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Lions Roar : January 2014
Before looking further into these teachings in this sutta, I’d like to offer another story. This one is said to have happened in a village in China where people came from far and wide to hear the dharma talks of a highly respected young teacher. One day, an esteemed old master joined the crowd. When the young teacher spotted him, he said, “Please, come up here, sit next to me while I give my talk.” So the old master rose and sat at his side. The young teacher resumed his talk and every other word out of his mouth quoted a sutta or a Zen master. The old teacher started to nod off in front of everyone. Though the young one noticed this out of the corner of his eye, he continued. The more authorities he cited, the sleepier the old master appeared. Finally, the young teacher interrupted himself to ask, “What’s wrong? Is my teaching so bor- ing, so awful, so totally off?” At that point, the old master leaned over and gave him a hard pinch. The young teacher screamed, “Ouch!” The old master said, “Ah! That’s what I’ve traveled this long distance to hear. This pure teaching. This ‘ouch’ teaching.” Like the old master in this Zen story, the Buddha’s response to the Kalamas highlights the primacy of direct experience. The Buddha acknowledges that people rely on multiple types of authority: some internal, some external, some reliable, some way off the mark. He advises them that just because a teaching is ancient, or recited from the scripture, does not make it true. Just because it appears reasonable, or you’re drawn to the person teaching it, does not mean it is wise. Then the question becomes: How do you distinguish authen- tic from false or misguided? Where do you turn for guidance to learn how to live? In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha does not reject reason and logic. He does not say that ancient teachings are irrelevant, or that you have to reinvent the dharma wheel every time you face a choice. No, the Buddha gives the Kalamas—and us—guidelines that are precau- tions, not prohibitions. He cautions us against blind obedience to the authority of traditions and teachers, or to the authority of our own ideas. He also cautions against blind obedience to reason and logic. For students new to meditative living, these warnings can be especially relevant. On first coming to practice, you will find that convictions inspired by teachings, teachers, and community sup- port help motivate and energize you to begin to practice. How- ever, this faith is provisional. Remember, the Buddha tells you to test the teachings and ideas as “working hypotheses” in the laboratory of your actions. There is an “expiration date” when conviction based on external support gives way to conviction grounded in personal experience. At that point, your under- standing is no longer borrowed from others. It is authentic and your own. This happens as you develop the ability to awaken and stabilize mindfulness. Whether you are a new or experienced meditator, when you truly investigate your beliefs and convictions, don’t you find that it challenges and stretches you? This has certainly been my expe- rience. Teachings can inspire you. Just to hear them can satisfy your intellect and nourish your emotions. Even so, remember to ask: Where is this taking me? Does the practice of meditation move me in a direction to act with more kindness and wisdom? Investigate again and again. But don’t stop there. For the dharma to become firsthand knowledge—to feel the “ouch” of it—you have to live intimately with it, hold it up to scru- tiny, and let it hold you up to scrutiny. “Be a lamp unto yourself,” says the Buddha. Your questions light the way. This is the heart of the Kalama Sutta. Ultimately, your ideas of the truth must be put to the test of lived experience. Throughout his teachings, the Buddha offers a simple formula that guides us in this direction: examine everything in terms of cause and effect. Whatever is unskillful, leading to harm or suffering for you and others, should be recognized and abandoned. Whatever is skill- ful, leading to happiness and peace for you and others, should be pursued. Remember, early in his life as a teacher, the Buddha said, “I teach one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.” And he gave us a set of practices that emphasizes learning how to live and how to lessen suffering, called the four noble truths: there is suffering; there is a cause of suffering, which is craving and attachment; there is cessation of suffering; and there is a path of practice that brings about this cessation. The four noble truths are my unfailing compass for every form of life, whether teaching in a meditation hall or encounter- ing a stranger on the street. For thousands of years, they have been shared by every school of Buddhism and guided countless yogis. The four noble truths offer the vehicle to learn the skills to diminish suffering in the world, even to free yourself from suffering. The first noble truth, there is suffering, describes an unskillful outcome: the emergence and recognition of suffering. The second noble truth, craving and attachment, is the unskillful cause that brings about this harmful outcome. The third noble Remember to ask: Where is this taking me? Does the practice of meditation move me in a direction to act with more kindness and wisdom? Investigate again and again. PHOTOBYBENNHOBBS/MILLENNIUMIMAGES,UK 34 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2014