Buddhism has long enjoyed a reputation, at least in the West, for being one of the more flexible and tolerant religions. There are good reasons for that, and my focus today is on one of those strengths. But it is also important to point out that Buddhism has been subject to the same limitations as any other cultural or religious system, including fundamentalist violence. Buddhist societies have struggled with war, economic injustice, patriarchal and gender violence, racism, and genocide.
For those wanting to go more deeply into this topic, Michael Jerryson, who wrote If You Meet the Buddha on the Road: Buddhism, Politics, and Violence, made important and crucial contribution to the study of violence and Buddhism. It was Jerryson’s work, for example, that introduced me to one historical extreme, a story from sixth-century China, when the:
“Buddhist monk Faqing led a revolt and declared the arrival of a new Buddha. He marshalled 50,000 men to fight, promising them that, with each kill, they would reach a higher stage in the bodhisattva path.” (https://aeon.co/essays/buddhism-can-be-as-violent-as-any-other-religion )
We want to be honest about this history, and about the current violence that has filled the news over the last several years. From Sri Lanka to Myanmar to Thailand and beyond, we’ve witnessed that Buddhists are not immune to the rise of nationalism or the horrors of committing religious and ethnic violence.
As Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, has reminded us: "The problem is far too many Westerners fail to understand that Buddhism, like any other religion, can be misused for political purposes.” (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-10-21/buddhist-extremism-meet-the-religions-violent-followers/10360288 ) It’s an important reminder. One of the challenges all cultural traditions have to navigate is not only creating healthy patterns of relating to ourselves, others, and the earth, but also updating and sustaining them. Even with our best intentions, it is not inevitable or automatic.
A Point of Contrast
Today, I’d like to focus on one of those ways that religious discourse and thinking is so often misused, using my own experience growing up in a conservative Christian tradition as a point of contrast. Like many of you, I grew up in a tradition that viewed mental assent as the pinnacle of faith. We were taught that: 1) we already knew what to believe, 2) our beliefs represented changeless and eternal truths, and 3) our obligation was to accept those beliefs as 100% true. Though I’m certain my teachers would disagree, this resulted in a situation where coercion was the heart of my experience. Everything was already decided and our only responsibility was to believe what we were told. Any attempts to change those beliefs were experienced as threats: our faith was under attack. “Keeping the faith” meant doing our best to believe in certain doctrines, no matter what evidence might exist. And we were encouraged to base our entire identity on our commitment to believing and defending core doctrines, the popularly called “fundamentals.” We were taught that, if we allowed any of those fundamentals to be understood in a different way, let alone doubted, our entire faith system would crumble to dust. There was a lot of pressure involved, as you might guess.
This is pointed out as an observation. Although some religious systems seem to be particularly vulnerable, all human beings have this capacity, whatever their culture or religion. We can become so attached to our views that we willingly harm ourselves or others to defend them. This may be to protect our privileges, power, and conveniences. It may be to protect our self-view, to avoid facing our own complicity in injustice. It may be to avoid social rejection, preventing our relationships, employment, and social supports from being snatched away. It may even be to insulate us from information that would be overwhelming or that would leave us feeling helpless or afraid. This capacity is a survival mechanism, because natural selection is more interested in whether you survive than whether you are right.
When a society or community is healthy, many of these assumptions work well, or well enough. But human society has been sick, with unhealthy patterns stuck on repeat. Gratefully, we are increasingly understanding why this is so and how these processes work in both our minds and our communities. There is an urgency to this healing work, however. The frighteningly rapid expansion of conspiracy theories has exposed, for example, the lie that we are somehow immune to being manipulated. All of this can be painful and difficult to tackle and digest, and that is why we can be grateful for critical thinking, scientific disciplines, and reflective practices that can help correct the mistaken assumptions and behaviors that bring about oppression and injustice. All cultural and religious traditions need to continually be a part of this transformation, including Buddhism.
