Last week I promised to consider five strategies for coming to terms with Buddhist teachings (rebirth, for instance) that are found problematic for many moderns. Today we take up the default case, in which a Buddhist teaching is relatively easily assimilated. This will reveal the main cognitive mechanisms involved in coming to believe something.
How to accept a teaching
The method here is suitable evaluation prior to acceptance.
Most of the Buddha’s teachings can be accepted into one’s understanding of Buddhism quite readily, because they do not violate believability and can be verified in one’s own experience. For the reasonably skeptical person (whose perspective I will generally assume unless stated otherwise; we will see later who the unreasonable skeptic is), processing such a teaching involves two steps, evaluation and then acceptance. Evaluation involves assessing the evidence for the teaching, for instance, that suffering arises from craving. If the evidence is sufficient, then it might be accepted. Acceptance is the integration of the teaching into the body of one’s understanding, such that it becomes, in the Buddhist case, a conditioning factor in practice. We will see later that acceptance is more than just choosing to believe something, but rather includes various ways in which a proposition may be contextualized, for instance, treated as a rule of thumb, or as a myth, or as a foundational guiding principle. The present section will deal primarily with evaluation. The two steps, evaluation and acceptance, provide a simple model that can be applied to virtually any area of education or training, from child rearing through playing tennis to religious practice. Let’s picture this graphically.
We can see that the reasonable skeptic has at least two decision points in this process, at either of which the process might halt with no acceptance. The first, what I will call the gross decision point, is immediate; here one might dismiss or ignore the proposition out of hand prior to any case-specific evaluation. Gross criteria apply here, most significantly criteria for believability or unbelievability, the focus of this essay. Simple indifference also manifests here; for instance, one might not care that the Buddha sometimes has conversations with deities and consequently ignore, rather than accepting or rejecting, these references. The second, the fine decision point, follows case-specific evaluation, and either approves or disapproves the evaluation. Fine criteria apply here, which evaluation tries to satisfy. For instance, from the cumulative evidence of one’s own meditation experience, one might decide that a teaching that jhāna always entails a complete cessation of conceptual thought is not acceptable. The gross and fine criteria will differ, sometimes widely, from individual to individual. We will see later how some of them arise. The decision points and their criteria define the wiggle room of the reasonable skeptic.
The Buddha gives us a clear fine criterion to apply at the second decision point, in the famous Kālāma Sutta:
Etha tumhe kālāmā mā anussavena, mā paramparāya, mā itikirāya, mā piṭakasampadānena, mā takkahetu, mā nayahetu, mā ākāraparivitakkena, mā diṭṭhinijjhānakkhantiyā, mā bhabbarūpatāya, mā samaṇo no garū’ti. Yadā tumhe kālāmā attanā’va jāneyyātha: ime dhammā kusalā, ime dhammā anavajjā, ime dhammā viññūppasatthā, ime dhammā samattā samādinnā hitāya sukhāya saṃvattantī’ti. Atha tumhe kālāmā upasampajja vihareyyāthā’ti.
“Come, Kālāmas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon repetition; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor as a result of thought; nor upon an axiom; nor upon careful reasoning; nor out of delight in speculation; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the thought, ‘The monk is our venerable teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken as a whole, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.” AN 3.65
It is important to reflect on the potential criteria that the Buddha dismissed. The Buddha’s criteria are at root ethical, and not scientific in the sense of objective truth, nor even particularly religious in the way we are accustomed to expect this in the West. The advice of the Kālāma Sutta can be summarized thus:
That is, after due investigation, if you find that 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 – let’s group these things as benefit, for short –, then enter on and abide in them, that is, accept them into your understanding as conditions for practice.
A given skeptical person might feel, nonetheless, irresistibly compelled to impose one of these disallowed criteria, or some other criterion. For instance, he might understand clearly enough how a certain teaching is of benefit in the way the Buddha asked us to apply, yet nonetheless doubt its objective factual scientific truth, and therefore balk. For instance, if he has been taught karmic retribution as, “Every time you do something bad, something bad will happen to you in return,” he might well recognize that benefit would accrue indeed from entering on and abiding in this, for it would frequently prevent both harm to others and personal regret in many circumstances. But on the other hand, when he tries to imagine this playing out in practice – “If I steal someone’s sandwich one day, my hubcaps will get stolen, or some equivalent thereof, the next day.” – he cannot help but disbelieve this, a response that will hardly serve as a firm conditioning factor in practice.
We will consider later the options available to this given skeptic. These are to reject the notion of karmic retribution, to contextualize it, to reconsider the tacit assumptions that make it so unbelievable, or to upgrade the interpretation of karmic retribution to something that makes more sense. For now it suffices to point out that criteria actually applied at decision points are generally individual and often idiosyncratic.
