Learning from experience

experience as teacher

The Kalama Sutta is a famous Buddhist text describing how a community of people of the Kalama clan were visited by a stream of teachers, priests and ‘wise men’ who argued among themselves and offered everyone contradictory advice. Every time the community thought they had learnt the truth, another teacher came along and told them it was untrue. The people were confused and despondent and came to the Buddha to ask his advice. This is what the Buddha had to say:

 “Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is written; nor upon speculation; nor upon an accepted belief; nor upon unsound reasoning; nor upon assumptions and preconceptions; nor upon another’s apparent ability; nor upon the thought that ‘this person is our teacher.’ Friends, when you yourselves understand that: ‘These ways are good; these ideas are correct; these actions are wise; if you experience that these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ practice them and abide in them.”

In other words do not accept what you read or hear on face value. Don’t depend on the understanding, or misunderstanding, of others, but on your own understanding. Learn from your own experience, and test the accounts of other people’s experiences against your own.

There are many such accounts of the Buddha advocating free enquiry, learning from experience, weighing up for oneself what makes sense and what works to make life more peaceful and less painful or burdensome. The Buddha recommends the practice of mindful meditation as a very effective method of experiential enquiry.

About three months before the Buddha died he spoke these words to Ananda, one of his closest students:

“Therefore, Ananda, you should live with yourself as an island, yourself as a refuge, and with no other refuge; with the Dharma as an island, the Dharma as a refuge, and with no other refuge.”

On the face of it the Buddha seems to be offering contradictory advice. How can you have no other refuge than yourself and yet also take refuge in the Dharma? Surely it is either one or the other?

However, the Buddha is simply reminding his students of the heart of his lifetime’s teaching: that understanding and awakening arise in, and though, this embodied mind, this self-island, not elsewhere. And to understand and awaken is to learn how the world is (Dharma) – in all its transitory, interdependent splendour – and to live in harmony with how it is.

The Buddha continues:  “And how does someone live like this? Well, Ananda, a person contemplates the embodied mind in all its aspects, clearly and mindfully, and puts aside all hankering and fretting for things that pass. Those who practice in this way, learning from their own experience, will become wise and free.”

In other words, through the practice of mindful enquiry (mindful meditation).

Experience is the ultimate teacher – not the Buddha or someone else. Everything that happens – all our meetings with other humans and encounters with the world – are aspects of our experience. In this way we learn from everyone and every situation becomes an opportunity for contemplative enquiry.

Mindful meditation can be seen as a lens or prism through which we can see more clearly everything that arises. Practice mindful enquiry and trust your own experience, understanding and judgment.