Be a Lamp Unto Yourself

The freedom that Buddhism offers can’t be found if you don’t ask questions—about the teachings, the teachers, and yourself. Larry Rosenberg on how to cultivate a spirit of inquiry, even skepticism, to illuminate your path.

Larry Rosenberg
13 November 2013
Larry Rosenberg Shambhala Sun Therevada Skepticism Ajahn Chah
Photo by Ben Hobbs.

The freedom that Buddhism offers can’t be found if you don’t ask questions—about the teachings, the teachers, and yourself. Larry Rosenberg on how to cultivate a spirit of inquiry, even skepticism, to illuminate your path.

The practice of the dharma is learning how to live, and it is both a joyful and challenging path. It asks that you open your mind to take a fresh look at your views and opinions, and to accept nothing on faith alone. As you practice, you will be encouraged to investigate your most cherished convictions, even those you may have about the dharma itself. Happily, this can be a never-ending journey of self-discovery into every aspect of your life.

Of all the teachings of the Buddha, the Kalama Sutta is one of my favorites precisely because it encourages this profound interest in the dharma. The Kalamas were a group of people living in India at the time of the Buddha, and they questioned him about how to recognize wise and authentic teachings. Indeed, if Buddhism were not infused with the spirit of this sutta—a spirit of questioning and testing—I’m quite sure I would not have this 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 generations of rabbis, but, like his own ex-rabbi father, he rejected that heritage—although the term rejected is too weak. He frequently expressed contempt not only for Orthodox Judaism, but also for all religions. Before Hebrew school class, my father would pull me aside and say things such as, “Ask the rabbi just how Moses got that river to split.” As you can imagine, Rabbi Minkowitz was not particularly pleased to be questioned in this way. I think my father was the first in recorded history 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 did it. And my father fumed.

My father instilled in me his belief in the necessity of critical thinking. If I got into trouble—I was usually very good at home, but mischievous at school and in the neighborhood—my father put me on trial when he came home from work. He had always wanted to be a lawyer or judge, but he drove a cab, so he had to settle for a court made up of my mother and me. His court was sensitive and reasonable: he allowed “the accused” to speak, and sometimes, after listening, he dropped the charges. Of course, my mother would smile: they were both happy that I got off.

But my father always explained 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 made it clear that my actions had consequences. Above all, he taught me that everyone has the right to ask questions about anything and everything. With that right comes a responsibility: if you question the actions of others, you must also be willing to question your own.

Like my father, the Kalamas of the Kalama Sutta were skeptical but responsible. Their world was alive to spiritual matters, and overrun with teachers often competing for an audience and advocating different philosophies or paths. Their environment was not unlike the one you live in today. You’re inundated with choices. “Interested in religion? What kind? Buddhism? What flavor? Vipassana? Oh, you’ve tried that? A little too dry, perhaps too much talk about suffering and impermanence? You might prefer Dzogchen, the innate perfection of the mind. Besides, most vipassana teachers are not even monks; they just wear sweatpants. At least the Tibetan teachers in their colorful outfits look like teachers. Or consider Zen. Beautiful! All those parables that teach you and make you laugh. Or what about the One Dharma approach that embraces them all?”

You live in a great swirling spiritual marketplace, full of promises and claims. No wonder many of you find it confusing. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Kalamas were similarly confused by the profusion of paths to wisdom and peace.

Though the Kalamas knew the Buddha’s reputation as a great sage, they were concerned that he, too, might be merely one more teacher with a competing point of view. I deeply admire their uncommon degree of skepticism. The history of the world reveals that most of us are drawn to those who provide a strong, uncompromising teaching and who say or imply: “This is it, and everyone else is wrong.” Certainly you see this dangerous pattern in contemporary politics. But it also shows up in spiritual circles, where it raises the same questions: Do you really want freedom? Can you handle the responsibility? Or would you just prefer an impressive teacher to provide answers and do the hard work for you?

Despite the host of problems in dharma centers in the past thirty years, I still see some meditators check their intelligence at the door, and almost grovel at the feet of a teacher, saying, “Just tell me how to live.” Even with my staunch belief in questioning, I’ve made this mistake a few times myself. Have you? I longed for my special teacher with unique access to the truth. It felt fantastic to be their student. My spiritual life was taken care of. I was absolved of the worry and responsibility that comes with exercising the right to ask questions. But, of course, I wasn’t free.

The Buddha’s response to the concerns and confusions of the Kalamas gives you an antidote to making unskillful choices. He guides the Kalamas, and you, in the selection of a teacher and also in the skill of investigation in all realms of life:

So, as I said, Kalamas: “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.” Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

“Now, Kalamas, 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 skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’—then you should enter and remain in them.”

Before looking further into these teachings in this sutta, I’d like to offer another story. This one is said to have happened in a village in China where people came from far and wide to hear the dharma talks of a highly respected young teacher. One day, an esteemed old master joined the crowd. When the young teacher spotted him, he said, “Please, come up here, sit next to me while I give my talk.” So the old master rose and sat at his side.

