When you know for yourself
How do we know what’s true?
For centuries people relied on religious and royal authorities — priests and kings — to explain the world they lived in. These authorities invariably used these explanations to justify their own authority, creating a self-reinforcing circular logic.
The past 400 years or so of human history have seen such authority erode, to be replaced in part by scientific authority and ideas about the freedom of the individual. Science has explained a lot about the world, but it still has many big questions that it currently cannot answer. At the same time, individuals now have unprecedented freedom to decide life’s big questions based on their own authority, even if the decisions are not always very well informed.
Part of the confusion comes from the vast number of voices shouting, “I have the answer.” The Internet, TV, movies, news, politics, religion, science, and social media expose people to a dazzling number of views, even though people tend to listen primarily to those who already share their own views.
This isn’t a new problem. Centuries ago people living in India were exposed to a bewildering array of people claiming to know truth. This Iron Age society had a vibrant marketplace of ideas. What we know now as Hinduism originated in brahmanic traditions that taught about many different kinds of deities and spiritual practices. I have read that even in modern India, where Westerners might ask a stranger what kind of work they do, many people in India are likely to ask what deity your family worships.
The Buddhist scriptures describe a similar environment some 2600 years ago. The Kalama people in the town of Kesaputta in northern India were frequently visited by traveling monks and brahmins who all had something to teach. The whole town would show up to listen, because of course they didn’t have Dancing with the Stars on cable. But after years and years of hearing all these different teachings, they were utterly bewildered about what to believe. When the Buddha came to town, they told him that all these traveling monks and brahmins argued endlessly claiming their own teachings were correct, and other teachers had it all wrong. How would they know the truth?
The Buddha’s response was brilliant:
Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case, 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.
“When you know for yourself” — such a simple and liberating idea.
The Kalama Sutta (the Buddhist scripture this is taken from) is often called the Buddha’s charter of free inquiry, and it is certainly an idea that resonates with modern Western audiences. But it is often misunderstood, because the emphasis is often misplaced. The Buddha isn’t saying that reports, legends, traditions, scripture, and so forth are necessarily wrong or untrustworthy. Instead he is saying that what you know for yourself is the way to recognize truth.
I spent four years of high school and two years of college as a Roman Catholic seminary student, studying to become a priest. The authority of the church and scripture were the way to know the truth in that period of my life. Then starting in my sophomore year of high school, it dawned on me that the feelings I had for my male friends meant that I was gay. This was the early 1970s, and the first and only person I revealed this to at that time was my formation director (a guidance counselor who was a priest). He was obviously rattled by the revelation. His main concern seemed to be whether I had “touched” any of the other students, which I hadn’t. He basically told me it was probably a phase, not to act on it further, confess it as a sin, pray hard, and hope the problem goes away. I’m sure he was hoping the problem would go away, too. He was clearly unprepared to deal with my situation, and I have often wondered how many others he advised who got a similar response. Today he is the bishop of the diocese of Baton Rouge.
I continued to struggle through high school and into college with the cognitive dissonance between church teachings and my own feelings, wrestling with it on physical, emotional, and spiritual levels. Things were beginning to change in mainstream culture by the mid-1970s, and a few positive examples of gay people were appearing in the media. Time magazine featured Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich on its September 8, 1975 cover with the headline, “I am a homosexual.” Matlovich was a decorated Vietnam war veteran, and the first gay service member to deliberately come out in order to fight the ban on gays in the military. Clearly he had looked inside and knew that what was true for the institution he served was not the truth he knew, and he chose to accept what he knew for himself. It was a familiar process for me, and within a year and a half I had left the seminary and moved to San Francisco. My confidence in the authority of the church was irrevocably shattered, and from that point on in my life, what I knew for myself was how I knew what was true.
It would be another 30 years before I encountered the Buddha’s words to the Kalamas, but when I did, it instantly resonated with me. Since then my spiritual journey through Buddhism and Advaita has focused on closely analyzing my own experience and finding truth in what I know for myself. When I teach meditation, my simple instructions are intended to help people remain focused on their own experience, without worrying about the reports, legends, traditions, and scripture. That’s what practice is ultimately about. The path you walk must truly be your own.
I would love to hear from you about your own experience.