Buddhist Philosophy/Sutra

example Suttra

Kalama SuttaEdit


Now, 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.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them.

Now, Kalamas, one who is a disciple of the noble ones — thus devoid of greed, devoid of ill will, undeluded, alert, & resolute — keeps pervading the first direction [the east] — as well as the second direction, the third, & the fourth — with an awareness imbued with good will. Thus he keeps pervading above, below, & all around, everywhere & in every respect the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with good will: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.


  • 1. Wisdom and insight do not come 'from the outside' from anyone or anything else, including discursive reason--to be meaningful, insight must be experiential.
  • 2. One's own preferences are not to be followed simply because they seem logical or resonate with one's feelings. Instead, any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one's understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise.
  • 3. Conjecture is influenced by your own knowledge, thoughts and experiences and is logically what your mind expects to be in that gap. It is not something you have proven or tested to be true by your own experiences, as the Buddha encourages you to do, and therefore you should not allow conjecture to fill in those gaps without knowing that the gap is being filled correctly with something you know to be correct and can be tested by you to be correct.
  • 4. Here's the Buddha's list of things to not rely upon:

Reports from others Legends Traditions Scripture Logical reasoning Logical inference Analogies Agreeing with other views Calculating probability Or relying on what a teacher says

Three questions: (1) What do all these things have in common? (2) What one thing is not on that list? (3) What makes that one missing thing different from all the other things listed above?

There is an important aspect of Socrates which helps understanding here... Socrates (via Plato's earliest dialogues) makes an important distinction between 'opinion' (doxa) and 'knowledge' (episteme). For Socrates, most people live by opinion and rarely (if ever) possess actual knowledge. It is important not to misunderstand Socrates here though--generally accepted facts, such as 'The sky is blue,' or 'The speed of light is 186,000 per second' etc. are opinion, not knowledge. Socratic knowledge means direct insight--it isn't having information about something else 'out there' somewhere. In other words, Socratic knowledge is direct insight gained by one's own experience, not just agreeing with a set of propositions. This is why Socrates says (in Plato's Symposium): 'How nice it would be if wisdom were the kind of thing that could flow from what is more full into what is more empty.'

In this respect, there is some degree of commonality with the Kalama Sutta.

The fundamental problem is to mistake a concept about something for unmediated experiential insight (even if those concepts are 'objectively' true!). We commonly make the mistake that when one possesses a correct idea about something, the problem is resolved, and therefore there is no reason for further inquiry. This might be true for limited problems, such as fixing a car, building a house, handling a budget--but the problem of suffering is not so straightforward.

The Kalama Sutta, in context, goes much further than the commonly bandied notion that Buddhism allows for a free-for-all just believe what you want to and chuck out the parts that don't fit in with a modern western scientific viewpoint. That sounds very appealing, especially to westerners who are sceptical of religious metaphysical claims that don't square away with science. But such a narrow interpretation misses the point which is this: anything less than your own experential insight is insufficient to lessen suffering.

You can't rely on anyone or anything else in this, even if it were true. You have to give birth to your own insight--it cannot be reproduced or duplicated. (Incidentally, this explains much of the stick-hitting in Zen--your response to a given situation indicates that it is not authentic, but still reliant on logic or scripture or the teacher, etc.) Buddhism isn't about believing its doctrines provide a true picture of reality. Rather, the doctrines of Buddhism are methods designed to help cultivate insight and so end suffering. Anything less is to get caught up in a thicket of views, from creationism to evolution and a wide range of other topics. Even if the Big Bang theory were true and the fundamentalists were wrong, what good does that do in terms of the Four Noble Truths?

The point then is not to replace incorrect concepts with correct concepts, but that hanging onto any concepts itself is ultimately an obstacle to wisdom. No matter how crude or refined, true or false, conceptual thinking is inadequate and superficial--it is a cheap substitute for wisdom. Clinging to concepts may even preempt necessary self-inquiry. If I already possess the right answers, why should I bother to ask myself any other questions?

The Buddha is inviting the Kalamas to look in their own experience to determine what is harmful and what is not. Wisdom is not information about something 'out there,' but something discovered in oneself. 'To study the Buddha way is to study the self...' (Dogen)