The Buddha, on some occasion, warned the kālāma against the dangers of beliefs based on rumor, tradition, popularity, fame, etc. He invited them to believe only what they had verified by themselves, by valid means; he invited them to be wary of analogies, logical conjectures, intentions or hopes behind this-or-that idea… The kālāma sutta (AN 3.65), which describes this dialogue, is regularly used by some to justify taking only whatever suits them in the Buddhist traditions; this is not however what the Buddha proposed to do, since he precisely invited us not to confuse what pleases, or what is accepted, with what is true or constructive! This sutta questions our attitude towards ideas, ours and those of others.
To believe seems acceptable, but with conditions, after verifications, with caution… On one hand, the nun Soma did not adhere to the sexist prejudices with which Māra tried to divert her from her successful efforts (soma sutta, SN 5.2). On the other hand, in the milindapañha, it is reported how the monk Nāgasena convinced King Milinda of the historical existence of the Buddha (about two centuries earlier) by logical inference, i.e. by the very type of method which the Buddha was suspicious of: caution clearly does not imply a caricatural rejection! So what to believe?
Must we believe, for example, in the effectiveness of the “eightfold path”? According to saṅgīti sutta (DN 33), one of the first hindrances (saṃyojana) transcended by the “stream-enterer” (sotāpanna) is doubt (vicikicchā) —doubt vis-à-vis the eightfold path, and doubt vis-à-vis the impermanent and causal nature of reality… But in the kālāma sutta, the Buddha clearly indicates that we must not accept a teaching by a consideration “this monk has our esteem”. Moreover, to believe that one has “attained” a certain level of practice, or that one is “a good follower”, are also considered hindrances (harmful beliefs based on an erroneous notion of a “self”). So, to believe or not to believe, is that the question?
The term for “belief” in Pāḷi is “diṭṭhi”. Unfortunately, the meaning seems much richer: thus, diṭṭhi also refers to views, dogmas, opinions and theories —potentially correct, or at least useful! Hence we find in the Canon not only that we must transcend or uproot (uttāreti) any “belief,” as in the Brahmajāla sutta (DN 1)… but also that we must cultivate sammā-diṭṭhi, the “right view” of the eightfold path! Same word diṭṭhi, translated differently depending on the context, perhaps to designate a phenomenon that ought to be abandoned and cultivated at the same time? This is not getting any simpler.
For the sake of pedagogy, some commentators have therefore selected the beliefs we ought to abandon: would it be implicit, or “obvious,” that only “false” views (micchā-diṭṭhi) are concerned? But such an approach presents the risk of asphyxiating a key question: is there even a single absolutely true belief? Or are all beliefs false, illusory to one degree or another?
The Buddha did not reject beliefs in and of themselves, but he put them back in their context: how do they emerge? What are they based on (diṭṭhiṭṭhānā)? What is their object? And, in counterpoint, what is the part of reality which is ignored or eclipsed, what is the background a little too easily taken for granted, out of ignorance? And, finally, what relationship does the believer have with the belief?
For the problem that the Buddha seeks to solve is not so much this-or-that view, even if the Buddha was careful not to dwell in weak relativism (in his discourses, opinions or “truths” do not all have the same ethical legitimacy or the same utility: there are those kusala and those akusala, the meritorious ones and those less so). The problem arises when a view is erroneously seized (gahita)… when an idea is clung to or grasped (parāmaṭṭha) then carried away from one context to another… when a perspective becomes “ours” and it becomes important for the ego to defend it! Attachment is the cause of unsatifactoriness, and unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) is what the Buddha aims to eradicate.
Making an hypothesis or having an ideal is not necessarily inept or useless; however, to insist when the hypothesis is falsified, or to seek to confirm our presuppositions at all costs (even if we need to deny the evidence), this is what can prevent us from reacting appropriately. The Buddha declares in the puppha sutta (SN 22.94) that he does not argue with the world (on what is, is not, should be…): he takes the world “as it is”, and as both the context and the object of his teachings. To confuse personal dignity with the illusion of always being right, to refuse the lessons that are imposed on us, to try to force reality to comply with our expectations or hopes, is what causes disappointments, conflicts, suffering… even when we start with “intelligent” hypotheses or “legitimate” hopes! To work wisely with ideas, one must be able to question them, one must accept to sometimes be wrong, and one must admit that good intentions are not enough.
