The Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.65) is probably the most often misrepresented of the Buddha’s teachings.
“It is fitting for you to be perplexed, Kālāmas, it is fitting for you to be in doubt. Doubt has arisen in you about a perplexing matter. Come, Kālāmas, do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by the seeming competence [of a speaker], or because you think: ‘The ascetic is our guru.’ But when, Kālāmas, you know for yourselves: ‘These things are unwholesome; these things are blameworthy; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to harm and suffering,’ then you should abandon them.”
Many people are enchanted with the Buddha’s listing of sources NOT to trust as guides to behavior and don’t look any further; but the important point is to know for ourselves which actions lead to harm and which lead to benefit. This is not the same as saying, “Do what you like.” or “Use your intuition.” It’s using an evidence-based approach to figuring out how to live for one’s own benefit and the benefit of others.
“…But when you know for yourselves: ‘These things are wholesome; these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to welfare and happiness,’ then you should live in accordance with them.
“What do you think, Kālāmas? When a person is without greed, hatred, and delusion, is it for his welfare or for his harm?” – “For his welfare, Bhante.” – “Kālāmas, a person not overcome by greed, hatred, and delusion, whose mind is not obsessed by them, does not destroy life, take what is not given, transgress with another’s wife, or speak falsehood; nor does he encourage others to do likewise. Will that lead to his welfare and happiness for a long time?” – “Yes, Bhante.” (Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation)
The Buddha points out that it’s impossible to consider the results of our (or anyone’s) actions and conclude that it doesn’t matter if we lie, steal, cheat, or harm living beings. If we observe closely what happens when people treat each other in these ways, we can see that harm and suffering ensue.
The most likely way for us to cause grief to others is by not paying attention to what we’re doing. We may continue habitual behaviors without considering that we have a choice. The five precepts are guidelines for making wholesome choices. The practice implied by this sutta is to STOP and reflect on potential consequences before we act. Failing that, we can review our actions and their actual effects on ourselves and others, and resolve to act (or not act) accordingly.