A question regarding the Kalama Sutta

I have a question regarding a teaching found in the Kalama Sutta (see below):

When the teaching gives this guideline for practice: “These things are unskillful, blameworthy, criticized by sensible people, and when you undertake them, they lead to harm and suffering”, why does this apply to individuals exclusively? Are there unskillful and blameworthy things that are carried out collectively?

I have been told repeatedly now that I have misunderstood the Buddha’s teachings if I believe that they are directly related to social-issues or, actions undertaken in society as a whole.

I don’t understand why the Buddha would not draw attention to something that seems so obvious?

Are these two areas of reflection and inquiry incompatible and, exploring them both, and the relationship between the two, would be unwise?

The Buddha is pointing to that which is undertaken, whether this leads to skillful or unskillful outcomes.

We develop this understanding through giving care-ful attention to our ways of being in the world. What is the range and scale of the undertakings that we should pay careful attention to?

Our shared journey of life and learning finds expression in our culture, through social norms and, our ways of relating to the ‘more than human’ world in which we are embedded.

Is our relationship with the living Earth - as a species - of importance in the light of this teaching received by the Kalama’s?

Where does it say that skillful social and environmental engagement is not applicable and, harmful ‘collective’ undertakings and commitments are not relevant?


Collective actions are done by the leadership of an individual. American or Russian president has the power to stop the nuclear war.
Gandhi led the Avihimsa movement.

Because that’s the scope of the Buddha’s teaching.

For it is in this fathom-long carcass with its perception and mind that I describe the world, its origin, its cessation, and the practice that leads to its cessation.

No. Individuals make their own decisions, create their own intentions and have to live with their own actions. The idea of collective action is not in accord with the scope of the teaching. Groups of beings are not liberated as a collective action in the teachings.

From a personal point of view the idea of collective responsibility does not accord with reality as I (currently) see it, so yes (I think) reflection on it could be potentially unwise (for the purposes of nibbana). Having said that, it could be useful to reflect on it in order to see through the delusion.

This fathom-long carcass with its perception and mind .


Where in this teaching above is the Buddha saying this is all you should pay attention to?

Is there something other than ‘the world’ to pay attention to?

This is the world of the five aggregates, this is what is referred to as the fathom-long body with its perception and intellect. The ending of this world takes place when the Arahant passes away and they do not return to this world. It is not referring to the planet we live on with its land and water, the atmosphere and the ecosphere and the lithosphere. We don’t dissapear, the world we inhabit does not disappear when the Arahant passes away. We are left in this world where we need to care for each other - cherish all beings. In order to cherish all beings, be kind, we need to pay attention to them, not ignore them and their needs. We can care for all beings and help each other in various ways.

Yep. That’s right. The teaching is about attaining arahantship, not about keeping us in the world “where we need to care for each other”

There’s that nice bit at the end of DN19 where a gandhabba (Pañcasikha) is recollecting a past life of the Buddha and in that past life the Buddha ends up teaching the brahma-viharas and his entire retinue gets reborn in lovely realms.

Then the Buddha says of the brahma-viharas:

“I remember, Pañcasikha. I myself was the brahmin Great Steward at that time. And I taught those disciples the path to rebirth in the company of Brahmā. But that spiritual path of mine doesn’t lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. It only leads as far as rebirth in the Brahmā realm.

But this spiritual path does lead to disillusionment, fading away, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. And what is the spiritual path that leads to extinguishment? It is simply this noble eightfold path, that is: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion. This is the spiritual path that leads to disillusionment, fading away, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment.

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Where was it said, the teaching is about keeping us in the world where we need to care for each other?

I’m not disagreeing with you. I’m just stating the scope of the teachings for clarity. It’s great that we all care for each other while we’re here. :two_hearts:


Is it possible to not care for others, ignore their needs, not give any attention to the welfare of anyone, to not care about anyone else and, still wake up? Or, is care and kindness necessary in the process of waking up? Is care for others, to give attention to their needs, likely to prevent someone from waking up and is best avoided? Is it a harmful distraction or, a snare, that keeps us from the truth which liberates? This seems to have been one of the things you were saying above? Something like, caring - giving attention to the needs and welfare of others - keeps us in the world of cyclic existence (is best avoided). That’s not what the path involves or, what its about? We have to keep all our attention on our fathom-long body and what’s going on in our minds and caring for others is a distraction from this! Could we do both or, are they antithetical? This seemed to be what you have suggested in an earlier comment?

In the light of these observations about the place of mutual care and kindness in the path of practice, I have asked these questions:


Is there something problematic about these questions with regard to the teaching in question or, in some other context regarding our practice as Buddhists?

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I don’t think that I was saying any of what you suggest here. My issue was with the concept of collective actions and collective responsibility. For me that is not how things actually are, and it also appears not to be a teaching of the Buddha.

In the first example of the fathom-long carcass with it’s thoughts and perceptions I think that the implication is that (if the Buddha is right and this is indeed “the world”), then we have a large responsibility if we want to ensure that we live in a world that is kind and gentle and loving and compassionate, etc. - I think that this means is that our actions (body, speech and mind) need to be kind and gentle and loving and compassionate, etc. to all that we encounter in our world. We do this by realising that it’s a tough place, with suffering embedded down to the core and that everyone is (currently) doing their best according to their conditioning.

