2021-09-12-The Kalama Sutta-Living an Ethical Life
5:48PM Sep 12, 2021
I've been thinking some this week about an important discourse of the Buddha called the kalama suta. And it's so one of the more well known, suitors in the West. And, and the Buddho kind of teaches, I think, kind of brilliantly in this text, and it taking his audience, the Columbia people on a journey. I think of it as a four or five step journey, where he reframes their question to him. In a sense, he reframes it by turning away from abstract questions of abstract questions of truth and falsehood, and, and questions of who is it that speaks a truth and who is it speaks to falsehood, to directing people's attention inward to themselves with ethical principles of attention, and then applying that in their behavior, and then leading it into pointing to the absence of ill will and the presence of goodwill. So it goes from kind of the Buddha talks about kind of principles, to behavior to inner dispositions. And so it's kind of you leading the audience through this. And so it begins by the Buddha visiting this country where that calama people live. And they've had a lot of spiritual teachers visiting. And they're perplexed by them, because they all seem to say things like, Don't quote the text. They say
they explain and elucidate their own doctrines, but disparage denigrate and deride and denounce the doctrines of others. So they champion their teachings, but they criticize dramatic terms, the doctrine of others. And so when they say we're perplex that have doubt, they're all saying the same thing that we're we teach what's true, and other people are all wrong. And so they asked the Buddha, which of them speaks the truth? And which of them speak falsehoods? is a question about what is true and what is false. And, and so, so the Buddha, I guess, he doesn't want to be just one more person that champions his doctrine, and certainly doesn't want to denigrate anybody else. So but what he does is he changes the if he reframes the conversation, he doesn't actually answer their question directly. But he who speaks the truth and who's false, he first says, what you should not rely on in deciding what is true. And then he points to how you can know something for yourself. And he doesn't say it's the truth Exactly. But maybe it's implied. But you'll see for yourself, and when I go through this, and so when the Buddha responds and says, Yes, it's reasonable, you should be perplexed, and have doubt given that all these people are coming, making claims and then criticizing others. And, and, but here is something you should be careful for, don't, these are some things you should not rely on, in in order to, you didn't rely on these things. These are kind of spiritual sources of authority, common ones for many people, that they take these sources as providing some access to the truth. And the Buddha says, Don't Don't rely on these. And after a number of scandals and challenges in western Buddhism here in United States, there was a wonderful Zen teacher named Yvonne Rand who's now passed away. And she was had a very strong orientation towards being ethical and addressing the ethical and unethical behavior and that was going on in Buddhism at that time. And she once said that these this, then what I'm going to read you now, she said, it's kind of dramatic, tattooed on the inside of people's eyelids. She wanted everyone to know this really well. So he says, Do not go by oral tradition, oral tradition because it was all an oral oral tradition. Back then there was no books, but I guess don't go by the traditional teachings and books, or because it's the tradition. These particular teachings don't go by traditional teachings. Or by the lineage of teaching. So if you're in a particular lineage of teachings, in particular, organization, religion domination, just because it's part of that lineage, don't just accept it as a by that just automatically by that don't go by hearsay, just because you've heard it around. And maybe it sounds good, don't depend on hearsay. Don't buy a collection of scriptures. So don't use, because because it's in scriptures that are particularly important for you or your tradition. The fact that it's in scriptures doesn't make it mean that it's true. And don't go by logical reasoning. So to establish what's really most about valuable this, from the Buddhist point of view, don't go because it seems reasonable or logical, don't construct a logical argument for it. And don't go by inferential reasoning, that kind of intuition, for example. And by reason, cognition, more of the same thing. And, and by some kind of acceptance of it, just because you've thought it out, all kind of a similar kind of kind of mental kind of consideration. Or, by the seeming competence of a speaker, just because someone has charisma or seems confident, or seems very convincing, and how they are, that that's not a reason to accept something. And then finally, don't accept it don't rely on the ascetic is our Guru.
