All paths of practice must begin with a simple question. How do we know where to start? In the Cankī Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 95), the Buddha debates a young Brahmin named Kāpaṭhika, who has faith in the Vedas, and only the Vedas, as his religious guide. In opposing the boy’s approach, the Buddha gives a detailed overview of how he believes one is supposed to assess any proposed dhamma, and not be led astray. The question he raises is deep and profound. How do we choose the proper path? How do we ensure we aren’t following false teachings? Most generally, how are we to discover the truth?
The Buddha notes (14) that there are five criteria we ordinarily use when coming to beliefs, but all of them “may turn out in two different ways”; that is, they may turn out true or false, and none of them is perfect. These are:
(1) Blind faith,
(2) Simple personal preference,
(3) Oral or written tradition,
(4) Logical reasoning,
(5) Reflection and acceptance.
Evaluating the Criteria
One may hold a view based on any of these five criteria, the Buddha tells us, and yet that view may be either true or false. That the first three can lead us astray is uncontroversial. Blind faith, personal preference, or tradition are all very weak reasons to hold a belief. Kāpaṭhika’s faith in the oral tradition of the Vedas lies among these, as the Buddha tells him (14).
More in need of explanation are why the last two may also lead us astray. Since logic is famously truth-preserving (and indeed since the Buddha himself resorts to logic in showing how truth can actually be preserved, later in the sutta), the problem that arises is one of finding the right premises. Simply knowing that our beliefs are arrived at logically is no guarantee of the truth of those beliefs, since they may be based upon false assumptions.
Number five, reflection and acceptance, will eventually prove to be a good summary of the Buddha’s own view of the subject (20). But since here he treats it skeptically, presumably what he means to point out is that not all reflection is of sufficient care and thoroughness to reveal the truth. So simply having reflected upon some claim, and having accepted it based on that ground, is no guarantee that it is true.
So, then, how are we to find the right path? The Buddha begins simply, by illustrating what it means to “preserve truth”: a person who has faith in something preserves truth by saying “I have faith in this thing”. She at least does not utter a falsehood. This is a small logical deduction, and as such is truth preserving. However, as the Buddha notes this method won’t discover truth, it will only restate items of faith, which themselves might be true or false.
In order to discover truth, the Buddha outlines a lengthy, sequential series of steps, which I will not go into in detail. The question which instead will concern us here is whether those steps guarantee success.
So a teacher presents us with a dhamma claim. How should we begin to evaluate it? The series begins (as in MN 47) with an investigation into the person who presents the claim. What is the teacher’s own behavior? Does he or she display greed, hatred or delusion, which might lead us astray? If so, then we can reject the teaching as potentially harmful. If the teacher does not display such unskillful behaviors, then we are justified in placing faith in that teacher, as the start of our path into the dhamma. This is our crucial opening step, and everything that we learn from this teacher will follow from that single decision.
Evaluating the Claim
There are problems with the Buddha’s key initial criterion, however. This evaluation does not guarantee the truth of our teacher’s claims, for three reasons. First, this strategy is an example of a fallacy known as “ad hominem“: facts about the person stating a claim are not directly relevant to the truths of the claims the person is stating. Or to put it another way, even the greediest, most hateful or deluded person on earth may speak truthfully. We cannot with certainty reject an assertion based upon the bad behavior of the person making it.
Second, it does not follow that someone who is free from greed or hatred necessarily knows things that are truth-revealing. One free from greed or hatred may be ethically laudable, but may otherwise know little. What about someone who is free from delusion? That is a harder matter, since it isn’t clear what behavior is supposed to tell us that a teacher is free from delusion. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi translate the passage so as to put the matter in terms of “obsession” (19): to tell if our teacher is not deluded, we need to see that he or she is not mentally obsessed in harmful ways. But even so, one who speaks and acts in ways free from harmful obsessions is not guaranteed to be in possession of the truth.
We do have to admit that lacking these unskillful traits is a good thing in a teacher: it makes it more likely that he or she will not try to lead us astray. But it does not guarantee that our teacher’s dhamma will be true and informative.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the problem of our own imperfection. We are by hypothesis at the beginning of the path, rank novices. In order to know with certainty that our teacher is without greed, hatred or delusion, we must nevertheless somehow be perfectly able to gauge those states in others. But we are not. So we may be led astray by overestimating the worthiness of our teacher.
Although the Buddha gives further criteria for evaluating a dhamma claim (that it should be profound, hard to see, peaceful, and so on), there may be many, mutually exclusive teachings that fit those criteria. Further, until and unless we are fully enlightened ourselves, how accurate is our opinion about profundity and peacefulness likely to be?
