Humans have a lot of problems. Some problems, like our search for meaning and the need to come to terms with our mortality, appear to be timeless. But many of the urgent problems we face are unique to our time: the climate emergency, systemic injustice, weapons of mass destruction, and many more.
When it comes to existential problems, Buddhist teachings offer wisdom that directly supports us in our struggles, but how the dharma applies to the problems that mark our own time may seem less clear. Teachers often point out that practice can help us be more effective in our commitments by reducing stress, anxiety, and despair on the one hand and promoting resilience and clarity on the other. Yet this does not tell us how we can make our values and concerns an integral part of our practice or how we can find in millennia-old Buddhist ethical teachings guidance on dilemmas that have emerged only in recent decades.
A good place to start addressing these questions is to ask why we should treat the Buddha’s teachings as trustworthy at all. One good answer is to point to places in the scriptures where the Buddha said that it was up to those who heard him to discover for themselves whether or not the dharma is true.
A famous source for this statement is the Kalama Sutta, from the Pali canon (Anguttara Nikaya), a sutta that addresses the question of religious authority directly. The sutta relates that the Buddha had entered the town of Kesaputta, in the territory of the Kalamas. Having heard of the Buddha’s great knowledge and profound teachings, the Kalamas seek his guidance on a matter that has left them confused and in doubt. Many teachers, they say, pass through Kesaputta, and all claim that their own doctrines are right and all other doctrines are wrong. Since the Kalamas hear this from each teacher, they have no way to decide whose teaching they should follow.
The Buddha responds with these oft-quoted words:
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.”
—trans. Thanisarro Bhikkhu
Champions of free and open inquiry love this advice: don’t trust authority; decide for yourselves. The passage has become Exhibit A for the claim that the Buddha taught a rational form of inquiry particularly well-suited to our times. As the Theravada monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu pointed out in a Tricycle essay (Fall 2012), however, this is misleading. If we carefully read the text as whole, we see that the Buddha is not just telling the Kalamas to reject tradition, custom, and authority. He also counsels skepticism toward rational thought or any kind of reasoning process. As Ven. Thanissaro writes, “The Buddha’s skepticism toward reliable authorities extends inside as well as out.” In other words, you need to evaluate your own knowledge and convictions. And when you do, you find that logic and inference—the tools of reason—are not the right foundation to build on.
If the Kalamas cannot rely on reason or thinking things through, they ask the Buddha, what can they rely on instead? The Buddha answers:
When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are unskillful; these qualities . . . lead to harm and to suffering”—then you should abandon them. . . . When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are skillful” . . . then you should enter and remain in them.
As we assess this advice, let us keep in mind what we already know about the Kalamas. First, they think it’s good to listen to teachers who have real knowledge, and they are eager for guidance. Second, they know when they’re confused. Third, they recognize that the source of their confusion lies in not having any basis for deciding between competing doctrines. All this makes them prime candidates for learning from the Buddha. They’re ready to hear, they respect those who are wise, and they are motivated to learn. Would the Buddha have responded as he did if they did not have these qualities? It seems unlikely.
The Buddha’s guidance is thus not universal; it is addressed to these people in their particular situation. And here it helps to point out: we are not the Kalamas. We do not know what they know, and we know some things that they do not. Whether the Buddha’s advice to them has relevance for us remains an open question. So let’s go on.
Having told the Kalamas to rely on what they know, the Buddha asks them a series of questions about whether greed, hatred, and delusion (a triad known in Buddhist teachings as the three poisons) lead to good or to harm. They are firm in their answer: “They lead to harm and to suffering. That is how it appears to us.” By asking for their views, the Buddha is helping the Kalamas discover that they already have real knowledge—knowledge they can rely on.
The Buddha’s guidance is not universal; it is addressed to a particular situation.
If the Buddha posed these questions to us, we might have the same response: that greed, hatred, and delusion always lead to harm and that their absence always brings benefit. But maybe not. There are good arguments to be made in favor of that view, but for most of us it’s a topic open to debate. After all, we do see counterexamples in the news every day: people driven by the three poisons, yet apparently thriving at almost every level.
Here we come to a major difference between the Kalamas and us: The Kalamas—as we learn later in the sutta—believe in rebirth. This belief makes the causal connection between actions and their consequences easier to accept, because it implies that actions may bear fruit only in future lives. If we lack that belief or don’t give it much weight in deciding how to act, the claim of karmic retribution that the Kalamas “know for themselves” becomes much more difficult to accept.
Even for those of us who do believe in rebirth, our belief is not quite the same as that of the Kalamas. The Kalamas lived in a culture where virtually everyone accepted rebirth as a given, an incontestable part of the fabric out of which the universe was woven. A good comparison is the belief in traditional Christian societies that after you die you will be reborn in heaven or in hell. This is not just useful information for Christians to store away. If you are steeped in a traditional Christian culture, this belief shapes at a deep level how you live your life. Your eternal destiny (in a Christian context) or your samsaric fate (in a Buddhist context) is shaped by your actions in this life. If that is the truth of your world, it works its way into your conduct from day to day, even hour to hour. It is not something you remember from time to time; it is an ever-present reality.
For many people today, the belief in a Christian heaven and hell is no more compelling than the Buddhist belief in rebirth. However, we can accept another belief in place of belief in karmic retribution, and it is one that the Buddha presents as bedrock truth: the law of cause and effect. Implicit in the Buddha’s questions to the Kalamas about the impact of the three poisons, it is known in Pali as idappaccayata (literally, “having its foundation in this”):
This existing, that exists;
this arising, that arises;
this not existing, that does not exist; this ceasing, that ceases.
