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February 24, 2011


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One thing about the "Kalamas sutta" (Kesaputta sutta) is that while appearing for some to support a kind of doctrine of agnosticism, it doesn't take much scrutiny of the actual text to realize that it doesn't at all. In fact the opposite is true; its very premises are gnosis-oriented. In the Kalamas sutta the basic question is put forth "how can one know the true doctrine amidst all the confusion of various teachers?" The Buddha's answer, far from assuming that one can't or should not try to know, is in the same gear as all his instruction to the unconverted: first gear on the way to a gradual path. Even if you threw out the Kesaputta sutta, this approach would be found elsewhere. The Buddha is giving driving instructions to someone who never even got in a car before, he isn't going to start teaching them heel-toe cornering techniques. Yet, his reply is far from agnostic: the very phrase "when you know in yourselves" has a clear gnostic thrust to it! Part of the message of the Kesaputta sutta is that second-hand belief is not the same as gnosis or even virtue for that matter, but this does not obviate the role of gnosis in Buddhism. It is no surprise, however, that the Buddha's primary instruction here is for the Kalamas to start with moral virtues and see their immediate worth. How they fit into the big picture comes later, with conversion.

So a larger context is at work here as well. By itself, the Kesaputta sutta may seem to offer the implicit message that for the Buddha and his disciples rebirth might not be true, and that it wouldn't matter to his doctrine whether it were true or not true. But it does not take much searching through the Pali suttas to find not only the explicit assertion that rebirth is true, but that having the rectified view that it is true is a definitive part of an essential aspect of the Buddha's path (it's in the first of the eight path factors!); examples abound.

Importantly, however, the approach of the Kesaputta sutta is echoed in the Apaṇṇaka Sutta ("the undeniable") of the MN (M I.400), but complemented with not only the assertion of the rectified doctrine of rebirth but a more detailed explanation of the price of wrong view about it.
That the doctrine of rebirth is "Apaṇṇaka" (certain, true, absolute; also described is "niyyānika" or "leading to salvation," "profitable") should have a tempering effect on one's interpretation of the Kesaputta sutta. From the Apaṇṇaka sutta:

"Because there actually is the next world, the view of one who thinks, 'There is a next world' is his right view. Because there actually is the next world, when he is resolved that 'There is a next world,' that is his right resolve. Because there actually is the next world, when he speaks the statement, 'There is a next world,' that is his right speech. Because there actually is the next world, when he is says that 'There is a next world,' he doesn't make himself an opponent to those arahants who know the next world. Because there actually is the next world, when he persuades another that 'There is a next world,' that is persuasion in what is true Dhamma. And in that persuasion in what is true Dhamma, he doesn't exalt himself or disparage others. Whatever bad habituation he previously had is abandoned, while good habituation is manifested. And this right view, right resolve, right speech, non-opposition to the arahants, persuasion in what is true Dhamma, non-exaltation of self, & non-disparagement of others: These many skillful activities come into play, in dependence on right view." http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.060.than.html

And all these considerations come prior to mentioning the most obvious aspect of the larger context of rebirth's role in Buddhist doctrine: It is no less than fundamental. The very structure of Buddhist soteriology, expressed in the Four Noble truths, includes that rebirth is the perpetuation of Samsara, and that it has a cause. Birth is an undeniable part of the definition of suffering, and its cessation is an undeniable part of the definition of the cessation of suffering. Insight into the reality of rebirth is 2/3 of the "Threefold knowledge," a description of the very enlightenment of the Buddha himself and to which his disciples aspire. If this life is the only one to live, Buddhism's goal and means to that goal become severely diminished from most of what is found in the suttas. The Buddha's victorious doctrine becomes merely an ancient version of our own modern mantra: "all things in moderation". I'm definitely in strong agreement with the Zennist that this would be a "tearing down" of Buddhism.

Of course, one of the problems with this is that the agnostic interpretation, like Freud's theory of the Unconscious, is itself "incontrovertible"; because any argument aiming to contextualize the sutta will to the agnostic "Kalamist" fall into the category of reliance on "what has come down in scriptures" and/or "hearsay" and so be tossed into the aporia which surrounds agnosticism towards Buddhist doctrines.

Excellent and insightful.

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