The Kalama Sutta – Faith and doubt

The Pāḷi word of the day is saddhā, which means faith or conviction. In a Buddhist context, I’ve seen it described as “confidence.”

I read a book once — it was either What the Buddha Taught, by Ven. Walpola Rahula, or The Buddha & His Teachings, by Ven. Nārada Mahāthera — where it said that, where there is doubt, there can be no spiritual progress. This stuck with me because I have an unfortunate habit of doubting EVERYTHING — myself, my experiences, my motivations, my beliefs & practices — and I know firsthand what a hindrance it can be, not just to spiritual progress but to ANY kind of progress. It really does interfere with everything.

It’s funny how fragile the human psyche can be. At the time that I was reading that book, I was in the midst of a crisis of faith. An extremely toxic relationship with a sadly misinformed and insensitive person had completely shaken my confidence in the Buddha-Dhamma, and despite all of the positive experiences I had had with Buddhism — including the chance to participate in a beautiful and deeply moving ceremony at my vihara — I wasn’t able to get back on track for almost a year. I knew that meditation was good for me; I knew that going to the vihara would feel good, would give me a sense of comfort and make me feel less alone; but I was just too scared to recommit. “What if I’m wrong?” I thought, “And if I’m wrong, what’s going to happen to me?” What I was lacking was saddhā — confidence in the Buddha and His teachings.

But it’s funny how the universe will sometimes to give you what you need at exactly the right moment.

Maybe a week ago, I had plans to visit Bhante Sumana at the vihara with my friend Allen…only I was planning on canceling. My car’s muffler needed replacing, and I didn’t want to make the forty-minute drive over before having it taken care of; I was exhausted, and lacking the energy to do just about anything except sit in front of the TV; and besides all that, I was still a little gun-shy about even setting foot in the place. Fortunately for me, Allen is a VERY persistent person, as you can clearly see in the following texts

Me : “How would you get home by 4:00?”

Al: “We could be there for like 30 minutes. That’s not too bad.”

Me: “I’m going to wait on going over there until my car is fixed. That sound is getting worse.”

Al: “I could take you.”

All attempts at bailing having been thoroughly thwarted, I finally agreed to go…and it turned out to be the best thing I’d done in weeks.

When we got there, Bhante Sumana was clearly busy with some work around the vihara. All the same, he agreed to answer our questions after he finished what he was in the middle of, asking us to wait in the meditation hall in the meantime. I don’t know what I had expected, but the smell of incense in the air and the feel of the bamboo mats beneath my feet had a soothing effect on me. Out of respect I did the five-point prostration facing the image of the Buddha, picked a cushion out of the pile, and sat down.

It didn’t take long for Bhante Sumana to come and get us. We came out and sat on the couch across from him, and I sat quietly and listened while he answered some of Allen’s questions. Afterwards, Allen went to meditate while I talked to the bhante in private. I didn’t give him all the details of what I had recently gone through, but I told him how living in a Christian culture makes it difficult for me to stay the course. I wanted to know how he managed, as a Sri Lankan Buddhist transplant, to stand firm in such a different culture. This was his response:

‘Everything that I do, everything that I practice, is from my heart.When people say, “You have to believe this, you have to practice this,” I just listen, because I know what is good for me. You are very smart, you can see things clearly. If I take you outside and I point to the moon, and I say, ‘That is the moon,” you know that it is the moon. So if someone comes and says, “No no, that is the sun,” you will just listen, because you know that they are crazy!’

I was immediately reminded of a Pāḷi term used to describe the Buddha’s teachings: ehipassiko, which means, “come and see.” Buddhism is something that invites you, not to believe in it, but to know it through direct experience. I asked him if he thought I just needed to practice a little until I could see some part of the Dhamma for myself, to know it through experience. He said yes.

I was doing some reading on the life of the Buddha yesterday as a means of dipping my toes in the water, and I chanced upon a quotation from the Kalama Sutta, in which an ancient Indian community finds itself in a situation very similar to mine:

The Kalamas who were inhabitants of Kesaputta sitting on one side said to the Blessed One: “There are some monks and brahmans, venerable sir, who visit Kesaputta. They expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces. Some other monks and brahmans too, venerable sir, come to Kesaputta. They also expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces. Venerable sir, there is doubt, there is uncertainty in us concerning them. Which of these reverend monks and brahmans spoke the truth and which falsehood?”

This is exactly how I was feeling. Every day you hear preachers from all kinds of faiths and denominations extolling the virtues of their own religions and disparaging others. None of them agree, and all of them claim to be exclusively correct. When the stakes are so high, what is a sincere, spiritually open person to do? It’s enough to paralyze you. I know it paralyzed me. The Buddha understood their confusion, and gave them this simple answer:

Come Kalamas. 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, “The monk is our teacher.” Kalamas, 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.

It really is that simple. Religion isn’t about being right or wrong; it’s about being sincere. It’s about following whatever path allows you to be a better person. To borrow a Christian phrase that I particularly like — it’s about walking in love. You’ll know a tree by it’s fruit, right? And when the fruit is this wonderful, how can I resist?

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One thought on “The Kalama Sutta – Faith and doubt

  1. Preach it. Perfect conclusion, btw. “…how can I resist?” Lol, I love irony. Reminds me of the time when I was at the vihara and I made a joke and didn’t realize how funny it was until I got home. “Well in Judaism and Christianity, it says Adam and Eve took the apple from the tree of knowledge and so we knew sin and so we didn’t have to pray to G-d all the time. ‘Thank G-d’ for that, because I don’t want to pray all day.” It’s funny because I habitually said ‘thank G-d’ and didn’t realize until I got home. Lol. Bhante Chandananda was “geekin’,” as the children say (laughing).

    On that note, a quick pick-up line for them beautiful Buddhist women out there:
    “Girl, you so beautiful that if you were one of Mara’s daughters, the Buddha wouldn’t have reached enlightenment.”

    Fresh as a lotus. I know.

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