Filed in Vipassana, Theravada

The Right to Ask Questions

Should we take the Buddha at his word? Larry Rosenberg encourages us to put the teachings to the test.

Larry Rosenberg

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The practice of the dharma is learning how to live, and this is both hard and joyful work. Practice makes extraordinary demands of us. It requires that we take nothing for granted, that we accept nothing on faith alone. If we practice with diligence and honesty, then we must question everything about ourselves; we must challenge our most basic beliefs and convictions, even those we may have about the dharma itself. Of all the teachings of the Buddha, the Kalama Sutta is one of my favorites precisely because it encourages such rigorous inquiry into our beliefs. Indeed, if Buddhism were not infused with the spirit of this sutta—a spirit of questioning, of critical examination—I’m quite sure I would not have a meditative practice today.

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 rabbis but, like his own ex-rabbi father, he rejected that heritage—although “rejected,” actually, is too weak a term. He frequently expressed contempt not only for Orthodox Judaism, but for all religions. I remember that before Hebrew school, my father would pull me aside and say things like, “Ask the rabbi just how Moses got that river to split.” Well, I would go along with it, but as you can imagine, that never went over very well. Rabbi Minkowitz was not particularly pleased to be questioned in this way. I think my father was the first in recorded history actually 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 gave the talk anyway. And my father was fuming.

So my father believed in the necessity of thinking critically, and he instilled this in me. His way of parenting was very similar to the scientific approach. If I got into trouble—I was usually very good at home, but I got into a lot of mischief at school and in the neighborhood—I’d be put on trial when my father came home from work. He had always wanted to be a lawyer or a judge, but he drove a cab, so he had to settle for a court made up of my mother and me. His court was very sensitive and reasonable: He would hear the accused out, and sometimes, after listening to all sides, he would drop the charges. Of course, my mother would smile, and they were both happy that I got off. But my father always explained to me why I should have acted differently: “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’d always explain to me that my actions had consequences. And, most important, he taught me that we have the right to ask questions about anything and everything. But with that right comes a responsibility: If we’re going to question the actions of others, we also have to be willing to question our own.

The Kalamas of the Kalama Sutta were, like my father, a skeptical but responsible bunch. They were quite alive to spiritual matters, but they were overrun with teachers and teachings, each teacher competing for an audience, each propounding a different philosophy or path. Their situation was not very different from ours now. We’re inundated with possibilities: “You’re interested in religion? Well, what kind? Buddhism? What flavor would you like? Tibetan? Okay, we have about ten flavors there. Theravada? Oh, you’ve tried that? A little too dry for you? Too much talk about suffering and impermanence? Perhaps you’d prefer Dzogchen, the innate perfection of the mind. That sounds much better, doesn’t it? And they have more colorful outfits. Most Vipassana teachers aren’t Asian and aren’t even monks; they just wear sweatpants. At least the Tibetan teachers look like teachers, you know? And then you get to Zen: beautiful—those great stories that teach you and make you laugh. Theravada teachings go on and on, but Zen is just hilarious one-liners.”

So we have this great swirling spiritual marketplace, with lots of claims being made. It’s no wonder that many of us find it confusing. Well, like us, the Kalamas were confused. They went to the Buddha to hear his perspective:

So the Kalamas of Kesaputta approached the Buddha. On arrival, some of them bowed down to him and sat to one side. Some of them exchanged courteous greetings with him and sat to one side. Some, raising their joined palms, sat down to one side. Some, announcing their name and clan, sat to one side. Some of them sat to one side in silence. As they were sitting there, they said to the Buddha: “Lord, some teachers come to Kesaputta, expounding and glorifying their own doctrines. But as for the doctrines of others, they abuse them, disparage them, deprecate them, and pull them to pieces. Other teachers, on coming to Kesaputta, do the same thing. When we listen to them, we feel doubt and uncertainty as to which of these teachers are speaking truth and which are lying.”

