The Kalama sutta is one of the most famous and often quoted suttas from the Theravada Tradition. It is often cited as the Buddha’s “charter of free inquiry”. However, as we shall see below, the sutta actually has many passages that are hard to explain or even seemingly contradictory.
The sutta is named after the Kalamas, who lived in a village or town that was frequently visited by many religious teachers. These religious teachers would praise their own teachings while discrediting the teachings of others’, leading the Kalamas to be confused as to which religion to believe. Having heard the Buddha’s good reputation, they decided to seek the Buddha’s advice.
After listening to the Kalamas’ dilemma, the Buddha’s first response was to lay down 10 guidelines according to which a teaching should not be accepted;
“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.”
The Buddha then laid down practical guidelines on when to accept a teaching;
“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.”
Some of the “10 guidelines” make sense, indeed we should not accept something to be true simply by reports, legends, traditions, tradition or scripture. because there is no way of verifying if what was said were true.
However, how can we not depend, to some degree, on logic, inference, “pondering over views” or teachers to help us to decide what is true or false. For example, while I’ve never been to the United States, I’ve seen it on TV, I have friends who said that they have been to the country and I even know a few people who are Americans. Therefore, using logic and inference I know that United States exist. Is the Kalama sutta telling me not to accept this?
In school we learnt about the existence of atoms; how atoms are suppose to be so small that we can’t see them, yet they are supposed to make up our entire visible universe. None of us have ever seen an atom but most of us accept what our teachers taught us. Is the Buddha in the Kalama sutta telling us this is not a strong enough grounds to accept this teaching?
Some interpretations of the Kalama sutta tell us that we need to verify what we are told with our experiences. Yet, we all know what we can experience is limited and not always dependable. Following the above example, how can I possibly “experience” an atom for myself to verify that it really exists?
To cite another example, if I only go by my experience, I would have believed that the world is flat and that the sun moves around our Earth. Yet, this is clearly wrong! Yet, I am very willing to accept the truth from scientists and reject my experience to be wrong.
So does the Kalama Sutta still stand
Questions like these have troubled me since I first read the sutta. Over the years I’ve made a few lazy attempts to clarify my doubts with no success. Thankfully because of our sutta discussion, I was forced to do my research into this sutta and confront my doubts in earnest. After much research and reading, I feel I’ve arrived at a meaningful understanding of the sutta.
The 10 guidelines for not accepting a teaching
The first point to note for all students of Buddhism is that asking questions and not accepting a teaching merely on faith is a core Buddhist principle
s. The Kalama Sutta is but one of the many suttas where the Buddha talked about the important of asking questions.
Yet the 10 grounds for not accepting a teaching appeared only in the Kalama sutta. Why is this so? A possible explanation could be that the Kalamas were already very confused when they approached the Buddha for advice. Thus under these circumstances, the Buddha laid down these 10 “rules” to ask the Kalamas to cast away what other teachers have taught and instead focus on what they can independently verify. – In short the 10 guidelines should not be read as the Buddha telling us not to use logic, inference or teachers under any circumstances.
Next, it was not clear from the sutta who these religious teachers were and what were they teaching. However, the Nikayas make frequent mentions of the existence of other religious teachers who lived and taught during the Buddha’s time. Six of these teachers were particularly famous.
Some of these teachers taught that good and bad actions has no moral consequences (in another word, no law of Kamma), others taught that every act produces kamma and one needs to “burn off” all bad kamma through self mortification, others taught that all things are predestined, yet others taught that death is the end of a person (materialists who believed that there is no rebirth or Kamma).
So it is reasonable to assume that the Kalamas were confused by these various beliefs, in particular on rebirth and the law of Kamma. Going by traditions, scripture, logic, inference, teachers etc would indeed not be able to help the Kalamas decide which teaching was right.
When to accept a teaching
We can assume that the Kalamas were not just concerned as to which belief system was correct, but wanted to know how to act so as to ensure that they are safe, in this and in future lives. The Buddha therefore further elaborated by stating the “four assurances”:
“‘If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good
destination, the heavenly world. This is the first assurance he acquires.
But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will,
free from trouble. This is the second assurance he acquires.
If evil is done through acting, still I have willed no evil for anyone. Having done no evil action, from where will suffering touch me?’ This is the third assurance he acquires.
But if no evil is done through acting, then I can assume myself pure in both respects.’ This is the fourth assurance he acquires.”
In short, if the Kalamas act with morality, kindness & compassion they will be happy in this life and if rebirth & Kamma is true, they will be happy in future lives too. Thus, they should always act with morality, kindness and compassion.
After hearing the Buddha’s discourse the Kalamas were impressed and became his lay disciples.
Reading the Kalama sutta in this context helps put away much of my doubts. In the Kalama sutta, the Buddha did not answer if rebirth, kamma or God(gods) are true. But instead told the Kalamas that when confronted with questions which they have no way of knowing they should cast away speculations and instead focus on carry themselves in a virtuous way.
But what does the Kalama sutta means for us?
For me there two main lessons to learned from the Kalama sutta. Firstly, always try to learn from the “source” if possible. Try not to depend on reports, traditions, inference etc unless necessary. Keep an open mind and be ready to let go of beliefs if it proven wrong, even if its goes against our teachers or norms of society.
Secondly, when confronted with issues that can’t be resolved, always follow the path of compassion and kindness and act in a way that leads to greater happiness and welfare for ourselves and others.
The spirit of the Kalama sutta is an important one even for our modern world. Every religion claims that they are right, many demand that we submit ourselves completely. The Buddha, as seen in the Kalama sutta and many other suttas, encouraged us to question. This “freedom of enquiry” is a great gift that the Buddha gave us. One which we should use wisely as we tread this path.
 For example, in the Shorter discourse on the Elephant footprint (MN 27), the Buddha told the monks that they can have full confidence in the Buddha Enlightened only when they themselves have attained it.
 There are other suttas where the Buddha did discuss these topics in detail.