The Buddha and Critical Thinking

The word Buddha comes from a Sanskrit/Pali word that means one who has awakened or been enlightened. In the context of Indian religions it functions as a title for one who has been enlightened. The name of the founder of the Buddhist religion was therefore not Buddha though one could make this mistake easily since his given name is rarely mentioned. The Buddha's given name was Siddhartha Gutama. He did not refer to himself by the title Buddha and he may not have been called this by others during his lifetime. The accounts of meetings of his followers after his death do not refer to Gutama as the Buddha but as bhagavan (lord), however once the title was adopted it became the primary designation for Gutama and assumed a central role within Buddhist thought and practice.

Siddhartha Gutama's date of birth is disputed, but all will agree it was between the 5th and the 7th centuries B.C.E. The purpose of this offering is simply to remind the reader that 2500 years ago when people were dying of diseases which could readily be blamed on one deity or the other and human dependence on the vagaries of nature was nearly total, there were skeptics. The following quote is attributed to Siddhartha Gutama. The caveat here is that (1) he certainly didn't say it in English and (2) the English translation from the Sanscrit is devoid of cultural considerations of the time when it was said. With that as a warning, if Siddhartha Gutama actually offered this thought in his own language, the reader almost certainly has to conclude that his skeptical habit and ability to think critically were well developed:

"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."

The lesson here is that whether today or 2500 years ago, within any collection of people, one finds those susceptible to suggestion at one end of the spectrum and those who question everything at the other. For those of us schooled in the Age of Enlightenment and attribute the impetus for all of our scientific advancement to discoveries and social changes in the 18th century, it is instructive and humbling to remember that there were teachers of critical thinking like Siddhartha Gutama who preceded the European intellectuals by more than 2000 years.


Robinson and Johnson, The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction. New York, NY: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1997, fourth edition.

Joseph Kitagawa and Mark Cummings, eds., The Encyclopedia of Religion: Buddhism and Asian History. Mircea Eliade, editor in chief. New York, NY: Macmillian, 1989.

Patricia Herbert, The Life of the Buddha. San Francisco, CA: Pomegranate ArtBooks, 1993.

E.H. Johnston, Asvaghosa's Buddhacarita or Acts of the Buddha. Complete Sanskrit Text with English Translation. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Limited, 1995 reprint.