Many, perhaps most, personal fine criteria are in reality off the wall or quite irrational. This was discovered at the beginnings of public relations and mass marketing some hundred years ago and has been exploited ever since. Emotions play a big role in shaping perceptions such that through their skillful manipulation one can get people to believe and do the darnedest things. With the right kind of music, a travesty becomes a noble effort or a mild inconvenience becomes a case of demonic possession. We are a gullible species.
Reason and Faith. So far I assumed the part assumed the position of a reasonable skeptic, and will for the most part continue to do so. Not all of us are skeptics. In fact, many moderns who come to Buddhism have training in acceptance without question in faith traditions they may have been brought up with that demand this. In any case, there are always some who readily accept teachings with little question, with something like the innocence of young children who believe what their parents say. A non-skeptical person might more easily suspend any inkling of disbelief to skip over the evaluative part altogether.
The difference between the skeptic’s and the non-skeptic’s methods can be viewed in terms of the familiar categories of faith and reason. However, it is important to recognize that faith and reason are not opposites but complements that rarely occur by themselves, except maybe in mathematical proofs. Rather, skeptics are those who tend to be heavy on reason and light on faith, and non-skeptics are those who tend to be heavy on faith and light on reason. But both faith and reason are required in practical terms by any sensible person to make a sensible decision about virtually anything at all. We humans are engaged as active agents in an exceedingly complex, contingent and intractable world. We would like, if we could, to make decisions that are entirely based on reason and complete information, but in fact we virtually never know enough to realize this level of certitude in the decisions we need to make. And not making any decision is generally not a way out – It is quite often simply the dumbest decision! –, while gathering sufficient evidence is normally prohibitively costly in time and energy. In brief, reason takes us as far as what we know, and faith takes us the rest of the way, for:
Faith (Pali, saddhā) is that which bridges the gap between what we do know and what we need to know in order to make a decision.
Faith is a necessary part of human cognition. The following more accurately represents the typical case of evaluation. The difference between the skeptic and the non-skeptic and anyone in between is the relative length of the evaluation process, and the corresponding shortness of the remaining gap.
A proposal of marriage, for instance, carries not only weight but urgency. Suppose Mabel is evaluating Cornelius’ proposal. Her criteria are undoubtedly complex (Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing about.”), but among them are hopefully that this marriage will be harmonious, of mutual benefit and happy ever after. Yet how much evidence is required to accurately predict how these expectations would play out in married life boggles the mind; this perplexed young woman really cannot possibly know what she would be getting herself into. The gap from evaluation to acceptance will seem enormous. Ultimately after some period of evaluation a leap of faith, a bold and decisive act of foolhardiness, may be the only option. Otherwise, for Mabel’s having hesitated, Cornelius may have lost interest.
Authority. As often as not, rather than evaluating a proposition from scratch, we rely the the wisdom or knowledge of others to help us. These are … the authorities. As Buddhists we rely on the wisdom of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. We may also independently rely on the knowledge of scientists or other scholars, as when we look up something up in an encyclopedia that they have compiled. Some of us rely on commercial news networks and TV pundits to help us interpret world, national and local events. Those who like to cook rely on the Joy of Cooking or on Julia Childs to fill the gap in what we personally know and what we would like to put on the table. A culture can carry wisdom that its adherents rely on (although sometimes I fear ours comes up a bit short). To rely on an authority requires belief in that authority. An authority is someone, or a body of teachings, that can endorse or dismiss propositions for us, or to simplify or shortcut their evaluation.
Where does belief in an authority come from? Potentially it arises in the same way that belief a simple proposition. In order to gain belief in science, for instance, one might consider evidence and match these against deciding criteria – particularly track record, upholdance of truth, rationality of methods of developing and evaluating theories, and the coolness of lab coats (I provide the last example, lest we forget the presence of emotional factors) – before one might accept science into one’s world view. As for accepting a marriage proposal, a large element of faith will be involved, since one is hardly likely encompass all of science, its results and the evidence for its results in one’s evaluation.
It is much the same with Buddhism, in which we gain belief in the authority of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, the three sources of Buddhist wisdom. If our primary criterion might be benefit, as the Buddha taught in the Kālāma Sutta, we should be interested in knowing such things as how Buddhists we might know act and behave, and the track record of Buddhism with respect to peace. We might also be influenced by the emotional response to the cool statuary and the fashionable attire of the nuns and monks. Accepting the authority of the Triple Gem looks like this:
Notice that what this science or this Buddhism is that we have accepted into our thinking is, in either case, ill-defined. Buddhism has many sects, many forms of Dharma. Science has many fragmented and competing endeavors, adherence to different paradigms, and array of scientific disciplines that tend to have different takes on phenomena. So, each of these may be an abstraction and its referent may evolve with time. Buddhist belief tends to be defined for the individual by a particular sect or teacher, or by a particular folk understanding. Scientific belief tends in the folk culture not to stray much from a mechanistic, materialist, realist, nineteenth century understanding of science, supplemented with some knowledge of twentieth century genetics. I think this is what is sometimes called scientism. It might be recalled that the wisdom of the Kālāma Sutta is applied most specifically to belief in authority, for the Sutta begins with the Kālāmas requesting of the Buddha criteria for evaluating the often conflicting viewpoints of the various sages who visit their town, each a potential authority with vast knowledge and wisdom.
