With these words, among his most famous, the Buddha threw down a gauntlet for authentic seekers of truth and well-being that we in modern times rarely have
the courage to take up. In our global village embittered by conflict and manipulated for profit, we cling more to identities and care for each other less than ever. It
is hard to imagine a time when we have needed this advice from the Buddha more than we do now.
Including a new, authoritative translation of the entire Kalama Sutta, and the original Pali for reciting, this detailed and wide-ranging commentary relates modern
individual and social problems to the Buddha's inquiry, and includes trenchant re-appraisal of Christianity and Islam, as well as modern ideologies such as free
market capitalism, security mania and grievance culture. It presents detailed practical instructions on how to apply the powerful methods the Buddha suggests to
rediscover the conscience which can guide us on an authentic and liberating path.
The author did his undergraduate degree and doctoral research in evolutionary biology at Cambridge University then pursued training in the traditional Tibetan
Buddhist philosophical college at the Rangiung Yeshe Institute in Nepal together with tantric training under various Buddhist and Bon teachers. He lives in
Egypt, and is a member of the Burhaniyya Sufi order.
Here we present two books:
Book One is the original Pali text and a new English translation of the Kalama Sutta. I have taken as authoritative the Pali text from the Chattha
Sangayana (the Sixth Council of the Elders' School, which took place at Kaba Aye, in Yangon, Myanmar in 1954) as avaliable at the website" of the Vipassana
Research Institute at Igatpuri, India, which includes variant readings. I have compared previous complete translations by F. L. Woodward, Thannisaro Bhikkhu,
Soma Thera and partial translations by Hari Shankar Prasad and Saya U Chit Tin, Translation rationales are given in an appendix.
Book Two is my detailed commentary on, and reflection on the implications of, the discourse. Its main purpose is to,demonstrate the urgent relevance
of the discourse to our situation in the world today. It will be noted that I have taken the scope of the Buddha's advice to be very broad. Such an approach has
been criticised by some members of the Elders' School. However, I believe that I have sufficiently justified this choice of scope in the course of the commentary.
A few of the points made are original, most not. Some of the latter are expressed in what will seem novel ways. This is partly because of my lack of familiarity
with many of the disciplines the Buddha's advice touches on, but also partly out of a sense that not only need one not frame points in particular jargon, but also
those wisdoms in danger of neglect deserve expressing again and again in fresh language.
While I have aimed for even-handedness and meticulousness, there is behind the points I attemt to elucidate what the Buddha would probably disparage as
'sarambha', which means getting into a temper and becoming haughty, a term applied especially in a situation of mutual grappling. It is my regretful conviction
that, original or not, these are all points which should be remembered again and again if we are to remain sane on this earth. The commentary is presented
therefore with something of a sense of urgency which I do not claim always to have repressed.
I have drawn on my little knowledge of Buddhist, Islamic and Christian teachings, which I owe entirely to my teachers, and for any distortions of which,
unwittingly wrought due to the limitations of my understanding, I apologise. Because the commentary is so far-ranging it touches on a great number of academic
fields in which I have insufficient experience to contextualise my points or frame them in language workers in those fields would find familiar. I beg their
patience in this matter and hope I have not trodden on too many toes.
The commentary will, I hope, be found insightful, no matter from what background the reader comes. It is most emphatically not intended for Buddhists alone:
the points apply to a diversity of practices and beliefs. A great deal of discussion of Islam and Christianity is made, for example, and I hope adherents of those
faiths will read it carefully and seriously, for although challenges are made to elements in those faiths (as to elements in Buddhism) they are made carefully and
seriously. But its most urgent message addresses not these religions' doctrines but certain seldom questioned characteristics found among them and their
adherents and more importantly beyond them, in secular society as much as in the religious, characteristics which drag us all towards catastrophe and require
The Kalama: Sutta, whether or not it stands as the vindication of free inquiry the rationalist enthusiasts would like it to be, presents, I am quite persuaded, a
trenchant critique of these ominous characteristics, and offers radical and surprising solutions to them.
