All people in the world, including the Thai people, are now in the same situation as were the Kalama people of Kesaputtanigama, India, during the time of the Buddha. Their village was in a place through which many religious teachers passed. Each of these teachers taught that his personal doctrine was the only truth, and that all others before and after him were wrong. The Kalama’s could not decide which doctrine they should accept and follow. The Buddha once came to their village and the Kalama’s brought up this problem with him: that they did not know which teacher to believe. So the Buddha taught them what is now known as the Kalama Sutta, examined here.
Nowadays, worldly people can study many different approaches to economic, social and technological development. The universities teach just about everything. Then, regarding spiritual matters, here in Thailand alone we have so many teachers, so many interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings and so many meditation centres that nobody knows which teaching to accept or which practice to follow. Thus it can be said that we have fallen into the same position as the Kalama’s were in.
The Buddha taught them, and us, not to accept or believe anything immediately. He gave ten basic conditions to beware of in order to avoid becoming the intellectual slave of anyone, even of the Buddha himself. This principle enables us to know how to choose the teachings, which are truly capable of quenching suffering (dukkha). The ten examples, which the Buddha gave in the Kalama Sutta follow:
Do not accept and believe just because something has been passed along and retold through the years – Such credulity is a characteristic of brainless people, or “sawdust brains,” such as those in Bangkok who once believed that there would be disasters for the people born in the “ma years” (those years of the traditional twelve-year Thai calendar whose names begin with “ma,” namely, years five through eight: small snake, big snake, horse and goat).
Do not believe just because some practice has become traditional – People tend to imitate what others do and then pass the habit along, as in the story of the rabbit frightened by the fallen bael fruit. The other animals saw it running at full strength, and then so frightened and excited each other that they ran after it. Most of them tripped and fell, broke their necks, or tumbled to death off cliffs. Any Vipassana practice that’s done in limitation of others, as a mere tradition, leads to similar results.
Do not accept and believe merely because of the reports and news spreading far and wide through one’s village, or even throughout the world. Only fools are susceptible to such “rumours,” for they refuse to exercise their own intelligence.
Do not accept and believe just because something is cited in a Pitaka – The word “Pitaka,” which is used for the Buddhist scriptures, means anything written or inscribed upon any suitable writing material. Memorized teachings, which are passed on orally should not be confused with Pitaka. Pitakas are a certain kind of conditioned thing, which are under humanity’s control. They can be created, improved and changed by human hands. So we cannot trust every letter and word in them. We need to use our powers of discrimination to see how those words can be applied to the quenching of suffering. The various schools of Buddhism all have their own cannons, among which there are discrepancies.
Do not believe just because something fits with the reasoning of logic (takka). This is merely one branch of study used to try to figure out the truth. Takka, what we call “logics,” can go wrong if its data or its methods are incorrect.
Do not believe just because something is correct on the grounds of naya (deductive and inductive reasoning) alone. These days, naya is called “philosophy.” In Thailand, we translate the word “philosophy” as “prajña,” which the Indian people cannot accept because “naya” is only one point of view. It’s not the highest or absolute wisdom, which they call “paññá” or “prajña,” naya, or nyaya, is merely a branch of thought which reasons on the basis of assumption or hypotheses. It can be incorrect if the reasoning or choice of assumptions is inappropriate.
Do not believe or accept just because something appeals to one’s common sense, which is merely snap judgments based on one’s tendencies of thought. We like using this approach so much that it becomes habitual. Boastful philosophers like to use this method a great deal and consider it to be clever.
Do not believe just because something stands up to or agrees with one’s preconceived opinions and theories – Personal views can be wrong, or our methods of experiment and verification might be incorrect, and then will not lead to the truth. Accepting what fits our theories may seem to be a scientific approach, but actually can never be so, since its proofs and experiments are inadequate.
Do not believe just because the speaker appears believable – Outside appearances and the actual knowledge inside a person can never be identical. We often find that speakers who appear credible on the outside say incorrect and foolish things. Nowadays, we must be wary of computers because the programmers who feed them data and manipulate them may feed in the wrong information or use them incorrectly. Do not worship computers so much, for doing so goes against this principle of the Kalama Sutta.
Do not believe just because the Samana or preacher, the speaker, is “our teacher” – The Buddha’s purpose regarding this important point is that no one should be the intellectual slave of someone else, not even of the Buddha himself. The Buddha emphasized this point often, and there were disciples, such as the venerable Shariputra, who confirmed this practice. They did not believe the Buddha’s words immediately upon hearing them, but believed only after adequately considering the advice and putting it to the test of practice. See for yourselves whether there’s any other religious teacher in the world who has given this highest freedom to his disciples and audiences! Thus in Buddhism there’s no dogmatic system, there’s no pressure to believe without the right to examine and decide for oneself. This is the greatest special quality of Buddhism, which keeps its practitioners from being the intellectual slaves of anyone, as explained above. We thus should not volunteer to follow the West as slavishly as we are doing now. Intellectual and spiritual freedom is best.
