20 May, 2024


The Buddha’s Idea Of Critical Thinking

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

Politics of paranoia confronts politics of dialogue. All around us, there is a frighteningly outlandish carnival in full swing.   

We’re trying to rationalize our way out of a situation where we’ve been made to believe that we have no choice but meek acquiescence with the arsonists who set the house on fire who now claim that they are expert fire fighters. Our basic freedoms are under constant and calculated assault. Pied pipers and charlatans are on a ceaseless parade vilifying all dissent.  

Our desperate need as a plural democratic society for critical thinking and free inquiry is the point of departure of this agonizingly grueling essay. 

There is another pressing need for me to examine the foundational premises of the concept of critical thinking. In the past one year I have been bored ad nauseam by the refrain; 

“If not this man, who else can pull us out of this mess?”

These are well mannered ‘chic’ people who despite inflation still manage three meals per day and possess those wonderful energy saving inverter refrigerators with neat shelves and large doors that snugly fit in to fastidious pantries. Such people don’t need critical thinking. Their preconceptions rule out free inquiry. 

This essay concerns ordinary people who face extraordinary times with stoical resolve to change the system. 

On 15th February 1564, Galileo Galilei was born into a world which had no telescopes. A spectacle maker in the Netherlands invented the first telescope. The spirit of free inquiry and critical thinking enabled Galileo Galilei to perfect the telescope that enabled mankind to locate the place of the earth in the cosmos. Having discovered the ‘truth’ he now had to defend it. He produced a scientific treatise with exceptional literary elan called “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican.” 

In it he  demonstrated the validity of the Copernican system. It was reprinted by the University of California press with a forward by Albert Einstein.

Einstein in his 20th century forward to Galileo’s 1632 masterpiece writes; 

A man is here revealed who possesses the passionate will, the intelligence, and the courage to stand up as the representative of rational thinking against the host of those who, relying on the ignorance of the people and the indolence of the teachers in priest’s and scholar’s garb, maintain and defend their positions of authority. His unusual literary gift enables him to address the educated men of his age in such clear and impressive language as to overcome the anthropocentric and mythical thinking of his contemporaries.”  

But we must see what Galileo Galilei himself has to say about those who condemned him. 

In the long run my observations have convinced me that some men, reasoning preposterously, first establish some conclusion in their minds which, either because of its being their own or because of their having received it from some person who has their entire confidence, impresses them so deeply that one finds it impossible ever to get it out of their heads. Such arguments in support of their fixed idea as they hit upon themselves or hear set forth by others, no matter how simple and stupid these may be, gain their instant acceptance and applause. On the other hand, whatever is brought forward against it, however ingenious and conclusive, they receive with disdain or with hot rage — if indeed it does not make them ill. Beside themselves with passion, some of them would not be backward even about scheming to suppress and silence their adversaries.” 

When I read this particular passage of this Great Italian astronomer written in the 16th Century I couldn’t help  recalling the recent humbug dispensed by the self-styled legal pundit of the current dispensation. 

Long before Galileo Galilei commented on petty minds who attempted to thwart reason and critical thinking with preposterous arguments the Buddha enunciated his charter of free inquiry and critical thinking. 

In his classic work “What the Buddha Taught” Venerable Dr Walpola Rahula explains how it all began . 

“The Buddha, whose personal name was Siddhattha, and family name Gotama, lived in North India in the 6th century B.C. His father Suddhodana was the ruler of the kingdom of the Sakyas (in modern Nepal). His mother was queen Maya. 

According to the custom of the time, he was married quite young, at the age of sixteen, to a beautiful and devoted young princess named Yasodahara. 

The young prince lived in his palace with every luxury at his command. But all of a sudden, confronted with the reality of life and the suffering of mankind, he decided to find the solution – the way out of this universal suffering.

At the age of 29, soon after the birth of his only child, Rahula, he left his kingdom and became an ascetic in search of his solution. For six years the ascetic Gotama wandered about the valley of Ganges, meeting famous religious teachers, studying and following their systems and methods, and submitting himself to rigorous ascetic practices. 

They did not satisfy him. So he abandoned all traditional religions and their methods and went his own way.

It was thus that one evening, seated under a tree (since then known as the Bodhi – or Bo-tree, the “Tree of Wisdom”, on the bank of the river Neranjara at Buddha-aya (near Gaya in modern Bihar), at the age of 35, Gotama attained enlightenment, after which he was known as the Buddha, ‘The Enlightened One’. 

