Dogma, the Kalama Sutta, and a Bad Book Review

Buddha teaching the first five disciples

Over the Christmas break a book review appeared on that amused me. It was a review of mine and Satya’s book Just As You Are: Buddhism for Foolish BeingsIt was a three star review, which I thought that was pretty generous, considering what the reviewer had to say…

I’m not sure I could read this book though I’m making an assessment from one sentence. “… he created community based on rituals, precepts, and dogma.” The Buddha was so against dogma that he gave a teaching called the Kalama Sutra, in which he said to question even what he had to say.

I think that might be from the introduction, or perhaps it’s from the chapter I wrote called Buddhism is a Religion, in which I quote David L. Mcmahan. Mcmahan deliberately uses the word dogma about Buddhism, in contrast to Anagarika Dharmapala who in the 1893 World’s Fair, described Buddhism as ‘free from theology, priestcraft, rituals, ceremonies, dogmas, heavens, hells and other theological shibboleths.’

David L. McMahan comments that ‘even a cursory knowledge of Sinhalese Buddhism on the ground belies Dharmapala’s characterization of Buddhism as free from ritual, priests, ceremonies, heavens and hells; yet this sentiment is often repeated by early apologists and its echo continues today.’[1]

Why did Dharmapala describe Buddhism in that way? To appeal to rational westerners and garner their support for Buddhism in Celyon, which he felt was becoming threatened by Christian missionaries.

That’s an aside really. The reason for writing this post was to give me an excuse to go back and re-read the Kalama Sutta. I know from past readings that it doesn’t really suggest cherry picking the bits of Buddhism you like, and leaving the rest (as it’s often used by westerners), but I wanted to see what it really says.

When I looked it up on the Access to Insight, there was a translators note that I hadn’t seen before. The translator, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, has obviously had some experience of the Kalama Sutta being misused. He writes:

Although this discourse is often cited as the Buddha’s carte blanche for following one’s own sense of right and wrong, it actually says something much more rigorous than that. Traditions are not to be followed simply because they are traditions. Reports (such as historical accounts or news) are not to be followed simply because the source seems reliable. One’s own preferences are not to be followed simply because they seem logical or resonate with one’s feelings. Instead, any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one’s understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise.

We can’t trust our own initial judgement. Our egos will tend to direct us towards practices that support our selfishness, rather than challenge them, and to teachings and ideas which support existing identities.

Just because we can’t trust ourselves doesn’t mean we should hand our spiritual development over to someone else, wholesale, that’s what the Sutta is advising against. Put the practice into practise and see what the results are, and then get someone you trust, someone a little further along the path, to act as a sounding board. The ego can subvert measuring results as much as it can picking out suitable teachings.

It’s also worth remembering that even a casual reading of the Pali Cannon will reveal the Buddha setting up ideals, recommending particular teachings, dismantling other popular philosophies of the time and saying ‘This is how it is’.

This is why we have Buddhism today. Because the Buddha gave direction, created a system of ethics and a way of living in community based on principles that he saw were undeniably true.

This is what dogma is after all, a true statement. And if you can’t believe the Buddha, who can you believe?

Okay – I’m writing that tongue in cheek. The Buddha got things wrong too, sometimes. Nevertheless if you don’t hold anything as true, you won’t get very far.

[1] McMahan, David L Modernity and the Discourse of Scientific Buddhism, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 72, no. 4 (2004): 897-933

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