led by Martin Evans on

How should we use the Dhamma?

by Martin Evans

The Buddha called his teachings the Dhamma. If we grasp the Dhamma incorrectly it is a bit like grasping a snake – if we grasp it by the head it bites us, if we grasp it by the tail it bites us. We grasp it by the head if we are sceptical – we find fault with it straight away. But if we believe it, it is like grasping it by the tail. One day we will become disenchanted with Buddhism, so it bites us later. The right way to grasp the Dhamma is through investigation. That is like getting hold of the snake just behind the head. Now it cannot harm us – and it becomes useful - we can even extract the venom and use it as an antidote for suffering – in the same way we can use the Dhamma to extract insight. It is through insight or understanding that we bring suffering to an end.

So, in order to use the Dhamma correctly, we need to find the middle way between sceptical doubt and blind faith – and that is through developing our own self confidence in investigating the Dhamma, and testing it out. There us a phrase, ‘meditative enquiry’, which I think describes this approach perfectly.

The Buddha’s charter of free enquiry

In the Kalama Sutta the Buddha gives some wonderful guidance about the importance of knowing for ourselves.

“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 unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering” — then you should abandon them.’

“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 & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.

Everything is uncertain

We need to remember Ajahn Chah’s advice, ‘everything is uncertain’. But even this advice we need to grasp correctly. Where can we go wrong? We need to keep questioning ourselves, ‘is it possible we are mistaken?’ Self belief is as bad as self doubt. Neither is the self confidence I am talking about. We need to grasp the Dhamma with meditative enquiry – a kind of scientific enquiry. It is an evidential approach. We try it out and look at the results. This is why we call it a gradual path. There is no short cut to enlightenment through belief – that just leads up a blind alley to disenchantment.

Finding your own way

But where does that self confidence come from? This is like asking, ‘Where is the origin of wisdom?’ We don’t need to know the answer. All we need to do is be grateful for what we have, and use it.

MRE – 6 Feb 15

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