A Commentary on the Kālāma-Sutta

country folk

In this well-known discourse from the Pāli canon,[1] the Buddha is asked by the Kālāmas how to tell true from false spiritual teachings. Rather than answer them directly, the Buddha leads them through a way of judging what is wholesome and unwholesome in their own experience. The discourse demonstrates the Buddha’s practical, non-speculative approach to spiritual life, and does so in the course of a charming narrative of encounter.

The Kālāmas are a gotra or clan, who live in a nigama or market town called Kesaputta in the region of northern India called Kosala[2]. We get the impression of a close-knit group of country bumpkins, not part of mainstream Brahmanical religious culture, who are nevertheless concerned as a community to know what religious teachings are correct. The Buddha, on tour with a group of his monks, stops near Kesaputta. The Kālāmas discuss the Buddha’s good reputation, in terms of a formula found elsewhere in the suttas, and decide to visit him. They greet him, take their places as they feel inclined, then ask which teachings (vāda) are true and which false, since rival teachers recommend their own teachings but criticise those of others. The Buddha replies:

‘No wonder you’re uncertain, Kālāmas, no wonder you’re doubtful; being uncertain, doubt has arisen for you. But, Kālāmas, you should not go by oral or inherited traditions, by opinions, or by the authority of scripture; or by reason, inference, analogy or metaphysical speculation; or by someone’s apparent competence, or because you regard an ascetic as your teacher. Kālāmas, when you yourselves know that something is unwholesome, culpable and criticized by the wise; that something, when taken up and carried through, leads to harm and pain; then, Kālāmas, you should give it up.’[3]

‘Oral or inherited traditions’ (anassavā or paraṃparā), ‘opinions’ (itikirā) and ‘the authority of scripture’ (piṭikasampadāna) are religious reasons for believing teachings. It is perhaps easy to understand why we should not believe religious teachings without some further justification, but the Buddha goes much further, in recommending that the Kālāmas do not believe teachings established by philosophical reasoning, by ‘reason (takkahetu), inference (nayahetu), analogy (ākāraparivitakka) or metaphysical speculation (diṭṭhinijjhānakhanti)’. And he then undercuts any tendency the Kālāmas might have to believe even someone like himself, recommending that they do not go by ‘someone’s apparent competence’ (bhabbarūpatā), or out of respect for someone as a teacher.

All this is just as relevant today, as we hear the teachings of various gurus concerning diet, exercise, lifestyle and enlightenment, with their appeals to traditions and authorities, with their use of logical arguments, equipped with their PhDs and their celebrity endorsements. But we know that all this persuasion could be merely blurb. In the spiritual market place your purchase never comes with a  guarantee. For this reason the Buddha shifts the whole debate to what he regards as more important, which is, what it is that does people good, and what it is that does people bad.

The Buddha recommends that the Kālāmas look to their own experience to judge what leads is unwholesome and (later in the sutta) to what is wholesome in experience, but he also recommends they listen to their conscience and to the opinion of the wise. The word ‘wise’ here translates viññū, which refers to the mature elders of the community rather than to religious specialists. The Buddha’s approach appeals to the experience of the community, not just of the individual. He asks, what leads to harm and benefit in your individual and communal experience?

The Buddha then leads the Kālāmas in a Socratic kind of dialogue, to the conclusion that mental states characterised by greed (lobha) or hate (dosa) or confusion (moha) tend to result in actions like harming, stealing, sexual misconduct and lying – the opposite of the actions enjoined by the Buddhist precepts – whereas mental states characterised by the opposite, by contentment (alobha), love (adosa) and wisdom (amoha), tend to result in actions that are in accordance with the precepts, and which lead to well-being and happiness.