I hope and pray that, through the circumstance of her or his intelligence, meeting the discourse and considering, with the aid of the commentary, its implications,
the reader will feel encouraged and empowered to contribute to realising these solutions.
The Kalama Sutta: a minor scripture of Theravada Buddhism?
The scriptures known as the 'Pali canon' ('Pali' referring to the language of these scriptures, and meaning 'scriptural,) of the Theravada or 'Elders' School' of
Buddhism were first published in their entirety in Burma in 1900 CE and the oldest surviving manuscripts are (incomplete and) from the 15th century. However
the school's tradition maintains that the scriptures have been copied in writing continuously since the 1st century BCE and between the Buddha's lifetime and
then that they were transmitted perfectly orally.
Among them the Kalama Sutta does not stand out as being particularly important, at least if we judge by how it has been classified. Fig. 1 shows the Pali canon's
divisions. Within the 'Three Boxes' or Tipitaka it is in the Discourse Box, the Sutta Pitaka, meaning that it is a record of a discourse given by the Buddha or one
of the major disciples (in this case by the Buddha) on the Laws of Reality, Dhamma, rather than regulations of monastic discipline, Vinaya, or the classified
'Higher Teaching', Abhidhamma. Among the Discourses it is classified as one of the Numerical Section, the Anguttara Nikaya, because it was felt that some
numbered list of phenomena in it was its most defining feature. Among these it is placed in the Threes Section, Tika Nipata, since in this case it is a list of three
phenomena which is included in the discourse. Among these it is placed in the fifth or Minor Group, Culavagga, and within that, in the second or Large Group,
Mahavagga. Within that it is the fifth discourse.
Most scholars concur on the unlikelihood of these texts recording what the Buddha said, though the texts themselves make that claim, but also on the probability
that a lot of what the Buddha did teach is likely to be in the texts somewhere, though with a lot of later material added, and with a great many adjustments for the
sake of memorising the texts for oral transmission: they contain a great deal of formalised chunks which are repeated pretty much unchanged throughout the
texts, and this discourse includes several. Much of the material in this discourse is repeated verbatim in the next one, delivered not by the Buddha but by the
disciple Nandaka, to Salha, and in another discourse to the Licchavi Bhaddiya.
However many people today who have never practised Buddhism in any tradition, and who certainly are not Pali scholars delving into the further nooks and
crannies of the Three Baskets, have heard of the Kalama Sutta. It has gained a certain notoriety, and as we shall see this is not by accident, for its contents speak
to us directly across the millennia, and seem if anything more relevant today than they were when first delivered.
The Kalama Sutta: The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry?
In stark contrast to this lowly status in the canon, was the exalting appreciation of the discourse which quickly developed in post-Christian countries, by which I
mean those countries which, in the last century or so, have seen an explosion of interest in religion or 'spiritual approaches' other that the Christianity which had
previously dominated them. In these countries science had become the new authority, and religious faith a private, and for some even embarrassing; matter.
For them the novelty of Buddhism as it was being 'discovered' (in the same sense, if sense is the word, as America had been) was exciting. Here was a religion
which needed no Creator God, but emphasised the spiritual path as something to be worked out by the individual. Its frequent insistence on direct experience and
its deconstruction or even disregard of metaphysics had an obvious resonance with the scientific method that excessively metaphysical Christianity
conspicuously lacked. Schopenhauer and others were convinced that this new contact (with Buddhism and Hinduism) would lead to a much-needed revolution in
European thought. Since then a great deal has been written on the parallels between Buddhism and science, Buddhism or Hinduism or Taoism and quantum
physics, Buddhism and psychoanalysis, etc. And the Kalama Sutta has become perhaps the most quoted scripture in Buddhism.
However, as they suffered from afar this extraordinary spectacle, some doctors in its 'more native' lands were not amused, as is exemplified by various articles
they wrote in which they showed themselves highly critical of it.