Majjhima Nikaya 3.63
This is a succinct statement of the law of cause and effect, something we moderns can get behind. Despite some philosophical doubts or religious objections, it is the guiding principle of science, our most esteemed form of knowledge. It is an inescapable baseline assumption. A world in which this law does not operate is contrary to common sense, just as a world in which rebirth did not operate would have gone against common sense for the Kalamas. Quoting the Kalamas, we can say, “That is how it appears to us.”
The difference between the Kalamas and us, of course, is that for us causality—at least in its strong, lawlike form—operates only on the physical plane. We exclude from its workings the inner, subjective realm where the three poisons operate—questions about good and evil, right and wrong, and the whole domain of morality.
Judging on this basis alone, then, we are not good candidates to learn from the Buddha. Knowing that a seed properly tended will grow into a certain kind of plant—the law of causality operating in the realm of biology—tells us very little about how to conduct our lives so as to produce what is positive.
However, there are certain causal relationships—in the sense that science understands them—that do influence how we live our lives. Let’s take the example of the climate emergency. Science, with its remarkable ability to extrapolate from present conditions to future consequences, tells us that human actions are rapidly transforming our environment, leading us toward future catastrophe. It also tells us that if we change our conduct, we may have it in our power to prevent that.
Keeping in mind that this understanding of causality may play the same role for us as understanding the causal workings of the three poisons does for the Kalamas, let’s return to the sutta.
Having led the Kalamas to recognize what they already know to be true, the Buddha now moves the conversation to a different plane. Instead of giving them advice on how to practice or offering them other teachings, he tells them how his disciples, having used their knowledge of the three poisons to transform their lives, would practice:
Now, Kalamas, one who is a disciple of the noble ones [is] . . . devoid of greed, devoid of ill will, undeluded, alert, and resolute.
Although the Buddha has reminded the Kalamas that they know something fundamental about the three poisons, this does not mean they are ready to put that knowledge into effect. After all, they are not followers of the Buddha, trained in moral conduct, concentration, and wisdom. They may know how the three poisons work, but this does not mean they are free of their influence. So the Buddha invites the Kalamas to make a leap, to take their knowledge deeper. Be like my disciples, he suggests: having freed yourself of the three poisons, be “alert and resolute,” and you will find the real answer to the confusion that brought you here.
From here on out, the Buddha’s instruction enters familiar territory. His description of his disciples’ practice appears many times in the Pali canon, in more or less identical language. But we should not lose sight of the fundamental difference in the circumstances of this sutta. The Buddha is not telling the Kalamas to be alert and resolute, since they are not ready for that step. He is just pointing out that his disciples—those who accept his authority—would make this their practice.
Putting this core teaching at one remove reminds us that the Kalamas are a naive audience. They know nothing about the Buddha’s teachings. Specifically, when he tells them that his disciples dwell “alert and resolute,” these are most likely not technical terms pointing to a whole body of teachings (such as those found in texts like the Satipatthana Sutta, which details the four foundations of mindfulness). Instead, this description will refer back to what the Kalamas know to be true. Understanding for themselves the workings of moral cause and effect, they will be alert to their operations. Resolute, they will naturally turn away from the three poisons.
By describing to the Kalamas how his own followers practice, then, the Buddha is not telling them to practice in the same way. Instead, he is counseling them to take to heart (or keep in mind) what they already know for themselves to be true.
In our own circumstances, there are things we know to be true, things we can clearly and mindfully comprehend. We know that the climate emergency is real, we know how it arose, we know we can address it, and we see the possibility of a path toward doing so if we act soon. (We too could say, “That is how it appears to us.”) Cultivating mindfulness in this context means keeping this fourfold knowledge in mind.
Mindfulness is about more than body, feeling, mind, and mental formations (the “four foundations”). It is about being alert and resolute in light of the fundamental knowledge we already possess, knowledge that truly matters. Letting such knowledge permeate our hearts and minds may in the end make it impossible not to act on what we know.
Our knowledge of the climate emergency (or other truths we find to be fundamental) is not dharma knowledge as such, yet it can still play a fundamental role in our practice. We see this when we consider what the Buddha tells the Kalamas next. Still speaking of how his own disciples would practice, he presents another teaching repeated often in the suttas. Disciples who have abandoned the three poisons deepen their understanding through practice of the four divine abidings or boundless states: love (or good will), compassion, joy (or appreciation), and equanimity. As the Buddha puts it with respect to compassion:
[They dwell] . . . pervading . . . everywhere and in every respect the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with compassion: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.
While the Buddha goes on to offer the Kalamas a second way of resolving their initial confusion, for us it is this teaching on the boundless states that completes the lessons the sutta offers. We can put it this way: Start with what you know to be true—a truth based on the law of cause and effect, which informs your view of your world on a fundamental level. Deepen that knowledge by keeping it in mind and taking it to heart, alert and resolute. Then let it permeate and transform the world you inhabit through cultivating love and joy, equanimity and compassion. Let the attitude with which you practice transform the knowledge that you know truly matters.
We are not the Buddha’s close disciples, devoid of the three poisons, and we are not the Kalamas, who know beyond doubt how the three poisons operate in karmic terms and who have now been given teachings that show how to work with this knowledge. But we too have been given a teaching that we can rely on. Like the Kalamas, we know something true and powerful; we know truths that range from the climate emergency to social injustice and beyond. That knowledge lets us connect with the great moral concerns of our time.
Alert to what we know to be true, resolute in acting on its significance, we can infuse our practice with what we care about deeply, and we can inspire our conduct in the world with the fruits of our practice. Learning to dwell in a world permeated with love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, we find the strength and clarity to act as the situation demands of us. We know what needs to be done, and we know how to cultivate our hearts and minds in ways that support the call to action. Whether our work succeeds or not, we will be acting on our values. The life we live will be its own reward.
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