This sutta shows us that the “scope of practice” the Buddha offers has nothing to do with what we normally take to be religion, philosophy, or the nebulous “spirituality” that many “non-religious” today claim to practice. What he shows through this dialogue with Malunkyaputta is how preoccupation with metaphysical speculation is not only a waste of time, but an obstruction to actual liberation!
A wandering yogi called Vaccha asked the Buddha if the Buddha would still exist after death. This leads to an interesting and enlightening dialogue where the buddha points out that the truth is actually much more subtle and deep and not so easily nailed down by such concepts.
In the first part of this discourse, the buddha critiqued various strategies commonly used for epistemic evaluation while in the second part he asked the Kalamas pointed questions to get them to reflect upon their own empirical knowledge. Ultimately, when we look at these first two parts of this discourse, the advice given by the Buddha to the Kalamas is to dismiss speculative teachings out of hand: such teachings are not based upon any reliably verified evidence.
However, the discourse doesn’t end there and the Buddha’s project in this discourse is not simply or only negative. After providing the Kalamas with a system of investigation and critical thinking, he offers a verifiably beneficial practice which is often called the “cultivation of the four boundless qualities.”
There is no place to seek the mind;
It is like the footprints of the birds in the sky.
Every contemplative tradition has what might be called "objectless" meditation emphasizing the characteristics of awareness. As simple as it may seem, it can be challenging for most, so here's an incremental practice to create the qualities of stability, reflectivity and resilient equanimity needed for such "objectless" meditation.
The Buddha’s teaching on anatman or “not self” and shunyata (emptiness) are perplexing for many people when they first are presented with it. And yet, it’s not only what physics, chemistry, psychology and all the other sciences tell us; it's also what the evidence right before our eyes if we actually look without the veils of assumptions, expectations and pre-conceptions tells us: there is no-‘thing’-ness to any phenomena.
In my first posting on this most popular discourse, I explored the criteria the buddha suggests we use to arrive at knowledge of what is true and helpful, leading to greater freedom and joy.
The discourse continues with the buddha asking the Kalamas to apply his suggested criteria to the “three poisons,” also known as the “four roots of suffering.”
“The Discourse to the Kalamas,” most popularly known as “The Kalama Sutta,” has been called “The buddha’s charter of free inquiry” and “The buddha’s manifesto for critical thinking” and is justly famous – and often repeated in contemporary, western buddhist circles – for its encouragement of free inquiry but is often misrepresented by contemporary practitioners.
A story told by the Buddha as a warning to not cling to what we believe, but to keep an open mind and to follow the evidence has great relevance for us living at a time when opinion and ideology often "Trump" the facts.