Right View & Training the Mind
I began studying Buddhism academically in the late 1990s, but didn’t begin practicing with the Buddha’s teachings until 2005. What I found immediately empowering was that, in contrast to my childhood religious experience, the Buddhism I encountered did not emphasize mental assent. While the goal of Buddhist practice, Enlightenment or Awakening, does connect with what is called Right View as part of the Eightfold Path, Right View is not a mere list of doctrines. Instead, it emerges out of the cultivation of insight and wisdom. Mere belief in a set of doctrines will not finally lead you to an end of suffering, and you cannot coerce yourself into believing something that will suddenly and magically make everything okay. Instead, through developing insight into how suffering arises, when it arises, what fuels it, and when it goes away, our understanding is deepened and wisdom has a chance to grow. As we develop wisdom and compassion, we are able to relate more skillfully to every aspect of lives, including our suffering. It doesn’t happen by forcing ourselves to believe a certain way. It happens because we allow our beliefs - our views - to be shaped by putting the teachings into practice, observing their impacts, and paying attention to insights that come our way. This is the practice of Right View.
As an example of how Buddhists have tried to embody this approach in today’s complicated world, we can turn to The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings developed by Thich Nhat Hanh in Saigon in 1966. This context is important, as it was part of the ongoing efforts of socially engaged Buddhists in Vietnam to work for justice and peace amid the buildup to and then during the horrors of war. They’ve remained a core part of the Order of Interbeing and the Plum Village tradition since then. The first three trainings are especially relevant to this reflection on Right View:
“The First Mindfulness Training: Openness
Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. We are committed to seeing the Buddhist teachings as a guiding means that help us learn to look deeply and develop understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for. We understand that fanaticism in its many forms is the result of perceiving things in a dualistic or discriminative manner. We will train ourselves to look at everything with openness and the insight of interbeing in order to transform dogmatism and violence in ourselves and the world.” (https://plumvillage.org/mindfulness-practice/the-14-mindfulness-trainings/ )
Especially notice that this commitment is grounded in observation and social engagement. Our starting points are a commitment to well-being and an awareness of suffering (rather than mental assent to any doctrine) and to “develop understanding and compassion.” This allows us to relate to our beliefs, not as ends, but as “guiding means” that “train ourselves”. And so we aspire to transform “dogmatism and violence.”
“The Second Mindfulness Training: Non-Attachment to Views
Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We are committed to learning and practicing non-attachment to views and being open to others’ experiences and insights in order to benefit from the collective wisdom. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Insight is revealed through the practice of compassionate listening, deep looking, and letting go of notions rather than through the accumulation of intellectual knowledge. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.” (https://plumvillage.org/mindfulness-practice/the-14-mindfulness-trainings/ )
Cultivating an awareness “that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth” is a classic case of easier said than done. It’s unsettling to acknowledge that, not only can I be wrong, I have been wrong and will be wrong again – and so will you. Our cognitive biases are real, as is the human tendency to attach to our views. Beyond this, we also understand that our knowledge of the world, from social to scientific, is limited. This doesn’t mean that all our understandings are up for grabs, and we should especially have confidence in the knowledge we gain that is based on the hard work of study and scientific research, our own or the peer-reviewed research of others. But even the knowledge that we have now that is correct may be – may even probably be – incomplete. When you compare, for example, what we know now to what we knew 100 years ago, fifty years ago, or even 20 years ago, it becomes quite evident that we need to cultivate a willingness to change our minds when we encounter new data. The Mindfulness Training points out that this is a practice of being open to and encouraging insight, rather than merely accumulating knowledge. Insight applies that knowledge in a way that leads to change.