The Buddha does not leave his teaching to the Kālāmas there, but goes on to give them a spiritual practice, which builds on the approach now established towards what is important in life. This spiritual practice is a set of well-known Buddhist meditations usually called the brahma-vihāras or ‘divine abidings’, that consist in the cultivation of loving kindness (mettā), compassion (karunā), gladness (muditā) and equanimity (upekkhā), and the pervading of the entire world and all beings with these ‘extravagant, magnificent, boundless’ qualities. These practices require no special beliefs or initiations; they are a practical means to gain the benefits for oneself and others that religious teachings are supposed to deliver.

To end the discourse, the Buddha gives the Kālāmas four encouragements (assāsā, or ‘easy-breathings’) for continuing to work on their mental states in this way. First, if it is true that there is an afterlife, then they will go to a heavenly world after death. Second, if it turns out that there is no afterlife, then they will have looked after themselves as well as possible in this life. Third, if actions have consquences, then because of not doing evil, no pain will touch them (although this seems a little optimistic). And fourth, if actions do not have consquences, then those who do not do evil can regard themselves as pure. Although the Buddha certainly did teach that actions have consequences, and that there is rebirth according to actions, he does not want the Kālāmas to accept such ideas just as ideas. He wants them to understand the benefit of acting ethically in their present experience. In this way, the Kālāmas are equipped with the practical tools to decide for themselves what teachings to accept or reject, what is true and false. This is what we would call today an entirely secular form of spirituality, a teaching about ethics and the best way to live which works whatever you believe about the hereafter.

The discourse concludes with another formula common in the Pāli canon, which expresses how someone who has heard the Buddha’s words gains faith and decides to become a follower. The Kālāmas say:

‘Wonderful, Lord, wonderful! It’s as if someone were to set upright something overturned, or explain something that was obscure, or show the way to someone lost, or carry a lamp into the darkness so that those with eyes can see. In the same way, Venerable Gotama has made the Dharma known in many ways. We go for refuge to the Blessed One, to the Dharma and to the Sangha of monks. May the Venerable Gotama remember us as lay-followers who have gone for refuge from this day onward for as long as life lasts.’

We hear no more of the Kālāmas in the early Buddhist scriptures, so there is no saying what happened to them after the Buddha left and continued on tour. Perhaps they were still confused, or perhaps they forgot the Buddha and collectively joined some cult. But the Kālāma-sutta remains as a testament to an experiential approach to finding what is wholesome in experience, an approach still basic to Buddhism to this day.

Based on a talk at Cambridge Buddhist Centre on 18 April 2013

[1] The discourse is from Anguttara-Nikāya, 3.65. Full translations are available on the Access to Insight website

[2] This kind of information is available in the amazing Dictionary of Pali Proper Names.

[3] This is my translation. My full translation of this discourse can be downloaded from here.

Dependent-Arising as Pagan Philosophy


In this essay, I will explore how the core Buddhist teaching of dependent-arising (paṭicca-samuppāda) is a form of naturalism, meaning that everything arises from natural causes and conditions, including everything in human experience. This naturalism is fundamentally akin to early Greek science, to early Taoism, and to the Norse concept of wyrd, and hence we can characterise dependent-arising as a form of pagan philosophy, understanding the term ‘paganism’ to encompass all kinds of non-theistic religion, not just those traditions traditionally called ‘pagan’. Such a broad characterisation of dependent-arising allows us to appreciate the framework of thought in which the Buddha’s teaching works.

Pagan philosophising arises out of its own cultural context of myth, ritual and speculation. In the background of the Buddha’s teaching is the Vedic religion of India, in which even the gods were subject to cosmic order (ṛta, and later dharma), and sacrificial ritual became the technology for manipulating natural order. In ancient Greek myth, in Homer for instance, even all-powerful Zeus must obey Necessity (ananke), and this conception of a non-divine natural order led to the Greek philosophers’ quest for rational principles.

Philosophy sifts principles from the turbid play of the mind. The core principle of the Buddha’s teaching, called the Dharma (or dhamma), is paṭicca-samuppāda, dependent-arising, which the Buddha expressed in a terse formula:[1]

This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises.
This not being, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases.

