Which Religion? The Discourse to the Kalamas


[Kesariya Stupa, Bihar, built supposedly on the site where the Kalama Sutta took place. Coincidentally, about 25 miles from the birthplace of George Orwell.]

When the refined Kalamas of Kesaputta hear that the Buddha has come to town, they immediately go to check him out. They have heard good things about him, but have grown wary of religious teachers and philosophers preaching their own views and denigrating those of others. Not all of them approach the new guru with reverence:

On arrival, some of them bowed down to him and sat to one side. Some of them exchanged courteous greetings with him and, after an exchange of friendly greetings and courtesies, sat to one side. Some of them sat to one side having saluted him with their hands palm-to-palm over their hearts. Some of them sat to one side having announced their name and clan. Some of them sat to one side in silence.

The reception ranges from respect, through courtesy and chilly politeness, to a silence either critical or openly hostile. They go straight to the point: 

“Lord, there are some brahmans and contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound and glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, and disparage them. And then other brahmans and contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound and glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, and disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain and in doubt: Which of these venerable brahmans and contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”

The Kalamas have rightly become nauseated by vehement pontification, by the smug self-certainty of spiritual know-it-alls, by fundamentalism in its various forms. They have stepped back from the furnace of belief and are looking for some way to cut through the blinding heat. Confronted with this challenge as soon as he sets foot in town, the Buddha — who sometimes comes across as one of those annoying men who have it all figured out — cannot now put forth his own dharma and criticize other views as mistaken; nor will he tell them — as he has told certain opinionated Brahmins elsewhere — that his path is not based on speculative views but on the understanding of suffering and the escape from it. He doesn’t answer their question directly, but instead gives them a succinct list that deserves to be chewed on slowly. He begins, “Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born.” In all the big questions of life and death, how could there possibly be certainty? One can always think of coherent alternatives to one’s own beliefs, and even for the loudest fanatic the teeth of doubt can always be heard in the background, nibbling.  So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’

   Reports, legends, traditions, scripture: in other words, don’t just believe what you’ve been told, what is affirmed through common opinion, what has been handed down through the generations, what is claimed to be revealed truth, or what you find in a book. This set broadly includes testimony, authority, and everything written or posted on the Internet. In ordinary life, we rely upon such sources all the time — newspapers, word of mouth, science documentaries, textbooks, what our friends tell us — but in matters of real importance to us, we need more rigorous standards. For example, if we are diagnosed with cancer, will we not also want to see the evidence and not just believe the experts?

   At this point the Cartesian modern will say: So the Buddha is telling us to use our own minds and think for ourselves! But he includes “our own minds” in the next set: logical conjecture, inference, analogies, “pondering views,” and probability. What are these five things? By “logical conjecture” he means surmise, speculation — as when we employ arresting imagery to picture the origin of the universe or the features of heaven and hell. “Inference” encompasses syllogistic reasoning — as it is used, for example, in Anselm’s beautifully solid proof for the existence of God. Who, after studying Anselm’s ontological argument, is ever convinced by it, and who does not vaguely feel that he is being tricked either by Anselm or by the rules of the mind? “Analogies” can also be compelling enough to make us think we know — for instance, when scientists talk about the idea of “gravity” using analogies like “attraction” and “repulsion,” do they see clearly the figurative side of such language? “Agreement through pondering views” would include the body of what we call “knowledge” that has been arrived at through deliberate collective activity over time — such as academic consensus in a given field, or “science” (as when opinion pieces use the phrase “according to science”). “Probability” is also to be doubted, for there are many occasions when what really happens is improbable, and when what should be so according to common sense is in fact not so either because many things are not commonsensical or because our own common sense is not what it seems to us to be. In sum, we are being asked not to believe our own minds simply. With the first set of sources, the Buddha is urging us to question everything we see and hear; with the second, to question ourselves. It is an insincere learner who will question everyone and everything but not himself. 

   So what is left? Do we have no certain ground to stand upon? What about the guru? No, says the Buddha, we cannot rely on “this contemplative is my teacher”: there is no external source of truth who will solve everything for us, just as we have no “equipment” or resource, material or immaterial, that will infallibly give us access to the truth. Because the Kalamas already suspect this, they are suspicious of anybody who claims to know the truth about important matters. The Buddha, brilliant teacher as he is, begins this dialogue by making explicit what they already know but do not ncessarily want. If the discourse ended here, we would be left with a counsel of thoroughgoing skepticism, and probably be  resigned to not knowing anything. Instead, what the Buddha does is to adjust the focus.

