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.