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Lions Roar : January 2014
I was raised in what you might call a tradition of skepticism. My father was the first to teach me the importance of asking questions. He came from a line of fourteen generations of rab- bis, but, like his own ex-rabbi father, he rejected that heritage— although the term rejected is too weak. He frequently expressed contempt not only for Orthodox Judaism, but also for all reli- gions. Before Hebrew school class, my father would pull me aside and say things such as, “Ask the rabbi just how Moses got that river to split.” As you can imagine, Rabbi Minkowitz was not par- ticularly pleased to be questioned in this way. I think my father was the first in recorded history to pay a rabbi not to give a talk at his son’s bar mitzvah. My father said, “Please. Here’s the money. Don’t give a talk.” But the rabbi did it. And my father fumed. My father instilled in me his belief in the necessity of critical thinking. If I got into trouble—I was usually very good at home, but mischievous at school and in the neighborhood—my father put me on trial when he came home from work. He had always wanted to be a lawyer or judge, but he drove a cab, so he had to settle for a court made up of my mother and me. His court was sensitive and reasonable: he allowed “the accused” to speak, and sometimes, after listening, he dropped the charges. Of course, my mother would smile: they were both happy that I got off. But my father always explained why I should have acted differ- ently: “When you did that, your aunt Clara got aggravated, then she called up your mother, and now I have to listen to it. Next time, just pick up the rye bread and bagels and come home. It’s simple.” He made it clear that my actions had consequences. Above all, he taught me that everyone has the right to ask questions about anything and everything. With that right comes a responsibility: if you question the actions of others, you must also be willing to question your own. Like my father, the Kalamas of the Kalama Sutta were skeptical but responsible. Their world was alive to spiritual matters, and over- run with teachers often competing for an audience and advocating different philosophies or paths. Their environment was not unlike the one you live in today. You’re inundated with choices. “Interested in religion? What kind? Buddhism? What flavor? Vipassana? Oh, you’ve tried that? A little too dry, perhaps too much talk about suf- fering and impermanence? You might prefer Dzogchen, the innate perfection of the mind. Besides, most vipassana teachers are not even monks; they just wear sweatpants. At least the Tibetan teachers in their colorful outfits look like teachers. Or consider Zen. Beauti- ful! All those parables that teach you and make you laugh. Or what about the One Dharma approach that embraces them all?” You live in a great swirling spiritual marketplace, full of promises and claims. No wonder many of you find it confusing. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Kalamas were similarly con- fused by the profusion of paths to wisdom and peace. Though the Kalamas knew the Buddha’s reputation as a great sage, they were concerned that he, too, might be merely one more teacher with a competing point of view. I deeply admire their uncommon degree of skepticism. The history of the world reveals that most of us are drawn to those who provide a strong, uncom- promising teaching and who say or imply: “This is it, and everyone else is wrong.” Certainly you see this dangerous pattern in con- temporary politics. But it also shows up in spiritual circles, where it raises the same questions: Do you really want freedom? Can you handle the responsibility? Or would you just prefer an impressive teacher to provide answers and do the hard work for you? Despite the host of problems in dharma centers in the past thirty years, I still see some meditators check their intelligence at the door, and almost grovel at the feet of a teacher, saying, “Just tell me how to live.” Even with my staunch belief in questioning, I’ve made this mistake a few times myself. Have you? I longed for my special teacher with unique access to the truth. It felt fantas- tic to be their student. My spiritual life was taken care of. I was absolved of the worry and responsibility that comes with exercis- ing the right to ask questions. But, of course, I wasn’t free. The Buddha’s response to the concerns and confusions of the Kalamas gives you an antidote to making unskillful choices. He guides the Kalamas, and you, in the selection of a teacher and also in the skill of investigation in all realms of life: So, as I said, Kalamas: “Don’t go by reports, by legends, by tradi- tions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analo- gies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’—then you should abandon them.” Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said. “Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qual- ities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to hap- piness’—then you should enter and remain in them.” How do you distinguish authentic from false or misguided? Where do you turn for guidance to learn how to live? PHOTOBYBENNHOBBS/MILLENNIUMIMAGES,UK 32 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2014