The (In)famous Kālāmā Sutta (podcast)

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Few suttas are more quoted (and misquoted) in Western Buddhism than the Kālāmā Sutta. And indeed, it is a beautiful and fascinating sutta. Unfortunately, all too often you find internet sites with something like “Don’t trust teacher. Don’t trust scripture. Only trust yourself. -The Buddha” And this is just a wild mis-translation, or at least misunderstanding of the Kālāmā Sutta.

The great Buddhist scholar Richard Gombrich says of this sutta, “In it [the Kālāmā Sutta] the Buddha preaches that everyone is to make up hi own mind about religious doctrine; one is not to take a teaching on trust but to test it on the touchstone of one’s own experience. This is indeed a remarkable sermon. But a careful reading will show that the Buddha is confident, to say the least, that following his advice will lead his audience to accept his teaching. His appeal is that of the new man who fins himself at variance with accepted authority; it contains no implication that his own understanding of the truth might be either defective or valid only subjectively. To sue the formulation of Steven Collins: the Budda is saying not ‘Make your own truth’ but ‘Make the Truth your own.'”

Here’s my take.

Once the Buddha was traveling with a group of monks when he came to a town of Kālāmas called Kesamutti. When the Kosalans heard that the Buddha was there, they said to themselves, “He must be enlightened and full of wisdom. We should visit such a man.”

So they went to see him. After paying respects, they asked him, “Bhante, many spiritual teachers come to Kesamutti. They give their teaching and insult the teachings of other teachers. We are very confused! Which of these teachers tell the truth, and which are lying?”

The Buddha replied, “Of course you are confused! You can’t go by what you’ve heard, nor by tradition, nor by conventional wisdom, nor by scripture, nor by logic, nor by reasoning, nor by appearance, nor by pondering, nor by what seems likely, nor by faith in a teacher. Only when you know directly, for yourself what is unwholesome, what is harmful, can you drop these wrong teachings.

“Now, when a person is greedy, is this helpful or harmful?”

They replied, “Harmful.”

“And when this greedy person is overwhelmed by desire, Kālāmas,” the Buddha continued, “when he kills, steals, has affairs, lies, and encourages others to do the same. These things will be to his detriment for a long time.”

“True,” they agreed.

“Now, when a person is angry, is this helpful or harmful?”

They replied, “Harmful.”

“And when this hate-filled person  is overwhelmed by anger, Kālāmas,” the Buddha continued, “when he kills, steals, has affairs, lies, and encourages others to do the same. These things will be to his detriment for a long time.”

“True,” they agreed.

“Now, when a person is ignorant, is this helpful or harmful?”

They replied, “Harmful.”

“And when this ignorant person  is overwhelmed by delusion, Kālāmas,” the Buddha continued, “when he kills, steals, has affairs, lies, and encourages others to do the same. These things will be to his detriment for a long time.”

“True,” they agreed.

“So what do you think?” the Buddha asked. “Are these things skillful or unskillful?”

“Unskillful.”

“Innocent or wicked?”

“Wicked.”

“Recommended or criticized by wise people?”

“Criticized.”

“Do they lead to misery?”

“Indeed.”

“And if a person instead avoids greed, avoids hatred, avoids delusion, are they skillful or unskillful?”

“Skillful.”

“Innocent or wicked?”

“Innocent.”

“Recommended or criticized by wise people?”

“Recommended.”

“Do they lead to happiness?”

“Indeed.”

“And such a wise person, Kālāmas, free of greed, anger, and ignorance, sat with a mind full of loving-kindness for everyone, his mind full of loving-kindness, then he fills the whole world with this loving-kindness.

“And such a wise person, Kālāmas, free of greed, anger, and ignorance, sat with a mind full of compassion, joy, and peace for everyone, his mind full of these things, then he fills the whole world with this compassion, joy, and peace.

“Such a wise person, free from hatred, with a pure mind, has gained tremendous confidence in four ways:

1. If there is an afterlife, after I die I will go to a good place.

2. If there is no afterlife, I will still live happy and untroubled in this world.

3. And if there are consequences to bad khamma, then this misery won’t touch me.

4. And if there are no such consequences, I will be pure for its own sake.

-Kesamutti (Kālāmā) Sutta AN 3.66 (excerpt)

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