Kalama Sutta

Venue: Ng Kian Chong’s house

In our modern society, there are many kinds of teachings and religious views. With the varied choices, some of us may find it difficult to know which is right and which is wrong. In such a case, the Buddha’s Kalama Sutta (AN3.65/66), which we will be discussing today, will be very useful and appropriate.

Most people who know about this sutta probably know only one well-known portion of it. Often enough, what they have read is rather different and misleading as it has been grossly altered. Here I shall show what is actually from the sutta. I will also share the lesser known parts of the sutta.

At one time, the Kalamas of Kesaputta heard that the monk Gotama of the Sakya clan (i.e., the Buddha as we now popularly know) was in town. They had heard reports that he was an arahant, fully self-enlightened, full of wisdom and good character, knower of the world, incomparable leader of those who can be taught, a teacher of gods and men, enlightened, a perfect renunciant whose teaching is beautiful in the beginning, the middle and at the end. They decided to go to meet him. They then told him that there were some monks and brahmins who criticized others’ teachings while praising their own. As such, they were confused as to who was right or wrong and respectfully asked the monk to elaborate on this issue.

The Buddha replied that it is proper to doubt when there is a reason to doubt. He then gave the following advice, which forms the most well known part of the Kalama Sutta:

Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reflection on reasons, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘The monk is our teacher.’
(Translation from Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi.)

To summarise the above, the Buddha is telling the Kalamas to go neither by what others tell them nor by their own reasoning. [Note: It is rather different from popular but bogus “Kalama Sutta”s that are commonly found in the Internet and even some Dhamma books that tell us to go by reasoning instead!]

But when you know for yourselves,

  • ‘These things are unwholesome,
  • these things are blameable,
  • these things are censured by the wise;
  • these things, if undertaken and practised, lead to harm and suffering’

then you should abandon them.

[Note: Since popular “Kalama Sutta”s say that we should go by our own reasoning, they conveniently omit the consideration of the wise. Such misrepresentation, if deliberate, is tantamount to slandering the Buddha!]

The following discussion between the Buddha and the Kalamas tells us that when greed, hatred or delusion arises in a person, they arise to his detriment. Furthermore, being overwhelmed and possessed by greed, hatred or delusion, he commits all sorts of unwholesome deeds and causes others to do likewise; all of which is towards long-term harm and suffering. These things are understood as unwholesome, blameable and censured by the wise. When undertaken and practised, they lead to harm and suffering.

Therefore, the Buddha told the Kalamas not to go by what others tell them or by their own reasoning, but when they know for themselves, ‘These things are unwholesome, these things are blameable, these things are censured by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practised, lead to harm and suffering’; then they should abandon them.

However, if the things are the opposite of these, then they should engage in them. It is interesting to note that the Buddha did not ask them to consider the origin of the teaching. Instead he asked them to consider them according to their own merit based on the four criteria. This is an important lesson for the Buddhists who are overzealous about their own religious beliefs.

When lack of greed, hatred or delusion arises in a person, it arises for his welfare. Furthermore, being free from greed, hatred and delusion, he neither commits unwholesome deeds nor causes others to do likewise; all of which is for long-term welfare and happiness. These things are understood as wholesome, blameless and praised by the wise. When undertaken and practised, they lead to welfare and happiness. Therefore, the Buddha encouraged the Kalamas to engage in them.

What comes after this are two much lesser known, yet in no way unimportant, sections of the Kalama Sutta.

The Buddha then told the Kalamas that a noble disciple—who being thus free from covetousness, free from ill-will, free from befuddlement, clearly aware & mindful—lives his life pervading all directions with a mind imbued with metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (empathetic joy) and upekkha (equanimity).

Such a noble disciple, says the Buddha, who is of such kindly, malice-free, undefiled, pure mind, obtains four assurances in this very life:

  1. If there is world beyond, if there is the fruit or result of actions that is done rightly or wrongly, then when I die, I may be reborn in a good destination, in heaven.
  2. If there is no world beyond, if there are no kammic results, then I take care of myself happily in this very life, free from ill-will, free from hostility, free from trouble.
  3. If evil befalls an evil-doer, I intend no evil to anyone. Then how would evil touch me who doesn’t do evil deeds.
  4. If evil befalls not an evil-doer, then I shall consider myself pure in both ways.

The Kalamas fully agreed with the Buddha on those points. They were so impressed that they heralded the efficacy of the Buddha’s teachings and declared themselves as lay followers.

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