The following is not offered as a translation so much as a rendering for a modern audience, faithful in structure and meaning to the original. I have worked from three excellent translations. Two of those are available at Access to Insight, web collection of texts from the Pali Canon: one by Soma Thera, and another by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The third translation, by Bhikkhu Bodhi, is in his marvelous collection of sutta texts, In the Buddha’s Words. I also received some significant help and wise advice from Michael Olds (“Ol’ Begger Olds”); Mike created a wonderful site, “Buddadust”, that mixed some original and playful sutta translations with advice on how to study the Pali Canon and some introductory lessons in Pali. Mike has not maintained the site for some years now, but it’s still available at http://www.halfsmile.org/buddhadust/www.buddhadust.org/.
The Kalama Sutta that has been passed down to us is derived from a teaching that was part of an oral tradition. The teaching was originally delivered to people who had not yet begun to use writing for anything other than recording financial transactions, and it was structured so that those who heard it—not the Kalamas so much as the sangha of monks who were also listening—could remember it easily and repeat it to others. The Pali text, like most of the texts of most suttas in the Pali Canon, is very repetitive, and the Buddha uses exactly the same terms for every repetition of an idea—the idea, for instance, that there were 10 things (tradition, lineage, hearsay, scripture, etc.) in which you could not place your trust, or the idea that each of several particular qualities is wholesome or unwholesome, reprehensible or praiseworthy, condemned or approved by the wise, etc.
In recasting the sutta for a literate tradition, I’ve reduced the amount of repetition very considerably, and I’ve tried to vary the ways in which the ideas are expressed with each repetition. Still, I have held tightly to the structure of the teaching as I understand it from the more literal and scholarly translations that I’ve read, and I hope that I’ve kept the meaning intact. If you are concerned about the authenticity of the teaching, as I’ve presented it, I urge you, as the Buddha urged the Kalamas, to examine it carefully and judge for yourself, by following the links I’ve provided in the introduction, to the more faithful translations available at accesstoinsight.org.
Here is what I’ve heard.
The Fortunate One, on this occasion, was travelling with a large group of monks when he arrived at the town of Kesaputta. The people of the Kalama clan who lived there had heard reports of the Buddha. “He is the ascetic Gotama,” they told one another, “the one who went forth from the Sakyan clan to the homeless life. It is said that he is the Fortunate One, a Buddha, fully enlightened, seeing the way and following it, getting it at every turn and getting it all, the only one able to tame those ready to be tamed, the teacher of gods and men, all-knowing, perfected. He has directly experienced this world, with its gods, its deceivers, its ultimate sources of being, and he shares that experience with everyone. He teaches a truth that is good in the beginning, good in the middle, good at the end, with all the right words and right emphases; his life is spirited, perfectly complete and pure. It is good to see such a one coming our way.”
Then the Kalamas approached the Fortunate One. Some of them paid homage to him and sat reverently to one side. Others exchanged greetings with him, talked cordially with him, and then sat down to one side. Still others saluted him with palms joined, then sat down to one side. And there were some who remained silent, watching him carefully, sitting to one side. Then one among them questioned him, in this manner:
“Venerable sir, there are a number of ascetics, sages, and Brahmins who come to Kesaputta. They elaborate their own teachings at length and promote them vigorously, but they disparage, dispute, and cast aspersions on the teachings of others. And then the others come, and they do the same; they expound on their own teachings and tear down the teachings of everyone else. Sir, we tell you that this causes confusion and doubt among us; we don’t know who is telling the truth. Can you, sir, resolve that for us?”
“Kalamas, it’s easy to see to see why you are confused; it’s perfectly understandable and fitting to be in doubt about something so perplexing. Come, Kalamas, let us look at the matter. You know that you can’t place complete trust in the traditions that have been handed down to you, or in this or that particular lineage, or in what you hear from others, or in one or another collection of texts. You can’t trust pure logic to show you the truth, or reasoning by inference, or thinking hard about the matter. You can’t trust a point of view just because you’ve thought about it for a long time, or because the speaker was particularly persuasive, or just because it is your teacher who is telling you this. But when you know for yourself, clearly and directly, that certain ways are unwholesome, that those ways are reprehensible, that they are condemned by those who are wise, that those ways, if you take them up and practice them, will lead to harm and suffering, well, then, you should abandon those ways.
“Consider this, Kalamas, and tell me what you think. When greed, hatred, and delusion arise in a person, is that for his well-being or for his harm?”
“For his harm, venerable sir.”
“And if someone is greedy, angry, and deluded, if his life is taken over by greed and hatred and delusion; if his mind is controlled by those ways of thinking, and, under that influence, he takes another’s life, takes what is not given, takes another’s woman, takes liberties with the truth itself and leads others along those same ways, tell me, Kalamas, will that lead to long term harm and suffering?”
“Yes, venerable sir.”
“Then answer this, Kalamas: are such ways wholesome or unwholesome?”
“They are unwholesome.”
“And are they reprehensible or praiseworthy?”