Just because someone you think is because all because my persons, my teacher, I should accept it. So all all these Be very careful, don't accept naively or simplistically these other these sources. It's not a rejection of those sources. But rather, that's not that you might get ideas, you might get encouragement, inspiration, things to think about from all these sources. But they are not the place to find out what is true. Now, the Buddha doesn't actually talk about what's true, doesn't use that language. But now he, he talks about principles of what you should go by. And he says, but always, but when you know for yourselves, these things are unwholesome, these things are blameworthy. These things are criticized by the wise, these things if accepted and undertaken, lead to harm and suffering, then you should abandon them. So well, when they're, when they're and that word for things here can mean action, when there's activities that you do, that involve their unwholesome that you can feel they, they make you feel bad, they deflate you, they somehow feel unhealthy and doing them, then don't do them, you should abandon them when they're blameworthy and exactly what that means we don't know. But if they seem unfair, or unjust, abandon them. And then they're criticized by the people who are wise, which means take into account the people who you respect. And maybe they know something that you don't know, maybe they had more experience or something. So here where it says here, when you know for yourself, but here we're lying little bit on other people, those people who are wise, and what that means, is not relying on them and what's true, but relying little bit to be careful about how we act in the world. And, and then if you know for yourself, that these things, if accepted undertaking lead to harm and suffering. So the idea is we don't want to do anything that has the consequences as harm either to ourselves or to others. But then he goes and says the opposite. If you know for yourself, these things are wholesome. These actions these actions are blameless, these actions are praised by the wise, these if accepted and undertaken, lead to welfare and to happiness. So that's the principle he's offering. So it's a principle of your own evaluation. Then, with the help of the wise people, that's only one of four or five criteria. And so here the emphasis now is on what you undertake the actions we do. So the Buddha now it switches the conversation from the question which is about truth and falsehood to action behavior. And this is a indicates an orientation that Buddha has, he's often certainly disinclined to get involved in controversies around what is true and false. So not getting involved in the question that was asked. But he's pointing people to a behavior to their actions. And he's talking about principles for which to evaluate your actions. And they're consequential, there's two things about them that I would emphasize. One is the
that there's a reference point to what feels wholesome, inside what feels I has a goodness or rightness to it, it maybe shouldn't be the only criteria. But certainly, we want to avoid what feels unhealthy to do a kind of inner sense of well being is diminished as we do these things. And then also, when it's involves consequential thinking, do these things lead to harm and suffering? Do they lead to, to benefit to welfare, and to happiness. And so it involves some reflection, some thinking, some based on experience, perhaps, where we have some sense of the harm, that these things are the benefit that comes and attacks is not specified to who so it could be either to oneself or to others. And we are meant to be or they are custodians of our own well being, and being careful not to harm other human beings. This is a central orientation principle of the Buddha's teachings. And I probably can't underscore enough how central important this is. So here is bring it up. And then, because he's talking about behavior, he then applies it to particular forms of behavior, which we can understand as a form of first four of the five precepts. We also goes on to says, Well, you close it down to behavior first, but rather to mind states and the behavior that comes from mind states. And he says, Is greed, wholesome or unwholesome is hatred, ill will, wholesome or unwholesome is delusion, wholesome or unwholesome? And the answer is that greed, hatred and delusion is unwholesome, that it's harms the person who has them. There's something unhealthy about the presence of greed in the person who's greedy, it's often invisible, because greed is so focused on the object that what we want, people are not paying attention to what it feels like to be greedy, with ill will or hatred, same thing, people are often focused on what they dislike. And so they're not even noticing the effect it has on them. But it's considered unhealthy. And if we act out of that, then that is also unwholesome. So in the example he gives is if we kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, or lie based on greed or based on anything that's unwholesome, and those things should not be done. So they lead to harm. But if we analyse, analyze or evaluate the situation, that this is wholesome, we recognize the goodness in it, and that it doesn't lead to harm, then we do it, but jumping around a little bit, he does the same analysis with non greed, non hatred, non delusion. And so, non non greed is not only the absence is a wholesome state, he asks them is non greed wholesome and they say it's wholesome, the Calamos do so this kind of care and sensitivity. This might seem abstract, it might seem kind of theoretical or principle based. It is a little bit principles, but they're principles that are meant to be oriented towards an inner sensitivity, an inner capacity to feel and sense for oneself, what is healthy and what is not healthy, what harms ourselves and what does not harm ourselves, what is beneficial for ourselves and what is not beneficial. And this kind of capacity for clearly, being present, being mindful It's something we're training ourselves to do in the mindfulness tradition. And this training to be present to be mindful as we go through our day has this ethical component. Because as we are more and more mindful in the present moment, we have access to these feelings as sensations inside of what has an Ouch. And what has an R in it, we kind of feel they become we become our own reference point, our own guide for what kind of behaviors to do. that supports us then to avoid greed, and stay close to non greed, avoid hate and stay close to non hate is to avoid delusion and stay close to non delusion. This is the
