Many of us – this author included – would say that we prefer facts to faith. I don’t know if Bigfoot roams the forests of North America and I don’t know if Gimbal and Tic-Tac are aliens; I choose to wait for verifiable facts. In the meantime, I avoid drawing conclusions about such things; what value is there for me to form an opinion?
Yet, the world in which we live today is so vastly full of accessible information that we cannot help but accept the word of others for many things. Science tells us that the universe is roughly 13.7 billion years old; not only is this something I wouldn’t know how to independently confirm, even if I did, I doubt that’s how I’d choose to spend my time. Doctors prescribe treatments that we ourselves haven’t put through our own programs of rigorous testing and yet most of us take our medications. Most of us accept that men have landed on the moon and that the earth is spherical, but even on such basic things we’re taking the word of others.
The Proliferation of Acceptance
We live in a world where almost anyone can reach the world with his or her thoughts, art, and ideas. This is a wonderful thing on many levels but it has had some unintended side-effects. Anyone can post – or repost – anything, and they often do so without the slightest thought of an attempt at verification. Many of us know better to believe what we read on social media, but many others are not so discerning.
Perhaps in part this is because we humans have never dealt with something like the Internet before the last couple of decades. Perhaps, also, it is because we’ve been conditioned to accept certain things on faith without even realizing it. We all attended school and accepted the words of our teachers, and I doubt we took time to fact-check things that our parents told us. We grew up with newspapers, magazines, and television news shows, all giving us information that many of us accepted without thought of independent verification. The Internet came along and simply followed the trail that had been blazed for it.
The criteria for acceptance became not one of independent verification, but – in many cases – how well a “fact” resonates with a person’s preexisting preferences. People don’t enjoy seeing their sacred cows slain! When it comes to choosing one what one group says over another, realizing that most are either not inclined or incapable of independently verifying either, chances are they’ll accept the view that fits the reality they’ve constructed for themselves.
Lying for Fun and Profit
In recent years, we have seen in America that some choose to take advantage of the fact that many people simply believe what they’re told. People in positions of power now propagate conspiracy theories as well as crafting their own. Certain new media outlets do the same, filling the airwaves with things that most of them don’t even believe themselves in the name of profit and power.
Being told not to take the COVID vaccine or that elections are rigged result in division, violence, and death, and those who engage in such have blood on their hands.
A Buddhist Response
In the Kamala Sutta, it is said that a group – the Kalama people of Kesaputta – approached the Buddha with the following:
“Lord, there are some brahmans and contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound and glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, and disparage them. And then other brahmans and contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound and glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, and disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain and in doubt: Which of these venerable brahmans and contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”“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
To this, the Buddha is said to have begun his response with:
“…don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.”ibid.
Then the Buddha then goes on to say:
“When greed arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm? … And this greedy person, overcome by greed, his mind possessed by greed, kills living beings, takes what is not given, goes after another person’s wife, tells lies, and induces others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term harm and suffering.ibid.
Having also referenced aversion and delusion along with greed, the Buddha then begins to paint the reverse side of the picture:
“When lack of greed arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm? … And this ungreedy person, not overcome by greed, his mind not possessed by greed, doesn’t kill living beings, take what is not given, go after another person’s wife, tell lies, or induce others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term welfare and happiness.”Ibid.
In this writer’s interpretation, the Buddha is saying, “you know right from wrong.” Look at these people, their actions, their motivations. Don’t accept their words because they’re a teacher, preacher, politician, or TV news personality. Don’t accept their word because they’re on your favorite news channel or allied with your political part of choice. Instead, ask yourself: is this person possessed by greed? Full of aversion to groups of people who aren’t harming others? Spreading delusion to his or her followers?
We’re in an unusual time in human history, and it is of vital importance that people do not allow themselves to be caught up in the words of fear-mongers and liars. They have no interest whatsoever in your well-being; they’re only in it for themselves.
A Final Note
The Buddha was clear that these rules applied to his teachings as well. The only “faith” required for Buddhism is to give it enough benefit-of-doubt to test out its practices in your own life.
Thus, near the end of the Kamala Sutta, the Buddha concludes with:
“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 adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.”Ibid.