The Charter of Free Inquiry: The Buddha’s Timeless Toolkit for Critical Thinking and Combating Dogmatism
“Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor…”
By Maria Popova
Two millennia before Carl Sagan penned his famous Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking, another sage of the ages laid out a similar set of criteria for sound logical reasoning to help navigate the ideological maze of truth, falsehood, and dogma-driven manipulation. Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, formulated his tenets of critical thinking in response to a question by a tribal clan called the Kalama — the inhabitants of the small village of Kesaputta, which he passed while traveling across Eastern India.
The Kalamas, the story goes, asked the Buddha how they could discern whom to trust among the countless wandering holy men passing through their land and seeking to convert them to various, often conflicting preachings. His answer, delivered as a sermon known today as the Kalama Sutta or the Buddha’s “charter of free inquiry,” discourages blind faith, encourages a continual critical assessment of all claims, and outlines a cognitive toolkit for defying dogmatism.
Included in the altogether fantastic Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye (public library), it reads as follows:
Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, “The monk is our teacher.” But when you yourselves know: “These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,” enter on and abide in them.
But the most heartening part of the Buddha’s sutta is that implicit to it is a timeless measure of integrity — it is the mark of the noble and secure intellect to encourage questioning even of his own convictions. The Buddha was, after all, just one of the holy men passing through the Kalamas’ land and he was urging them to apply these very principles in assessing his own teachings.
Complement with Galileo on critical thinking and the folly of believing our preconceptions, Michael Faraday on how to cure our propensity for self-deception, and Maria Konnikova on why even the most rational of us are susceptible to deception, then revisit the great Buddhist teacher D.T. Suzuki on what freedom really means and the 1919 manifesto Declaration of the Independence of the Mind.
Published March 7, 2016