the direction that Buddha is going, as we do this, as we do this kind of care and attention to the present moment experience that arises within us of wholesome and unwholesomeness. As we pay attention to the presence of mind that allows us to pay attention to the consequences. This then tends to lead people to people living without the ill will, to live unconfused and to live with kind of clear comprehension of what's happening. So the Buddha kind of now is leading the Colombo's and he evokes this, based on living this way, then there is this non confusion, there is clear comprehension, and a lack of ill will. With those three states strong, the Buddha then moves into being rooted in goodwill, rooted in compassion, rooted in appreciative joy, and rooted in equanimity. And these are these inner dispositions that can arise from host those wholesome states of being. And, and, and, and so and these are dispositions or social dispositions or social emotions. They're how we relate to other people. We relate to them with goodwill, or when it's when it's appropriate with compassion, when it's appropriate, with appreciative joy, feeling joy, appreciating their success in other people's happiness, and with a certain kind of love or care called equanimity, which is to be caring for people, but to do so without being caught up with with an innate reactivity and reactivity around it. And so, so we had this journey. The Colombo's asked about truth and falsity. And who has it? The Buddha answers differently than the questions been asked. He says, he focuses on what you can know for years, yourself. He describes the principles for how of what is what's useful to know for yourself. And especially the idea of wholesomeness and leading to harm and suffering. He then asks this question about greed, hatred, and delusion, these inner dispositions towards greed, hatred, and delusion, and help people to recognize that these are unhealthy. And that behavior that comes from them is also unhealthy. And then he does it for the opposite. And this is all kind of turning the attention in towards oneself. So it's not answering abstractly, philosophically. But he's kind of pointing them inwards. And I see this as a progressive talk, almost like a guided meditation, if you will. They're encouraging his audience to recognize this in them see things in themselves. And that they do this well, that leads to a state where there's no ill will. And there's no confusion anymore about what to do what not to do. Because it's a we have clear credit criteria for avoiding harm, and doing good. And then there's clear comprehension is a clear sense of presence and attend attentiveness to what we're doing. Not just mindfulness, but a mindfulness where we just be aware of something but a wise understanding about behavior and action and impact of what we're doing. That leads to a disposition in exactly how it leads to it. The Buddha doesn't explain to these things that are highly valued in their early Buddhist tradition, which is goodwill compassion. sympathy, appreciative joy and equanimity. And so one of the things I want to highlight in this discussion is that, in in switching the focus from truth and falsehood, the Buddha offers central teachings, core teachings of what he wants to emphasize. And all of these could be in western terms be considered ethical, they have to do with how we behave in relationship to ourselves and our relationship to others, how we behave in our mind how we behave in our behavior, physical and verbal behavior. And so there's so set such a central feature of the Buddha's teachings
has to do with how we get transformed. So we live in the world in a beneficial way, that the transformation that Buddha's looking looking for, is not just to make people who are peaceful and calm and free for themselves, and they go off and kind of an enlightened retirement and have nothing to do with the world anymore. But rather, the whole enterprise is couched contextualized. in, in, in being ethical in nature. Or if you don't like the word ethics, it's contextualized, in the healthy relatedness that we can have have with the world around us, to people around us. And it's not a practice in a goal. That is only to benefit oneself. It's a goal and practice that's there to benefit self and others, and both self and others. That's one of the so this is my reading of the Buddhist teachings is one of the really central components of it. And this kalama suta is a wonderful text. And both because of the challenge, it is to us about what we use, to rely on to know what is true. And the Buddha's brilliant way in which he turns that towards avoiding questions of truth and falsehood, and rather, focusing on behavior. And if you follow through on what the Buddha's teaching here, are all really thoroughly, not only is it beneficial for the world around us, as it lead to a disposition, ethical disposition. It also brilliantly, if you do carefully, leads to awakening to the spiritual liberation that the Buddha also champions, these two are not separate, they're closely connected, intertwined to each other. So thank you, and, and this kalama suta is found in the numerical discourses of the Buddha in chapter three, and and say, a delightful text. So thank you all very much.