Buddha Before Buddhism 2: Who do you trust?


Notes on a talk by Michael Stone at Centre of Gravity, March 14, 2013

The times the Buddha lived in is now called by scholars the Axial Age. One of its primary features is that a new kind of religious life was developing, not only because of the Buddha, but by contemporaries like Hillel, Plato, Socrates. They shared the idea that we can’t rely on the cosmos to transform suffering, we have to rely on ourselves.

Before the Buddha, the focus of one’s life was to maintain a fire within the household and make rituals and sacrifices with it. These rites would help ensure a better rebirth. In this stratified society the only way to move from one class to another is via rebirth. Everyone had a place, a setting, a job/duty. If you were a householder, your job was to make children, preferably male. You got married not because you were in love, but because it was your duty. After marriage you kept three fires, and one should be kept burning at all times, for your entire life. It was a culture terrified of change.

Buddha was deeply engaged with social, religious, political culture. One of the ways he engaged was through dialogue, and language. He took important words from the dominant Vedic teachings and reworked them. For example fire was not an element out there, but something newly internal. He took the fire ceremony that was at the heart of the Vedic culture and internalized it, he insisted that the fire was inside you, that you were burning up and needed cooling (he named this cooling “nirvana” – a term used in cooking to cool pots).


The religious culture supported a political culture that was rigid and hierarchical. Where have I heard that before? You had an eternal “true” self inside you (atman) that wanted to merge with the God (brahman), which you could do according to your spiritual air miles (karma), though we’re all stuck turning the wheel of samsara (the world is illusion).

Some escaped the Vedic tradition and the new cities, and went into the forests and formed subcultures. The forest teachings (that began near the Buddha’s home, so he was familiar with them) created a tension between the Brahmins’ metaphysical truth and their own experiential truth. This is a political division, insisting that insight can be arrived at by anyone. Those who left the Brahmanical system were called shramana or samnyasin. They were dropping out of family life. Family life meant having kids, and fire rituals associated with stages of life, these kept society’s society intact. It was a way for the Brahmins to assert themselves and monitor family life, and this was opposed to the drop out/ascetic yogis. The yogis posed these questions.

Who do you trust?
Who is wise?
How do you trust yourself?
On what basis do you trust your experience?

The Buddha tried to find a middle path between Brahmin life and forest life. His sangha held space for a middle way. The sangha, and investigating for oneself, are the qualities that the Buddha describes as the middle way. The middle way is not a destination, a point of arrival, but a path.

When we locate the Buddha in a historical setting we allow him to become a person again. I think of this in relation to my parents. Perhaps because Carina and I just had a baby, things start coming out of my mouth and it sounds like my mother or father. I like to do this practice: to think of my father/mother before I was born. And then think of them after I’ve left the nest. OK, not everyone has left the nest yet but you get the idea. How to develop a vision of these humans larger than your relationship. So that perception isn’t only flowing through the me place.

What was it like to be a monk, nun or layperson in the Buddha’s group? They looked a lot like other refusenik groups at the time. Dressed in rags, shaved heads, part of a counter-cultural community. All of these groups were a reaction shot to Brahmanic orthodox priesthood. The Buddha was part of a counter-religious movement. The Brahmins would have looked religious, with their hymns, mantras, gurus, sacred fires. But the behavior of the Buddha’s scrum wouldn’t have appeared traditionally religious. They wouldn’t be involved in tending fires, or elaborate rituals.


The Buddha lived at a time when the area around the Ganges River was supporting the first cities. They were generating a surplus, and this surplus was used to maintain standing armies (a pre-requisite for empire and expansion), and allowed people to drop out of agricultural labour to devote themselves to practice (barely sustained – people could beg alms and survive off this slim surplus). Society was changing from tribal clans in villages (governed by councils of elders) to urban dwellings and townships. Armed forces expanded, indigeneous populations were displaced. There were two cities that the Buddha spent a lot of time in: Rajgir and Savata. Mostly he lived in groves a half mile from the cities. He was dependent on the newfound wealth. And on the security granted by kings. The presence of his sangha posed this question: what does it mean to live a good life?

Who do you trust?
Where do you learn?
In what do you place your faith?

Kalama Sutta
This sutta is a confirmation of the secular world the Buddha was working in. The first line reads: “There are, Lord, some ascetics and Brahmins who come to Kesaputta…” First: there are no capital letters in Pali/Sanskrit, and the word translated as “Lord” is bagawat, a common word used at the time for a teacher. While often translated as Lord or Blessed One (worse and worse) it’s really close to “sir.” These details reveal the religious subtext in the translation, the attempt to turn this chat into something religious. The Kalamas ask the Buddha: holy people come around and say they have the truth. Who do we believe? The Buddha answers: “Do not go by oral traditions, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reflection on reasons, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of the speaker (charisma baby), or because you think, ‘The ascetic is our teacher.” (guru culture) Then he says you need to know for yourself, from your own experience what actions cause harm or happiness, yayed or nayed by the wise (who is wise? how can you know?)

