Then the Buddha gave them this advice, unique in the history of religions:
"Yes, Kalamas, 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 Kalamas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, not 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 Kalamas, 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 (kusald) and good, then accept them and follow them."
The Kalamas voiced their doubts, their perplexity in determining truth or falsehood, because they had been exposed to all the competing teachers and doctrines at the time, and each expounded different notions of the truth. Not unlike our modern world today. The Buddha replied and provided them a Buddhist methodology for searching after truth. What should you use when you inquire after truth in the Buddhist perspective? He said, "Do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Don't be led by the authority even of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances"— this would eliminate exclusive reliance on simply conforming to culture and tradition, as well as "the book," and most philosophical speculation— "nor by delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities."
Some might argue that being "led by appearances" would include our scientific method, at least as it has come to be popularly understood— i.e. in its exaggerated reliance on natural phenomena as the only basis of what is true or real, and the equally exaggerated claim that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind of knowledge ('scientism,' and 'positivism.') The Buddha even discounts blind faith in one's teacher. "So, what's left?" you might wonder. Here the Buddha lays out a subtle and quite unique epistemology: "O Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome and wrong and bad, then give them up. And when you know that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them."
Many people, both recently and at the turn-of-the-century, jumped at this passage as confirmation that ancient Buddhist wisdom is validated by modern science. In the 1890's, Anagarika Dharmapala, D. T. Suzuki, Paul Cams, even Vedantists like Vivekananda, generally waxed enthusiastic about the compatibility of Eastern spirituality and Western science. They saw in passages like the
Kalama Sutta proof positive that the Buddha was imbued with the scientific outlook. "Well, look at this," they said. "This is eminently scientific. Buddhism is just the scientific mind of skeptical inquiry. Know it for yourself; conduct experiments, and confirm them through 'intersubjective testability.' I do it; you do it. Anyone can do it and obtain the same results. Good, we know for ourselves; there is no speculation involved; we know something is true not because 'My teacher said,' or even 'Einstein said'— all of this is contained within an eminently empirical model."
I, too, accepted this interpretation for a while. Naturally, one finds it quite attractive, since science virtually is our "god," our highest authority, these days. It is quite enticing to think that Buddhism and science are identical; but also misleading. As I continued my research, I came upon some contemporary Buddhist teachers who were critical of equating the Buddha's teachings with modern science. Master Hsuan Hua, from the Mahayana tradition, and Wapola Rahula, a Theravada scholar-monk, for example, both threw cold water on this notion. Master Hua said, "Within the limited world of the relative, that is where science is. It's not an absolute Dharma. Science absolutely cannot bring true and ultimate happiness to people, neither spiritually nor materially." Strong criticism that places science as a discipline stuck in relative truths, and as a way of life, unsatisfactory. In another essay, he wrote:
"Look at modern science. Military weapons are modernized every day and more and more novel every month. Although we call this progress, it's nothing more than progressive cruelty. Science takes human life as an experiment, as child's play, as it fulfills its desires through force and oppression."
Such outspoken criticism goes to the heart of our infatuation with the "miracles" of science. At best, our love affair with modern science and technology has proved bittersweet. For every gain, comes a corresponding loss; every "cure" seems to mask or unleash manifold other disasters. For example, DDT or PCB's, once heralded as wonder chemicals, turned out to be ecological and medical disasters. And new potential nightmares lie hidden beneath the rosy promises of genetically-engineered life.
To be continued