Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, 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 unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering' - then you should abandon them.
(Buddha, in the Kalama Sutta*)
The Kalama Sutta is a text from the Pali canon (Pali: Tipitaka), that enormous collection of discourses and other teachings ascribed to the Buddha & his early disciples. It is sutta number 3.65 from the Anguttara Nikaya section of the canon. In its contents, we have a teaching that is particularly appropriate for the modern age, with consumer spirituality and a plethora of religions all vying for our attention. Moreover, it contains advice that is the opposite to what we would find in most of the world's religions; we should know for ourselves the efficacy of a spiritual teaching, rather than accepting it from an external authority. The sutta also denies that to benefit from the Buddhist life we must believe in an afterlife or rebirth: wether we do or we don't is not the point, because Buddhism is about the here and now, and the benefits of practicing it can be experienced by each of us in this very life.
The sutta opens with the Buddha wandering into the town of Kesaputta, inhabited by the Kalama people. There, he is asked to help them to discriminate between the various teachings that spiritual teachers that visit Kesaputta, for they are confused by the contradictory doctrines that have been taught them. Rather than instructing them in his own teaching as an alternative to the ones that they have already heard - and in the process confusing them even more - the Buddha gives them good reasons why they should not believe, including "This contemplative is our teacher." This would seem to bar the Buddha from teaching them, and his next step in the discourse is therefore most original - he proceeds to ask the Kalamas what they think is skillful & unskillful behavior. They affirm that greed, ill will & delusion are to be avoided, whilst their opposites are to be cultivated. The Buddha then states that if someone lives a life of non-greed, non-ill will & non-hatred, the following four assurances will be known:
If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world. This is the first assurance he acquires.
If there no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease - free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble. This is the second assurance he acquires.
If evil is done through acting, still I willed no evil for anyone. Having done no evil action, from where will suffering touch me? This is the third assurance he acquires.
But is no evil is done through acting, then I can assume myself pure in both respects. This is the fourth assurance he acquires.
What is amazing here is the second assurance. This is because it admits the possibility that there is no rebirth & no fruit of action (karma). Often considered essential doctrines of Buddhism, how can the Buddha here allow for these ideas to not exist? Well, the Buddha taught not to instill belief in a bunch of concepts in his followers, but so that they might use his teachings to reduce or end suffering. Gaining the first or second assurances above lead to a reduction of suffering, and ultimately towards enlightenment. It doesn't really matter if we believe in something or not, but rather that we experience the results of practicing a good life; hence, the Buddha doesn't try to convince the Kalamas of what they cannot possibly know - rebirth & the fruit of action - but skillfully guides them to an understanding of the practical benefits of Buddhist practice.
This has implications for us today. If we are empiricists, as many people are at this time, then we need not see a conflict between Buddhist teachings and current scientific understanding. The more supernatural elements of the Buddha's teaching do not have to be believed in for the benefits of the Buddhist life to be felt. How different to other religions that have supernatural beliefs at their core, requiring faith in things that may never be seen or known, such as the soul, a god, heaven & hell. So, if you find the idea of karma and its consequences hard to swallow, or the notion of rebirth in this world or another off-putting, fret not, for the Buddha doesn't require you to do so to be a Buddhist! Returning to the words of the sutta, the Buddha has more to say on the person devoid of greed, ill will & delusion:
And this ungreedy person, not overcome by greed, his mind not possessed by greed…this unaversive person, not overcome by aversion, his mind not possessed by aversion…this undeluded person, not overcome by delusion, his mind not possessed by delusion, doesn't kill living beings, take what is not given, go after another person's wife, tell lies, or induce others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term welfare & happiness.
The person without greed, ill will, or delusion won't indulge in certain acts because they go against that person's nature. If we are without greed (which includes lust), then we will not go after another's wife, take what is not given, nor lie to cover up such actions. If we are without ill will, then we will not kill other living beings nor tell lies to hurt other people. And if we are without delusion, we will not be confused about such issues. Living thus, we have access to levels of calm and assurance that dispel any feelings of guilt - because there's nothing major to feel guilty about.
This is both for the "long-term welfare & happiness" of both the one that practices this way and those that they come into contact with. The calm & assurances mentioned above illustrate benefits for the practitioner, but there are some positive results for others, too. Obviously, if someone refrains from killing living beings, stealing, committing sexual misconduct, or lying, society benefits. They are a positive member of their community, contributing to the peace, safety, & happiness therein. And this gives further benefit to the practitioner also, because other people are more likely to be kind & honest in their dealings with such a person than with someone that kills, steals, takes other's partners, and/or lies. There is another way that both practitioner - or 'disciple' of the noble ones - and other living beings can benefit from his or her life, which is described below:
Now, Kalamas, one who is a disciple of the noble ones - thus devoid of greed, devoid of ill will, undeluded, alert, & resolute - keeps pervading the first direction [the east] - as well as the second direction, the third, & the fourth - with an awareness imbued with good will…with an awareness imbued with compassion…with an awareness imbued with appreciation…with an awareness imbued with equanimity.
This is a kind of contemplation or meditation promoted by the Buddha in the Pali canon in many places. It is not the most well-known one, which is called anapanasati ('mindful breathing'), but is nevertheless a set of powerful exercises to benefit both meditator and others. There four variants to this meditation, each one focusing on one of four 'divine abodes' (brahma-vihara), which are good will, compassion, appreciation, and equanimity. Whether or not one believes the 'vibes' of such exercises is somehow spread to other beings or not, there are real benefits to be had from them. Not only feelings of calmness & assurance described above can come from an "awareness imbued" with goodwill etc., but also a blissful joy can fill the person meditating thus. (This writer knows this from practicing the first of the four brahma-vihara.)
When one cultivates these four positive mind states over time, they overflow into one's daily life. Not only will one feel happier and more content, but others will sense the positive feelings coming from one, whether in those 'positive vibes,' or simply in one's words & deeds. For who will not appreciate someone without greed, ill will, or delusion, someone full of good will, compassion, appreciation, and equanimity. Such a person is a force for good in the home, at work, and in society at large. Moreover, although the Pali canon states that these states cannot lead to enlightenment, they can lead to someone reaching other valuable meditative states, that can be built on through practicing other meditations such as mindful breathing.
So, in the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha presents us with a way of life potentially suitable for everyone, that doesn't dogmatically cling to doctrines, but instead promotes the lessoning of greed, ill will & delusion through basic moral undertakings and practice of meditation. There is no need to mention belief, gods, demons, heavens, or hells in this - if one does not believe in them because one finds no proof to do so, then this doesn't effect one's ability to lead a moral, meditative life that benefits both one & other living beings. The Kalama Sutta is a wonderful set of teachings that we can learn much from through its study & application in our lives. It is particularly suitable as way into the Buddhist teachings for modern-minded people, and we Buddhists that are more empirical in our outlook, will do well to reflect upon it and share it with like-minded people. The full translation of the Kalama Sutta by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (bless you!) can be accessed by clicking the link below. May all beings be happy!
*Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas" (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 29 August 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html . Retrieved on 25 January 2013.