A Look at the Kalama Sutta

Bhikkhu Bodhi

 In this issue of the newsletter we have combined the feature essay
 with the "Sutta Study" column as we take a fresh look at an often
 quoted discourse of the Buddha, the Kalama Sutta. The discourse --
 found in translation in Wheel No. 8 -- has been described as "the
 Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry," and though 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?
 Let us take as careful a look at the Kalama Sutta as the limited
 space allotted to this essay will allow, remembering that in order
 to understand the Buddha's utterances correctly it is essential to
 take account of his own intentions in making them.
 The passage that has been cited so often runs as follows: "Come,
 Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated
 hearing, nor upon tradition, nor upon rumor, nor upon scripture,
 nor upon surmise, nor upon axiom, nor upon specious reasoning, nor
 upon bias towards a notion pondered over, nor upon another's
 seeming ability, nor upon the consideration 'The monk is our
 teacher.' When you yourselves know: 'These things are bad,
 blamable, censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these
 things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them... When you yourselves
 know: 'These things are good, blameless, praised by the wise;
 undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and
 happiness,' enter on and abide in them."
 Now this passage, like everything else spoken by the Buddha, has
 been stated in a specific context -- with a particular audience
 and situation in view -- and thus must be understood in relation
 to that context. The Kalamas, citizens of the town of Kesaputta,
 had been visited by religious teachers of divergent views, each of
 whom would propound his own doctrines and tear down the doctrines
 of his predecessors. This left the Kalamas perplexed, and thus
 when "the recluse Gotama," reputed to be an Awakened One, arrived
 in their township, they approached him in the hope that he might
 be able to dispel their confusion. From the subsequent development
 of the sutta, it is clear that the issues that perplexed them were
 the reality of rebirth and kammic retribution for good and evil
 The Buddha begins by assuring the Kalamas that under such
 circumstances it is proper for them to doubt, an assurance which
 encourages free inquiry. He next speaks the passage quoted above,
 advising the Kalamas to abandon those things they know for
 themselves to be bad and to undertake those things they know for
 themselves to be good. This advice can be dangerous if given to
 those whose ethical sense is undeveloped, and we can thus assume
 that the Buddha regarded the Kalamas as people of refined moral
 sensitivity. In any case he did not leave them wholly to their own
 resources, but by questioning them led them to see that greed,
 hate and delusion, being conducive to harm and suffering for
 oneself and others, are to be abandoned, and their opposites,
 being beneficial to all, are to be developed.
 The Buddha next explains that a "noble disciple, devoid of
 covetousness and ill will, undeluded" dwells pervading the world
 with boundless loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and
 equanimity. Thus purified of hate and malice, he enjoys here and
 now four "solaces": If there is an afterlife and kammic result,
 then he will undergo a pleasant rebirth, while if there is none he
 still lives happily here and now; if evil results befall an
 evil-doer, then no evil will befall him, and if evil results do
 not befall an evil-doer, then he is purified anyway. With this the
 Kalamas express their appreciation of the Buddha's discourse and
 go for refuge to the Triple Gem.
 Now does the Kalama Sutta suggest, as is often held, that a
 follower of the Buddhist path can dispense with all faith and
 doctrine, that he should make his own personal experience the
 criterion for judging the Buddha's utterances and for rejecting
 what cannot be squared with it? It is true the Buddha does not ask
 the Kalamas to accept anything he says out of confidence in
 himself, but let us note one important point: the Kalamas, at the
 start of the discourse, were not the Buddha's disciples. They
 approached him merely as a counselor who might help dispel their
 doubts, but they did not come to him as the Tathagata, the
 Truth-finder, who might show them the way to spiritual progress
 and to final liberation.