This formulation of the Dharma is an entirely abstract formula, awaiting application and content, but already implies two things about the nature of reality:

(i) universal conditionality, that is, that everything arises on conditions, and

(ii) the contingency of the divine, that is, that the gods also arise on conditions.

We see these implications borne out in other aspects of the Buddha’s teaching. In Buddhist cosmology, for instance, which seems originally to have taken the form of edifying story rather than seriously-held belief, the periodic evolution and involution of the cosmos is total – nothing is left over. And we find parody of the supreme deity, Brahmā, who believes himself immortal, yet really is deluded, since he too has come into existence as a result of his past actions.[2]

There is a saying attributed to the Buddha that ‘Who sees dependent-arising sees the Dharma, and who sees the Dharma sees dependent-arising’.[3] This saying relies on word-play, since the word Dharma means both the nature of reality and the teaching of the Buddha. So someone who ‘sees’, that is, understands, dependent-arising understands the teaching of the Buddha, and who understands the nature of reality understands this formulation of dependent-arising. But this saying also implies another, more philosophical, distinction between dependent-arising as principle and Dharma as nature. This distinction parallels Spinoza’s distinction of two aspects of reality:[4]

(i) natura naturans – ‘nature naturing’, nature as an active principle of order, and

(ii) natura naturata – ‘nature natured’, nature as the effect of natural order.

We might hence understand dependent-arising as a formulation of the principle of order in nature – which is one meaning of Dharma – and we might understand Dharma to also signify the whole world (including the world of experience) of nature or becoming, which is dependently-arisen, arising according to this principle.

Dependent-arising is therefore the formulation of Dharma as the principle of natural order. This formulation encompasses all particular principles of natural order by which the world of nature comes to be. The distinction between dependent-arising as principle and Dharma as nature is abstract, existing only in thought. In reality, there are only dependently-arisen phenomena, arising and passing away in accordance with an immanent principle of order. Hence the Buddhist worldview is a kind of naturalism, since it posits no power or principle beyond nature itself. This is a non-theistic worldview, in the sense that the powers and divinities that may exist are themselves subject to dependent-arising.

Early Greek science was similarly naturalistic in outlook. The first philosophers sought to identify some fundamental principle (arche) which governs the working of nature, rather than seeking supernatural causes. Thales of Miletus, for instance, identified the principle of nature (physis – physical nature) as water,[5] while Heraclitus identified it as fire.[6] Heraclitus also wrote of a principle of order (logos) according to which all of nature comes into being,[7] a conception much like that of Dharma as dependent-arising. Modern science, since the 17th c., is also naturalistic, seeking the laws and principles that govern nature, but in a methodological rather than metaphysical sense. When it gets metaphysical it tends merely to a sterile materialism, but that is another story.

Early Taoism is naturalistic too. Heaven and earth and the ten thousand things have all emerged from tao or ‘the Way’, which is that mysterious creative principle underlying nature.[8] The Tao Te Ching teaches that wisdom means turning inwards and knowing tao.[9] For Heraclitus, too, wisdom consists in coming to true knowledge of ‘how all things are steered through all’.[10] For the Buddha, it is by not understanding paṭicca-samuppāda that ‘people have become like a tangle of string covered in mould and matted like grass, unable to escape from samsara with its miseries, disasters and bad destinies’.[11] For religious naturalists, much of the difficulty of life is due to our not comprehending the principles of nature to which we are subject, whereas relief and enlightenment arises from insight into them.

Hence we can characterise the Buddha’s teaching as a form of naturalistic or pagan philosophy, as rational reflection on the principles of nature, for the sake of enlightening insight. However, this insight in no way implies a transcendence of nature, for nature is all that there is. It implies instead a turning towards nature, a re-evaluation, and a letting go. What this means and how it is to be done is the stuff of study, reflection and meditation: of philosophy as a way of life. The different traditions of philosophy have, of course, different methods and practices for treading this way. The Buddha’s way (marga) consists in ethics, meditation and wisdom.

