The Kalama Sutta
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Buddha's personal name was Siddhartha. His clan name was Gautama. Buddha is his epiteth, and means "awakened one". There are variants of spelling. These are in Sanskrit. The earliest accounts of the life of Buddha are perhaps in the collected discourses attributed to him. On this page you get the very best of three translations of the groundbreaking Kalama Sutta, which is a portion of the Kesaputti Sutra in Anguttara Nikaya 3.65.
THE GOOD repute of the Blessed One [Buddha] spread far. Once when he was wandering in the Kosala country with a large community of bhikkhus, he entered a town of the Kalama people called Kesaputta. Kesaputta Kamalas heard he was worthy in deeds and words, a teacher of human and divine beings through direct knowledge gained, greatly awakened, and telling others of proper things to do (dharma). It might be good to see such a worthy one (have darshan with him). Hence, many of them came and paid homage to him, saying:
"Reverend Gotama, who by yourself have understood clearly through direct knowledge, there are some monks and brahmans who visit Kesaputta. They expound, explain and glorify their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they deprecate, revile, show contempt for, and disparage. As a result we are in doubt about the teachings of all of them. Which spoke the truth and which falsehood?"
Buddha said, "Of course, under such circumstances it is only natural to be uncertain and in doubt, Kalamas. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. This is how to live:
Do not go by reports (repeated hearing), by legends, by traditions, by rumours, by scriptures, by surmise, conjecture and axioms, by inference and analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by specious reasoning or bias toward a notion because it has been pondered over, by another's seeming ability, or by the thought, 'This monk (contemplative) is our teacher."
However, Kalamas, when you yourselves know: "Such and such things are unskilful (bad); blameworthy; criticized by the wise; and if adopted and carried out lead to harm and ill and suffering," you need to abandon them.
Overcome and possessed by greed a man takes life, steals or takes what is not given, goes after another person's wife, and tells lies and induces others to do likewise, all of which for long-term harm and suffering. It is likewise with hate and delusion.
So what do you think, Kalamas? Are these things skilful or unskilful (good or bad)? Blameworthy or not? Criticized or praised by the wise? And if undertaken and observed, do these things lead to suffering, harm and ill or not?"
"When adopted and carried out, such things lead to harm and suffering, it appears to us."
"On the other hand, when you know for yourselves that, "These and these things are skillful; blameless; even praised by the wise; and lead ot welfare and happiness when taken up and carried out, then you should enter and remain in them.
Great proficiency in living leads to benefit and happiness - equanimity that is free of hate or malice, a hate-free, malice-free, and purified mind. Even in this world, here and now, you should keep yourself free from hatred, free from malice, safe, sound, and happy."
"So it is, Sublime One."
"Think of doing evil to none. Abundant awareness is pervading, rests on equanimity, is expansive, may not be measured in every respect, and is linked to inner purity. Hostility goes against it, and vice versa," said Buddha like a lantern in the dark. "To look after oneself with ease here in this life is a good ideal."
Anguttara Nikaya 3.65: Kalama Sutta. The Instruction to the Kalamas, rendered from one translation from the Pali by Soma Thera and another by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Both translations are available at Access to Insight [Ati].
Many Who Believe These Majestic Words are Actually Told not to -
THE PEOPLE of the small town Kalama complained that they were confused by contradictions they discovered in what they heard from various teachers who praised their own doctrines. They asked Buddha, who was staying in the town then, who to believe out of all who, like himself, passed through their town:
"Venerable Sir, some recluses and brahmins visited this town and praised only their own doctrines, but condemned and despised those of others. And it is common that they do so. Sir, who among them told the truth and who told falsehood?"
Buddha advised them, saying, "Kalama people, it is proper for you to doubt and to have perplexity [under such circumstances,] when [great] doubt has arisen in a doubtful matter."
He went on to instruct that it is wise to make a proper examination before committing. He said this was to be applied to his own teachings as well. The benefit is: not being too bound by unverifiable propositions, hopefully.
In Pali, Buddha's reply is recorded thus:
Ma samano no garu ti.
