“You, Contemplatives, have been taught by me with this timeless teaching which can be realised and verified, which leads to the goal [of nibbāna], and which can be understood personally by the wise.” – The Nikāya Buddha, in the Majjhima Nikāya.
What grounds our knowledge? What kind of process in us, what kind of intelligence is it, that understands, realizes, and verifies this teaching of the deathless?
By what grounding can it be unpacked and made one’s own? Must it be believed? Or, perhaps, provisionally tried on? What would this mean, to ‘believe it provisionally’? What kind of relationship can we have with statements which appear to be made from a knowledge deeper than our own?
There are so many horrific things happening in the world due to beliefs. The evidence is available that Buddhists are not immune from this disease called ‘views and opinions.’ We too can make identities our of beliefs and create division in society.
If I write something like: “In close to the core of the human being is the fear of being alone with chaos, and this is at the entrance-way to the deathless,” and how will my listener verify this? How will she enter into a transforming dialogue with what I write or say?
If something is not immediately available for verification, how can the statement be used wisely? How will we know what is actually so, as compared to opinion, conjecture, or theory? This is the intelligent seeker’s situation, in relation to the Nikāya texts, too. We have to find a way to fathom the wisdom in the texts; a way which is not merely logical or academic, or based on other people’s learning.
Naturally, the living ‘wise’ are a support in our understanding; but even then, we will need to assess whether our teacher is sincere and has walked the talk sufficiently. There are as many deluded teachers in Buddhist settings, as there are in any faith group.
So, it seems we must develop our own ‘crap detector,’ to find our way forward in these deep matters.
Sometimes things aren’t clear, but the feeling is there, and it can change you. I was studying under a insincere Tibetan teacher years ago – an immature man. I felt something wasn’t right, but my fellow practitioners were telling me (and he was telling me) that I had to trust the guru. They believed that I couldn’t apply Western norms of behaviour to a superior being.
I didn’t buy it, and I left. I got out by giving some other reason, because I wasn’t sure exactly whether I was doing the right thing. It took me a while to shake off the trance. Once I was out of there and could be on my own, I could feel inwardly and acknowledge that it was his narcissism, and his emotional violence (presented under the guise of challenging our ‘egos’) that was making me fell ill-at-ease; as well as his obvious predilection for pretty women – the dakinis.
Thank heavens for trusting my bodily feel. It wasn’t easy though. The pull to not break the unity of the group, and to not cast ourselves adrift, is very strong. These things obstruct a clear-eyed assessment of the situation. Not quite having the skills to articulate my vague feeling of disquiet about the whole sham, I stayed in the group until I found some explicit reason to leave.
I hadn’t at this stage discovered Focusing. Once I found Focusing, I had a more reliable method of entering into the vague feel of situations here in my body, and of finding words for the bodily-felt meanings in there. At last! A crap detector.
Recently someone said something wonderful to me. I probably won’t do it justice, but her meaning was something like: ‘You’ve given me the words to help stay with when there aren’t words.’ That was brilliant. That’s what my Focusing teachers did for me.
The same thing goes for the texts, themselves. The Nikāya Buddha says something, and we have to find a way of grounding our inquiry, to find what is so, and what’s not. He is aware of this, of course, and occasionally addresses the dilemma with encouraging words – such as those spoken to the people of the Kalāma clan, in the striking Kalāma Sutta (in the Aṅguttara Nikāya):
“Come, Kālāmans, do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in your scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought ‘The monk is our teacher.’
“When you know in yourselves: ‘These ideas are unwholesome, liable to censure, condemned by the wise, being adopted and put into effect, they lead to harm and suffering,’ then you should abandon them…
“When you know in yourselves: ‘These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness,’ then you should practise them and abide in them.
Bhikkhu Nanamoli,. The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pāli Canon (p. 175). Pariyatti Publishing.
That’s helpful. This ‘knowing in yourself’ is a kind of knowing that can be trusted, that is different from those other ways by which we commonly ‘know’ something. It takes time to develop it, but it’s possible.
Yet, notice that it’s a delicate balance of placing ourselves under the wise, for instruction; and yet, of knowing for ourselves. Real teachers empower you to know for yourself.
After the above encouraging words, he proceeds skilfully to show them that they have this capacity; that they can trust their own experience in these things.
Elsewhere, in the Samyutta Nikāya, at the end of The Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving, this natural tension is present. He asks:
“Don’t you speak of what you yourself have known, seen, and understood for yourself?”
“Well done, Practitioners. So you have been guided by me in this truth, which is visible here and now, immediately effective, inviting inspection, onward leading, to be personally experienced by the wise.”
– Translated by Christopher J. Ash