If pagan philosophy is not about transcendence, but about understanding the nature of the human condition, then we had better not suppose this can be done simply by rational thought. The Buddha conceptualised the human condition in terms of dependent-arising, but in practice his analyses of the situation, in the formula of the twelve nidānas, merges psychology with cosmology in a way hard to understand. What we seek to understand about life is perhaps more easily comprehended through myth and symbol, for it is only through the engagement of our entire being through the exercise of imagination that we can bring our rational insights to bear on our understanding of the whole.

Dependent-arising implies that human life is a process of becoming, and this becoming has been imagined by later Buddhist tradition as a wheel. The well-known bhavacakra or ‘wheel of becoming’ illustrates the destiny of beings as a result of action (karma) motivated by greed, hate and delusion. Here dependent-arising is represented as operating through time, the future manifestations of beings arising in dependence on past intentional actions. In another development, in the later Avataṃsaka Sūtra, dependent-arising is imagined in spatial terms, as Indra’s net, in which jewels mounted in a net each reflect the image of every other, all phenomena arising in dependence on other phenomena, in an interconnected universe. These symbols, the wheel and the net, illustrate the situation the philosopher seeks to comprehend.

In Greek myth the three Fates (moirae) are said to control the destiny of human beings. Clotho spins the thread of life; Lachesis measures a span; Atropos cuts the thread. The Parcae in Roman mythology have a similar role. In these conceptions, the goddesses represent impersonal yet immanent powers controlling the lives of human beings, according to law-like processes which remain mysterious and ineluctable. In Norse mythology, the three Norns resemble the Fates. But the name of the first and oldest Norn, wyrd (perhaps familiar from the ‘weird sisters’ of Shakespeare’s Macbeth), takes us into a profounder myth. At the centre of the world is Yggdrasil, the Ash, the tree of life. At the foot of Yggdrasil is the well of wyrd. Flowing into the well is the dew of everything that happens in the world, up among the branches of Yggdrasil; liquid from the well waters the tree of life. To comprehend life means to learn the workings of the well of wyrd. But this wyrd is also imagined as a weaving or spinning, an active force that makes destiny. To learn about wyrd is to learn the weaving and unweaving of our becoming.[12]

This myth brings to my mind the Buddha, sitting at the foot of the Bodhi tree in the days immediately after his awakening, when he was contemplating dependent-arising.[13] Taking this as myth and not as history, it means that he saw into the way we human beings weave our own becoming from the thread of intentional actions. He saw too the unweaving that is the hard path out of the suffering of becoming. In his meditation at the foot of the tree of life, he came to know the demon who clutches the wheel of becoming, in the later iconography of Buddhism; which is to say that he came to know the goddess who weaves the interconnected web or net of nature, and learned her secret. This secret, beyond words and concepts, is expressed in different ways by pagan philosophers: as tao, or logos, or Dharma, or wyrd. These conceptions are not the same, and their details vary greatly. Yet they have an underlying structure of meaning. There is an immanent natural order to the universe and human life, which though difficult and mysterious can be discovered and known, and this is what the wise have done, through a process that is both rational and imaginative.

[1] Udāna 1.1–3 etc.

[2] See for instance Brahmajāla Sutta, in Dīgha Nikāya 1, pts D i.17f.

[3] From the Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta, in Majjhima Nikāya 28, pts M i.190–1.

[4] Ethics Book 1, Proposition 29, Schol.

[5] Quoted in Aristotle, Metaphysics, 983b6. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p.89.

[6] Fragments 30, 31 and 90. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, p.198.

[7] Fragment 1. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, p.187.

[8] E.g. Tao Te Ching, ch.25.

[9] E.g. Tao Te Ching, ch.41.

[10] Fragment 27. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, p.202.

[11] From the Mahānidāna Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 15, pts D ii.55.

[12] See Paul Bauschatz, The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture, University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.

[13] Udāna 1.1–3 again.