Kalamas, when you yourselves directly know, "This is [these things are] unwholesome, this is blameworthy, this is condemned or censured by the wise, these things when accepted and practised lead to poverty and harm and suffering," then you should give them up.
Kalamas, when you yourselves directly know, "These things are wholesome, blameless, praised by the wise; when adopted and carried out they lead to well-being, prosperity and happiness," then you should accept and practise them."
Gautama Buddha, Kesaputti Sutta, 5th sutta (sutra) in the Book of Threes (Mahavagga) in the Gradual Sayings (Tika Nipata).
The Pali text runs like this: "Etha tumhe Kalama. Ma anussavena, ma paramparaya, ma itikiraya, ma pitasampadanena, ma takkahetu, ma nayahetu, ma akaraparivitakkena, nid ditthinijjhanakkhantiya, ma bhabbarupataya, ma samanro no garu ti." [Bht 284]
Yet Another Translation
But when you know for yourselves - these things are immoral, these things are blameworthy, these things are censured by the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to ruin and sorrow - then reject them.
When you know for yourselves - these things are moral, these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to well-being and happiness - then live and act accordingly." [This section: Bht 284-85]
The bracketed explanations above accord with the interpretations of the commentary and subcommentary. [Bht 284]
To Really Accept Teachings Is to Adjust Yourself Well to Them
The discourse (sutra) has been described as "Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry". In order to understand Buddha's sayings properly it may be necessary to take account of his intentions and the context (setting and situation), and the people he talked to about these things. From how the sutra develops, it shows up that the issues that perplexed the Kalamas were rebirth and karmic retributions of deeds.
Buddha did not ask the Kalamas to accept anything he said out of trust in him. They did not come to him as a Truth-finder or unraveller of finest truth either. They had not yet accepted him as their guide to deliverance. We may say he adjusted in part to the occasion.
An interesting problem that has been raised by some, is whether all followers are entitled to the freedom of independent inquiry [as shown above], or just his bystanders. Buddha says on the brink of his death that the highest way of honouring him, is to live his teachings. In a part of those handed-over teachings he says it is all right to doubt and proceed cautiously. It is fit and skilled practice that matters to him, he often shows.
Some who put faith in him personally, openly disregard he said he was only showing the Way by his teachings, and that followers were to walk it by themselves, being lights to themselves. And that is just what sceptics have to be. So I for my part think it is fit to use his various statements as working hypotheses. One should end up in Nirvanaland by skilful practice - that is part of what he tells.
Buddha proposed to them a teaching that may be verified by trial and error over a long time. For those who are not concerned to look further, perhaps that little will do.
Live Attuned to Great Joy and "Assonant" Derivations of It Too
The question arises, what are Buddha's teachings for followers and others? Sceptical undertakings are not all he offers. The Blessed One came up with a groundwork or plan for attaining astoundingly great joy and bliss (nirvana), and practices aiming at a well balanced life toward such an end. There should be no doubt what he stands for, thus. He also teaches the often helpful, purifying power of Dharma (Right conduct, Great Law, Buddha's teachings) as well. Buddha's Kalama teachings supplement his more known Noble Path of teachings about right views to hold, right activity, and much else. A question is whether or how far a follower is allowed the same freedom of thought and practice as to his teachings as the Kalamas.
Faith in Buddha's teaching is not forbidden, nor is it to be regarded as an end in itself, but as a starting point of an evolving process, a waking-up process. It has its turns too.
Blind faith is esteemed, and sceptical inquiry and investigations - are they only for outsiders? or may the follower actually try out his teachings on a provisional basis because they are freely available, fit for all, and his call is for self-effort? If we take a look in the most authentic texts and teachings that are attributed to him, we seem to get to:
A Buddhist [does not] sacrifice his freedom of thought by becoming a follower of the Buddha. He is at full liberty to exercise his own freewill and develop his knowledge even to the extent of attaining Buddhahood himself. [Bht 283]
Rational Inquiry and Understanding is Welcome
Buddhism allows for rational understanding. Compare: "As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it (on a piece of touchstone), so are you to accept my words after examining them and not merely out of regard for me," says Buddha in Jnanasara-samuccaya [Bht 285].
