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Buddha in the Laboratory


If you want some admittedly esoteric fun, there's probably no better way than to get a bunch of Buddhists talking about one of my favorite quotes from the Buddha. It's usually stated as:

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

Now, this one gets a whole post on the blog Fake Buddha Quotes run by a monk named Bodhipaksa. I'm certainly not one to shy away from a little pedantic quibbling about translations, and I certainly don't want to spoil the fun of trying to effectively translate Pali into English and arguing over the details, but in this case I think that while it might be an imperfect translation, it is a "skillful" translation.

It helps to refer again to the basics of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths. So, for convenience and because it's my column by golly, let's hit them once more.

  1. Our lives are filled with unsatisfactory unpleasant annoying and generally uncomfortable feelings -- "suffering" (Duhkha).
  2. Those feelings arise from clinging: first, clinging to pleasant experiences; second, the desire to make things what they are not; and third clinging to the attempt to push away unpleasant experiences. (Samudaya)
  3. Those unpleasant feelings can be overcome by learning not to do the things that lead to unpleasant feelings. (Nirodha)
  4. You can learn not to cling by following the suggestions of the Noble Eightfold Path.(Aryastangamarga).

Things that lead you to not cling, and thereby to reduce suffering, are called "skillful", so the whole collection is called "skillful means". Oh, and skillful means aren't limited to the Eightfold Path; anything that leads to reducing clinging and thereby reducing suffering is skillful.

So what's the fuss about? The "fake Buddha quote" is usually linked to the Kalama Sutra (that link is to Thanissaro Bhikkhu's translation, which is brilliant, but that isn't going to stop me from paraphrasing it).


Now, in the Buddhist sense, a sutra is a story, with some argument that the word literally means "gospel", "good news". They in general are recollections of some explanation of a topic by the Buddha while he was teaching, and so they start with the phrase "Evam maya srutam" -- "This is what I heard".

So this is what I heard, in abbreviated form. The Buddha visited a group called the Kalamas, and they, after making properly respectful gestures and noises, sat down and asked the Buddha, "Look, we get lots of holy men through here. They tell us lots of things, and some of them are pretty goofy. How are we supposed to tell the good ones from the bad ones?"

Buddha answered, "You're right to be uncertain. So, don't believe something just because you've heard it stated repeatedly; don't depend on tradition; don't depend on rumors, or what's in a scripture; don't depend on guesswork; don't depend on something because you take it as an assumption; don't depend on some argument for which the logic doesn't stand up, or something that you've just thought about for a long time, or because someone smart is telling you, or even because your teacher said so. When you yourselves see something is unskillful, leads to greater suffering, then stop doing it."

The lesson goes on a bit, not too much but Buddha's audience couldn't click over to cat pictures. Buddha does, though, repeat this same teaching in positive form: "When you yourselves see something is skillful, leads to reducing suffering, then do it."

Bodhipaksa's objection to the controversial translation is in the part about "if it doesn't agree with your own reason and common sense". After all, there's a lot of Buddhism that doesn't agree with common sense in some ways, like the notion that we don't have a permanent soul or identity -- I mean, golly, it sure seems like I do! But what Buddha is really saying in the Kalama Sutra is common sense: if you don't want a life filled with unsatisfactory unpleasant annoying and generally uncomfortable feelings, suffering, don't do things that increase suffering, and do things that decrease suffering.

Basically, what the Buddha is saying in the Kalama Sutra is that Buddhism is an experimental science: you shouldn't just trust what someone says. Test it against the real world: do you suffer more, and do others suffer more, because you do something? Then it's unskillful: don't do it. But doing skillful things reduces suffering, yours and others, so do them.

It's really that simple.