The ten examples of the Kalama Sutta are a surefire defense against intellectual dependence or not being one’s own person: that is, neglecting one’s own intelligence and wisdom in dealing with what one hears and listens to, what is called in Dhamma language “paratoghosa” (sound of others). When listening to anything, one should give it careful attention and full scrutiny. If there’s reason to believe what has been heard and it results in the genuine quenching of suffering, then one finally may believe it one hundred percent.
The principle of the Kalama Sutta is appropriate for everyone, everywhere, every era and every world— even for the world of devas (gods). Nowadays the world has been shrunk by superb communications. Information can be exchanged easily and rapidly. People can receive new knowledge from every direction and corner of the globe. In the process, they don’t know what to believe and, therefore, are in the same position as the Kalama’s once were. Indeed, it’s the Kalama Sutta that will be their refuge. Please give it the good attention and study it deserves. Consider it the greatest good fortune that the Buddha taught the Kalama Sutta. It is a gift for everyone in the world.
The Kalama Sutta is to be used by people of all ages. None of the items in the Kalama Sutta state that children should never believe anyone or should never listen to anyone, they all state that children, and everyone else, should listen and believe only after having seen the real meaning of something and the advantages they will receive from such belief and its subsequent practice. When a teacher teaches something, having the children see the reason behind the teaching won’t make the children obstinate. Children will understand the principle of the Kalama Sutta more and more as they grow up. They will complete all ten items themselves as they become fully mature adults—if we train children by this standard.
A scientific world such as today’s will be able to accept gladly all ten tenets of the Kalama Sutta as being in line with the scientific method and approach. There’s not the least contradiction between the principles of science and those of the Kalama Sutta. Even the eighth item, which states that one should not accept something just because it agrees with one’s own preconceived theories, does not contradict scientific principles. True scientists emphasize experimental verification, not their own concepts, opinions and reasoning, as their main criterion for accepting something as true. Due to these standards of the Kalama Sutta, Buddhism will meet the expectations and needs of true scientists.
There’s a problem every time a new kind of medicine comes out and gets advertised up and down all over the place. Should we offer ourselves as guinea pigs to test it, out of belief in the advertisements? Or should we wait until we have sufficient reason to try just a little of it first, to see if it truly gives good results, before fully relying on it? We should respond to new statements and teachings as we respond to new medicines, by depending on the principles in the Kalama Sutta as a true refuge.
The Kalama Sutta requires us to have wisdom before having faith. If one wants to have faith come first, then let it be the faith which begins with wisdom, not faith which comes from ignorance. The same holds true in the principle of the Noble Eightfold Path: Take wisdom or right understanding as the starting point, then let faith grow out of that wisdom or right understanding. That is the only safe approach. We ought never to believe blindly immediately upon hearing something, nor should we be forced to believe out of fear, bribery and the like.
The world nowadays is so overwhelmed by the power of advertising that most people have become its slaves. It can make people pull out their wallets to buy things they don’t need to eat, don’t need to have and don’t need to use. It’s so commonplace that we need to offer the principle of the Kalama Sutta to our human comrades of this era. Propaganda is much more harmful than ordinary advertising or what’s called paratoghosa in Pali. Even with ordinary advertising, we must depend on the principle of the Kalama Sutta, to say nothing of needing this principle to deal with outright propaganda, which is full of intentional deceptions. So we can say that the Kalama Sutta is beneficial even in solving economic problems.
Does this world, which is intoxicated with freedom really know or have freedom in line with the principle of the Kalama Sutta? Is the lack of such freedom caused by blind ignorance and indifference regarding the Kalama Sutta? Some people even claim that it teaches us not to believe or listen to anything. Moreover, some actually say that the Buddha preached this Sutta only for the Kalama’s there at that time. Why don’t we open our eyes and take notice that people nowadays have become intellectual slaves, that they’ve lost their freedom much more than those Kalamas in the time of the Buddha? Human friends, fellow worshippers of freedom, I ask you to consider carefully the essence and aim of the Kalama Sutta and the Buddha’s intention in teaching it. Then, your Buddhist quality of awakening will grow fat and robust, rather than skinny and weak.
To say that democracy is always and absolutely good is to speak with one’s head in the sand. Those who insist on it haven’t considered that a democracy of selfish people is worse than a dictatorship under an unselfish person who rules for the sake of Dhamma and justice. A democracy of selfish people means freedom to use their selfishness in a most frightening and awful manner. Consequently, problems drag on endlessly among those people who have a democracy of selfishness. Stop saying that democracy is absolutely good or that dictatorship is absolutely good. Instead, stick to the principle that both will be good if they’re based in Dhamma. Each population should choose whichever system suits the particular circumstances that it faces.
More than ever before the modern world needs the Kalama Sutta as its basic operating principle. The world is spinning fast with the defilements of humanity. It’s shrinking due to better transportation and communications. And it’s about to self-destruct because proper awareness, intelligence and wisdom are lacking. Under the power of defilement, the world is worshipping materialism, sex and luxury, because it lacks standards like that of the Kalama Sutta. No one knows how to make choices in line with its principle. Consequently, the world is wholly unfit for peace, while increasing in crime and other harmful evils every moment. Let’s eliminate all these problems and evils by relying on the Kalama Sutta as our standard. So let’s yell at the top of our lungs, “Help! Kalama Sutta, help us!”