Since the first step in this process of evaluating teacher and dhamma is not guaranteed to provide the true path, the rest of the steps that follow (having faith in the teacher, visitation, and so on, (20)), are also not guaranteed to provide the true path. It remains possible that we have chosen the wrong teacher due to our own inability to judge the teacher as worthy, the teaching as wise, or due to the teacher’s being relatively ethically pure but ignorant. Having chosen the wrong teacher, we may be introduced to the wrong path, as perhaps Kāpaṭhika himself was. Any chain of reasoning is only as good as its weakest link.
There is a further issue, raised by Bhikkhu Bodhi in his discussion of the sutta. The process of searching for truth begins with faith. For the Buddha this is not blind faith, instead it is based on a studied trust in one’s teacher. Nevertheless the faith itself presents us with a problem: might it actually color the experiences we have during the course of our learning? So, for example, Christians will learn from Christian teachers to have faith in God and an immortal soul, and hence in their deep meditative states they will seem to see their eternal self and the God to whom they direct prayer. Hindus learn from their gurus about the non-dual nature that makes their souls identical with Brahman, and then witness the same in meditation.
The claim in each case is that direct experience verifies the claims; however different followers in different traditions have different sorts of direct experience. Each supposedly verifies the truth of their claims. But each of the claims is mutually exclusive: some claim experience of an eternal soul, others claim there is no such, experience. Some claim experience of an eternal God, others claim there is no such experience. Much of the Buddha’s elaboration of wrong views in the Brahmajāla Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 1) revolves around this very problem.
How do we adjudicate between these different experiences? Who, if any among them, is right? How do we discover truth, given that direct experience based on faith — even reasoned faith — “may turn out two different ways”?
I don’t have a good answer to this question. I don’t believe there is any way to preserve or discover truth with absolute fidelity, since no matter how good one’s reasoning, one’s premises may prove false; and however direct one’s experience, one may misinterpret it.
One may claim that an advanced or enlightened being can nevertheless tell the difference between proper and improper interpretations of experience, or that such a being could somehow be able to leave such problems of interpretation behind (truth only being a matter of “views”), but this is of no use to those of us at the foothills of the path. It’s also clear from his approach to the young Brahmin Kāpaṭhika that the Buddha did not believe differing faith-based interpretations of experience to be equally valid.
Fortunately there is more we can do: we can expand upon the Buddha’s own investigation. Instead of relying on our own, untutored opinion about a teacher, we might ask around and get more opinions about him or her. What do the wise people say? What do the critics say? What other information might people have turned up? Although this is also not guaranteed to discover truth, at least it brings in a wider base of evidence and more pairs of eyes.
Personal, subjective experience, the behavior of a teacher, no matter how compelling, is thin on the ground. (Who among us will ever have a truly enlightened teacher, anyway?) Examples from all manor of traditions show that experience can lead astray. In order to do our best to preserve truth, we also need objective or intersubjective testing: we need to design experiments to eliminate the faith-bias of the practitioner. We need to gather other people, perhaps antagonistic, to redo experiments and verify teachings. We need open debate and discussion among people of all backgrounds.
We need to broaden the Buddha’s own investigative techniques to encompass the methods and results of modern science, and to embrace scientific consensus in our search for what is justified to believe. This does not mean we must restrict our beliefs simply to what is accepted by scientific consensus: nobody can live that way. It is no matter of science that I can find my way to the grocery store and back. But it does mean that teachings should be weighed against science when they can be, to see if they stand or fall. The Dalai Lama has said no less.
Of all the great religious and philosophical traditions, few are as in tune with a contemporary scientific understanding of the mind and its place in lived experience as was the Buddha and his dhamma. Contemporary Buddhists often use the results of modern science to validate the three marks of existence against claims of an eternal soul. What’s to fear in pushing farther? The Buddha himself held the dhamma up to inquiry and examination.
Since for the novice, or for the experienced practitioner with ‘beginner’s mind’, the methodology outlined by the Buddha in the Cankī Sutta does not guarantee that we find the true path, the correct attitude of the practitioner should remain always open. This is not to say we cannot accept dhamma with a high level of confidence. What it means is that we must weigh the dhamma against results from the sciences when we can: they do not require faith in a single teacher, nor the assumption that a teacher who is well-behaved is thereby in possession of the truth, nor the worry that we as imperfect judges may not be prepared to determine the worthiness of our teacher.
An earlier version of this post appeared at the Secular Buddhist Association website.