The quote below, taken from the Mahaparinibbana Sutra, makes it clear that we should not blindly believe what we hear, read or are told. We must test the words. If we are unable to find them in the Buddha’s discourses or in his set of rules, they more than likely have been added by someone along the way.
The problem with blindly following what you are told, or have read, is that you are liable to get yourself tangled up in some mystical story and miss what Buddha actually taught. Now, there is nothing wrong with stories, as long as you can extract the point from the story and not just believe the words to be true. This is where critical thinking comes in. If we test the words against the Buddha’s discourses and our own experiences, we should be able to follow the Buddha’s path.
However, if you just believe what a teacher has told you, or you have read, you may set off down the wrong path, get disillusioned and end up with more suffering. If you believe what elders have told you, without checking, you could get totally wrapped up in superstitions and old wives tales. Again, this is going to lead you down the wrong path and you may start thinking of Buddha as a god – which he clearly wasn’t.
Let’s expand on this point. When Buddha was asked if he was a god or a celestial being he stated that he was not, but he was awakened. Now, if you read some stories you could start to believe that he was a god, because they state he was born from under the arm, he walked as soon as he was born, where he placed his feet lotuses sprung up and he had many special marks on his body. So if you don’t test these words against your experience and the discourses you will see Buddha as a god.
You may wonder what is wrong with that. I believe if you see Buddha as a god you will pray to him for help. Whereas, if you see him as a human teacher you will not expect him to do anything for you, and you will in fact do the work yourself. We have to remember Buddhism is an inward journey that you have to work on yourself. So this is why seeing Buddha as a god is a problem.
This is just one simple example, but of course there are numerous others. So, as the sutra states, carefully study the sentences word by word. If you find them not to be true, you should reject them. Remember, you must study them without approval and without scorn. This is so you are not just picking the bits you like and find easy to follow, or discarding things you find unpalatable and hard to do. That is harder than it sounds, because our nature is to try to reaffirm our beliefs.
There are many gurus or teachers who would give you different advice to this. They would insist you follow what they say and if you don’t you will never reach enlightenment or whatever goal you have set yourself. I believe you should test these teachers the same way you test the written word. If what they are saying cannot be found in the discourses or does not fit into your experiences, you should proceed with great caution. This is not easy to do if you regard your teacher as a higher being or some sort of god, but if you see them as a human being with good knowledge, it is easier to do.
Whenever you study Buddhism please do it with an open and critical mind. That way you will be on the right track.
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