The Other Kalama Sutta

Lord Buddha teaching

In reactions to his post, Secularizing Buddhism–Making it Accessible or Stripping the Roots?, the first comment to Vince Horn was a quote directly from Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of the Kalama Sutta.

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 & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.

This excerpt has widely been used to promote the notion that the Kalama Sutta is “the Buddha’s charter of free inquiry”, as the monk Soma Thero and many others have named it. The message is empowering. Your experience is the final arbiter of the truth. But this perspective often gets carried away, as Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

[T]hough the discourse certainly does counter the decrees of dogmatism and blind faith with a vigorous call for free investigation, it is problematic whether the sutta can support all the positions that have been ascribed to it. On the basis of a single passage, quoted out of context, the Buddha has been made out to be a pragmatic empiricist who dismisses all doctrine and faith, and whose Dhamma is simply a freethinker’s kit to truth which invites each one to accept and reject whatever he likes. But does the Kalama Sutta really justify such views? Or do we meet in these claims just another set of variations on that egregious old tendency to interpret the Dhamma according to whatever notions are congenial to oneself — or to those to whom one is preaching?

I have always been personally more moved by the words that follow that overquoted paragraph from the Kalama Sutta, namely the passages that list the four assurances of the noble disciple. For those who wonder about the afterlife or the nature of karma, these passages say something slightly different than to just use one’s own judgment.

Our personal experiences color the way we understand the world, as I’ve written before, such that even the same words may take on vastly different meanings. My understanding of the Kalama Sutta is different now than when I was reckless teenager. The text even resonates differently now that I’ve just read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s essay. If I were to frame the Kalama Sutta as a discussion of karma and rebirth, it would seem as though I were explaining some other Kalama Sutta than the one most monolingual English-speaking Buddhists are familiar with. In light of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s analysis, this latter perspective would be missing the broader picture no more than the perspective of the simple “freethinker’s kit to truth.”

When we read from the Pali Canon, it’s important for us to consider the words in context, to think on them and to revisit them. We learn more about a particular sutta as we deepen our practice and also as we expand our knowledge of Buddhist texts. Memorizing suttas provides us with the luxury of keeping them with ourselves at all times, of reflecting on them at our leisure. But don’t take my word for it. You might just want to genuinely try and see for yourself.

7 Replies to “The Other Kalama Sutta”

  1. “Thus the discourse to the Kalamas offers an acid test for gaining confidence in the Dhamma as a viable doctrine of deliverance. We begin with an immediately verifiable teaching whose validity can be attested by anyone with the moral integrity to follow it through to its conclusions, namely, that the defilements cause harm and suffering both personal and social, that their removal brings peace and happiness, and that the practices taught by the Buddha are effective means for achieving their removal. ”

    I really like this passage in the essay because it speaks to the heart of the misconception of those who think the Buddha is a champion of one’s own powers of inquiry.

    Confidence, entrusting or sradha is a key component of Buddhist practice, and is an assurance gained precisely by applying the Buddha’s teachings “by faith,” and then experiencing the resultant effect in one’s own life.

    I don’t see how one can hold that the very mind that the Buddha teaches is deluded about its own nature can be relied upon as the ultimate arbiter of what is true and wholesome. If it is limited to the purview of what can be judged in experience (like drinking milk is unwholesome for the lactose-intolerant) then we are on more solid ground.

    Thanks very much for the link to the essay!

  2. What I find interesting about this sutta is that at the end, the kalamas accept the Buddha’s teaching at face value, without following his instructions. They accepted it as truth without testing it. Is that what really happened? Or was this a bit of Buddha irony?

    I plan on examining the Kalama Sutta on my blog, in terms of its relevance and application to being gay. Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. In addition to your comment “When we read from the Pali Canon, it’s important for us to consider the words in context” I’d like to add that it’s important for us to remember the intended audience for these texts, especially the early Pali texts. They were not written for post-modern, spiritually inclined by religiously suspicious folks in America. They were written for a community of monks, a community of monks who had already (a) accepted the Dharma as Truth and (b) committed to practicing the Dharma. The Kalama Sutta is interesting because it seems like the Buddha is talking to the villagers of Kalama. But is he? Is talking to them or to the monks who would eventually write down what he said, recite it, put it into practice? In the end, I think remembering that the life of a text includes an audience, that they were not written in a vacuum, is immensely helpful when reading Buddhist sutras.

  4. “Anyone who accepts these four seals, even independently of Buddha’s teachings, even never having heard the name Shakyamuni Buddha, can be considered to be on the same path as he.”
    – Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche

  5. Yeah, I like the sutra as a whole, not just the one part that gets over-quoted. It’s a pretty brilliant little text, when taken as a whole. It states the obvious, in a way, but in such a way that no one should be able to misunderstand, and encourages pursuit of the truth, not to latch onto any one thing (ironic people still do that…oh well).

    Regarding the Dharma Seals, that too is a really way to ground oneself in the Dharma, in a more Mahayana sense. They both work great.

  6. Good post. I think you are right about where the focus should be – we need to read that text carefully and think about the context.

    However I disagree with Scott that the suttas were written for monks – my reading of the canon is that it is very often (even in the vinaya!) addressing the concerns of lay people, or Brahmins, of Jains, and of people from other sects. The breadth argues against a narrowly monastic origin for all of the suttas. And the so-called Kālāmā Sutta is a case in point – there is no reason to think that it is addressed to monks and every reason to think that the message is for precisely who it says it is.

    Perhaps the other point to make is about “knowing for yourself” is that what is meant here is living with the consequences of your actions – it is not carte blanc but an invitation to reflect on how one’s behaviour causes one’s own suffering (or lack of it). It’s not so much freethinking as paying close attention and thus knowing for oneself.

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