In the second example that I gave, the Buddha actually claims the Brahma-Viharas as his own teachings but says that they do not lead to nibbana. What I love about that bit is the way that it quietly implies that they are almost (but not quite) a prerequisite for the Buddhas proper teachings which of course is the noble eightfold path which does lead to nibbana. It’s like we need a certain amount of peace in our world to get going on the task in hand.

Which leads me on to another dimension of the path which maybe has a bearing on your questions. This is that it is a gradual path. So we can expect some points where there is engagement with the world and other points where there is little engagement with the world. For me there has been lots of occasions where I have needed to turn away from the world because I just didn’t have the wherewithal to skilfully engage with the world at that point - I just ended up in arguments. This was a sign for me that my motivations were bigger than my skill in making intentions. There just wasn’t understanding of the way the world worked at that point, so disengaging was the most skilful thing I could do.

So in answer to:


I would suggest that the premise of the questions don’t make sense in a teaching that doesn’t include the concept of collective actions and collective responsibility. They are outside the scope of the teachings.


Are you referring to the notion of ‘collective kamma’?

Are you referring to the notion of ‘collective kamma’?

If the ‘sublime emotions’ are an entry point into samadhi then they will help us to find the deep peace for the task at hand. I did not say or imply that they are the culmination of the path or, anything of the sort. They are natural expressions of an awakened heart and mind.

I was just responding to your idea of “things that are carried out collectively”.

I think the term ‘collective kamma’ may have taken on some technical meanings that I am unaware of, so I’m disinclined to answer.

Are you saying collective actions do not take place that have results in the world around us. I am not proposing anything mystical or abstruse. People work together on a project like ‘band aid’ and as a consequence of that a lot of hungry people in Africa get fed! Scientists work together on the Manhattan- project and hey-presto, say hello to the atomic age. Collective actions that have skillful, unskillful and, mixed consequences.

Yes :slightly_smiling_face:

“What do you think, Kālāmas? Does love come up in a person for their welfare or harm? … Does understanding come up in a person for their welfare or harm? … Is that for their lasting welfare and happiness?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you think, Kālāmas, are these things skillful or unskillful?”

“Wholesome, sir.”

“Blameworthy or blameless?”

“Blameless, sir.”

“Criticized or praised by sensible people?”

“Praised by sensible people, sir.”

“When you undertake them, do they lead to welfare and happiness, or not? Or how do you see this?”

“When you undertake them, they lead to welfare and happiness. That’s how we see it.” - Kalama Sutta

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Actually I’m saying two things.

The first is that the concept of ‘collective action’ is out of scope in the teachings of the Buddha (as far as I’m aware).

And the second (and not so important) thing is my personal view that the concept of ‘collective action’ is irrelevant and does not accord with reality. So yes, if you like, ‘collective actions’ do not take place - actions take place based on causes and conditions, some of which are social in nature. Or we might suggest that all actions are ‘collective actions’, because we live in reliance on people, animals, and things. Either way, it’s a redundant term/concept for me.

Which brings me to another dimension of the path that might be relevant to the discussion. That being that spiritual friendship is all of the holy life. From SN45.2:

“Venerable sir, this is half of the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.”

“Not so, Ānanda! Not so, Ānanda! This is the entire holy life, Ānanda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.

That’s great to know isn’t it? :smiley: That we rely 100% on our spiritual friends to develop the path. But not so good for those who don’t have any. :cry:


The Buddha didn’t set up a social service organisation- he set up a Nibbana generating organisation! In his wisdom, the question then is why did he do the latter and not the former? Looking at it in this binary way helps, but is artificial. We know that individual make up society and therefore when an individual takes a turn for the better, things generally get better. We are yet to come up with a way to say, stop war or poverty in the world. This is not due to lack of resources but due to defilements like ego, greed for power and wealth, resources and corruption. We cannot legislate these things away, however hard we try- short of setting up the thought police, humanity will find a way around the best safeguards available. It seems that downstream Buddhism may have had major impacts on things like slavery (see the Buddhist Emperor’s banning them), animal sacrifice, and to a lesser degree on the caste system, education, status of women and is a step up from the animistic beliefs. Not bad for individual focus, which goes to show that it can have regional, if not global, impact.

with metta

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The Buddha, just before his Parinibbana, mentioned how the people of ‘Vajji’ respected their ‘tree shrines’ and how this was a practice that , if continued, may help them to live in harmony.

Here is an example of a society at the time of the Buddha that protected these natural and peaceful places that helped them to live in harmony.

Bhutan has managed to preserve a lot of their pristine forests and they also have a very high level of ‘G.N.H.’ (Gross National Happiness).

I believe it is a good sign when a society makes an effort to look after the environment and if they don’t due to collective indifference then that is unfortunate.

I really don’t have a clue what it is you are talking about when you say there is no such thing as consequences/effects/outcomes experienced collectively i.e. within a community, in a society or, in the natural world.

Normative behaviour has an impact on people and the planet! There are outcomes/results that are produced as a consequence of how a community or a society behaves - en masse.

In Australia we now have same-sex marriage. All married couples have the same property rights in Australia.

When a minority does not enjoy equal treatment under the law it has consequences that ripple out through the community at large.

I just found out that the Netherlands and Belgium have adopted the practice known as universal-income. If this practice was undertaken in places like the U.S.A. or in India it could have a radical impact on a lot of struggling and impoverished people.

I do understand what you have said about the importance of good friends. Best wishes, Laurence