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.”
In my first posting on the “Kalama Sutta,” I showed that the criteria for gauging the value of teachings and practices the Buddha suggested were empirical; “they are tied to verifiable experience rather than to systems and communities of belief,” as Glenn Wallis points out.
In my second posting on the “Kalama Sutta,” I looked at the section of the discourse where the Buddha asks the Kalamas about the mind-states of greed, hatred and delusion, collectively known as the ‘three poisons,’ as well as the mind-states that are free from greed, hatred and delusion. The buddha asks the Kalamas to look – not to scripture, authority, tradition, lineage, logic, reason or intuition -- but to their own verifiable experience. The Kalamas agree that when caught in any of the ‘three poisons’ they experience for themselves “harm and trouble” and thus practices and beliefs that increase such mental states are worthy to be rejected. When experiencing for themselves increased well-being, ease, joy, and peace through practices that reduce such mental states, there can be no real argument that such practices are beneficial and should therefore be cultivated.
It’s important to note that throughout the Buddha’s teaching, he stresses that the teachings under examination should be “fully taken up,” or “fully carried out.” He stresses diligence and what some zen teachers call “continuous practice.” What this is pointing to is that before coming to any conclusion about the value of a teaching or practice, we must maintain sustained consideration of the teaching; to really investigate and analyze the teaching. This is an aspect of the second factor of awakening: investigation or inquiry (dhamma-vicarya). This is the necessity for what we might call skeptical or scientific inquiry.
But, when we confront most religious and philosophical teachings, we see that they are speculative in nature: God hears your prayers; the soul exists and can move from body to body at death; when one dies you go to purgatory, heaven or hell etc. These kinds of teachings are incapable of verification. The only grounds upon which any of these metaphysical speculations can be accepted are those which the buddha has shown are unreliable. For instance, can the claim that “God hears your prayers” or even that “There is a god” ever come from anything other than tradition, scripture, or authority? This is the very definition of faith: “the belief in something for which there is no evidential proof,” “belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion,” “belief without question.” Speculative metaphysical teachings can be accepted or believed but never verified as accurate or true; they are a matter of faith. On the other hand, there are teachings that are testable: like a scientific hypothesis, they are capable of being refuted or verified through repeated ‘experimentation.’
So, ultimately, when we look at the 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 practice which is often called the “cultivation of the four boundless qualities.” Many are familiar with metta-bhavana (the cultivation of friendliness) but this is only the first of the four.
It’s interesting to note that the Buddha seems to be taking this opportunity to offer a teaching that fits with a naturalist religious claim as it is not dependent upon tradition, authority or any of the other strategies the Buddha has shown as unreliable.
"The Four Exalted Dwellings" aka “The Four Heavenly Realms,” “The Four Brahma Viharas” and “The Four Immeasurables"
"The practitioner, Kalamas, who in practicing beneficial teachings becomes free from craving, free from ill-will, free from delusion, and clearly comprehending and mindful, dwells pervading the world with a heart-mind suffused with friendliness. They pervade the whole cosmos with a vast, expansive, boundless heart-mind suffused with friendliness, free from ill-will and hostility.
"The practitioner, Kalamas, dwells pervading the world with a heart-mind suffused with compassion. They pervade the whole cosmos with a vast, expansive, boundless heart-mind suffused with compassion, free from ill-will and hostility.
"The practitioner, Kalamas, dwells pervading the world with a heart-mind suffused with joy. They pervade the whole cosmos with a vast, expansive, boundless heart-mind suffused with joy, free from ill-will and hostility.
"The practitioner, Kalamas, dwells pervading the world with a heart-mind suffused with equanimity. They pervade the whole cosmos with a vast, expansive, boundless heart-mind suffused with equanimity, free from ill-will and hostility."
These four qualities (friendliness, compassion, joy and equanimity) of a liberated heart-mind are available here and now via their conscious cultivation (bhavana). There is no denying that a heart-mind suffused with joy is a heart-mind suffused with joy! There is joy, and that is true whether there is a god or not. What need do we have for “God loves you” when your heart-mind is pervaded with friendliness, compassion, joy and equanimity? To paraphrase Pierre-Simon Laplace, “there is no need for that hypothesis.” But as we’ve seen, to posit the existence of god is not even a hypothesis as it being a matter of faith, it cannot be empirically verified or refuted.
The discourse ends with the Buddha emphasizing how practicing the "Four Immeasurables" are effective and the qualities they develop are beneficial regardless of one’s religious orientation. Whether there is an afterlife or not, cultivating and living with a heart-mind suffused with these four qualities are of value. He points this out by enumerating the four ways a practitioner can find comfort or solace in this practice.
The Four Comforts
"The practitioner, Kalamas, who manifests the four boundless qualities becomes one whose heart is kind and gentle, open and clear. For such a person, the four comforts are realized here and now.
"If there is an afterlife, and if there is such a possibility as the ripening of positive and negative actions, then at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall be reborn in positive circumstances in the resplendent heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.' This is the first comfort realized by the practitioner.
"But if there is no afterlife, and if there is no such thing as the ripening of positive and negative actions, then I will take care of myself here and now, well at ease, undisturbed, living without ill-will and hostility. This is the second solace found by them.
"Suppose negative consequences befall one who does harm. I, however, think of doing harm to no one. Then, how can negative consequences affect me who does no harmful deed?' This is the third solace found by them.
"Suppose negative consequences do not befall one who does harm. Then I see myself unburdened in any case.' This is the fourth solace found by them.
"That is why I say, Kalamas, that the practitioner, who manifests the four boundless qualities becomes one whose heart-mind is kind and gentle, open and clear. For such a person, the four comforts are realized here and now.
The Buddha ends this discourse by showing that no metaphysical or faith-based commitments are required to live the noble life of an arahant, a being accomplished in living a nirvanic life here and now. If there is an afterlife, cultivating the immeasurable love described by these four qualities will guarantee a pleasant afterlife. But if there isn't an afterlife, this life will have been lived full of joy, love and peace. Whether karma is real or not, the same thing holds.
It is for this reason that I say those who hold no metaphysical speculative views will find Zen Naturalism a teaching and practice that does not ask of them to accept or believe anything on faith. At the same time, if one does hold such metaphysical beliefs, as long as they honestly understand that such beliefs cannot be argued for and must be held as faith-based beliefs, you are welcome as well.