08 April 2011

Positive Criteria for Moral Decision Making in The Kālāma Sutta

LAST WEEK I DWELT in some detail on the negative criteria in the Kālāma Sutta - trying to tease out the intended meaning of the terms individually and collectively. My conclusion was that the intention of the text was not to provide general decision making criteria, or to encourage 'free thinking' - as the popular account would have it - but to link thinking about morality to experience. This week I'll be continuing my exploration of the Kālāma Sutta taking up where I left off by looking at the positive criteria that follow and showing that the 'experiences' in which decisions about what we should do, or how we should live are rooted in our relationships to other people.

The positive section of the text begins like this:
Yadā tumhe, kālāmā, attanāva jāneyyātha – ‘ime dhammā akusalā, ime dhammā sāvajjā, ime dhammā viññugarahitā, ime dhammā samattā samādinnā ahitāya dukkhāya saṃvattantī’ti, atha tumhe, kālāmā, pajaheyyātha.

When you know for yourselves -- 'these things are unskilful, these things are offensive, these things are criticised by the intelligent, these things undertaken and accomplished result in harm and misery' -- then you should abandon them.
The word kusala (Sanskrit kuśala) means 'clever, skilful, expert'; and therefore in the moral sphere 'good, meritorious', where it is synonymous with puñña 'merit'. None of my dictionaries offer an etymology for kusala, and I cannot propose one. This leads me to suspect that like other words beginning with 'ku' (e.g. kumāra) it might be a loan word from the Munda family of languages.[1]

It's not unusual to read this injunction to abandon the unskilful separately from what comes after, but this can lead to doubtful conclusions. Immediately following this paragraph is a series of questions and answers which we can easily condense. The Buddha asks the Kālāmas about the effects when craving, aversion, or confusion arise inwardly in a person. The Kālāmas agree that when these arise it is harmful because the result is that overwhelmed and overcome by these mental/emotional states the person causes physical harm, takes what is not given, goes with others sexual partners, and speaks falsely. They encourage others to behave like this as well. The message here is that behaviour rooted in unskilful states is harmful. The whole passage is about how we should live, i.e. morality, not what we should think or believe. It is not about assessing spiritual teachings or philosophical positions generally. This is further emphasised when the Kālāmas agree that such behaviour is offensive (sāvajja) [2], criticised by intelligent people, and results in harm and misery. The whole passage is repeated accentuating the positive, i.e. that acting from non-craving, non-aversion, non-confusion is beneficial. We note that the Kālāmas are apparently in full agreement with the Buddha about morality and virtue.

The next section of the sutta describes the ideal Buddhist (ariya-savaka) dwelling in the four brahmavihāras: mettā, karuṇā, muditā and upekkhā. This description is not linked to what comes before in the Kālāma Sutta. However if we compare the version at SN 42.13 then we see that what is intended is that the person who cultivates virtue ends up dwelling in these four sublime states. This is a point I have not seen made before. Here the cultivation of these qualities (mettā etc.) is achieved through practising virtue, not through seated meditation! The brahmavihāra states are seen as active, and characterise the quality of our relationships and interactions with other people. The precepts can be seen to epitomise the kind of behaviour that conduces to brahmavihāra. So it becomes clear that "these things" (ime dhammā) are not 'things' in general, but our willed acts of body, speech and mind in relation to other people.

Many readers and commentators seem to have taken this sutta as suggesting that it's up to each of us to decide for ourselves how to think or behave. They take it as a confirmation that the Buddha preached something like the Romantic view of natural virtue spontaneously emerging in the individual free of social constraints. [3] In fact the Buddha's view was not like this at all. For the Buddha the way of virtue was one of restraint (saṃvara) and vigilance (appamāda); where remorse (hiri) and shame (ottappa) were uppermost in the mind; and one restricted sensory input by guarding the senses (indriyesu guttadvāra) and carefully avoiding contact with disturbing influences (yoniso manasikāra). Buddhist morality, as we find it in these early sources, is in fact about carefully and strictly conforming to a set of norms which provides the mental clarity and calm that enable effective meditation. The Buddha apparently had more in common with Puritans than with Romantics!

The reader influenced by this Romantic view finds a contradiction between the negative criteria "don't use 'we respect the toiler'" ( samaṇo no garu) and the positive criteria "these things criticised by intelligent people... should be abandoned" (ime dhammā viññugarahitā... pajaheyyātha). The conflict here arises because of reading the former as saying we shouldn't listen to anyone else's opinion, and the latter as the opposite - and such readers usually have clear preference for the former! A little historical info might be useful at this point. The samaṇas were a mixed bunch. At the extreme end were people who believed that any action caused harm, and that the future effects of karma could be mitigated through suffering in the present. As a result they tortured themselves, and the apotheosis of their practice was to sit down rigidly unmoving, and starve to death. The story goes that the Buddha himself once followed this path, but abandoned it at the last minute, before finding his own path. At the other end were samaṇas who were utter nihilists, believing that no action could possibly have consequences. If I am correct about how to read this text then the Kālāmas were asking who they should follow, i.e. who's morals should they should emulate. And emulating a person torturing themselves or starving themselves to death, or emulating someone who did not believe in moral consequences, would not be sensible (at least from the Buddhist point of view). One might feed a samaṇa out of generosity, or to gain merit. One might politely listen to their dhamma. But to emulate their morality would be folly.