The Kalamas were overwhelmed by all these claims to exclusive truth. And when the Buddha arrived, despite his reputation as a great sage, they were concerned that he might be just one more teacher with a competing point of view. Actually, I think their skepticism is very admirable, and rather unusual. The history of the world reveals that people are drawn to those who provide a strong, uncompromising teaching. We’re drawn to those who say, “This is it, and everyone else is wrong.” Certainly we see this pattern in contemporary politics, but we also see abuse of this sort within spiritual circles. It makes you wonder: Do we really want freedom? Can we handle the responsibility? Or would we just prefer to have an impressive teacher, someone who can give us the answers and do the hard work for us?

Of course, foolishness exists within Buddhist circles as well. After all the problems that have come up in dharma centers in the past twenty years, I still see Westerners who check their intelligence at the door, who grovel at the feet of a teacher, saying, “Just tell me how to live.” Well, I’ve been taken a few times myself. I don’t know if you have. But I deserved it. I just wanted to have my special teacher, someone with special access to the truth. It felt fantastic to be their student. My spiritual life was taken care of. I didn’t have to worry anymore. I was absolved of the responsibility that comes with exercising the right to ask questions. But, of course, I wasn’t free.

After hearing the concerns of the Kalamas, the Buddha replied:

Come, Kalamas. Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by consistency with your own views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that 'these mental qualities are unskillful; these mental qualities are blameworthy; these mental qualities are criticized by the wise; these mental qualities when acted on lead to harm and suffering’ then abandon them. When you know for yourselves that 'these mental qualities are skillful; these mental qualities are blameless; these mental qualities are praised by the wise; these mental qualities when acted on lead to well-being and happiness’ then keep following them.

There’s a teaching story from China: People came from far and wide to hear the dharma talks of a young teacher. Apparently he had some depth. And one day, an old master came to hear him. He sat in the back of the meditation hall while the young teacher was giving a dharma talk. But the young teacher saw him, and out of respect, knowing that he was a renowned teacher and also much older, said, “Please, come up here, sit next to me while I give my talk.” So the old master rose and sat next to him. The young teacher resumed his talk, and every other word was a quotation from a different sutra or Zen master. The old master started to nod off in front of everyone. And the young teacher could see this out of the corner of his eye, but he just continued. The more authorities he cited, the sleepier the old master became. Finally, the young teacher couldn’t stand it anymore, so he asked, “What’s wrong? Is my teaching so boring, so awful, so totally off?” At that point, the old master leaned over and gave him a very hard pinch and the young teacher screamed, “Ouch!” The old master said, “Ah! That’s what I’ve come all this way for. This pure teaching. This 'ouch' teaching.”

Like the old master in this story, the Buddha, in his response to the Kalamas, is trying to emphasize the importance of direct experience. He acknowledges that people rely upon many different modes of authority, sometimes internal, sometimes external. Some of them are reliable and others are way off the mark. The question is, how do we tell which is which? How do we balance internal authority with external authority? As the Buddha says, just because something is ancient doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because it’s in the scriptures doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because it seems reasonable, or you like the person teaching it, doesn’t mean it’s right.

What’s left, then? Where do we turn for authority in terms of knowing how to act? In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha is not saying that ancient teachings are irrelevant, or that you have to reinvent the dharma wheel every time you think. He’s not saying not to accept the guidance of teachers or not to read the scriptures. After all, how else are you going to find out what’s criticized and praised by the wise? No, what he’s saying is: Don’t give final authority to these things. Don’t give final authority to your own ideas. You have to test the teachings, and your ideas, in the laboratory of your actions.

When you put something to the test, really to the test, don’t you find that it challenges, that it stretches you, too? This has certainly been my experience. Some of these wonderful teachings are inspiring. It can be intellectually satisfying and emotionally nourishing just to hear them. But you can’t stop there. If you want to gain any real benefit from them, you have to let them stretch your own lived experience. For the dharma to become firsthand knowledge—to feel the “ouch” of it—you have to live intimately with it, hold it up to scrutiny, and let it hold you up to scrutiny. In the end, the ball is always thrown back to you: “Be a lamp unto yourself,” says the Buddha. In other words, you must ultimately find the way on your own, by putting your ideas of the truth to the test. Your questions light the way.