There is at present a view, widely prevalent especially among the educated Buddhists, that Buddhism is a rationalist teaching based on scientifically verifiable
evidence. Much has been written to substantiate this view-point and, undoubtedly, such writings have immensely contributed to the further strengthening and
spreading of this view. Most of the proponents of this view cite the Kalama Sutta of the Anguttara-nikaya as providing unassailable evidence to prove that
Buddhism is a rationalistic teaching with an absolutely scientific basis, and that the Buddha advocated a rationalistic approach as the sole method of
understanding all his teachings.
It is no exaggeration to say that it is Western scholarship that highlighted the importance of the Kalama Sutta as some kind of 'Charter of Free Inquiry'. This 'new
finding' was enthusiastically taken up and strongly supported by the predominantly Western-trained Buddhist scholarship of the time to bring to light that the
Buddha denounced adherence to blind faith and dogmatism and instead encouraged free inquiry and investigation. In further support of such a position, these
writers cited the Buddha's rejection of the belief in a divine creator, his acceptance of free will, his anthropocentric approach to the human predicament, his
acceptance of the superiority of man, his invitation to the followers to inquire about the Dhamma as well as his own claim to enlightenment and so on.
There was lively concern that the Buddha was being misrepresented:
On the basis of a single passage, quoted out of context, the Buddha has been made out to be a pragmatic empiricist who dismisses all doctrine and faith, and
whose Dhamma is simply a freethinker's kit to truth which invites each one to accept and reject whatever he [sic] likes. But does the Kalama Sutta really justify
such views? Or do we meet in these claims just another set of variations on that egregious old tendency to interpret the Dhamma according to whatever notions
are congenial to oneself - or to those to whom one is preaching? [ ... ] Partly in reaction to dogmatic religion, partly in subservience to the reigning paradigm of
objective scientific knowledge, it has become fashionable to hold, by appeal to the Kalama Sutta, that the Buddha's teaching dispenses with faith and formulated
doctrine and asks us to accept only what we can personally verify,"?
The discourse passage in question, so often quoted, 'out of context', is a list of widely accepted sources of knowledge or authorities, each of which the Buddha
advises should not be relied on for certainty in the matter of deciding what practices to adopt and what practices to abandon. The new converts, carried away by
their rationalist enthusiasm (as it were), were perceived to have extended the scope of the Buddha's advice too far.
…they concluded that the Kalama Sutta advocates the use of free, independent thinking as the only valid means of deciding what is right and wrong with regard
to all matters, religious as well as otherwise. [ ... ] The Sutta itself does not provide any justification to expand the ambit of its application, either to cover all
matters pertaining to the Dhamma, or in general to all matters. This second assumption is obviously very far-fetched.
There are many matters that we all cannot understand and know for ourselves. Yet, we accept them and take them for granted reposing 'faith' on the competence
of those who pronounce views on them. We would not be able to conduct even affairs of day to day life if we ourselves try to understand and know all issues and
problems that we have to face. This is why we seek the help, and advice of those who are more knowledgeable, and possessing expertise in different areas.
Even the first assumption is questionable. The Buddha made this admonition to an ordinary set of people. Therefore, it is apparent that he did not expect them to
use any expertise or super-knowledge in deciding on the issues concerned.
In other words, the scope of the advice should be recognised: as to the Kalama people and those like them, asking the same questions they were asking. If it were
advocating free inquiry at all, it would be into an ordinary person's confusion at the beginning of the spiritual training only, and not beyond.
However, as we shall see, the Kalama people were not the only people to be advised with this critique of sources of knowledge, and it is debatable how easily we,
even dressed in robes, can escape the epithet 'mere ordinary people'. The pronouncements of the elders have not been unanimous:
The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry' [ ... ] The instruction of the Kalamas (Kalama Sutta) is justly famous for its encouragement of free inquiry; the spirit of the
sutta signifies a teaching that is exempt from fanaticism, bigotry, dogmatism, and intolerance.
The reasonableness of the Dhamma, the Buddha's teaching, is chiefly evident in its welcoming careful examination at all stages of the path to enlightenment.
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