On the other hand consider who is meant by viññū (Sanskrit vijña). The word is often translated as 'the wise' but really just means 'knowledgeable'. The viññū are simply intelligent people, wiser in the sense of 'older and wiser' perhaps, not necessarily in the sense of awakened. The Cūḷaniddesa provides a representative list of synonyms for viññū: learned (paṇḍito), sensible (paññavā), intelligent (buddhimā), knowledgeable (ñāṇī), clear-headed (vibhāvī), and clever (medhāvī) [Nd ii 125]. I suggest that in fact they were probably the older members of the community - elders who were skilled at inter-personal relationships and had learned how to get on with everyone. We still rely on these people in groups to help navigate personal differences between members. So in fact there is no contradiction in these two criteria when they are seen in the proper context. Together they tell us not to pay attention to extremists, but emulate those who have the practical skill of getting along with people.

Against the Romantic view we must also balance another fact. If you read through the Vinaya you will find an enormous number of rules are made because the monks upset the villagers and townspeople with their impiety. I've noted passages for instance where people complained about monks singing like villagers (Vin ii.108), I've written about the episode of the sneeze. Similarly the Buddha tells the monks not to insist on a particular language, but to use the local dialect (Vin ii.139 & M iii 234-5). The rules of etiquette in the Vinaya were very much concerned with social harmony, and to some extent were a negotiation between the lay people and the bhikkhus. Most of the rules can be seen as curbing the natural impulses - especially the sexual impulses - of the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.

To quote Jamie Lee Curtis's character in A Fish Called Wanda: "The central message of Buddhism is not 'every man for himself!'" [4] Indeed the morality outlined in the Kālāma Sutta is quite the opposite of this. Nor is it about 'cause and effect' in a mechanical sense. The feedback that we need for understanding morality comes from interacting with other people. I would go so far as to suggest that the idea of the individual in the sense that we mean it in the modern West - the individual with rights and autonomy - is completely absent from the Buddhist canon. It is true that the Buddha recommended solitary meditation for the purposes of attaining liberation. But this was a solitary retreat in many cases lasting only days or weeks. In fact everyone in the canon can be seen as embedded in the fabric of society. Even the renouncers who gave up the home life remained in relationship with householders - depending on them for food, clothing and (at times) shelter.

Reading this sutta in Pāli, studying it in detail, pondering the meaning of it, and looking into the parallel texts has changed my thinking about Buddhist morality. I had not seen how morality is rooted in social interactions. It has made me see that Western Buddhist discussions on morality are on the whole far too abstract and too often divorced from the context of human relationships. Ironically, I imagine my main Buddhist teacher would be surprised to see that I had not understood this earlier. It is one of the central points that he makes in his 1984 book on morality: The Ten Pillars of Buddhism (which examines the ten precepts collectively and individually). He says for instance:
The Love which is the positive form of the First Precept is no mere flabby sentiment but vigorous expression of an imaginative identification with other living beings. (p.57)
What's more thinking about this text has helped to make clear the value of Sangha, of living amongst a community that shares our values, and appreciates the virtues we cultivate; and which can reflect back both our successes and our failings in a helpful way. We need to participate in a particular kind of moral ecology; to interact with people on this shared basis. Without this positive social environment we are seriously hampered in trying to lead a good life as understood by the Buddha in the Kālāma Sutta.


  1. The only related form I can identify is kusalatā 'skifulness' which tells us nothing. Kusa is the name of a grass (Poa cynosuroides aka Desmostachya bipinnata) but I can see no connection. Loan words from Munda are discussed in: Witzel, Michael. (1999) 'Substrate Languages in Old Indo-Aryan (Ṛgvedic, Middle and Late Vedic).' Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 5 (1). http://www.ejvs.laurasianacademy.com/index.html
  2. Sāvajja is often translated as 'blameable', but this strikes me as an awkward expression. Sāvajja parses as sa- 'with' + avajja. There is some dispute over the etymology of avajja, though the obvious a-vajja (= Sanskrit a-vadya) is thought unlikely by PED. Childers considered this to be related to hypothetical Sanskrit *ava-varjya < *ava-vraj 'not forbidden' though this doesn't fit the usage since we are discussing bad behaviour. PED notes that the Pāli commentarial tradition prefers ava-vad (Skt *ava-vadya) 'to blame'; however cf BHSD which lists avavāda = Pāli ovāda. PED defines avajja as 'low, inferior, bad'. C.f. BHSD avadya-bhīru 'dreading reproach'. MW also lists avadya as 'low, blameable'; c.f. MW ava-dyat 'breaking off'. I think PED is probably wrong here and the simplest explanation is that avajja = Sanskrit avadya. Avajja then literally means 'not spoken of, unmentionable'. In plain language doing something conventionally unmentionable is 'offensive'.
  3. David L McMahan traces this line of thought to Buddhist modernisers, e.g. Dwight Goddard and especially D. T. Suzuki. (The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford University Press, 2008.) See especially chapter 5 - where my main Buddhist teacher, Sangharakshita, is also mentioned. Another view on Romanticism and Buddhism is articulated by Bhikkhu Thanissaro in a recorded lecture: Buddhist Romanticism [the main part of the lecture is about 25 mins.]
  4. The full quote is "Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not 'Every man for himself.' And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up." IMDB.

image: The Three Graces. Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822)
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