The young teacher resumed his talk and every other word out of his mouth quoted a sutta or a Zen master. The old teacher started to nod off in front of everyone. Though the young one noticed this out of the corner of his eye, he continued. The more authorities he cited, the sleepier the old master appeared. Finally, the young teacher interrupted himself to ask, “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 hard pinch. The young teacher screamed, “Ouch!”  The old master said, “Ah! That’s what I’ve traveled this long distance to hear. This pure teaching. This ‘ouch’ teaching.”

Like the old master in this Zen story, the Buddha’s response to the Kalamas highlights the primacy of direct experience. The Buddha acknowledges that people rely on multiple types of authority: some internal, some external, some reliable, some way off the mark. He advises them that just because a teaching is ancient, or recited from the scripture, does not make it true. Just because it appears reasonable, or you’re drawn to the person teaching it, does not mean it is wise.

Then the question becomes: How do you distinguish authentic from false or misguided? Where do you turn for guidance to learn how to live?

In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha does not reject reason and logic. He does not say that ancient teachings are irrelevant, or that you have to reinvent the dharma wheel every time you face a choice. No, the Buddha gives the Kalamas—and us—guidelines that are precautions, not prohibitions. He cautions us against blind obedience to the authority of traditions and teachers, or to the authority of our own ideas. He also cautions against blind obedience to reason and logic.

For students new to meditative living, these warnings can be especially relevant. On first coming to practice, you will find that convictions inspired by teachings, teachers, and community support help motivate and energize you to begin to practice. However, this faith is provisional. Remember, the Buddha tells you to test the teachings and ideas as “working hypotheses” in the laboratory of your actions. There is an “expiration date” when conviction based on external support gives way to conviction grounded in personal experience. At that point, your understanding is no longer borrowed from others. It is authentic and your own. This happens as you develop the ability to awaken and stabilize mindfulness.

Whether you are a new or experienced meditator, when you truly investigate your beliefs and convictions, don’t you find that it challenges and stretches you? This has certainly been my experience. Teachings can inspire you. Just to hear them can satisfy your intellect and nourish your emotions. Even so, remember to ask: Where is this taking me? Does the practice of meditation move me in a direction to act with more kindness and wisdom? Investigate again and again.

But don’t stop there. 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. “Be a lamp unto yourself,” says the Buddha. Your questions light the way. This is the heart of the Kalama Sutta.

Ultimately, your ideas of the truth must be put to the test of lived experience. Throughout his teachings, the Buddha offers a simple formula that guides us in this direction: examine everything in terms of cause and effect. Whatever is unskillful, leading to harm or suffering for you and others, should be recognized and abandoned. Whatever is skillful, leading to happiness and peace for you and others, should be pursued.

Remember, early in his life as a teacher, the Buddha said, “I teach one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.” And he gave us a set of practices that emphasizes learning how to live and how to lessen suffering, called the four noble truths: there is suffering; there is a cause of suffering, which is craving and attachment; there is cessation of suffering; and there is a path of practice that brings about this cessation.

The four noble truths are my unfailing compass for every form of life, whether teaching in a meditation hall or encountering a stranger on the street. For thousands of years, they have been shared by every school of Buddhism and guided countless yogis. The four noble truths offer the vehicle to learn the skills to diminish suffering in the world, even to free yourself from suffering. The first noble truth, there is suffering, describes an unskillful outcome: the emergence and recognition of suffering. The second noble truth, craving and attachment, is the unskillful cause that brings about this harmful outcome. The third noble truth, cessation of suffering, is a skillful outcome brought about by following the fourth noble truth, an eightfold path characterized by ethics, stability of mind, and wisdom.

Yet even the most fundamental teachings of the Buddha, such as the four noble truths, deserve to be held up to the light of inquiry described in the Kalama Sutta. I learned this in my early days as a Vipassana yogi, when the Thai forest master Ajahn Chah visited the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. At that time, many of us were enthralled with the liberating power of “letting go.” In our discussions, everyone was letting go of this and letting go of that—and often letting go of “merely everything.” As he listened, Ajahn Chah seemed to grow skeptical. He encouraged us to slow down, back up, and carefully examine the moments when we were actually suffering. Rather than rush to let go, he urged us to make direct contact with the suffering and to see whether it was caused by some form of craving and attachment, of wanting things to be other than the way they were. He felt that the real letting go was learned by seeing the price we paid by holding on and resisting—and the joy experienced when we were free of the burden of attachment.

Paying attention to our own experience of suffering, rather than our conceptual notions of letting go, gave us the chance to see the benefits of the four noble truths in the crucible of our own lives. The transformation of suffering that comes from awareness is most powerful when it’s intimate with the experience of your own life. Inquire, question, and test your understanding of the teachings so that it becomes bone deep.

From Three Steps to Awakening: A Practice for Bringing Mindfulness to Life, by Larry Rosenberg, © 2013. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

Larry Rosenberg

Larry Rosenberg

Larry Rosenberg is the founder of Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the author of several books including Breath by Breath and Three Steps to Awakening.