In these dark times of sanctimonious humbug, the passage was reproduced purely to demonstrate the distilled truth of renunciation and detachment that its intrinsic to what the Buddha taught. 

Now we come to the Buddha’s charter of free inquiry. In these dark days of deceit it is best that we reproduce the Buddhas dictates on free inquiry and critical thinking in the words of the Scholar Monk Walpola Rahula Maha Thera. 

“He (the Buddha) said that there was no esoteric doctrine in his teaching, nothing hidden in the ‘closed-fist of the teacher’, or to put it in other words, there never was anything ‘up his sleeve’.

The freedom of thought allowed by the Buddha is unheard of elsewhere in the history of religions. This freedom is necessary because, according to the Buddha, man’s emancipation depends on his own realization of Truth, and not on the benevolent grace of a god or any external power as a reward for his obedient good behavior.

The Buddha once visited a small town called Kesaputta in the kingdom of Kosala.

The inhabitants of this town were known by the common name Kalama.

When they heard that the Buddha was in their town, the Kalamas paid him a visit, and told him:

“Sir, there are some recluses and brahmapas who visit Kesaputta. They explain and illumine only their own doctrines, and despise, condemn, and spurn others’ doctrines.

Then come other recluses and brahmapas, and they, too, in their turn, explain and illumine only their own doctrines, and only despise, condemn and spurn others’ doctrines.

But, for us, Sir, we have always doubt and perplexity as to who among these venerable recluses and brahmapas spoke the truth, and who spoke falsehood.”

Then the Buddha gave them this advice, unique in the history of religions:

“Yes, Kalamas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kalamas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay.

 Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor, by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea:

‘this is our teacher.’ But Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome (akusala),and wrong, and bad, then give them up… And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome (kusala) and good, then accept them and follow them.’ The Buddha went even further. He told the bhikkhus that a disciple should examine even the Tathagata (Buddha) himself, so that he (the disciple) might be fully convinced of the true value of the teacher whom he followed.” 

So dear Reader, the Buddha did not demand blind allegiance. His path is that of reason, critical thinking, and free inquiry. 

The true Buddhist mind employs critical thinking at all times. It has to be so because compassion and selflessness are important aspects of Buddhism. If there is no Critical thinking the process of compassion is flawed. 

In the fifties and sixties  Sri Lanka witnessed a process of politicization of religion. Post civil war triumphalism of the Rajapaksa clan unleashed a shameless process of religionization of politics. 

The true Buddhist mind should and must be open to new ideas and new discoveries. 

If we are to meaningfully integrate with the global value chain, we need our youth to be critical thinkers and more importantly with a healthy sense of humor.

Such enterprising curious minds capable of practice critical thinking will be willing to give up their old ideas and embrace the new. 

Both critical thinking and Buddhist philosophy promote the idea of being open to new ideas and new things. People who practice true critical thinking are willing to give up their own old ideas. That is the Buddhist idea of detachment. 

Astro physicist and philosopher Carl Sagan once said; 

“Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility,”  

We don’t have to wait till 2048 to adopt critical thinking and free inquiry. I know how young people think. I have five grand daughters and a grandson. 

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Latest comments

  • 22

    Sarath, EXCELLENT as usual. In general Lankans are conditioned over years by way of political Lab Methods
    ” Not to think but follow ” . Critical thinking now is a serious offense which can invite death/ disappearance in case of politics ( journalist / free speech) and prison ( Pastor, Natasha, Shaffi , Islamic poet …..). From Sri became Silly then Stupid and now intellectually BANKRUPT Sorry Lanka.

    • 9

      Well said Sarath. You are a top writer and I enjoy your articles. Give us more when you can. Regarding the subject in question 85% of the world belong to a religion and according to Pew Research the mix will not change even by 2060. People giving up religion in the developed world are compensated for, by the high birth rates in the developing world. The only hope can be less militancy in religion and people being educated enough to see through political manipulation of religion. Thanks again Sarath

      • 3

        Sad, we are being propelled backwards!!!??

    • 7

      Probably the reason, SL universities and HE institutions do not encourage training in “Critical Thinking”!!?? Flow with the trend!??

    • 9

      Elle Gunawansa, Gnanasara, and Sarath Weerasekara are crying out for Natasha and Jerome to be imprisoned for “insulting Buddhism “.
      A foreign monk, Ajahn Brahmo, has called on the authorities not to vindictively punish the officials who made him miss his flight .
      The Mihintale hamuduruwo is angry that the government didn’t give him free electricity. Who is following real Buddhism, the local ones or the foreign one?