 Thus, because the Kalamas had not yet come to accept the Buddha in
 terms of his unique mission, as the discloser of the liberating
 truth, it would not have been in place for him to expound to them
 the Dhamma unique to his own Dispensation: such teachings as the
 Four Noble Truths, the three characteristics, and the methods of
 contemplation based upon them. These teachings are specifically
 intended for those who have accepted the Buddha as their guide to
 deliverance, and in the suttas he expounds them only to those who
 "have gained faith in the Tathagata" and who possess the
 perspective necessary to grasp them and apply them. The Kalamas,
 however, at the start of the discourse are not yet fertile soil
 for him to sow the seeds of his liberating message. Still confused
 by the conflicting claims to which they have been exposed, they
 are not yet clear even about the groundwork of morality.
 Nevertheless, after advising the Kalamas not to rely upon
 established tradition, abstract reasoning, and charismatic gurus,
 the Buddha proposes to them a teaching that is immediately
 verifiable and capable of laying a firm foundation for a life of
 moral discipline and mental purification . He shows that whether
 or not there be another life after death, a life of moral
 restraint and of love and compassion for all beings brings its own
 intrinsic rewards here and now, a happiness and sense of inward
 security far superior to the fragile pleasures that can be won by
 violating moral principles and indulging the mind's desires. For
 those who are not concerned to look further, who are not prepared
 to adopt any convictions about a future life and worlds beyond the
 present one, such a teaching will ensure their present welfare and
 their safe passage to a pleasant rebirth -- provided they do not
 fall into the wrong view of denying an afterlife and kammic
 However, for those whose vision is capable of widening to
 encompass the broader horizons of our existence. this teaching
 given to the Kalamas points beyond its immediate implications to
 the very core of the Dhamma. For the three states brought forth
 for examination by the Buddha -- greed, hate and delusion -- are
 not merely grounds of wrong conduct or moral stains upon the mind.
 Within his teaching's own framework they are the root defilements
 -- the primary causes of all bondage and suffering -- and the
 entire practice of the Dhamma can be viewed as the task of
 eradicating these evil roots by developing to perfection their
 antidotes -- dispassion, kindness and wisdom.
 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. By putting
 this teaching to a personal test, with only a provisional trust in
 the Buddha as one's collateral, one eventually arrives at a
 firmer, experientially grounded confidence in the liberating and
 purifying power of the Dhamma. This increased confidence in the
 teaching brings along a deepened faith in the Buddha as teacher,
 and thus disposes one to accept on trust those principles he
 enunciates that are relevant to the quest for awakening, even when
 they lie beyond one's own capacity for verification. This, in
 fact, marks the acquisition of right view, in its preliminary role
 as the forerunner of the entire Noble Eightfold Path.
 Partly in reaction to dogmatic religion, partly in subservience to
 the reigning paradigm of objective scientific knowledge, it has
 become fashionable to hold, by appeal to the Kalama Sutta, that
 the Buddha's teaching dispenses with faith and formulated doctrine
 and asks us to accept only what we can personally verify. This
 interpretation of the sutta, however, forgets that the advice the
 Buddha gave the Kalamas was contingent upon the understanding that
 they were not yet prepared to place faith in him and his doctrine;
 it also forgets that the sutta omits, for that very reason, all
 mention of right view and of the entire perspective that opens up
 when right view is acquired. It offers instead the most reasonable
 counsel on wholesome living possible when the issue of ultimate
 beliefs has been put into brackets.
 What can be justly maintained is that those aspects of the
 Buddha's teaching that come within the purview of our ordinary
 experience can be personally confirmed within experience, and that
 this confirmation provides a sound basis for placing faith in
 those aspects of the teaching that necessarily transcend ordinary
 experience. Faith in the Buddha's teaching is never regarded as an
 end in itself nor as a sufficient guarantee of liberation, but
 only as the starting point for an evolving process of inner
 transformation that comes to fulfillment in personal insight. But
 in order for this insight to exercise a truly liberative function,
 it must unfold in the context of an accurate grasp of the
 essential truths concerning our situation in the world and the
 domain where deliverance is to be sought. These truths have been
 imparted to us by the Buddha out of his own profound comprehension
 of the human condition. To accept them in trust after careful
 consideration is to set foot on a journey which transforms faith
 into wisdom, confidence into certainty, and culminates in
 liberation from suffering.
   Revised: Tue 28 January 1997 , Access-to-Insight