Further: "Meditation is the essence of Buddhism," says Narada. [Bht 288]
In the long text of Buddha's Parinibbana there is an ascetic, Subhadda, who wonders whether all who claim they have understood the Truth, really have. Buddha answers, "Do not trouble yourself as to whether all or some have realized it [the Truth] or not." And to his aide-in-camps Ananda Buddha says, "Devote yourself to your own welfare . . . be intent on your own good." His last words are "strive diligently". From this it stands out that the proper faith is one that leads to devoting oneself to the good for oneself, as specified by Buddha. [Bht 260, 264, 268].
Truths have been imparted to us by Buddha out of his comprehension of the godly sides of existence. His teachings may be considered and lived provisionally to develop from being unwitting and with no wisdom, into one's true nature to find Astounding Happiness (Nirvanaland).
The foundations of Buddhism include the four Noble Truth about suffering and a way out of it, into the highest conceivable happiness. It is not fit to brood constantly on the ills of life and thus make one's life unhappy. Instead one is to cultivate joy (piti), being attuned to the Great Joy. Note also that "No blind faith is necessary to understand these four Noble Truths." It is Right Practice that he emphasizes the most in his teachings. His advice is free for all, he formed no inner circle of secret teachings either. Fanaticism plays no part in Buddhism either, nor does caste. Your standing is largely determined by your moral and efforts. Buddha goes against slavery, and Buddhism is open to all, also slave girls, without any distinction. [Cf. Bht 298-305, 308, 310]
Buddhism and Women
And as for women, Buddha is recorded to have said once, "A woman child . . . may prove even a better offspring than a male." Gautama had women disciples, and in Buddhism women are not unwelcome and cumbersome. Born of a woman himself, Buddha raised the social status and esteem of women. A wife is considered the "best friend" (parama sakha) of the husband. Buddha also founded the first society for women, the Order of Bhikkhinis (Nuns). Women played a great part in the "teacher career" of Buddha. [Cf. Bht 311-17]
To our parents we are first of all indebted for being, although some parents ill-treat and deform the minds of their offspring in various base ways. [Bht 340-42]
Karma and Good Deeds
Fatalistic views of karma are not welcome; the long-run value of self-effort is throught to be greater. Taking care and heeding warnings in time is good too. You may and should prevent evil from happening and take over, all in all. [Bht 344]
Various evils have different consequences in time. For example, harsh speech over and over gives rise to a harsh voice (maybe in a future life), it is held. [Bht 376]
Good deeds and works may need time for their effects (fruits) to ripen in some realm or other, as with evil doings. "Who knows what good Kamma (Karma) he has in store . . . Who knows his potential goodness?" asks Narada. What is needed to to is to destroy or limit bad and encourage and foster good all along. That is in the teachings of Buddha too. [Bht 382]
Reasonable counsel may be confirmed by the lack of hard-won, scarring, maiming and killing life experiences (!) We have now looked into the key section of the Kalama sutra (discourse), often rendered in abbreviated form as the Kalama Sutta. It is implied from what Buddha says that it is not wise and good enough merely to hold fast to one's own opinions without evidence while failing to investigate things further. What he is into is that it is wise to make a proper examination before accepting teachings as true and good. Hence, it should pay to examine things rationally and carefully.
In conclusion the sutta says that the one with this kind of rational and sympathetic equanimity may enjoy bliss and the favoured self-assurance.
May this be added: "Master this in time: let what is spontaneous give good fortune."
Just before his passing Buddha praised a monk who did not come to see him and pay his respect to him as others expected he would do. Buddha summoned him and was told: "I thought the best way to honour you was by becoming an Arhant [in deep meditation] before you departed."
Buddha said, "Excellent! He honours me best who practises my teaching best." [Bht 287]
Ati: Bullit, John. Access to Insight: Readings in Theravada Buddhism. 2007. www.accesstoinsight.org
Bht: Narada. The Buddha and His Teachings. 4th ed. Kuala Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Society, 1988.
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