  • 0

    Well said Sarath. You are a top writer and I enjoy your articles. Give us more when you can. Regarding the subject in question 85% of the world belong to a religion and according to Pew Research the mix will not change even by 2060. People giving up religion in the developed world are compensated for, by the high birth rates in the developing world. The only hope can be less militancy in religion and people being educated enough to see through political manipulation of religion. Thanks again Sarath

  • 4

    If Sithartha was not given the Freedom of Movement, Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Differ, and Freedom to Walk away from his family, and if his Father the King followed him everywhere he went or sent at least his Security Chief behind him, we wouldn’t have a had a Buddha or his Philosophy today. Natesha and Jeromy would not have spoken or charged. Hinduism would have reigned supreme. It can stand any amount of insult.
    This is why the famous Yogaswamy of Columbuthurai said “Everything Happens for the Good, Everything was over long ago, We don’t know anything”.
    I learned that Yogaswamy advised SWRD to Get married when he went to see him and thereafter only he decided to married.?

    • 3

      “Hinduism would have reigned supreme.”
      And the Varna/Caste system too!
      ” It can stand any amount of insult.”
      It insults more than half of the Hindus based on caste. And they have stood far more than what the religion stands.

  • 2

    Am I right in understanding that the author took us on an arduous journey in a time machine from Siddhartha to Carl Sagan just to tell us that we should not all think monolithically about Ranil?

    “We don’t have to wait till 2048 to adopt critical thinking and free inquiry. I know how young people think.”

    I predict that when 2048 comes along we would probably still be an undeveloped/developing country. And if the political choices of the young people the author has in mind prevail, things would be worse.

    • 4

      “I predict that when 2048…”
      Anyone over 55 can safely predict anything for 2048, for he/she will be physically or mentally gone by then to be challenged.
      Even if still there, one can safely claim not to remember saying any such nonsense.

      • 2

        Didn’t you know that I am only 16 years old (not just mentally)? 😎

        • 0

          Sorry, I thought that your were much younger– mentally.
          Thanks for the information.

  • 10

    Critical thinking is absent in SL. We were taught a load of bull at school & received a ‘kaney’ (boxed ear) from the teacher for questioning facts. We copied notes from the blackboard & ‘parroted’ the contents without a proper understanding. It was only at technical college in UK that I first realised that we have to make our own notes while researching the subject as guided by the lecturers. It was no surprise that my 10 year old daughter had to do her own research & make a presentation to the class about SL & she became a vegan after researching on the subject for a class debate when she was 11. Critical thinking is a subject in UK schools from an early stage which allows children to make their own minds without taking for granted
    We have Buddhist monks who only recite Pali verses & refer to folklore in sermons. In fact, I have heard a sermon by a 21st century SL monk, claiming to be an ‘arahat’ (I have forgotten his name), preaching a distorted version, that everybody, including monks, should ‘eat well & live well’, contravening my understanding of Buddhism, that we should seek a ‘middle path’ & monkhood is about leading a simple life, away from the distractions of the material world. Anyway, how practical or inspirational is it to preach eat & live well at a time of austerity, unless the preacher is justifying his luxury living?

    Time we thought critically, from religion to politics & everything in between.

    • 9

      In Sri Lanka, No one bothers about Buddha’s teachings. Most Buddhists in SL believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa is the “Avatar” of Lord Buddha.

      • 3

        HIP, HIP HOORAY!!!

    • 2

      “We were taught a load of bull at school & received a ‘kaney’ (boxed ear) from the teacher for questioning facts.”
      Whom are you trying to hoodwink?
      Was it different in schools elsewhere until later last century? When was corporal punishment ended?
      In Britain Education Act (1986) abolished corporal punishment in state schools. Public schools took another decade to be civilized.
      Read a little about what schools were like where you live in the first half of 20th Century before picking on this country.

