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.”
Greed, hate, and delusion
The Buddha asked: "What do you think, Kalamas? Does greed appear in a person for their benefit or harm?" — "For their harm, venerable sir." — "Kalamas, being given to greed, and being overwhelmed and vanquished mentally by greed, this person takes life, steals, commits adultery, and tells lies; they prompt another too, to do likewise. Will that be long for their harm and ill?" — "Yes, venerable sir."
The Buddha then repeats in the typical formulaic way of the Pali Canon asking the Kalamas if hate and delusion appear in a person for their benefit or harm and of course the Kalamas respond that hate and delusion also bring harm. The buddha then repeats that when a person is given over to hate and delusion they are likely to take life, steal, commit adultery and lie which will bring harm and ill in the long term.
The buddha goes on to ask if greed, hatred and delusion are “good or bad, blamable or not blamable, censured or praised by the wise” and whether if undertaken would lead to harm and ill or not. The Kalamas are clear that they are bad, blamable, censured by the wise and that they would lead to harm and ill.
The buddha reminds the Kalamas that he began by saying that in order to know what is true and beneficial, they were not to rely upon anything other than observed, repeated experience as long as there was also a consensus among the wise. If what they observed led to harm they would want to abandon such things and if they led to greater joy and freedom they would want to take such things up.
To hammer this teaching home, the Buddha then goes through the three poisons, asking the Kalamas if the absence of greed, hatred and delusion would “appear in a person for their benefit or harm” and the Kalamas agree that it would ultimately be for the benefit of the person. They further state that to be free of these three unwholesome, unskillful states of mind would be good, not blamable, praised by the wise, and undertaken would lead to benefit and happiness.
Notice that in this somewhat Socratic-style of teaching, the Buddha never says what the Kalamas should believe and do, but rather leads them through a series of questions that help them to become more overtly conscious of what mind states and behaviors lead to happiness and freedom. By asking them to reflect upon their own experience, the buddha allows for them to see that they know what is good and praiseworthy.
Again, what the Buddha is pointing to is the evidence of our experience replicated over time and generally agreed upon by a consensus of ‘the wise.’ There is nothing esoteric, mystical or metaphysical about this teaching. It is humanistic, existential, and practical. It is something available to all of us. As the buddha often would say:
“Ehipassiko,” Come see for yourself!