Thursday, 29 October 2009

Buddhism, Rationalism and Empiricism - The Kalama Challenge

The Sleep of Reason brings forth Monsters

The Kalama people of India had many holy men trying to convert them by claiming their own doctrines were correct, and everybody else was wrong.

One day the Buddha turned up, and naturally the Kalamas asked him why they should believe his teachings rather than all the cult leaders, charlatans and false prophets whom they had already grown weary of.

The Buddha replied:

"It is natural that doubt should arise in your minds.

I tell you not to believe merely because it has been handed down by tradition, or because it had been said by some great personage in the past, or because it is commonly believed, or because others have told it to you, or even because I myself have said it.

But whatever you are asked to believe, ask yourself whether it is true in the light of your experience, whether it is in conformity with reason and good principles and whether it is conducive to the highest good and welfare of all beings, and only if it passes this test, should you accept it and act in accordance with it." - Kalama Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya.

So the Buddha is making a statement which is found in no other religion. Unlike all other religious leaders he is not claiming a hotline to God, a personal, non-reproducible revelation which appears to him and no-one else.

He is saying:

(1) Do not believe anything on the basis of religious authority, or 'holy' books, or family/tribal tradition, or even coercion and intimidation by the mob.


(2) Test the methodology against your own experience. Does it do what it says on the box?

(3) Is the philosophy rational? Or does it require you to believe six impossible things before breakfast?

(4) Judge the tree by its fruits. Is it beneficial, or does it tell you to act against your conscience and 'The Golden Rule'.

The Kalama challenge

But the Buddha was also implying something else, which he has perhaps left as a terma ( hidden teaching-challenge) for our own beleaguered civilisation, where scientific rationalism is fighting a rearguard action against the forces of religious fanaticism, irrationalism and barbarism.

Buddha is implying that it is possible to construct much (most? all?) of Buddhist doctrine by the application of reason and empiricism (experiment/experience) which are accessible to everyone, without the need for special revelation.

The empirical aspect consists of physical experiments which were impossible in Buddha's time, as well as introspective thought-experiments and meditational techniques which produce reproducible mental effects when employed by different people.

So that's the challenge. Given our modern understanding of physics, psychology, biology and information science, how much of the Dharma can we derive and reconstruct as a system without resorting to faith or authority - to quote Buddha "even because I myself have said it"?

More at Rational Buddhism 

- Sean Robsville



1 comment:

gruff said...

Hi -

I'm afraid your essay is founded on an error. That quotation from the Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.65) is spurious; it's not what the actual text says. A good modern translation of that section of the sutta is:

"Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering' — then you should abandon them."

Notice that he rejects logical conjecture and inference, and recommends consultation with wise people.

Furthermore the Kālāma Sutta was addressed to villagers, not philosophers or seekers after truth. For the Buddha's advice on how to discover the truth, I highly recommend the Canki Sutta (MN 95)

Note the role of reason and faith in the pursuit of truth in that sutta.