Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’—then you should enter and remain in them.
—Buddha, Kalama sutta
In the Kalama sutta, the Buddha is approached by a group of villagers called the Kalams, who ask him a very simple question: “All of these preachers pass through here praising their own doctrines and criticizing the doctrines of others. How can we sort out the truth?” It is much the same question implied by Harvard’s moto, veritas, and in the Divinity School’s self-description as “an academic community characterized by…investigation of truth.” Indeed, it is much the same question that western intellectuals have been dealing with in one way or another ever since the Enlightenment shook our belief in received knowledge to the core: “How can we sort out the truth?”
This is why the Kalam sutta has become so popular among westerners familiar with Buddhism. They see its skepticism of tradition as an endorsement of rationalism and the scientific method; and they see the Buddha as a sort of fifth century B.C., Indian Bertrand Russel. Buddhism itself describes the Buddha not as a great rationalist, but as the Great Physician. St. Gregory the Great similarly described ministers as “physicians of the soul.” And while the pressures of medical school often encourage physicians-in-training to neglect their physical health, the pressures of divinity school—let’s be honest—often encourage us ministers-in-training to neglect our spiritual health. Looking at our bookshelves and our volunteer work, it’s obvious that we’re studying to be ministers; but looking at our prayer lives, or our meditation practices, or our contemplations of scripture, you’d hardly know it.
St. Maximos the Confessor said, “Theology without practice is the theology of demons.” It seems that even within the walls of the academy we’ve fallen prey to the the demonic notion—brought about by consumer capitalism—that a person’s worth is measured not by their compassion or their wisdom, but instead by how much they can produce and consume. Wendell Berry points out that all of this has spoiled our education. He writes, “To in-form is to form from within. Information, in this sense, refers to teaching and learning, to the formation of a person’s mind or character.” We are all, no doubt, in formation; but, how certain are we of what we are actually being formed into?
Reading the Kalama sutta, I can’t help seeing the Buddha seated before us, addressing us just as he addressed the Kalamas over 2,500 years ago. “Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture.” We all nod our agreement, heirs as we are to the reformation and the enlightenment; but, that part wasn’t meant for us. The Buddha goes on, “Don’t go by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability,” or even—sorry professors—by the words of a teacher. What, then, are we left with?
In Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon a priest, a woodcutter, and a commoner take shelter from a storm in a ruined gatehouse. As the priest and woodcutter tell the commoner about a court case, the movie flashes back through four mutually exclusive, eye-witness accounts of the rape and apparent murder. Everyone seems to by lying—even the dead man himself, through a court medium. Suddenly, the stories are interrupted by the sound of a crying baby whose family has abandoned it. The priest’s faith in humanity is almost entirely shaken by the deception and selfishness he’s witnessed; but, resolution doesn’t come in hearing what really happened. Instead, it comes in a selfless display of compassion. The woodcutter picks up the crying baby and takes it home to raise as his own.
Brothers and sisters, we are trying to give others what we ourselves do not have. We cannot gain it no matter how many books we read; no matter how many sermons we preach; no matter even how many wars we stop or children we feed. If we are to become “physicians of the soul,” as St. Gregory entreats us, then we also have to take medicine. If we are to “acquaint men at first hand with Deity,” as Emerson entreated us from this very pulpit, then we ourselves cannot be unacquainted with the ineffable; and, if we actually believe that we are more than just embodied intellects, then this acquaintance and this medicine cannot just be intellectual.
“How can we sort out the truth?” Look at our great moral exemplars. It isn’t as if they eschewed education, or spent their lives praying in a cave far away from the world; but, their education and activism are not what made them who they were. When Christ hung on the cross and said, “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do,” that didn’t come from a book. When the first word on Gandhi’s lips after he was fatally shot was the name of God, that didn’t come from a book. When Buddhist monastics in Tibet were tortured with electric cattle prods and then said that the only time they were ever in danger is when they almost lost their compassion for the Chinese, that did not come from a book.
Don’t get me wrong. Academics has its place, but Rashomon shows that our rational minds alone cannot take us down the spiritual path. The Buddha didn’t say that we should “enter and remain in” skillful actions or ideas, but skillful qualities. Virtues. Wisdom. Veritas. The crying of a child in an abandoned gatehouse.
Note: A version of this sermon was preached by Joshua Eaton during the 2009 Billings Preaching Prize competition and Billing Preaching Prize finals, both at Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.