How can we test things over time? It takes commitment. The dharma is long term work, testing something in your life. Traditionally dharma meant duty. The Buddha reworked the word dharma to mea: a practice you undertake, an action you take, a quality you have or are cultivating. It’s dynamic, it’s moving.


Then he lays down a riff about what causes harm and suffering. They are more or less the yamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Not harming, not stealing, not lying, not having sexual misconduct. And the virtues? Here he offers an early version of the brahma-viharas (a Pali word meaning heavenly abode or best home). Metta (loving kindness), compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity. You can tell when you’re investigating something clearly if ¼ of your mind is love and kindness, ¼ feelings for others, ¼ has joy for others, ¼ stable (equanimous).

I asked the astanga maestro Pattabhi Jois how I should eat. He replied, “Your stomach should be ¼ food, ¼ water, ¼ air, ¼ God.” His daughter came by and said, “But your stomach is 50% sugar, and the other 50% is sugar.”

You can test a teaching by the action it inspires. Actions are motivated by mental states (and you don’t have to give into them, they arise and pass away, like everything.) Actions create results in your own life. In place of the conventional wisdom that karma equals fate, the Buddha reworks the term karma to mean: the actions you make, and the effects these actions have in your own life. Karma is the relation between intention, action and result.


Until recently the Kalama Sutta was ignored, it’s not important in any key orthodoxies. But it’s becoming important to some key unorthodoxies, to secular Buddhism for instance. It jumps off the pages for a modern Westerner. This is how canons are formed. The Buddha taught for many decades, so we can’t give equal value to every part of the teachings, the Canon. Tradition is not about preserving something, it’s about what part of the canon speaks to this time. Letting it live again in this time. In the past your task, the religious task, was to internalize tradition and transmit it unchanged. But what we are doing is responding to tradition in a way that makes sense in our lives. What is accepted is what works, what makes a difference. We accept it because we can experience its benefits, not because someone tells us it’s good for us. It’s time to leave home, and say good-bye to the parents. Time to be your own parent.

From Stephen Batchelor’s excellent Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist (2010). “This unambiguous call for the valuing of uncertainty and the need to establish the truth of things for oneself rather than rely on the authority of others struck a deep chord within me. The Buddha encourages the Kalamas to observe for themselves the consequences of greed, hatred, and stupidity on human beings, so they can judge for themselves what thoughts and acts lead to harm and suffering and which do not. His sole criterion for evaluating a doctrine is whether it causes or mitigates suffering… The Kalama Sutta presents a vision of the Buddha’s teaching that goes against the grain of much Buddhist orthodoxy. Rather than deferring to tradition and lineage, it celebrates self-reliance; rather than belief in doctrine, it stresses the importance of testing ideas to see if they work; and rather than insisting on a metaphysics of rebirth and karma, it suggests that this world may indeed be the only one there is.”

The process of intention, action and effective action he calls samskara. In Vedic culture samskara was the fire. When you work with the fire properly, when you perform the prescribed fire rituals, you set up patterns to keep the culture in order. The Buddha reworks and internalizes these ideas. When you have an intention — when you can bring equanimity to greed, when you can bring space to your wanting — you introduce a new groove, you plant a new seed. “Sam” means community, to come together. “Kara” is from the root kur meaning to make. It means forces coming together to make something new.

How can we trust our experience if we have so many scars, so many old grooves that keep us clinging to past views? We’ve internalized the culture of our family, our ideology, our economy. We come to practice because we need something beyond our intelligence. What’s necessary is not only our teacher, the teaching, the community. Practice gives us new access points so we can trust ourselves more deeply. We have only now. How can we trust what is happening now? When we get swept away by greed, by wanting so much, we have to trust our ability to soothe ourselves. How to bring mindfulness, to come back to the body? If we can’t be embodied we can’t have insight. Being embodied is a political act because it means that you can have wisdom that arises out of your own experience. Trusting yourself means not listening to everything your mind is saying, the narratives it wants to superimpose onto experience, the ability to know before something has happened, to plug the new moment into moments of the past. You don’t have to look for wisdoms out there, in the ideals of whatever career you’re in, or in books and letters. It’s in you. No wait. It’s you.