So what is the test of truth? The Buddha offers a simple formula: Test things in terms of cause and effect. Whatever is unskillful, leading to harm and ill, should be abandoned; whatever is skillful, leading to happiness and peace, should be pursued. Apply the test of skillfulness to all teachings in all your actions. Where is this teaching taking you? Is it moving you in a direction that is wise and kind? One quick test isn’t enough, you know.

You have to keep at it, so that your sensitivity to the results of your actions grows more and more refined with practice. When you’ve done the hard work of asking these questions, then you can decide for yourself whether a teaching, or a teacher, is worth following. And at the same time, you’ve also taught yourself how to live—a learning that can bring with it joy and the energy to go even deeper.

Larry Rosenberg is a guiding teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, as well as at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.

Image © Robert Crosby

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This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.'s picture

I once made the comment that I was born Quaker, Jewish and Buddhist, the response I got back was that it was doubtful that I was born all three, yet for me right attitude, means right focus, which means preparing myself for varied and sorted views about beliefs. I find to be true to myself means not to forsake my inheritance, as I believe as many do, we must follow our path since we have only one, and that is our own

sanghadass's picture

Questioning is what we do from the 'why why' of a three year old until all our questions are resolved. Like trees grow upwards to the light human beings ask questions. Seek and we will find. Knock and the door shall be opened. Opened with kindness.

feralyung's picture

One of the deepest truths that I have struggled with (and continue to do so) is that when making an assessment of the truth of a teaching, there must not be a subject/object split between the teaching and the taught(thought?) When I look at how a teaching is working in my life, I try my best to see the whole process (which includes myself). This has a danger of infinite regress but that issue has been well addressed in dharma teachings. What I see too often is a kind of search for a comfort zone instead of a direct confrontation of the three poisons. A spiritual practice that does not hold the assessor as well as the assessed up to close scrutiny is well on the road to becoming an opiate or sleep aid. Buddha, after all, means awakened one not awakened teaching.

John Haspel's picture

In the Kalama Sutta the Buddha addresses greed, hatred and deluded thinking directly as a way of pointing out how other teachings fail to directly address the defilements and in many cases inadvertently promote deluded behavior.

The Buddha then uses the qualities of generosity, non-clinging and well-concentrated mindfulness developed through The Eightfold Path as the framework for Dhamma practice. The Buddha points out that through awakening developed within the framework of The Eightfold Path one becomes “mindful and imbued with equanimity, free of ill-wll, undefiled and pure.”

The Buddha consistently presented The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as unique and distinct, not as a common teaching that could be integrated into other teachings according to the hardened beliefs of individuals. It is the insistence that the Buddha’s teachings can and should be accommodated to individual and cultural beliefs that have resulted in a confusing and ineffective “dharma.”

He instructed the Kalama’s to not “go by other’s accounts, or by legends or traditions. Do not follow scriptures (later developed texts) or logical conjecture (conditioned thinking). Do not form conclusions through inference, analogies or common agreement.”

The Kalama Sutta concludes with the Buddha describing the results of awakening directly through the Eightfold Path: “for one who follows the Eightfold Path,(following the Noble Ones) if there is an appearance after death it will be a pleasant abiding, if there is no appearance after death then in this present life there will be no ill-will, no confusion, no hostility. Remaining pure hatred, will not touch you. Suffering ends.”

There continues to be strong desire to accommodate the Buddha’s direct teachings to fit cultural and individual traditions and hardened beliefs. The Buddha taught to avoid the desire to make his teachings fit ego-driven views. He taught The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path as the framework for deciding what is skillful to be mindful of in order to recognize conditioned thinking, abandon clinging, and develop a life of lasting peace and happiness..

