13 February 2014

A radical will explore ‘revelation’ and ‘report’ critically

Siddhartha Gauthama, our Budun Wahanse, in the Kalama Sutra, advocated that the Kalamas should not take things at their face value.  In this discourse that can be taken as a Charter on Free Inquiry, this particular element of ‘not going by revelation or report’ contains very useful and pertinent lessons to the radical or would-be radical as well as to any other individual who seeks to engage in a better-informed and therefore more productive and wholesome manner, to him/herself and the relevant social or organizational context. 

A couple of days ago I was privileged to come across a slim volume titled ‘Critical Studies on the Early History of Buddhism’ authored by the late Ven. Dhammavihari and published by the Buddhist Cultural Centre in 2003.  The learned bikkhu clearly well versed in the pitfalls that ignorance, arrogance and rank sloth construct, pointed to several erroneous conclusions arrived at by well-known and highly acclaimed scholars and showed in the eloquent, simple and genial manner that characterizes his writing, the danger of uncritical acceptance of written word.

Ven. Dhammavihari goes further, in fact.  He suggests that such conclusions and subsequent claims could be the product of a determinism that defers to preferred reading and outcome of political process against a defensible construct of verifiable fact.  What happens thereafter is pretty common.  The error is repeated and magnified by interested parties and after this is done over a considerable period of time and repeated frequently enough it acquires or is accorded a halo and treated as ‘truth’.  Cross-referencing, checking for reasonable corroboration and even dissecting claim to undress it of frill is tedious and moreover can prove to be inconvenient.  The easier course of action is to take the written word (especially if it is authored by a fellow-traveller and buttresses strongly held views) as the final authority on the particular issue.

This is true of all things, not just history and reading of history.  People swear by a ‘theory’ until someone comes along and discovers that the premises upon which it was constructed are false or have been misread or exaggerated or else that the theory holds only in particular contexts.  Newton’s laws, for example, were taken as ‘final word’ until Einstein came up with his formulation.  Thomas Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ is an admirable treatise on how theories get constructed, worshipped, found to be flawed and replaced by others which have greater explanatory and predictive power. 

Ignorance, naiveté, umbrage and even a sense of justice and fairplay can fire someone to object to something.  The source of the agitation is not our concern here.  It is in the ‘what should be done’ that free inquiry becomes necessary, if not for anything because erroneous interpretation, analysis and consequent ‘logic’ of response can be counter productive.  Typically, those who have little experience and for reasons of youth or something else answers blood-call as opposed to careful consideration of all available information and reflection on all pertinent factors.  A theory is picked and held on to with dear life, discarding as unnecessary even the occasional investigation of claims pertaining to its predicates.  All windows are closed save this theoretical aperture.  Arrogance is a natural product.  It is only when life hits the word for a six that sobriety returns, often after a lot of water has gone under the bridge, carrying with is blood and dead bodies. 

It is of course useful to have a ‘Book of Revelations’ as a kind of reference manual, but it can be useful only if it is taken as guide and recognized as a human construct and as such prone to flaw.  ‘Reports’ are not value-free.  They are often made of exaggerated claims with little or no substantiation which are then quoted as ‘fact’ and used to construct overall picture and formulate response.  A recent example would be that of Iraq having ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’.  It was a carefully constructed lie.  It was a flag that was waved.  It legitimated a genocidal war.  Today, almost a decade later, not a single WMD has been discovered in that unhappy country.  Only those who were not ready to take ‘report’ as fact could surmise intention, predict outcome and attempt reversal.  Sadly their numbers were small and their capacities to correct error limited. 

This goes for reports/revelations that take the form of ‘doctrines’ as well.  Accounts are written by human beings. Even claims that there are of divine authorship are made by human beings, who we know are flawed.  All texts, especially those that are of the voluminous kind, are made for misinterpretation and abuse simply because they make for selective and convenient reference and arbitrary interpretation. All the more reasons for adherents to exercise circumspect, constantly investigate premise and verify claim in practice and in terms of the overall wholesomeness to self and social overall. 

What we see instead is the quick and easy option of name-dropping and text-naming.  ‘So and so said this,’ we are told.  ‘As so and so has pointed out,’ claims are often underlined.  ‘In such and such a book,’ some would use the bibliographical convenience as substitute for plain and straightforward logic.

This is not ‘radicalim’.  It is sloth.  It is a pandering to the ‘herd instinct’.  For all the claims of righteousness and insistence of selfless sacrifice for the betterment of the collective or the championing of the disposed, mindless faith in ‘The Book’ (whatever the book may be) or ‘The Report’ or ‘The Revelation’ amounts to embracing the Sloth-Option.  The Kalama Sutra is an invitation to inquiry and one which does not exclude a questioning of Buddha Vachana or the Doctrine of the Buddha.

All words are useful, even those in texts that make exaggerated claims and are based on supposition and fantasy.  They are useful only to the extent that they are read critically.  This is the recommendation embedded in the Kalama Sutra. Let’s meditate on it for a moment:

Kalamas, when you yourselves know [that] 'these things are unwholesome, these things are blameworthy; these things are censured by the wise; and when undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill, abandon them.  Kalamas, when you know for yourselves [that] these are wholesome; these things are not blameworthy; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness, having undertaken them, abide in them.’

Sabbe Satta Bhavantu Sukitatta.   May all beings be happy.

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com