What is Buddhism's view about debating teachings: should we accept teachings without question, or should we have our own internal and social debates about what we learn?

If we should debate, what is the correct way of doing it?


Let me answer with an excerpt from "Awakening from stupidity", my unfinished novel about genesis of Buddhism:

Chapter 26.

In late February, the valley of Ganges welcomes the coming spring. Not that crazy roaring intoxicating spring that can be observed somewhere in Siberia or Karelia, nope -- just a safe, happy, having-never-seen-real-difficulties North-Indian spring. But even without a real winter, spring is spring: gusty wind tears apart and scatters the clouds, the sky is so bright with blueness -- it rings in the ears; the earth, toasted by sun, exudes the fragrance of life. The only detail that would have seemed strange to a person from temperate zone, was an abundance of foliage on trees. Spoiled by available moisture, the leaves ignored autumn, hung through all winter, and only now, in anticipation of the dry season, were reluctantly beginning to fall.

On the road from Gaya Pools to the capital, bhikshus discussed their forthcoming visit to king Bimbisara, as well as events of the last three months.

-- 'Tell me, Master Gotama, why Dreaded Kashyapa could not understand your teaching? You kept explaining over and over!'
-- 'Did you Assaj, not see for yourself what an asshole he was?'
-- 'Kaundinya!' -- sternly snapped Gotama, 'this is what's called "sowing discord", exactly what you are doing now. Remember, you asked for an example?'
-- 'Got it, not anymore' -- Kaundinya, usually inclined to defend his ancestral right "to call an asshole an asshole", today was in amicable mood.
-- 'As for Kashyapa... You see, Asvajit' -- sighed Gotama, 'some people believe that the purpose of philosophical debate is to outargue the opponent and prove one's superior understanding.'
-- 'But this is so, Master Gotama, the one who wins the dispute, he must be the wiser, right?'
-- 'One who is really wise, Asvajit, debates not to win.'
-- 'What point is to argue then?!' -- As far as common sense Kaundinya had no equal.
-- 'It is quite pointful still. The point is, for the two sides, through combining two different understandings of the same problem, to free themselves from mistaken fixations, each side from their own.'
-- 'Meaning, both sides must lose?'
-- 'Enough, bhikshus.'

'As yourselves, most people approach discussion as if it were a sword fight. Instead of trying to understand the other's point of view, they keep advancing their arguments while waiting for him to "open". Seeing the slightest inaccuracy or logical error, they grasp at it, even if the basic idea is clear to them. When the other gets nervous and slips something silly, they gladly pick it up for a laugh and keep pushing until he gets completely confused! Such people firmly hold their ground, drawing confidence from their limited scope, and having defeated yet another opponent with cunning and impudence, remain satisfied with themselves. But if they see that they can not win, then, jealous of the winner, they get nervous, and begin to divert conversation away, evade, lie, get personal, start losing their temper, and eventually fall down to curses and insults.'

-- 'That's it! This is precisely about the Dreaded. Remember how he got yelling last time?'
-- 'Not worth it, Kaundinya' -- Gotama obviously did not want to recall circumstances of his last debate.
-- 'Can you guys please tell me what happened. Remember, I did not go to the naked fathers' that night. Pleeease!' -- begged another of the five bhikshus called Nam, a former son of Brahmin, his status revoked for relating with girl from a lower caste.
-- 'Not such a great idea, Naman. Savoring themes of this kind stimulates harmful thoughts and excites negative emotions.'
-- 'Teacher, lily grows in the swamp, but is not smeared in mud. May I please know what happened -- in time I too may have to debate with difficult people.' -- well-educated Nam was clever and knew how to achieve his ends with style.

[abridged... Assaj and Kaundinya relate to Naman the content of Gotama's last dispute with Dreaded Kashyapa, in which, as the story goes, the two nagas ended up exchanging some fire... see https://buddhism.stackexchange.com/a/5130/43]

-- 'So, Master, you really have shouted at Kashyapa? Why?!'
-- 'As a rule, Naman, fire is overcome by water. But there are very rare cases, when fire can be defeated only with fire.'


Another way to put your question (re-phrase) is... "Is criticizing other religions allowed in Buddhism?"

If that criticism is fair and aims to correct others, then it’s allowed and is a good thing to do. As it is mentioned above in Cula-dukkhakkhandha Sutta, Jainism is criticized by Supreme Buddha.

