The Buddha is often mistakenly quoted as saying, “Believe nothing unless you have directly experienced it”. This appeals to people who like to say, “Buddhism doesn’t require you to believe anything” – which is true, but the Buddha also encouraged faith (which can sometimes be better thought of as trust) in other places too.
As the Buddha answered to the people of Kalama who said that they had doubts about certain things, “It is fitting for you to doubt, because you are doubting that which is doubt-ful”.
So it’s good to doubt sometimes – but don’t just mindlessly doubt everything just because you “think” that’s what the Buddha said. Don’t just attach to doubt because you could be slowing yourself down and hindering yourself unnecessarily. Sometimes, you also need to have a little faith in the right people and trust in their expertise and judgement too.
The Parable of the Blind Man
Now suppose there’s a man born blind – so he doesn’t know what each color is like – red, white, green, blue etc… he can’t see the sun, the stars or the moon – so to him, those things don’t exist because he’s never experienced seeing them.
So he says – “There is no such thing as colors like red, white, green, blue etc… there is no such thing as the stars, no such thing as the moon and no such thing as the sun. There is no such thing as a person being able to see all of these either. Why?
“Because I myself do not know anything about them, I do not know anything about them – therefore they do not exist!”
Now, although direct experience is a very important part of the Buddha’s teaching, can you see the limitations of ONLY believing in things you’ve directly experienced?
Because what if, like the blind man, your ability to see is limited? You can’t really say that something doesn’t exist just because you can’t see it. There is the seen and there is the unseen.
Our human eyes can only see a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum – called the visible spectrum. But you can see things that you can’t normally see with X-rays, ultrasound and MRI machines.
What if you only have limited experience? What if your knowledge is limited?
What if knowledge in the field itself was limited? What if there are things that science has yet to discover?
Science is constantly progressing – challenging and replacing old paradigms with new ones:
- What is a new discovery in science today may be an incomplete or obsolete paradigm in a few years time.
- What is accepted as the gold standard treatment in medicine now could be obsolete treatment down the line.
So don’t think that what science and medicine say about something are fixed, static truths. It is more dynamic than that.
Basic point is – if you don’t know whether something is true or not – don’t just jump to the conclusion that something does not exist or something can not be done – just because you haven’t seen it.
Just say that you don’t know – until you can find out more.
So, know what you know and know what you don’t know.
And sometimes, you need to have faith (trust) in the people who do know – just like how the blind man should have faith in people who know for certain that colors exist and the sun, the moon and the stars exist.
So, it’s NOT a fixed teaching of the Buddha that you must always experience something first before you believe it. Sometimes, you need to also believe the right people and place your trust in them too.