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.

9 thoughts on “A Commentary on the Kālāma-Sutta

  1. Hi Dhivan

    A couple of points/questions. You refer to the Kālāmas as a “close-knit group of country bumpkins”. I wonder if this is so. When the Kālāmas approach the Buddha they do so in a variety of ways, which I think reflects internal differences. For instance some approach and announce their name which seems to be a Brahmanical convention. It seems to me that the Kālāmas are in fact a diverse group. There are two other Kālāmas in the Canon: Āḷāra Kālāma and Baruṇḍa Kālāma (former student of Āḷāra) – not that we know much more about them.

    I’ve always been puzzled by the injunction not to use reason or inference. My reading of the 10 negative criteria is that they refer to ethics – judging by the context of what follows the Buddha is telling them about how to decide how to behave towards other people. In which case I would have thought that thinking about how we behaviour would be extremely valuable. Are we really to abandon reason? I suppose one can argue that abstract reason disconnected from experience is problematic.

    I agree however about the viññu – this sutta in particular helps to make clear that they are the people who’ve learned to get on with others.

  2. Thanks Jayarava for your thoughtful comments. The reasons I described the Kālāmas as a close-knit group of countryfolk is that (i) they are a clan living in a market town, (ii) they are depicted as having a discussion together and (iii) approaching the Buddha together, who (iv) addresses them as a group. The early Buddhist texts often mention mention Brahmans, including Brahman villagers, and describe them as such, whereas the Kālāmas are not described thus. The commentary describes them as khattiyas, for what it’s worth. As for the injunction not to go by reason or inference: I think you’re right, since the Pāli terms indeed refer to logical processes using abstract thought. Our English word ‘reason’ has a much wider meaning, like the classical conceptions of logos and ratio, covering the mind’s capacity to form judgements, and the Buddha certainly isn’t recommending that the Kālāmas give up reason in the full sense, only that they don’t go by narrowly abstract forms of logic and inference in deciding on what’s important.

  3. Hi Dhivan, This seems, on the whole, a sound and unexceptionable introduction to the Kalama Sutta. The only thing I would query is your version of the ‘four encouragements’ (or four solaces), which seems to be a Buddhist version of Pascal’s Wager using the law of karma instead of God’s existence. I object generally to the misrepresentation of the law of karma by Western Buddhists as ‘actions have consequences’: the law of karma is far more specific than this and means that all actions will inevitably be requited with morally equivalent consequences. Soma Thera’s version of what you translate as ‘actions have consequences’ is “there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill”, and Thanissaro’s is “there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done”, which come much closer to the moral beliefs surrounding karma in traditional Buddhism, even if they do not explicitly bring out the inevitability which is also implied. ‘Actions have consequences’ is a truism accepted by all, but the law of karma is not.

    The more important part of the Kalama Sutta, though, is the epistemological part. I agree with you about its importance. Conservatives like Bhikkhu Bodhi have tried to sideline its radical importance by claiming, for example, that it is only directed at the uncommitted and does not apply to committed followers of the Buddha – which strikes me as a piece of casuistry worthy of any Jesuit. If experience is the best guide to judgement, then this will be the case whoever you are and whatever your circumstances or commitments. It will also undermine the appeals to the law of karma later in the sutta, which can only be justified metaphysically and are thus inconsistent with this epistemology. I think it would be far more honest if you just admitted that the sutta (and by extension the Buddhist tradition) offers an epistemology that is inconsistent with its metaphysical commitments, rather than watering down the metaphysical commitments through a contrived translation that is very unlikely to reflect the way the way the Buddha or his contemporaries thought about karma.

  4. Thanks for this Robert. Just to clarify, the expression ‘actions have consequences’ was not a translation, but a paraphrase. In the translation that note [3] points to, I’ve put what the sutta says like this: ‘ “If there is no world beyond, if there aren’t any results or fruits of actions rightly and wrongly done, then in this very life I am looking after myself, being without hostility or ill-will, undisturbed and happy.” This is the second encouragement.’ Which I think you would be happier with. I didn’t understand what you wrote about later appeals to the law of karma, as the sutta doesn’t make any metaphysical commitments – that’s why it’s so interesting, surely? I think this sutta, along with others like it, give us a sense that the Buddha was less metaphysically committed than the later Buddhist tradition.

    • Hi Dhivan,
      I would take all of what you translate as the ‘four encouragements’ to involve metaphysical commitments. They all make claims that extend far beyond experience.

      To judge from your more recent post (which I have just commented on), you have rather a limited list of what you consider metaphysical commitments to be. The Malunkya Sutta gives only a starting point of a few example metaphysical commitments that were popular in the Buddha’s time. If you are going to translate these effectively into the present, you need to work on the basis of some universal qualitative criteria for metaphysical commitments, rather than a restricted traditional list.

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