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?”