      • 4

        Hello SJ,
        Just because other countries practised Corporal Punishment in the past doesn’t make it right in Sri Lanka. I saw the changes that took place in the Education System in Scotland from the inside. For many years parents had objected to teachers physically punishing their children, even though the law “may” have seen them as being “in loco parentis”. Remember the UK as a whole had signed up to the Human Rights Acts.
        At my primary school in the late fifties a teacher “known to us a headcase”, decided to apply the tawse (a leather belt used to whip children’s hands) to the whole class, including both boys and girls for forgetting to do some homework. One of the girl’s father came up to school and threatened the teacher with a lashing by his own tawse. Police were called and calmed the situation, but the teacher never strapped anyone again. In 1983 two Scottish mothers won an action in the European Court of Human Rights. Finally in 1987 it was totally banned in all State schools.
        The idea that teachers were some sort of gods and should never be questioned did not hold much sway in working class areas. Assault against another person was a criminal offence. This was assault and children were “persons”.
        By the way the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 not only banned corporal punishment but also guaranteed freedom of speech in Polytechnics, Colleges and Universities. The 1989 Act abolished corporal punishment in Independent Schools in England and Wales.
        Best Regards

        • 0

          In 2021, the Supreme Court held corporal punishment illegal in this country.
          In case you are confused about my stand on corporal punishment, let me get something straight, I firmly oppose all violence against children, including that by parents.
          I advocate criminialisation of smacking of children even by a parent.
          My comment was in response to a little sermon based on the impression that things have been perfect from time immemorial in the land that the preacher had settled in. What I pointed out was that it took a long tome for that country to civilize in the relevant context.

      • 8

        I am not hoodwinking anyone, just my experience as a school boy in SL in the 70s.
        Your contempt for those who have sought greener pastures abroad is probably the reason for your cynical & irrelevant comments but you have proved my point that even some mature adults in SL are unable to think critically & contribute to an intelligent conversation because the subject was critical thinking & not corporal punishment. As for your suggestion about teaching standards in UK in the first half of 20th Century is immaterial because it has changed for the better but has it in SL?
        I rest my case.

        • 2

          I have no contempt for those seeking any pasture.
          But I get a little tired of patronizing sermons from their abodes of refuge.
          Flatter yourself as much as you please about your intelligence, maturity and critical thinking.
          I am here mostly to have a hearty laugh at pompous BS.
          Britain took so long to be rid of corporal punishment. What does an intelligent mature critical mind to say on it?
          It is very convenient to miss the point made, is it not?

          • 2

            What does an intelligent mature critical mind have to say on it?

            • 1

              Hello SJ as you may have noticed I live in Sri Lanka (in a village like Leonard Woolf’s Baddegama). I have many opinions on the reasons for some of Sri Lanka’s Education problems, however I think that they are best addressed by Sri Lankans. If Sri Lankan Education Professionals think that the UK Curriculum and methodologies would help the country I am sure that some form of Government approaches would be fruitful.
              I have shown pictures of typical Primary school classrooms to my school age nieces and nephews. I know that Primary schools in Sri Lanka do not have the funds to furnish their classrooms like the UK and the teachers are criminally underpaid. But it is not just the physical comfort that has improved in UK schools, the whole atmosphere and teaching practice has changed for the better. There are still problem children in UK schools, but teachers wouldn’t ever resort to beating them.
              By the way Sri Lanka has signed up to most of the Human Rights Conventions – “Sri Lanka has ratified all the main UN International Human Rights Conventions. No reservations have been lodged with respect to these treaties.”
              https://mfa.gov.lk/overview/ , whether it observes them is another matter.
              Best Regards

  • 0

    Path to the

    • 1

      Sorry bout that unfinished line .

      Path to the cessation of sufferings (magga) . The eight paths
      Guidelines Buddhists are expected to follow to end the
      sufferings .

      1 . Right understanding – As between Ranil and Mahinda .

      2 . Right intention – As in the case of L G elections .

      3 . Right speech – Shut up and sit down .

      4 . Right action . – Sale Sale Sale and Beg Beg Beg .

      5 . Right livelyhood . – From beggar’s bowl .

      6 . Right effort . – Tear gas .

      7 . Right mindfulness . . Run Ali Sabri Raheem Run .

      8 . Right concentration . – Borrow more , live forever .

      • 1

        why why

        how can youblame them.The whole problem is when lord bhuddha brought out these 8 he did not give 2 or 3 examples to explain how they were to be interpreted.So when ranil visited the maha nayake of the asgiriya chapter he explained to ranil about right understanding.When ranil visted the mahanayaka of the malwatte chapter he explained to ranil what lord bhuddha meant about right action and right effort.

        As for right concentration it was explained to ranil by the IMF.

