How can we decide which spiritual teacher and teachings to follow?

Today there are many spiritual teachers and teachings. How can we choose between them? This is a problem that was present at the time of the Buddha, and particularly affected a group of people known as the Kalamas.

The Kalamas were a group of people living in the Ganges plain. Many religious teachers would pass through their area and would stop for a while. These teachers would praise their own teachings and put down the teachings of others. The Kalamas became confused by all this rivalry between the teachers and did not know whom to trust. The particular problem for the Kalamas was that accepting any of the rival religious teachings seemed to involve them in taking on doctrines that they could not validate for themselves, or could not at least yet validate for themselves.

For example, the Buddha claimed that the end of suffering is possible with enlightenment. But, how can one know for sure that enlightenment is possible and that the end of suffering is possible, if one is not yet enlightened?

When the Buddha passed through their territory the Kalamas approached him and asked for his advice on how to choose between different teachers and teachings. The Buddha began by assuring the Kalamas that their doubts about teachers and their teachings was perfectly understandable.

The Buddha then said don’t just rely on the following; (i) established scriptural authority or texts; (ii) rational reasoning or logic; or (iii) impressive, authoritative or respected teachers. The Buddha was not saying don’t use any of these to help make up your mind, but he was emphasising don’t just rely on these and don’t just take them on trust. No matter how old and respected the teaching or teacher is, don’t take it for granted. No matter how reasonable or rational the argument appears, don’t take it for granted. No matter how impressive or powerful a teacher is, don’t take their teaching for granted.

Instead the Buddha advised the Kalamas to test the teachings in their own experience here and now.

As an example the Buddha talked about karma and rebirth. The Buddha generally taught that skilful or wholesome actions promote happiness and well-being in this life and in future lives. But it’s not possible to verify the truth or otherwise of the claim made about future rebirths. So the Buddha asked them to look into their own experience and test whether it was true that unwholesome states of mind such as greed, hatred and delusion and unwholesome actions lead to suffering for oneself, here and now, in this life. Conversely he asked them to look into their own experience and check whether wholesome mental states and actions promote one’s long-term welfare and happiness, here and now, in this life.

Once we know something to be true from our own experience then we can make an informed choice. So, whether or not there is a future life after this one – which we cannot know – we nevertheless have sufficient reasons in this life to abandon unwholesome mental states and to cultivate wholesome mental states.

And if there is a future life, the Buddha adds, then the rewards are greater.

The basic principle the Buddha taught the Kalamas was to test out those teachings that could be tested here and now in their experience, and if they were validated then use them. At the same time if those teachings that could be tested here and now did bring inner security and well-being, then trust and confidence could grow in the teacher’s teachings as a whole, including those aspects that lie beyond present capacity for personal verification.

But however much one can test out teachings in personal experience it is still true that one must place a certain amount of trust or confidence in the teacher and the teachings. Trust and confidence are important elements in what is called „sraddha“ in Buddhism. „Sraddha“ is often translated as „faith“ in english. Sraddha or faith in this sense is definitely not blind or unquestioning faith.

In the Canki Sutta the Buddha speaks about the relationship between faith and what he calls the „preservation of truth“.

The Buddha advises that something may be well accepted out of faith, yet it may turn out to be „empty, hollow and false“. Conversely, something else may be rejected out of faith, yet it may turn out to be „factual, true and unmistaken“. So, if a person has faith, then he preserves truth when he says „My faith is this“, but at the same time makes clear that he cannot yet come to a definite conclusion that „Only this is true, and anything else is wrong.“

In other words, a person preserves truth when they merely state what they believe but do not jump to the conclusion – and nor do they insist – that what they believe in is definitely true and that anything else is false.

According to the Buddha there is a clear difference between the preservation of truth and the discovery of truth. The discovery of truth arises through direct experience. But even the initial discovery of truth – a stage in spiritual development that in Buddhism is described as stream entry – is not the final arrival at truth. This requires further application by the disciple and testing in experience, until enlightenment is achieved.

So, faith should be grounded in investigation and inquiry, and should not be based upon emotional tendencies and blind belief. Faith, or trust and confidence, on its own is insufficient for progress along the path to enlightenment, but if properly used – if preserving the truth – then faith can be the door to deeper levels of experience.

As Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
„Faith serves as a spur to practice; practice leads to experiential understanding; and when one’s understanding matures, it blossoms in full realization.“

Dharmachari Vaddhaka
Tallinn, December 2009