“They are reprehensible.”
“They are condemned, venerable sir.”
“If such ways are followed and practiced, do they or do they not lead to harm or suffering? What do you think?”
“Sir, it appears to us that such ways, if they are followed and practiced, would certainly lead to harm and suffering.”
“So Kalamas, that is why we said that you cannot determine truth by tradition, by lineage, by hearsay or scripture, by logic or reasoning or deep thinking or long thinking. You cannot follow someone just because he talks smoothly or because he’s always been your teacher.”
“Now, if you can’t place your complete trust in tradition, lineage, what others say, scripture, logic, reasoning, deep thinking or long thinking, smooth talking or the authority of the teacher, then how do you know what way to take? Well, if you know for yourself, ‘this way is wholesome, this way is praiseworthy, this way is recommended by those who are wise, this way, if it’s followed and practiced, will lead to well-being and happiness,’ then, Kalamas, you know that this is the way to go.
“Consider this, Kalamas: when acceptance, goodwill, and clarity of thinking arise in a person, is it for his well-being or for his harm?”
“For his well-being, venerable sir.”
“Kalamas, tell me, if a person is without greed, without hatred, free from delusion; if that person is not overpowered by greed and hatred and delusion; if that person’s mind is not controlled by greedy or hateful or delusional thinking, and therefore that person abstains from destruction of life, from taking what’s not given, from sexual misconduct, from speaking falsely or divisively; and if the person then leads others to follow those same good ways, will all that lead to well-being and happiness in the long term?”
“Certainly it will, sir.”
“Now, what do you think, Kalamas: are those ways wholesome or unwholesome?”
“They are wholesome, venerable sir.”
“Are they reprehensible or praiseworthy?”
“They are praiseworthy.”
“Are they condemned or approved by the wise?”
“They are approved.”
“And if those ways are followed and practiced, do they lead to well-being and happiness, or do they not; how do you see this?”
“Followed and practiced, such ways certainly lead to well-being and happiness. That is how we see it, venerable sir.”
“So, Kalamas, it is as we’ve said. There is no use going by tradition or lineage, by what others say or what others have written, by logic or reasoning, deep thinking or long thinking, smooth talking or the teacher’s authority. When you know for yourself that these ways are wholesome, that these ways are praiseworthy, that these are the ways approved by the wise, that these ways, followed and practiced, will certainly lead to well-being and happiness, then these must be the ways to follow.
“Kalamas, those who are disciplined in the good ways – those who do not want what they cannot have, who are free from every trace of ill will, who are not confused about right and wrong, who understand things clearly and maintain their mindfulness – those noble ones live so that everything around them, everything to the east and to the west, to the north and to the south, above them and below them, is suffused with kindness and good will. Filled with kindness and good will, their minds pervade the world with kindness and good will, immense, exalted, impossible to measure, with no residue of anger or discord.
“So it is with those whose minds are filled with compassion, with joy, with equanimity. Everything around those noble persons, in every quarter of the earth and sky, is filled as their minds are filled, with compassion, with joy, with equanimity – immense, exalted, impossible to measure, with no residue of anger or discord.
“And further, Kalamas, when one who is disciplined in the good ways has developed a mind free of anger and ill will, uncorrupted and pure, that one can then be assured of four things, right here and right now, in this very life.
“The first assurance is this: if there is something beyond this life, and if good and bad deeds bear fruit and yield results, then by following these good ways, when the breakup of this body occurs and I die, I will take birth again in a good destination, able to continue my good ways.
“And the second assurance: if there is nothing beyond this life, still, right here and right now, because I follow the good ways and practice them, I live happily, free of ill will, untroubled by anger and frustration.
“There is this third assurance: if evil befalls one who walks in evil ways, if suffering comes to those who cause suffering, then I, because I follow good ways and cause no harm, will come to no evil end and will avoid suffering.
“And if there is no relationship at all between behavior and reward, between what one does and what one gets, still, because I follow good ways, I will be glad to know that I’ve done no harm and that I’ve always worked for the well-being of myself and others. That is the fourth assurance that I have.
“So you see, Kalamas, when one is disciplined in the good ways and has developed a mind free of anger and ill will, uncorrupted and pure, that one has gained those four assurances in this very life.”
“So it is, Fortunate One! We can see that, most Fortunate One! When one is disciplined in the good ways, when one has developed a mind free of anger and ill will, uncorrupted and pure, that one has, indeed, gained those four assurances in this very life.
“Magnificent, venerable sir,” said the Kalamas. “Magnificent, venerable sir! The Fortunate One has made the way so clear, has told the Dhamma so lucidly, it is as if he were setting right what had been overthrown, revealing what had been hidden, pointing out the path for one who had been lost, holding a lamp high in the darkness so all can see what lies ahead.”
That is how I have heard the story of the Buddha’s teaching to the Kalamas. And it is further said, by those who tell this story, that many of the Kalamas, their confusion resolved, announced their intention to follow the Buddha’s Dhamma to the very end, with these words: “Now we go for refuge to the Buddha, we go for refuge to the Dhamma, we go for refuge to the noble Sangha. Let the Buddha accept us as followers who have thus gone for refuge, from this day until life’s end.”