Perhaps we now begin to glimpse why we must transcend or uproot (uttāreti) all beliefs: uprooting is not suppressing, we can replant elsewhere if the conditions are appropriate and if it makes sense… but ideas are like herbs (aromatic, medicinal, or toxic) in the garden of our mind: it is important not to be entangled, invaded, overwhelmed, or hindered by them. It is important to preserve our freedom of choice, thanks to a certain discipline, without obsessive control but also without laissez-faire.
Beyond the Pāḷi canon, “abandoning all belief” was also a teaching of Nāgārjuna, and a conclusion of his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā treatise. As much as this is easily understandable with regards to ill-established beliefs (e.g. abusive generalizations), this is more difficult with regards to useful models which seem to “function”… And yet these models are at best useful in certain contexts, in which they may constitute “conventional truths,” but they are representative neither of all the richness of reality nor of its extraordinary potential for evolution. Thus, “abandoning all belief” is not a naive rejection, it is a questioning: “Even if such a conception of the world was useful in the past, is ethical in another context, or will be constructive later, will this automatically make it appropriate here and now? No! So… does this world view and its conclusions apply in the present situation?”
The “right view” of the eightfold path is neither a predefined truth to be defended, a truth not to lose, nor a Buddhist dogma to be preserved; it is manifested by a detachment, an open-mindedness which makes it possible to respond to the present situation without prejudice; it is manifested when we are present to all potentials, when we refrain from identifying ourselves with a particular “truth” (with its cohort of anticipations, biaised observations and therefore blind spots).
If this “right view” were described, it would be the
“knowledge” of the present situation as interrelated phenomena
rather than as a collection of objects definable out of context; it would be
the “understanding” of what conditions the present, of what is
manifested vs. what remains latent but whose potential is maintained
vs. what unfolds and ceases. And if it were so, then no more specific
description, given in advance, would be suitable!
Discerning a local and temporary truth, useful, meritorious, may well be a manifestation of wisdom… while generalizing such a view to other contexts, making it a global and/or permanent truth, promoting a local hypothesis into a global certainty, may be manifestations of ignorance. The “right view” therefore refers to knowing the limits of our views or beliefs, their fields of application, their origins, their contexts and their consequences. It is also perceiving how to idealize and to cling to “what should be, in our opinion” leads to disappointments, create blockages, turns even the best intentions into pain, out of frustration or impatience.
With such a definition of “right view”, however, do we then
encounter the hindrance of doubt (vicikicchā),
and especially doubt about the eightfold path? After all, this path is often
presented as a “truth”, and believing in its effectiveness can
prove valuable support to practitioners!
The Buddha has already given some elements: he has presented the eightfold path as a task, almost a challenge, far more than a truth… and he proposed an analogy between the Dhamma, i.e. all its teachings, and a “raft to reach the other shore” (alagaddūpama sutta, MN 22). The Dhamma is thus contextualized: it would be different if something else than attachment was the main source of suffering. It is used temporarily, for the duration needed to release us. It emerges from a specific intention, and it exists to fulfill a certain function (the liberation from saṃsāra) and not to provide an answer to all the speculative questions that come to mind (e.g. vis-à-vis the origin of the universe, see cūḷa māluṅkya sutta, MN 62). To see the Dhamma as a process or a task is not to diminish it, but to give life into it!
Beyond believing, what liberates us comes via “embodying” the teachings (dhātu sutta, SN 25.9): instead of ready-made answers, the teachings are as many questions, to make us look at the world as it is (here, now; not in India 26 centuries ago). They support us to seek an appropriate word or an ethical approach to the context at hand, to find a benevolent gesture, a constructive perspective, and so on.
To question the Dhamma itself is also to believe in its strength, its adaptability, its relevance, even its resistance to our attempts of diversion: only that which is fragile, too rigid or friable, requires an excess of precautions or the scrupulous respect of instructions, without any question. To test the Dhamma is to abandon the fear that it may collapse at the least, unexpected, slightest challenge. One could almost say: not to believe is to believe!
So let us accept the challenges and the questions, reject the fast answers (or the comfortable answers, aligned with our preconceptions), transcend the contradictions, seek, test, try to solve the kōans of daily life. Let us give life to wisdom and not enclose it, not solidify it, in collections of beliefs to have.
"DN" for Dīgha Nikāya, the long discourses; "MN" for Majjhima Nikāya, the middle-length discourses; "AN" for Aṅguttara Nikāya, the numbered discourses; "SN" for Saṃyutta Nikāya, the short discourses.
Illustration: “The Sixth Patriarch tearing up a Sutra” by Liáng Kǎi (梁楷) —ink on paper, 13th c.