The Buddha’s instruction on this is given in the Kalama Sutta. We are to believe what we see clearly for ourselves to be the case. Now it is necessary to understand what is meant by the expression ‘seeing clearly’. It means seeing clearly without using reasoning, without speculating and without making assumptions. This is seeing clearly.
We can see what is meant here from the following question: ‘Why are we warned not to believe the Tripitaka (the Buddhist Canon), not to believe a teacher, not to believe what is reported or rumoured, not to believe what has been reasoned out, not to believe what has been arrived at by means of logic?’ Blind credulity is foolish. Suppose we were to open the Tripitaka, read a passage and then believe it without thinking about it, testing or criticizing it? This would be foolish credulity. The Buddha condemned this.
Believing a teacher means in this case believing what a teacher says without using our eyes and ears, without criticizing, without having seen that what he says is really so. It is the same with believing any report or rumour that happens to arise.
Believing in what has been arrived at by logic means that, having learnt how to reason correctly, being experienced in reasoning, we come to the conclusion that a certain proposition must be logically so. But this is still not good enough; we are not to put our trust in this sort of reasoning.
But here we must be careful and take good note — this discourse does not forbid us to read the Tripitaka. Nor does it forbid us to consult a teacher, or to listen to reports and rumours, or to use logical reasoning. Rather it means that although we may have read, listened, and heard, we should not simply accept what is offered in these ways unless we have first thought it over, considered it carefully, fathomed it out, examined it, and seen clearly for ourselves that it really is so.
For instance, the Buddha taught that greed, anger, and misunderstanding are the causes that give rise to suffering. If we ourselves are not yet acquainted with greed, anger, and misunderstanding, then there is no way we can believe this. But to believe it would be foolish. When we know ourselves what greed, anger and delusion are like, and that whenever they arise in the mind, they produce suffering like a fire burning us, then we can believe it on the basis of our own experience.
So what the Buddha taught in this connection appears in the Tripitaka as follows: Having read, or having heard something, we must investigate until we see clearly the fact being taught. If we still do not see it clearly, we must fall back on reasoning, and then leave it for a while. So, to start with, we shall believe and practise no more than we see clearly to be the case. Then gradually we shall come to believe and see clearly more and more. This is a very popular teaching of the Buddha.
Not believing the Tripitaka, not believing a teacher, not believing reports and rumours, not believing reasoning by way of logic — these have a hidden meaning. We must search. To believe straight away is foolish. The Buddha firmly and definitely condemned such foolishness. He told us not to believe anything until we have put it to the test and seen it clearly. Then we may believe. To believe after having seen clearly is good sense.
This is the Buddhist policy on belief: not to believe in a stupid way, relying on people, books, conjecture, reasoning, or on what the majority believe; but rather to believe what we see clearly for ourselves to be the case. This is how it is in Buddhism. We as Buddhists should make it our policy.
More from Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.
From Buddha Dhamma for Students. Translated by Ariyananda Bhikkhu.
First published in the August 1989 Buddhism Now.