Editor’s Note: Writer Steve Lee liked this week’s Viewpoint’s question so much he decided to write an extended response below.
By Contributor Steve Lee
Consider the various ways in which a faith may be lived: belief, behavior, or “belonging.”
For some faiths, belief is paramount. I once heard, for example, the evangelist Franklin Graham proclaim, “If you cannot name the day, hour, and minute when you declared your undying belief in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, you are doomed to eternal life in Hell.”
Buddhism is popularly seen as an exception to this kind of salvatory faith. Perhaps you’ve seen the refrigerator magnets that market this concept of Buddhism’s supposed devaluation of faith? A popular version, quoting The Buddha, reads:
“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
I must admit: I have such a magnet on my own fridge…
But the quote, however, is a snippet taken out of context from a much
longer passage of a sacred text called “The Kalama Sutta.” In this story, the Kalamas of Kesaputta province in northern India—apparently adherents of no particular faith—have been visited by a number of different religious teachers that we might call “missionaries.” Then, Siddharta Gautama comes to town, and the Kalamas decide to check out “Gotama the Contemplative,” the one we label The Buddha. Here’s a portion of the sutta that gives the context:
As they sat there, the Kalamas of Kesaputta said to the Blessed One, “Lord, there are some brahmans and contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound and glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, and disparage them. And then other brahmans and contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound and glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, and disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain and in doubt: Which of these venerable brahmans and contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”
What follows is a teaching conversation between The Buddha and the Kalamas. Without reference to any particular belief system, he skillfully walks them through the logic of his own teachings and concludes with the tenets of his own system. What follows is how the commentator Bhikku Bodhi describes what happened:
The Buddha next explains that a “noble disciple, devoid of covetousness and ill will, undeluded” dwells pervading the world with boundless loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. Thus purified of hate and malice, he enjoys here and now four “solaces”: If there is an afterlife and kammic result, then he will undergo a pleasant rebirth, while if there is none he still lives happily here and now. If evil results befall an evil-doer, then no evil will befall him, and if evil results do not befall an evil-doer, then he is purified anyway. With this the Kalamas express their appreciation of the Buddha’s discourse and go for refuge to the Triple Gem.
In other words, The Buddha leads the Kalamas from their doubt to a belief in the power of The Buddha’s approach to salvation. This salvation, at its essence, is a new way of relating to the exigencies of life. The salvation offered by the Buddhist path is a way of relating to whatever life throws at you with openness, equanimity, grace, wisdom and compassion.
As for behavior and belonging, Buddhism does not discount either. Both are integral to the Buddhist path. In the quoted section above, the Kalamas are said to be going for “refuge in the Triple Gem.”
When someone becomes a Buddhist, they go through a ceremony of “Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem.” The Triple Gem is: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
Initiates take refuge in The Buddha as a model, exemplar, and archetype of the possibilities of awakening to a new way of living. They take refuge in the Dharma—the teachings of the Buddha that exist in accordance with the natural laws of the universe. And they take refuge in the Sangha—the community of adherents and practitioners who support one another on the path to awakening.
There you have it—belief, behavior, and belonging: belief in Buddha and the example of his awakening; clarity of thought and behavior in and through the Dharma; and “being one—a “Buddhist”, that is—through refuge in the Sangha. In short, Buddhist practice values all three: belief, behavior, and belonging.