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The Right to Question

“Buddhists need not have a guilt complex if they entertain doubts regarding the Dhamma and raise questions about them. It is not considered an unwholesome action to question the teachings to convince oneself of their validity.”

by Rajah Kuruppu

(March 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) An important attraction of Buddhism to its followers, specially those of an intellectual frame of mind, is the Right to Question conceded in the teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha declared to his disciples not to accept even what he says without proper scrutiny.

Once the Buddha visited a small town called Kesaputta in the Kingdom of Kosala, where the inhabitants have a common name, Kalama. They told the Buddha that recluses and Brahamanas explained to them their own doctrines. They despised and condemned other doctrines. Thus, they always have doubts and perplexity as to which of them speaks the truth. The Buddha gave them the following advice, unique in the history of religion, as recorded in the Kalama Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya, Colombo, 1929, P.115. "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, hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, not by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, not by the idea: 'this is our teacher'. But, 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 (kusala) and good, then accept them and follow them.'

In fact, He further told the Bhikkhus that a disciple should examine even the Buddha Himself so that the disciple might be fully convinced of the true value of the teacher whom to follow as recorded in Vimamsaka Sutta, of the Majjhima Nikaya.

The well known Buddhist Scholar, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi has stated in a recent Newsletter of the Buddhist Publication, Society, Kandy, that it is not unusual for newcomers to Buddhism to approach him and raise questions about the Dhamma and he appreciates it more when they expressed honest doubts and reservations. Then he knows that they are ready to examine the teachings with full earnestness and once they gain confidence in the Dhamma, it is likely that this confidence will be firm and steady.

Buddhists need not have a guilt complex if they entertain doubts regarding the Dhamma and raise questions about them. It is not considered an unwholesome action to question the teachings to convince oneself of their validity.

Much of the advice given by the Buddha to his disciples could be verified in the school of human experience. One such advise is that when one is in an agitated and disturbed state of mind, to engage in Anapanasati meditation. This could be tested by observing the breath either in the recommended posture seated on a chair or on the ground or in any other posture which would tend to calm and stabilize the disturbed mind. The observance of the five precepts helps one to be on the right side of the law and win the goodwill of those with whom one associates. For one who abides by the five precepts would not be a danger or a threat to others and consequently would be loved by all.

Moreover, the rewards from the practice of the four sublimes states (Brahmavihara), namely, Metta, loving kindness; Karuna, compassion; Mudita, happiness in the success of others; and Upekkha, equanimity are to be experienced in this life itself. Thoughts of goodwill to all, compassion to the suffering, happiness in the success of others which is the opposite of jealousy, and facing the vicissitudes of life with equanimity and a sense of balance are the substantial rewards for the practitioner of Brahmavihara. It establishes a sense of mental security, bliss and well being here and now.

There are certain important aspects of the Dhamma that are not verifiable by ordinary people, the Puttujanas. One is the doctrine of rebirth and samsara, the cycle of births and deaths. However, the Buddha did pronounce a method by which one could verify the doctrine of rebirth by oneself. This is by deep concentration of the mind where at the level of the fourth Jhana (Meditative absorptions), one would be able to see ones previous births.

Even before the Buddha, those devoted to the serious practice of meditation such as the five ascetics, were able to see their previous lives by the deep concentration of the mind and thus have experiential knowledge of the doctrine of rebirth and the fact of samsara.

Incidentally, many raise the question why the Buddha preferred to be born in India than in some other parts of the world such as Greece, which was at that time a very advanced civilization. Perhaps a simple answer is that the spiritual development among a section of the population of India was considerable and a few were even able to see their previous births which could not be said of other parts of the world.

An overwhelming section of the Buddhists would have to accept the doctrine of rebirth, kamma and samsara as an article of confidence in the Buddha, since many of His other teachings could be tested and verified in life. On the other hand, all efforts should be made by the practitioners of the Dhamma to overcome their doubts and seek answers to their questions. Certain aspects of the Dhamma, such as rebirth, may take considerable time following the procedure laid down in the Dhamma for convincing proof and perhaps may take a number of births to conclude that task. However, other doubts could be clarified by association with those well versed in the Dhamma and also by the practice of the Dhamma which would include meditation, mental development and mindfulness (sati) of all our activities, physical and mental.

Thus, Buddhists should be happy that they are not only permitted to question the teachings of the Buddha, but are also encouraged to do so.
- Sri Lanka Guardian


Anonymous said...

Good article. Well done.You have highlighted one of the most important aspects of the message.I fully agree with you that questions should be asked. Have you read the book called "Chinthanayen Eha" by Gramani Abahaya? You will find in this book a large number of Questions asked about current understanding about Buddha`s message.

Anonymous said...

Anything re-written about Buddha's message can be garbage if the users are not trying to realize it.

Raise the level "understanding" to "realization". Expect more from yourselves.

Herath said...

A great article! The freedom to experiment and analyze is what makes Buddhism unique among other religions.

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