2021-05-24 Kusala (1 of 10) Wholesome and Unwholesome - Introduction
2:54PM May 24, 2021
I'm going to tell a semi-story as the beginning of this talk. I call it a semi-story because often, in the discourses of the Buddha, we find that a context is set up for the Buddha to teach. That context is a little story about who the Buddha encounters, their situation, and what they ask him. Then the Buddha responds. So it is not really a full-blown story exactly.
The semi-story that initiates this teaching is about the people of Kālāma. The Buddha has a very famous text called the Kālāma Sutta. For some people, it's their absolute favorite discourse of the Buddha.
There was a wonderful Zen teacher by the name of Yvonne Rand, who is now dead. She was very much involved in trying to address the ethical issues in Western Buddhism here in the United States in the 1970s through the 1990s – a very ethical, wonderful teacher. She made a rather dramatic statement about this particular discourse, the Kālāma Sutta: everyone should have it tattooed on the inside of their eyelids. She wanted people to always know it and have it close by.
One of the reasons for this is what I'm going to teach you in a moment. It is a protection against some of the more dangerous ways that people can adhere to religious teachings. It does not have to be dangerous, but historically, when people adhere for these reasons, it can create tremendous problems.
So, the Buddha is in the territory of the Kālāmas and they come out to see him. They ask him a question. They say, "In our town, lots of religious teachers of different kinds come through, and they all say: "This is the truth. This is the truth, and whatever everybody else is saying is not true." So, how is it, Buddha, that we can discern – know – which of these teachers is teaching the truth, and which of them is not? What criteria can we use for understanding who is teaching the truth or not?"
The Buddha first offers criteria that we should not use for this purpose. Then he does a very interesting thing. He changes directions, or puts aside this question about truth and untruth to offer something which, for him, is more primary.
The criteria you should not go by – should not use – to decide what is true and what is false, is to go by tradition, the religious tradition that you are part of, the teaching lineage. You should not go by it because it is traditional – the lineage, your particular teacher's lineage – your teacher and your teacher's teacher. Just because you adhere to this particular lineage, political party, whatever it might be, don't take that as automatically true.
Do not think that it is true because it's popular – or is the common view of the times. Do not take it as true because it is in the scriptures – the sacred texts. Do not take it as criteria for what is true because it is logical. You have worked it out logically and, therefore, it must be this way. You have used reason.
Do not go by intuition, preferences. Do not go by reason of the competence of the speaker – a speaker who is very competent, eloquent, clear, and seems to really understand what is happening. Do not just simply believe it because you think the speaker knows.
And finally, do not believe something is true or untrue because the person saying it is your teacher. At this moment, I am your teacher, in a sense. I am teaching, and you are listening. So please do not take what I am saying as either true or false. Just because I am saying it is not a reliable source to really know for yourself whether it is true or false.
Before he replies this way, the Buddha says to the Kālāmas, "It is reasonable that you should have doubts about what is true and not true." He really appreciates that they're coming to him with this question. So he gives them a list of things of what not to go by. Then he offers his own criteria.
Here, it is not the criteria for what may be true or not true – but perhaps this is implied. Probably what the Buddha is doing here is either changing what is meant by truth – or he has his own idea of what truth is (which he doesn't explain in the text), or he is simply changing the flow of the conversation to be about what he emphasizes – instead of focusing on what is true and not true.
What is religiously true and religiously not true – as statements, beliefs, something a little bit outside oneself – that is not his interest. Rather, here are the Buddha's criteria: "Is it harmful or beneficial in and of itself?" But also, he says, is it about whether it leads to harm or to welfare? Is it wholesome or unwholesome? Are the people you think are wise critical of this or not?
It does not mean that you take what the wise say as being true, but you do have respect for their point of view. If they are critical of something, maybe it is time to look more carefully and then pause. Is it praised by the wise? Maybe you do not necessarily believe it then either, but it may be worthy of further investigation. The core thing here is: Is it harmful or beneficial?
I cannot underscore enough how wonderful this central pivot or orientation of the Buddha is. He is not so interested in religious truth or doctrine, but rather, he is interested in what we can know for ourselves about what brings harm or brings welfare. It is a radical thing to have fully brought all forms of harming to an end in ourselves. I mean, what a fantastic thing!
You read the newspapers and see how much harm human beings are inflicting on each other. Then there is a vast amount of more harm that never makes it into the news. To be a person who does not inflict harm on themselves or someone else is a phenomenal thing.
I think it is like a gymnast in gymnastics. It is such a beautiful, such an amazing thing to have worked through and found a way in which there is no inclination, no tendency to cause harm. And, maybe, it is the opposite. We are inclined to do what is beneficial, what brings welfare to ourselves and to someone else.
There are all kinds of lofty religious states we can attain. There are all kinds of wonderful perspectives on life and experiences we can have that people say are spiritual or religious. These are not to be devalued in and of themselves. But I think in these criteria the Buddha has, one wants to be careful not to assume that this gives us a privileged access to what is true and what is false – unless it has taught us something.
From the Buddha's point of view, be very careful. For the Buddha, those states also are evaluated, looked at. What does this teach us about how to live a life that is beneficial, that avoids harm? Over and over again, that is what the Buddha is interested in.
So you could, in the context of modern Western ideas, say the Buddha is more interested in ethics than he is in religion. He is interested in how people act, how people behave. To behave with our bodies, our speech, and also in our minds in ways that do not cause any harm. What makes it beyond ethics is the thoroughness with which the Buddha points out that it is possible to do this. That level of peace, the level of well-being and happiness, the level of freedom, is possible when there is no inclination to cause any harm. It is an experience of radical non-clinging, non-compulsion, freedom, and liberation.
This potential, this possibility, is a phenomenal human capacity and possibility. But it does not matter so much if we take the Buddhist path all the way to its end. What matters is that we are practicing a life of doing what is beneficial, avoiding what is harmful. And doing it in a beneficial way. Part of this teaching, then, is not only about the beneficial and the harmful, but also about really making a distinction between what is unwholesome and wholesome. That is going to be the theme for the next couple of weeks in these 7:00am sittings and teachings.
I want to look at this very important topic – concept – of the Buddha of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness. This week, it will be that. There is an alternative translation for the Pali words "kusala" and "akusala." Sometimes they are translated as wholesome and unwholesome, and sometimes they are translated as skillful and unskillful. For this first week, I want to look at it as wholesome and unwholesome, and next week, as skillful and unskillful.
This is a pivotal orientation for all of the Buddha's teachings. To really understand this idea of kusala and akusala – and understand it well – is like a key to understanding so much of what the Buddha is about. If you understand these two things together – the avoidance of harm and doing what is beneficial, and the notion of wholesome and unwholesome – then you are well on the way to discovering what the Buddha is all about. Independent of feeling that you have to know what is ultimately religiously and doctrinally true, you are on the way to becoming a person who is true – true in that you are free of the causes of harm and filled with beneficial ways of being in the world.
That is the introduction for what is coming up and I look forward to our time together. Thank you.