If one has developed a sound confidence in a particular authority, it becomes an arbiter as propositions of certain kinds are encountered, that is, it provides a blanket pre-approval of propositions that one might otherwise painstakingly evaluate for acceptance. A scientific proposition, such as bats are birds, might be evaluated in this way, and readily accepted, without the effort of finding out what qualities, exactly, a bird has and then determining if a bat has each of those qualities.
A religious proposition, such as the hindrances inhibit jhāna, might be evaluated in this way, even prior to discovering its validity ones own experience:
Many abstract values, things like democracy, human rights, fair trade, equality, liberty and peace, are like Buddhism or Science, in that once they are integrated they provide criteria for evaluating other propositions. Notice that these values are themselves accepted not as objective truths – science cannot verify them – but commonly according to the criterion of benefit endorsed in the Kalama Sutta. In considering whether to support some proposed public policy, for instance, one considers the evidence that it will encourage or at least not undermine democracy, human rights, etc.
Re-evaluation. Notice that accepting a proposition on the merits of available evidence almost inevitably requires supplementing what is known with faith. When that evaluation additionally relies on the endorsement of an authority, and where belief in that authority additionally rests on faith, we have a double reliance on faith. That our reliance on faith proliferates in this way is not surprising in a complex, contingent world, but the resulting scaffold of evaluations and endorsements, with its many somewhat loose (i.e., faith-based) connections, might as a whole appear quite wobbly and inspire little faith that it might uphold reasonable choices in life’s negotiations. However, by progressively re-evaluating each proposition and particularly each previously accepted supporting authority of the scaffold, we can progressively tighten up the loose connections to make the scaffold firm.
For instance, consider the proposition mindfulness of breathing is efficacious. Buddhism is primarily an introspective practice tradition, and, as such, the evidence initially available for evaluating such a claim is likely either anecdotal or based on endorsement by the Buddhist authorities (confidence in which may be still shaky at this point). Accepting the proposition on this basis will require a good deal of faith, but acceptance, at at least a provisional level, is necessary if one is actually to begin to practice of mindfulness of breathing. Nonetheless, with the beginning of practice abundant introspective evidence becomes available to re-evaluate the efficacy of mindfulness of breathing. It is this re-evaluation that generally evokes comments like, “Hey, this mindfulness of breathing seems to really work.” The re-evaluation carries much further than the initial evaluation, and therefore relies much less on faith. As confidence in the practice grows, increased engagement in the practice follows, along with even more evidence of the efficacy of mindfulness of breathing. In this way direct experience progressively replaces faith.
By the same token, the initial acceptance of the practice of mindfulness of breathing probably depended on the acceptance of the authority of the Triple Gem, at least an a provisional level. As confidence grows in the various things that Buddha, Dharma and Sangha endorse, confidence also grows by the same token in the Triple Gem itself, eventually evoking comments like, “Hey, this Buddhism stuff seems to really work.” Direct experience begins to replace the initial big leap of faith required in taking Refuge. Many of the Buddha’s teachings are psychological, that is, they concern mental factors and the way mental factors condition one another. These teachings are initially accepted on the authority of the Triple Gem, serve as pointers to what one can discover in one’s own experience. They feed the practice of examination that leads to wisdom. Wisdom, in turn, support the re-evaluation of the teachings whose initial acceptance led to its own arising. Faith is replaced by wisdom as teachings are in this way verified in experience.
More elegantly, the Buddha taught the following five faculties (indriya) required for Awakening:
- faith (saddhā),
- energy (viriya),
- mindfulness (sati),
- concentration (samādhi),
- wisdom (paññā).
Faith is the input and wisdom the output. Energy, mindfulness and concentration are the faculties that sustain examination, also mental cultivation in the Noble Eightfold Path.
As practicing Buddhists we are more like practicing scientists than like laypeople who believe in science. As we encounter new teachings, we are concerned with their thorough integration into our understanding and practice. However, simple noting and accepting is of no use unless we can come to terms with the teaching, generally by experiencing it directly and introspectively through practice. We are also driven by faith, faith in a system of understanding and practice that we at first only dimly comprehend, but that we gradually verify in our own experience over a period of years. Within Buddhism those “Hey, this really works” moments that practicing scientists experience are common.
In this post we have seen cases in which evaluation and acceptance progress smoothly. What happens, however, when the Buddhist authorities seem to endorse a proposition that is just not believable? The following posts consider four options available to us.