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Buddhism, Rationalism and Empiricism

The Kalama Challenge

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."

- The Buddha
  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. 

BUT

(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"?

Christian versus Buddhist worldviews

 

- Sean Robsville

 


In religion,

the Sleep of Reason produces monsters.

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