When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.

This seems at first a strange statement to follow the list of possible sources of cognition. The conversation moves to a consideration of greed, aversion, and delusion, not as abstract ideas, but experiences: when we experience these, what do we find? The Buddha is always an empiricist: look at your experience and study it — what do you see there? All the keys we need to hold are within our own experience, so it is with our experience that we need to start. When you know for yourselves is the crucial clause (to which the opinion of “the wise” is important but subordinate), and if we know nothing for ourselves we can have no touchstone for what we know through the conventional sources of knowledge previously enumerated. Our own experience has to be digested and understood first. This is not an “anything goes” view; rather, we will know some important things if we patiently and thoroughly examine our lives.

“What do you think, Kalamas? When greed arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”
“For harm, lord.”
“And this greedy person, overcome by greed, his mind possessed by greed, kills living beings, takes what is not given, goes after another person’s wife, tells lies, and induces others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term harm and suffering.”
“Yes, lord.”
“Now, what do you think, Kalamas? When aversion arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”
“For harm, lord.”
“And this aversive person, overcome by aversion, his mind possessed by aversion, kills living beings, takes what is not given, goes after another person’s wife, tells lies, and induces others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term harm and suffering.”
“Yes, lord.”
“Now, what do you think, Kalamas? When delusion arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”
“For harm, lord.”
“And this deluded person, overcome by delusion, his mind possessed by delusion, kills living beings, takes what is not given, goes after another person’s wife, tells lies, and induces others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term harm and suffering.”
“Yes, lord.”
“So what do you think, Kalamas: Are these qualities skillful or unskillful?”
“Unskillful, lord.”
“Blameworthy or blameless?”
“Blameworthy, lord.”
“Criticized by the wise or praised by the wise?”

“Criticized by the wise, lord.”
“When adopted and carried out, do they lead to harm and to suffering, or not?”

This exchange seems glib and unconvincing if it is read swiftly, but if we take each question as followed by a long pause, perhaps even a pause lasting days, as we go through particular instances of greed and its effects in our lives, only then will the Buddha’s exhortation to know for yourselves make sense. The idea is to think about it, reflect on what really happens and on the nature of consequences. This one page about greed, aversion, and delusion may point to everything we need to know about the causes of suffering, but the reflection is something that we need to do. To read the Sutta, we have to learn to read ourselves. We might end up not agreeing with the Buddha in all details, but at least our disagreement will be grounded in our own experience and subject to continued investigation.                  

    The Buddha will go on in the rest of this discourse to talk about positive states of mind and how good, how pleasant, they are in themselves: even if there is no reward for being good in this life or in the afterlife, it will have been good for its own sake. This is no “speculative view”; the entire drift of this discourse is that we can know this is so by rigorously examining our own experience. Here there is no description of advanced mental states, no teachings about non-self or dependent origination, no analysis of craving and attachment. The Buddha has not answered the Kalamas’ question; instead, he has “reset” it, bringing it down to earth or, as Confucius puts it, “near at hand.” He has taught them what to do to answer, for themselves, their own question. 

“Kalama Sutta,” Anguttara Nikaya, 3.65 (tr. Thanissaro)
https://web.archive.org/web/20131908090400/http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html

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2 thoughts on “Which Religion? The Discourse to the Kalamas

  1. Krishnan,

    In the modern world context, the introduction of Buddhism to strangers should not be the 1st Discourse known as the First Turning of the Wheel – the sermon on the Four Noble Truths but the Kalamma Sutta.

    As a preamble I benefited from what my late father taught me when I was very young through Q&A. He asked “Son, who do you and can you trust (in this world)?” I obviously answered – ‘You and Mum, Dad; and my siblings and family members and friends.’ He then queried – “You did not mention yourself Son, can you completely and honestly trust yourself? That you will always make the right decision in life?” I thought about it carefully, not wanting to give the wrong answer and replied – ‘No, Dad.’ My Dad then said – “Do not trust others until you learn to completely trust yourself!” “And that is how you learn in life, learn about life, that we all make mistakes and we learn from our mistakes and those of others – that is the greatest teaching in life!” [Yet, my Dad was an illiterate man!].

    Vince

    • Beautiful, Vince. How lucky you were to hear this so young! The Kalama Sutta is the best beginning not only for Westerners but also for Indians, who are often afflicted with spiritual ambition and infatuated with gurus who seem to have figured it all out.

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