  • 2

    “So dear Reader, the Buddha did not demand blind allegiance. His path is that of reason, critical thinking, and free inquiry. “

    now i get it why the sri lankan bhuddhist monks don’t follow Lord bhuddha’s teachings.They ruined the countries economy with a 25 year civil war when they despatched the banda chelva pact into the dustbin.Now they are opposing the full implementation of the 13th amendment.Unlike the prophet mohammed, Lord bhuddha did not demand blind allegiance whereas the prophet said do it or die.

  • 1

    Critical thinking is essentially the same thing as the scientific method. Critical thinking is a process. It involves systematic observation, data collection, analysis, experimentation, conclusions, verification, and more. It would be a challenging job to apply critical thinking to a God-centric religion. Probably the quickest way for one to become an atheist is to use critical thinking in God-based religious beliefs.

    • 2

      “It would be a challenging job to apply critical thinking to a God-centric religion.”

      i do not think so.If you observe that the sun provides us with life.Then you collect data showing how far is the sun from us.Then you analyse what would happen tous if the sun was slightly far away or nearer.You come to the conclusion that if it was a few miles away we would freeze to death and if it was a few miles closer we would fry to death.Asfor verification of that we can’t move the sun to see at what distances these will happen but i am sure the scientists using their formulas can verify it.then youdosome more critical thinking as ask who placed the sun at the rght position.

      • 0

        There has been life on Earth for about 3.5 Billion years. Fairly regularly astronomers find new exoplanets many of which are likely suitable for life to evolve. Mars is currently 300 Million miles or so from Earth and may have had life in the past or could have in the future (if we colonise it before we commit nuclear suicide).
        No one put the sun in the right place, but I put the Earth in the right place. Now prove I didn’t!
        Best Regards

    • 1

      It is risky to generalise.
      There have been great critical thinkers including some of the most brilliant of scientists who were strong believers.
      Atheism is no guarantee of critical thought.

  • 4

    Buddha’s original teachings have been corrupted/distorted after his demise. The first break up came within years of Buddha’s demise. Mahayanist section borrowed many concepts of the Vedic religion and elevated Buddha as a demi-god. Stories about the Buddha’s many previous lives, accounts of important events in his life as Gautama, stories of his “extended life” in his relics, and other aspects of his sacred biography were elaborated and/or interpolated.

    Today many Hindu practices such as poojas, chanting of pirith, tying of thread, festivals been introduced. Buddhist monks no more beg for their food, but live a life of luxury like travelling in Benzes and indulging in sumptuous life style.

    • 0

      “concepts of the Vedic religion”
      Which Vedic religion?
      The difference between the Hinayana and Mahayana was about the focus of religious practice. One was more on personal liberation, while the other had a wider outlook.

  • 0

    I do not think Buddhism is bothered about critical thinking, and it is very much about keeping status quo.
    Buddism is actually against (re)formation.
    This is the first chasm between Saivism and Buddhism.
    An example is Chloa empire. How do you all think they grew to such proportions?
    Cholas were the ones probably operated the current western way of thinking at that time, though not as developed as it is now.
    As an example, Cholas were ones who probably had laid the foundations for what is now called Damascus steel. Their armoury had become light, flexible and yet strong.
    We know that Cholas research and production department had Arabs, Chinese and other people (basically sourcing brain power – of course subject to restrictions at that time) .
    Cholas’ mechanisation and (semi) automation (of military) is so much so that it resulted in gradually fading away of two of job-based castes, Einnar (marks men) and Villavar (archers). Today, you cannot find significant population (or any population for that matter) who either call themselves Einnar or Archers.
    You can also see that Cholas grew food production and preservation in an unpreceded scale. This is not possible by sticking to old methods and structure. There were corresponding land, social (especially caste), supply chains and generally economic reformations by Cholas.

    • 2

      “I do not think Buddhism is bothered about critical thinking”
      A slight correction: Sinhala Buddhism is not bothered about critical thinking.

    • 0

      “Cholas were ones who probably had laid the foundations for what is now called Damascus steel.”
      Have you heard of ‘Monsoon Steel” and its home to far the south of the Chola kingdom. Arabs bought the monsoon steel regularly.
      Where is your evidence for Chola steel? Any records among buyers?
      “Cholas’ mechanisation and (semi) automation (of military)”
      Have you a clue as to what automation means? Mechanisation cannot stop at the military. It has to manifest in other aspects of life in the community.
      The Moghuls and Mayurans ruled over a far larger territory than the Cholas. How did the empires die?
      Cholas were no exception.

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