Excerpt from the Kalama Sutta

I posted this on my tumblr blog today, but thought I would share it here as well.

The Kalama Sutta is often cited (and it is usually only a few lines that are taken out of context) as the gold standard for free inquiry in Buddhism, and as such is often used to justify throwing out teachings that don’t agree with one’s “common sense” – something not found anywhere in the sutta itself. Instead what this sutta expounds is a process for finding the dharma, and this process is mostly self-reliant, but must be tempered by checking what we find by that which is also “praised by the wise”, or else we might come to identify only with “common sense” – which is something we’re trying to transcend in the first place. It is our thinking, clinging mind that makes up “common sense”, and abandoning that clinging mind is pretty much the whole point of taking up this path.

If read carefully, we can see that the Buddha is expounding the dharma using upaya (skillful means) to a specific group of people, but his advice to the Kalamas is universal. That is to say that when one has faith in the path Buddha laid out for us, it is important to take up the path with the intention of self-discovery. Teachers and roshis and wise people we meet on the way are there to help guide us, but we should never rely on an appeal to authority if we are to face our Buddha nature and escape samsara. I think the following excerpt help keeps all of this in context:

“What do you think, Kalamas? When lack of greed arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”

“For welfare, lord.”

“And this ungreedy person, not overcome by greed, his mind not possessed by greed, doesn’t kill living beings, take what is not given, go after another person’s wife, tell lies, or induce others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term welfare & happiness.”

“Yes, lord.”

“What do you think, Kalamas? When lack of aversion arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”

“For welfare, lord.”

“And this unaversive person, not overcome by aversion, his mind not possessed by aversion, doesn’t kill living beings, take what is not given, go after another person’s wife, tell lies, or induce others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term welfare & happiness.”

“Yes, lord.”

“What do you think, Kalamas? When lack of delusion arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”

“For welfare, lord.”

“And this undeluded person, not overcome by delusion, his mind not possessed by delusion, doesn’t kill living beings, take what is not given, go after another person’s wife, tell lies, or induce others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term welfare & happiness.”

“Yes, lord.”

“So what do you think, Kalamas: Are these qualities skillful or unskillful?”

“Skillful, lord.”

“Blameworthy or blameless?”

“Blameless, lord.”

“Criticized by the wise or praised by the wise?”

“Praised by the wise, lord.”

“When adopted & carried out, do they lead to welfare & to happiness, or not?”

“When adopted & carried out, they lead to welfare & to happiness. That is how it appears to us.”

“So, as I said, Kalamas: ‘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 skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness” — then you should enter & remain in them.’ Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

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One response to “Excerpt from the Kalama Sutta

  1. Hello,

    The Kalama Sutra is indeed often cited. In my own study of this important text it is not “free inquiry in Buddhism” that the Buddha is teaching, instead it is “freedom of inquiry in Buddhism”. The Awakened One taught that his teachings, as well as the teachings of others should be experienced (what we term experiential verification) and their efficacy discerned for each individual. It isn’t “common sense” that should be the determining factor but actual practice of the lesson presented. You right to call this “intention of self-discovery”. So much of Buddhist practice involves both of those ideals: intent and self-discovery.

    When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness” — then you should enter & remain in them.’

    It is our responsibility to determine the value of any qualities through practice and rigorous self-honesty. We look to our teachers for mentoring and monitoring but in the end it is our own commitment and practice that proves the efficacy of the qualities we are presented with.

    I bow with respect,
    Ven. Wayne