This is formula text, frequently used to announce the Buddha’s arrival on a scene. It appears, with only minor changes, at the start of many suttas. Such formulas serve a useful purpose—they remind us of the essential accomplishments of the Buddha, as those have been understood in virtually all Buddhist traditions. They were even more important during the century or more when the teachings were being transmitted orally: remember the single formula, understand the circumstances in which it is to be used, and you’re good to go.
Even though the Kalamas knew the Buddha’s reputation, this passage makes it clear that they were not his followers. In most of the suttas, the Buddha’s questioner, upon approaching the Buddha, demonstrates his respect for the Buddha as a teacher. Those who approach the Buddha don’t talk cordially with him, or watch him silently and with some suspicion, or greet him as they greet others, with palm joined in the namaste gesture. They greet him reverently, aware of what a privilege it is to have an audience with the Lord. It’s also interesting to note that the Buddha is perfectly comfortable with all this, engaging the Kalamas in social talk, accepting their casual approach, being patient. Contrast this to his response to the five monks on the occasion of his first discourse, setting the Wheel of the Dhamma in motion. When the monks addressed him as “friend Gotama”, he corrected them; that familiar style of address, he told them, is no longer appropriate for one who has become the Enlightened One, the Tathagata. The difference, it seems to me, is that the monks were already highly developed; they’d been working for years to get their minds under control, shedding the dust from their eyes. They were ready to receive the Dhamma full force, and that is what the Buddha gave them in that first teaching. The Kalamas are not even close to being ready for that, and the Buddha does not try to give it to them. Rather, he takes them as they come to him, and he teaches what they are ready to learn, that is, what sorts of questions they can trust their own experience to answer – questions of wholesome and unwholesome qualities, good and bad behavior. No Noble Truths for the Kalamas, no Conditional Causation, no Eightfold Path, no Aggregates or taints or stages of enlightenment. Not yet.
We can guess what sorts of things they’d been hearing from the sages and ascetics who came through their town – complicated, abstract, difficult doctrines involving rebirth and nature of the soul, the ways of the gods, the origins of things and their ultimate ends, sin and salvation. The Buddha simply does not address such matters, for the reason he states – there is no reliable way to determine which doctrines are true and which are false. Rather than seek such a touchstone, he guides the discussion to questions that anyone can answer, from his or her own experience, questions about how to live and how to respond to what comes our way. He shows the Kalamas that they already know the answers to the important questions, and if they live by that, trusting what they know to be good and wholesome, then their lives will be rich, their well-being will increase, and questions about whether this or that doctrine is true will be shown to not matter very much at all.
Well, of course. The Buddha’s method is masterful. Such obvious truths, so seldom taken to heart and lived by. He involves the Kalamas at every step, leading them, step by step, to acknowledge the conditions for well-being, for a life free of anger, resentment, regret, discontent. And the Buddha knows, although the Kalamas do not, yet, that these steps, followed and practiced, will surely and inevitably lead them to the ultimate freedom, to release from samsara, to peace, to an end to dukkha, suffering.
As Bhikkhu Bodhi points out, the Buddha does not dismiss external authority out of hand. He allows an important role to those who have attained wisdom, those who are able, from their own deep and profound experience of the Dhamma, to approve or condemn particular qualities and ways of behavior. In other suttas, the Buddha gets into more detail about how to recognize wisdom in a teacher; here, he simply acknowledges that there are wise people, and he makes it clear that wisdom is in a different category from tradition, lineage, hearsay, etc. Once the Kalamas have been following the good way for a while, they will be ready to hear more about wisdom.
Knowing right from wrong is not the problem. Following the right path, practicing the right way, that’s the problem, and it is difficult. I am reminded of Stephen Crane’s poem, The Wayfarer:
The wayfarer,Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”
Here and in what follows, the Buddha parts, ever so slightly, the curtain opening onto the Dhamma. The truth that the consequences of following the good ways are immense, exalted, impossible to measure, is a truth that ordinary experience is insufficient to validate. Only when one has maintained that discipline, trained the mind to not want, to not hate, to not be deluded or confused, can one realize for oneself the far-reaching effects of following the good ways.
But one does not have to wait for the full truth of the Dhamma to be revealed. Just by taking the first steps, following good ways and observing good practices, we will be assured that the path we’ve started on is the right path. Again, questions of doctrine and ultimate truth, questions of kamma and rebirth, just don’t matter, not at this stage. Do what you know must be done, and you will surely be on your way to achieving your goal.
From this point on, the sutta is, as it was in the beginning, a formula, one that is repeated in sutta after sutta. We see, we understand, we accept the Buddha’s teachings, we go to him for refuge, to his truth and to the community of his noble disciples. We wish to be counted among those disciples. But formula or no, I have to say that I’m with the Kalamas on this one.