Family and teachers commonly admonish children to "use their heads"; to think reasonably and sensibly, and solve problems in accordance with reality, not as a reaction to beliefs or fantasies or wishes about how we want reality to be. Buddhist philosophy and psychology encourages us to do the same. Rather than believing in rules or ideas because an authority figure (God or the law) says we should do so, Buddhism suggests we practice its teachings and methods to discover for ourselves their validity and veracity.
This is explicitly stated in the Kalama Sutta, also known as The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry. Like us, the Kalama clan were a people confused by the myriad choices of spiritual and ethical systems offered to them by various religions, teachers, statesmen, gurus, priests, and schools. So many different people and groups seemed to believe they were "right" and held the ultimate truth, yet the contradictions were so great and the choices so great; who best to follow? When the Buddha and his students visited their village in Kesaputta, India, they asked him for his advice, and he replied as follows:
· Do not be led by what you are told. (Ma anussavena. Do not believe something just because it has been passed along and retold or is hearsay.)
· Do not be led by whatever has become traditional or handed down from past generations. See it with fresh eyes. (Ma paramparaya. Do not believe something merely because it has been handed down from past generations.)
· Do not be led by common opinion. (Ma itikiraya. Do not believe something simply because it is well-known everywhere or on account of rumors or because people talk a a great deal about it.)
· Do not be led by what the newspapers and books say. (Ma Pitakasampadanena. Do not believe something just because it is cited in a text.)
· Do not be led by mere logic because logic doesn't always apply. (Ma takkahetu. Do not believe something solely on the grounds of logical reasoning.)
· Do not believe something merely because it accords with your philosophy. (Ma nayahetu. Do not believe anything merely because presumption is in its favor. Do not be led by mere deduction or inference.)
· Do not believe something just because it appeals to common sense. (Ma akaraparivitakkena. Do not be led by considering only outward appearance.)
· Do not believe something just because you like the idea. (Ma ditthinijjhanakkhantiya. Do not be led by preconceived notions.)
· Do not believe something because the speaker seems trustworthy. (Ma bhabbarupataya. Do not be led by what seems acceptable; do not be led by what someone who seems believable says.)
· Do not believe something, thinking, "This is what our teacher says". (Ma samano no garu ti. Do not accept any doctrine from reverence, but first try it as gold is tried by fire.)
In other words, rather than accepting with blind faith or dogmatism, we utilize constant questioning and personal testing to identify those truths which enable us to reduce our stress or misery or confusion. We can apply these rules to every aspect of our life; our personal stories (am I really a bad dancer?), our thoughts (am I right or wrong?), our cultural mores (is it important to be a good employee?), and our societal beliefs (is the U.S. a fair nation?) to discover if they are honest, truthful, and beneficial to our community and world.
However much we rely upon these guidelines to help us truly understand reality, our ethical and spiritual paths cannot be effective without some kind of faith (in ourselves, in Buddha Nature, in the possibility of transforming our minds). Bhikku Boddhi's commentary on the Kalama Sutta stresses this necessary quality:
Faith in the Buddha's teaching is never regarded as an end in itself nor as a sufficient guarantee of liberation, but only as the starting point for an evolving process of inner transformation that comes to fulfillment in personal insight. But in order for this insight to exercise a truly liberative function, it must unfold in the context of an accurate grasp of the essential truths concerning our situation in the world and the domain where deliverance is to be sought . . . To accept them in trust after careful consideration is to set foot on a journey which transforms faith into wisdom, confidence into certainty, and culminates in liberation from suffering.