“The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought
Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are determined not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever — such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination — to adopt our views. We are committed to respecting the right of others to be different, to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, learn to help others let go of and transform fanaticism and narrowness through loving speech and compassionate dialogue.” (https://plumvillage.org/mindfulness-practice/the-14-mindfulness-trainings/ )
This Training is perhaps most directly related to my experience of growing up in a tradition that focused on mental assent and believing “the right things.” Coercion has no place in the practice, avoiding both forcing others “to adopt our views” or passively ignoring “fanaticism and narrowness.” This is also why the Mindfulness Trainings are presented as practices, not rules that we rigidly cling to. We aspire to these ideals and then continually figure out how to live up to them in our selves, communities, and societies. The practice itself is a way of learning, of training the mind.
The Sermon to the Kalamas
Such an approach did not come from nowhere, and the Buddha Gotama’s sermon to the Kalama community is probably the best known example of this. Part of his advice was that:
“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them. … Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them.” ("Kalama Sutta: The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry", translated from the Pali by Soma Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wheel008.html .)
It’s beautiful and refreshing, especially from a religious teacher, isn’t it? “It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain”. The Buddha didn’t appeal to his own spiritual authority, but to the ability of the listeners to think it through. A misunderstanding of this is that every view is somehow equally legitimate, or that we need to give all opinions equal consideration. Working with doubt as a spiritual practice is not the practice of paranoia, a flight into conspiracy theory. And key to this is the orientation around wellbeing. The Buddha instructed that we will know if something is worth believing if it leads to health in our selves and society: “these things lead to benefit and happiness.” Those are the things worth doing, worth our effort to “abide in them.” Doubt is not the goal; wellbeing is. It is a standard that can help us get free of violence and oppression and gives us a clear goal, even when the road to get there is complicated.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk, scholar, and translator in the Thai Forest tradition of Theravadin Buddhism, has pointed this out:
“Although this discourse is often cited as the Buddha's carte blanche for following one's own sense of right and wrong, it actually says something much more rigorous than that. Traditions are not to be followed simply because they are traditions. Reports (such as historical accounts or news) are not to be followed simply because the source seems reliable. One's own preferences are not to be followed simply because they seem logical or resonate with one's feelings. Instead, any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one's understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise. The ability to question and test one's beliefs in an appropriate way is called appropriate attention. The ability to recognize and choose wise people as mentors is called having admirable friends.” ("Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas" (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html .)
This community aspect also provides the context for the story. If you read the entire passage, the Kalamas are asking the Buddha how they can possibly know what to believe when so many contradicting views are being authoritatively taught to them. Teachers were all coming to the Kalamas and demanding that their beliefs be accepted as the best and true ones. And all of them were disparaging the beliefs of the others. It sounds a bit like the comment section on your favorite social media site: “They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt”. Amid this confusion, the Buddha doesn’t say, “Just believe what I have told you and everything will be okay.” He didn’t demand mental assent to his favorite doctrines. He didn’t threaten the community with exile or punishment, here or in a future life. Instead, he affirmed their experience: “Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born.” (ibid)
These are valuable insights, especially in a time of conspiracy theories, disinformation, and violence born of attachment to views. And it is a practice. The history of Buddhism itself reveals the ongoing failure to take the Buddha’s advice to the Kalamas. But it also provides an opportunity and a set of practices for self-correction, which is profoundly important in creating and sustaining healthy communities.
When we attach to views, when we hitch our well-being to the inviolability of our opinions, we experience doubt and uncertainty as threats to our identity. We become defensive and cannot risk uncertainty. But this is impossible! The world is constantly changing; we are constantly changing. Every conditioned phenomenon – every thing - is in process; everything is a process. Our suffering is a process. Injustice and oppression are processes. Our attachment to views makes reflection and transformation difficult, skills which are increasingly important as change today occurs at such a fast and unrelenting pace. In this ongoing practice of transforming our cultural and religious traditions, these kinds of practices offer an important approach to the process. And it has personally offered me an understanding of “keeping the faith” that helps and heals, rather than harms: “We are committed to seeing [our cultural and religious traditions] as ... guiding means that help us learn to look deeply and develop understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.”