Saturday, May 20, 2017

What to Do

In the Kalama Sutta, Buddha talks about what to “go by.” I hesitate to use the word “believe” because Buddhism is not a doctrine (doctrines are true because one believes them... a circular proof).

“Now, 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.” (Perhaps the koan “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” (Linji) is saying the same thing.)

I find this close to John Dewey's idea of experience as education. We learn by observing and doing (often even failing). I loved the way that Jon Boorstin spent days observing on the set of All the King’s Men before helping out. He ended up with a key role in directing the film.

My cousin, Mark Kriss, and his sons, Jesse and Peter, created a polling platform for capturing meta-knowledge. They created a way of evaluating a situation by giving weights to opinion givers. I think we do this naturally. We trust the opinion more of someone who has an established reputation in a field (the wise) than a person who does not.

You can see their work at They also found significant the variation between one's opinion and what one believes are the opinions of others.

For example:

“None of the experts believed that black carbon emissions would reduce 50% in 2030, yet they believed that was the belief of some of their colleagues.”


I can't figure out why it has taken me 70 years to figure out how insufficient our answers and explanations really are. Kids ask why and they are curious. And then they go to school and are given answers. I read the other day that the only facts are in our minds. But they don't tell us that in school, did they? We are fed answers sufficient to quell our curiosity.

An exception to this was when I had a color theory class where the teacher wouldn't tell us stuff. He'd grunt or shrug his shoulders when we'd ask him a question. He’d ask us to look harder and to find out on our own. He opened us up to the exploration of color, reminding me what Matisse once said, “I’ve spent all my life playing with color.”

What is a kid asking for when they ask why? Do they want to know the answer, or are they just saying, “Look at this…isn’t it awesome?”?

There a joke in my family that I ask a lot of questions, and worse, I expect answers. And not grey answers like my color theory teacher would say or not say, but black and white answers. When my aunt Reggie was a beginning psychotherapist, she'd give me answers…just the kind I thought I wanted. So when I’d ask something of my sister, a psychoanalyst, she would always answer, “Ask Reggie.” Unfortunately, when Reggie became old and wise, her answers became less binary and much more confusing…and rich.

So what should we do with kids questions? What can we do to encourage their curiosity even more?

William Blake wrote "never seek to tell thy love... Love that never told can be. For the gentle wind does move. Silently Invisibly" That seems about another form of answers. Think of when someone asked you if you love them. Isn't it always when the relationship is dissolving? So they need to clarify. They need to make an experience into a fact. And from there it goes downhill. Silently. Invisibly.

My grandson asked me the other day, holding up a piece of parsley at his school’s Seder lunch, “Who made this?” Unfortunately, I gave him an answer. I could kick myself. There are so many questions I could have asked him, like who does he think made it, or why was he asking the question, or what else in the world is he curious about who made it, or how might he find out who made it. I was not curious about his curiosity and for that I failed him. Maybe next time I can do better.