A Buddhist Guide for Voters


Kalama Sutra
While it was intended as a general ‘charter of free inquiry,’ the Buddhist Kalama Sutra (or sutta) contains wise words that all voters – especially local voters – should heed during the municipal election campaign.

The Kalamas were a people in ancient India. Gotama visited them and stopped in a town called Kesaputta, where he gave a sermon, now referred to as the Kalama Sutra. At first the citizens came to him with a deep problem: how to trust what people were telling them. They had been visited by many religious teachers who all held divergent views. Not unlike candidates for Collingwood council going door to door. Well, without the spirituality and a few badmouthing other candidates, too. But let’s not get distracted by them.

Here’s how Soma Thera translates what the villagers said:*

There are some monks and brahmans… who visit Kesaputta. They expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces… Venerable sir, there is doubt, there is uncertainty in us concerning them. Which of these reverend monks and brahmans spoke the truth and which falsehood?”

That’s a lot like trying to decide which candidate is the best one(s) to vote for. Some explain what they stand for while others merely revile what others stand for. Some offer hope and a future, others tear it down. Some simply tell lies. Doubt and uncertainty arise. When they come to your door or make statements in an all-candidates’ meeting, how do you trust what they say?

That’s when the Buddha made one of his most memorable speeches, in which he told the listeners they had to decide the truth for themselves, to examine the claims and prove what is right or wrong for themselves, and not make choices based on hearsay, ideology or gossip:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas.

  • Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing;
  • nor upon tradition;
  • nor upon rumor;
  • nor upon what is in a scripture;
  • nor upon surmise;
  • nor upon an axiom;
  • nor upon specious reasoning;
  • nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability;
  • nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’

One might add some modern terms to that list of things that do not offer a suitable basis on which to form an opinion of what is or is not truthful:

  • nor by blogs;
  • nor by speeches;
  • nor by campaign literature;
  • nor by self-written pieces in the local newspaper;
  • nor by innuendo;
  • nor by unproven or unfounded allegation;
  • nor by rumour;
  • nor by email blasts;
  • nor by claims made when stumping;

He then tells the citizens that to learn for themselves what is bad, what is bad, evil and harmful, they must assess everything by asking, “Does this do good? Or harm? Does it lead to suffering?”

Once you ask this question of everything promised, everything claimed or everything rumoured, you are on your way to knowing the difference between what is good and beneficial, and what is harmful and spiteful, he tells us. Abandon the negative, he continues. Reject the misinformation and self-serving evil. Choose the good:

…when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.

One can easily apply this lesson to municipal politics. Ask yourself if the negativity, the anger, the accusations, the rumours and the outright lies contribute to the good of our community. Or are they just harmful and self-serving?

Will any of it make for a better, more effective council? Will it make newly elected councillors work better together? Solve problems more efficiently? Or does it just belittle someone else and his or her ideas?

You have to wonder what goes on in the minds of candidates when they are out stumping or at an all-candidates’ meeting and they insult, belittle, bully and even lie about other candidates. When they attack other candidates and spread malice rather than offer constructive solutions or creative alternatives.**

How do they think the next council can work together effectively if they and their targets (or their targets’ allies) are both elected? Don’t they realize everything they say will be shared? And it will poison the atmosphere at the table before they even sit there?

Don’t they realize it poisons the community, too?

Who at the table will trust them? Who will want to work with them? How will they be able to achieve their goals if they alienate potential colleagues and create irreparable divisions even before they get elected?

A good council is based on respect. You don’t have to agree all the time, you don’t have to believe in the same things, or vote the same way, but you certainly need to respect one another and behave in a mature, civil manner.

We all have goals, many of them we share in common, but to accomplish them, to be effective as a representative of the people, and to do the best for the community we need to work together regardless of our differences. That begins with respect.

Without it, council will be chaotic, divisive and ineffective, as it was in a previous term. We’ve had our share of angry five- and six-hour meetings. Let’s not go back to those days. Choose the good.


* Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates this section as:

…there are some brahmans & contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them… They leave us absolutely uncertain and in doubt: Which of these venerable brahmans & contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”

“Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case, 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.’

When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.

** Think to yourself as the playwright Terrence wrote: Nae iste magno conatu magnas nugas dixerit: Of course that chap will make enormous efforts to say enormous trifles.

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Ian Chadwick
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  1. Pingback: Extraordinary Claims | Scripturient

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