the Kalama Sutta is part of Anguttara Nikaya from Sutta Pitaka. The Buddha explained this sutta to a group of people known as the Kalamas. To this day, it is interpreted as a pro-skeptical and pro-rationalist text. In this sutta is a famous passage in which the Buddha pleads for a rigorous questioning of religious teachings. Because of this famous passage, the text as a whole has been interpreted as advocating the rejection of anything that contradicts rational thought or empirical understanding, even Buddhist teachings. Or, cropped, anything that is invisible and cannot be empirically verified is incompatible with the free thought of the Buddha. Therefore, the teachings of the afterlife or karma are superstitious baggage that goes against the “original mind” of the inquiring mind of the Buddha.
Here I hope to provide a more rigorous exegesis of the Kalama Sutta, and respond to the rationalist assertion that the Kalama Sutta advocates a skeptical approach to all things: qualitatively no, and, in fact, the text precisely argues that a free and open mind will lead to acceptance of Buddhadhamma.
What the Buddha said
The Kalamas themselves were not skeptical as they did not have the knowledge to determine the veracity of a teaching. Rather, they were beset with uncertainty and confusion after encountering diverse and contradictory teachings from various Gurus, Brahmins and Yogis. When the Buddha and his disciples arrived in the city of Kesaputta, the Kalamas approached the Buddha and expressed doubts about his teaching. The Buddha said to them, âIt is appropriate that you be perplexed, Kalamas, that you be in doubt. A doubt has settled in you about an embarrassing question. (Bodhi 2012, p. 280) He then offered his famous instructions to the Kalamas on skepticism, arguing:
“Come on, KÄlÄmas, don’t go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned reflection, by acceptance from a point of view after thinking it over, by the apparent competence of a speaker, or because you think, âThe ascetic is our guru. But when you know for yourselves, âThese things are healthy; these things are beyond reproach; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to well-being and happiness, then you should live in accordance with them.
(Bodhi 2012, p. 280)
With these 10 points, the Buddha urged the Kalamas to test truth and lie on the basis of their own opinions. This has been interpreted, especially in the early days of Buddhism in the West, as a rationalist and empiricist celebration of free thought. The problem with this interpretation is that the Buddha did not conclude his sermon on this point. The Buddha further noted that this is an open and free inquiry into the nature of the world which leads to the Noble Eightfold Buddhist Path and the abandonment of greed, hatred and delusion.
The rationalist interpretation draws on the first half of the Kalama Sutta, leaving the Kalamas narratively suspended in uncertainty and confusion. However, in the second half of the text, the Buddha gives the assurance of the truth, the Dhamma. The unveiling of the Buddha at the Kalamas of the Noble Eightfold Path is the conclusion of the sutta. In a correct exegesis, the 10 points of skepticism of the Buddha directly target to those who doubt his teaching. This is an entirely different conclusion from the pro-agnostic and pro-skeptical position advocated by rationalists.
From uncertainty to assurance
Relying on the idea of ââan open state of mind for evaluating the truth, the Buddha argued that one should eliminate ill will and confusion and cultivate a pure and undefiled mind. Once this is accomplished, four assurances arise:
âThis noble disciple, KÄlÄmas, whose spirit is thus without enmity, without ill will, without defilement and pure, has gained four assurances in this very life.
âThe first assurance he obtained was this: ‘If there is another world, and if there is the fruit and the result of good and bad deeds, it is possible that with of the body, after death, I am reborn in a good destination, in a heavenly world. ‘
“The second assurance he has gained is this:” If there is no other world, and if there is no fruit and result of good and bad deeds, always here, in this very life, I maintain myself in happiness, without enmity or evil. will, no problem.
âThe third assurance that he obtained is this: ‘Suppose that evil comes to him who does evil. So when I have no bad intentions towards anyone, how can suffering afflict me, since I am not doing any bad deeds?
âThe fourth assurance he obtained is this: ‘Suppose that evil does not come to him who does evil. So right here I see myself purified both ways. ‘ “
(Bodhi 2012, p. 283)
Following the Buddha’s exhortation, the Kalama pledged to seek refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, eventually becoming devotees of the Buddha.
The Buddha did not just encourage free examination as an end in itself. Free thought is the means or method by which his well-being is achieved. The Buddha said that the highest and most enduring path to well-being is the abandonment of greed, hatred and delusion. The Buddha identifies greed, hatred and delusion as the root cause of suffering, and the decisive overcoming of these existential evils is the realization of the Four Noble Truths and the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path.
The rationalist paradigm has dominated the broader academic and globalized discourse for decades. Even the Buddhist tradition, especially in the West after World War II, partially conceded epistemic understanding to the scientific and empiricist worldview. Buddhists and Rationalists have cited the Kalama Sutta as legitimizing the rationalist paradigm as a genuinely Buddhist position. However, they only refer to the initial part of the sutta, in which the Buddha sets out his 10 points of skepticism, while ignoring the rest. Rationalist advocates further argue that in this text the Buddha did not say anything about an afterlife, and therefore the afterlife, at worst, does not exist, and at best, is a subsequent superstitious accumulation. which can be dismissed as not belonging to “the afterlife Buddhism.”
We now know that this understanding of early Buddhism is itself a bias shaped by scientism and Protestant-inspired prejudices that date back to the earliest clashes between what early European and American Buddhologists viewed as “Buddhist superstition” versus to “true Buddhism”. The Buddha, in fact, spoke at length not only of the hereafter, but also of rebirth, kamma and a transcendent and invisible reality. Empiricism is only one aspect of history, not the whole.
Some time ago I met a young man in my native Bangladesh who was once a Buddhist. He told me that he had become de-converted and no longer believed in Buddhism because he could not accept the teaching on rebirth. He considered himself a rationalist and a free thinker. However, the true rationalists and free thinkers are those who have destroyed greed, hatred and delusion. Although science and empirical rationalism have contributed immeasurably to human well-being, greed, hatred and delusion remain in our lives. As a Buddhist, I firmly believe that grief and lying can still be let go and transcended.
Bhikkhu Bodhi (translation). 2012. The Buddha’s Digital Speeches: A Complete Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
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