Supreme Buddha was one of the first crusaders against caste system, an apartheid evil ideology started by Aryans who used it to suppress indigenous Indian people. Lord Buddha was a social reformer and thoroughly criticized the animal sacrifices and discrimination of women which was common in the Hindu society.

A heartfelt touching discourse of Lord Buddha on animal sacrifice comes in the Sutta Nipata, Brahmana-dhammika Sutta. In this discourse, it is discussed about the ethical conduct fit for a Brahmin. Lord Buddha speaks respectfully of ancient Brahmins who rejected disdainfully the taking of life and never allowed their religious rites to be contaminated by the blood of poor animals. But corruption came upon, and they started the wicked practice of animal sacrifices to please gods. When the knife was laid on the neck of cow, the gods themselves cried out in horror, seeing that crime of ingratitude and insensitivity committed on an animal that was such a faithful worker, such a sustain-er of life, to humans.

In the Agganya Sutta, Supreme Buddha focuses on the Brahman idea from Wrig Veda that Brahmans came through the mouth of Maha Brahma/God; thus they are supreme. Lord Buddha questions the Brahmins as to how they can claim so when they see day to day that women in the Brahmin caste get pregnant, give birth, and take care of their children? Don’t they understand that they all came from the mother’s womb, not from the Brahma’s mouth?

‘One is not low because of birth nor does birth make one holy. Deeds alone make one low, deeds alone make one holy.’ – Supreme Buddha (Dhammapadha)


Should we accept teachings without question?

No never.

Accepting teachings blindly is not part of the Buddhas teaching.

The Buddha stressed over and over, throughout his 45 years of teaching, than we ourselves must work. No one can do the work for us. The Buddhas can only show the way. We ourselves must walk through the doors. That also goes for the cultivation of insights.

The Buddha taught that one should go and test the teachings for oneself. One should not even trust ones own ideas and thoughts, because they themselves can be decieving. They are subject to the 3 marks of existence, meaning they are impermanent and in a constant flux. One might believe something one day and next week, the opposite mental formations arise.

The way to do this, is to practice insight meditation (vipassana) and gain insight about how reality functions.

This experiental knowledge, serves as a reference point to reality, meaning that one now has a measurement-tool. When one sees for oneself how reality functions, how the mind operates and how the mind-body-complex functions, then there is really no doubt anymore.

When reading something in a book, when being taught something by parents, teachers, friends, authorities, one is only learning this intellectually, meaning that one does not truly and ultimately understand, how reality functions.

One does not have wisdom (paññā), thereby making it blind belief/faith.

In Buddhism we have faith (saddhā) but this faith is guided by wisdom, so that it does not become blind faith. Wisdom, one gains from the practice of insight meditation. One thereby sees with ones own eyes, what this samsaric existence is and how it operates.

If we should debate, what is the correct way of doing it?

I think this question has a variety of answers. I would like to put forth the factor that when debating there should be a reference point. Something that ties the strings together. That denominator is experiental knowledge of reality.

Debating could be done on the basis of experiental knowledge. Debating on the basis of non-experiental knowledge (non-wisdom), would not make it relevant to the winning of Nibbana.

That kind of debate would be intellectual and more of a scholarly approach.

This approach I mention here, is founded in the practical/insight-meditational aspect of Buddhism. Bare in mind, that this is just one approach to debating. There are many others and I don't think one way is more correct than the other. Unless we are talking about winning Nibbana - then only experiental knowledge can set one free.


The Buddha makes it clear that (1) we should always question the teachings, but (2) not in a showy or superficial way. He contrasts the artificiality of the kind of debating skills that are taught in schools with the correct pursuit of wisdom, which involves a deep penetration and comparison of the teachings with the goal of cultivating real understanding and not merely impressing people.

The correct way of discussing spiritual teachings (the Buddha says) is to find common ground and proceed from there on the basis of truth. When we look at how the Buddha actually engaged the Brahmans, for example, he always sought to understand the inner meaning or significance, often ethical, of the practices and the teachings, rather than taking them literally or understanding them superficially. With respect to the dharma, new teachings should be criticized in the context of the established tradition - which itself should be the result of criticism - in order to arrive at right view.

Again, this does not imply a superficial or fundamentalist approach. The Buddha says that teachings should not be accepted simply because they are traditional or taught by one's teacher.

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