John Haspel

summerleaf's picture

This reminds me so much of advice I give to people who are about to become parents: Do what works best for your baby and your family, even if it contradicts your mother, your friends, parenting experts, magazines, and even your own opinions about what you thought you were going to do. Of necessity you will do what works because it is what works!

celticpassage's picture

Oops. Must have dozed off while reading this.

Dominic Gomez's picture

For the Buddhist faith equals daily life. It is, though, a very difficult concept to comprehend (let alone practice considering the severe realities of samsara).

jackelope65's picture

I think the mode of gratitude to you teacher should respect the tradition from which that person originates. However if you are too attached to your own ego, burp and fart all you want.

peacefoodlove's picture

My practice is cobbled, and "cobblered", together on the kitchen floor, which is where I meditate in the hum of the fridge--part of me hypervigilant for the sounds of small children padding down, tea kettles, literal and metaphorical milkmen, part of me attuned to the food mettaphor of the universe. This works for me, with my beginner's mind, heart, and stomach--but...I sometimes fantasize about heading into the forest (or at least a retreat center), so that someone (even if it's only an exported version of me) could tell me if I'm "doing it right." What makes this spiritual marketplace, as you say, even more ripe for misunderstanding is that many of us are practicing in this kind of relative isolation, in lay-kitchens and -livingrooms. If separation is obvious suffering, it can also be more subtle: it's pretty safe suffering to do it all via podcast in your own kitchen, with no one looking (and I believe that the gift of virtual dharma in the form of teachers like Tara Brach is inestimable in my life)! This "But am I doing it right?" question, which is another flavor of Mara, may be common to the DIY spiritual warrior. Especially to those of us with questioning souls and shelves overstuffed with every book from neuroscience to Buddhism 2.0. When you blend a seeking nature with a good girl incarnation trussed up too tightly to intellect (me, me, me!), the question, "But am I doing it right?" unfolds and just keeps unfolding, like a giant sheet of puff pastry of doubt. I did have an insight last week which helped me a great deal; it was this: I shifted my thinking from my kitchen shelf to inside myself. The Buddha, I suddenly saw, was the original home cook, testing it all out, over and over, the 10,000 horrible dishes, and the 10,000 beautiful ones. A scientist and a cook. This helped me a LOT.
The other day I heard Ram Dass say that you could do it all perfectly--be the perfect practitioner--and still not be free. That was a real mettathud. So now, the ultimate toothpick-in-the-center test for skill and unskill is--does "this" (insert toothpick) make me more free?
There's probably a lot of freedom in staying out of spiritual centers and gatherings (not to mention forests), and on the kitchen floor, for me. For now.
Thank you for this article, Larry. It came at just the right moment, and helped me to step back and cradle my critical thinking skills. I am chewing on my version of your question: Are we--am I--responsible enough to catch the egg of our own trajectory when it's inevitably lobbed back to us through the Buddha's teachings?

Cook for Good's picture

Beautiful comment. Your own metaphor gives me hope that we are responsible enough sometimes and we get a new chance three or more times a day. Burn it or add too much salt? Adjust your recipe for life and try again.

kinesthetictiger's picture

Recently I was a samanera in a temple of the Thai tradition, and I came to this realization myself.

I have always questioned everything around me. So much so it got me in a lot of trouble with my parents. Anyway, for some reason I concocted this fantasy that I would find serious Dhamma practitioners at every sangha I visit. Specifically amongst the ordained monks

Well, I of course got to see the truth right away. There are serious monks, but the biggest lesson I learned was from what I would consider a completely fake monk. He seemed to care nothing for the wisdom of the Buddha, he never meditated, and he constantly lied to make himself seem important.

The lesson I learned was not to believe outward appearances, but to test everything. Only after testing it can I know what is good, and worth holding on to.

No one is perfect, and if I believe in something or someone out of blind faith I am sure to be let down. Rather if I keep an open mind and heart while applying a healthy amount of skepticism I can drop what isn't true, and pursue what is.