, which is a part of the Pali Canon. The Buddha once visited a small town called Kesaputta in the kingdom of Kosala. The inhabitants of this town were known by the common name Kālāma. The townspeople were very confused. They had been exposed to different teachers and gurus. But the different teachers all taught and said different things. The Kalamas asked Buddha who they should follow. This is Buddha’s reply:
‘Yes, Kālāmas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kālāmas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: ‘this is our teacher’. But, O Kālāmas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome (akusala), and wrong, and bad, then give them up … And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome (kusala) and good, then accept them and follow them.’
The Buddha went even further. He told the bhikkhus that a disciple should examine even the Tathāgata (Buddha) himself, so that he (the disciple) might be fully convinced of the true value of the teacher whom he followed. (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught)
In other words, the student ought to have a healthy sense of skepticism. He should not blindly follow any tradition, reports, or hearsay. In the Buddhist world, there are often reports about who has become an arhat, an enlightened one, or a living Buddha. There are also talks about Nirvana, Samsara, and reincarnation. We should not blindly believe in such reports or hearsay if we have not experienced them first-hand. A true follower of Buddha’s founding spirit is a critical thinker. He should not blindly follow the icons of authority either, including the authority of scriptures and the authority of the teaching. Ultimately, the student has to verify things for himself. The student should apply critical thinking even to the master’s words. It is in this context that we can understand the following Zen case, attributed to Master Yün-men :
A monk asked Yün-men, “What is Buddha?” [雲門因僧問如何是佛]
Yün-men said, “Dried shitstick.” [門云乾屎橛]
This means that Buddha should not be idolized or worshipped. He is not necessarily inerrant. And what he said may not be applicable to your particular situation. This is what we mean by saying that Buddhism is not a religion. Christianity is a religion. Islam is a religion. The believer cannot contradict what Jesus or Muhammad said. But Buddha never claimed any special divinity or supernatural power. And Buddha told us not to blindly follow his words. This is the spirit we adopt here.
It is for the same reason that Master Lin Chi said, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”
In the history of Buddhism, the Zen people have often been accused of being “arrogant” or “crazy.” I am a practitioner of Zen. I am often called “arrogant” because I dare to contradict the traditional teachings and apply critical thinking to the “holy cows.” Free inquiry should be the spirit of a Buddhist community also. All students of Buddhism are welcome to debate what Buddha’s message is. If you disagree with something I said, you may state your disagreement respectfully. That is acceptable. Reasonable people can disagree. But they don’t have to violate the principle of Right Speech and be disagreeable.
This is perhaps the most valuable legacy of Buddhism. Buddha is perhaps the first spiritual teacher who refutes the appeal to authority. Appeal to authority is commonly known today as a logical fallacy. It certainly does not belong in a Buddhist study group or any Buddhist community which stays true to Buddha’s founding spirit.