do not be led by… understanding the kalama sutta

Photo by Filip Mishevski on Unsplash
  1. Do not be led by reports or hearsay
  2. Do not be led by tradition
  3. Do not be led by common opinion
  4. Do not be led by the authority of texts
  5. Do not be led by mere logic
  6. Do not be led by mere reasoning
  7. Do not be led by a first impression of good sense
  8. Do not be led by what fits with your own ideas and personal beliefs
  9. Do not be led by a trustworthy appearance.
  10. Do not be led by the thought “this is my teacher.”

This is part of a well-known teaching of the Buddha, known as the Kalama Sutta. The name of the Sutta comes from the name of the small village where the teaching was given. As the story goes, when the Buddha came to this village, the people of this village came to see him, asking the following questions: 

“How are we to know who to believe and who not to believe? Whose teaching is correct? Is there one truth that can be known?”

 “Everyone comes and says different things to us: some says we have to be vegetarian, some say we have to pray to such and such a god, some say there are many gods, some say there is one god, some say there are no gods, some say we have to wash ourselves in the Ganges, some say we shouldn’t eat this or that kind of meat, some say that sexuality is good, some say it is bad, some say that life continues after death, some say that there is just this life and nothing beyond what we can see, no world beyond this one.

“Some say trees have souls, some say animals have souls, some say nobody has a soul. Everyone who comes to talk to us says that only they are right and that everyone else is wrong. How do we know who is right and who we should follow?”

Looking at the world today, it’s hard to see that we have made any progress since that time, 2500 years ago.

Everyone is still just as confused as at that time; there are still so many religions, so many beliefs, so many moralities and ways of life. Each one who has belief in a particular philosophy says that his is the right one, his is the only true one; and anyone who does not belong to one of the schools of thought, remains in doubt and confusion. 

Fittingly, even the exact words of the Kalama Sutta itself are a matter of disagreement now. If you search for it on Google, you’ll find several different versions, different translations of the above list of instructions, all saying different things. 

In fact, however, it’s not really terribly important to know and remember exactly what is written in the list of instructions. We will give some more explanation of the meaning of each line a little later, but first it is more important to understand the general meaning of this teaching, what it is saying. 

How do we judge ideas?

So let us look deeper into the problem we have. We are all bombarded by information coming from everywhere, and it is hard to know how much of it to accept, how much of it to reject. This is a problem that has always existed. It’s not unique to our times, it’s nothing new. 

It would not be such a problem, of course, if people were more wise; if we did not have this tendency to stick to the first idea that pleases us, without checking it, without digging deeper into it. Because we do not know how to verify what information is correct and which is not, we manage to believe in a surprising number of things that make no sense at all, once they are put under a bit of pressure. 

Look at it in yourself: imagine a group of people come to see you, and each of them tells you something different. Each one says that he is telling you the absolute truth, but many are in conflict with one another. How do you decide who to believe? 

Don’t make a mistake here: I’m not asking you how you should decide who to believe. In practice, in reality, what is it that guides your decision? 

Is it wisdom? Is it on verification, is there some kind of method behind it? Or do you tend to be guided rather by other things? 

You might decide to believe the person you like best, out of everybody who brings you information, for example. Or the one whose love and approval you most crave. Perhaps you might go with the idea that best fits with the ideas you already have about how the world is. Or with the one that everybody else agrees with; or the one who makes a strong argument. Or even with just the first idea you happen to hear. 

On the other hand, any idea that really challenges your beliefs, or that would mean you have to change something about yourself, or that threatens your comfort zone – you will usually find plenty of good excuses not to accept that kind of idea. 

Building a solid foundation of trust

The Kalama Sutta says that, when judging an idea, a teacher, a philosophy or a practice, we should throw away all of these types of automatic judgements that we tend to make, those that are not based on wisdom, but on what is easiest for us to accept, what best suits us, or what we like. 

When you throw away all of these unreliable ways of judging, what is left is your own wisdom, and what you have seen and experienced for yourself as being right or wrong. 

To take a basic example, if you have seen by yourself that being generous is good and that greed is harmful, then you can have some trust in somebody who’s teaching agrees with this. This is like a small stone that you can use to start building the foundation of your trust in that person.

Each time a teacher says something that agrees with what you can see by yourself as being right and true, or that leads you to see some truth for yourself that you never saw before, these are stones with which you can further build the foundation of your trust. 

Practitioners of Buddhism follow the five precepts: abstaining from stealing, lying, killing, intoxicants, and sexual misconduct. But these should not be followed just because somebody told you so, not just because “those are the rules.” If you follow the five precepts, you should be doing so based on seeing and understanding for yourself that killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct and intoxicants are all harmful and lead to bad consequences that you don’t want, that hurt the lives of others and yourself. 

Then, any time you hear of a teaching that breaks any of these precepts, you know that this is a teaching that promotes those actions that you have seen have effects you don’t want. 

Honesty

It’s really beautiful, the Kalama Sutta. Not because it is written in poetic or flowery language, but because it is so wise, and has such a bare, perfect honesty to it. 

 It is something that cannot be spoken by a religious leader who is anxious to convert more followers and to protect his philosophy, it can’t be spoken by somebody who is jealous of his own teaching, proud of it, or who has any kind of personal agenda. If the Buddha were like this, why would he want people to put his own teaching to the test, and give them the tools to do so? 

Instead of telling them to just listen to him and do what he says, he hands them the knife to cut his own words to pieces if they wish, if they can. 

It’s as if he is saying, “I have this medicine here for your suffering, but I will not try to force it down your throats. I have it here, it’s free. Take it and see for yourself how it works. Test it. Talk to others who have taken it. Try to find somebody who has not benefited from it. Try a little bit and see that you already feel better, and then take a bit more if you want.”

It’s far from being a case of MY philosophy, MY teaching. It’s the opposite of I, me, myself who am the way, the truth and the light. 

The result, then, is not to put more doubt in his followers regarding his teachings; but to make their faith stronger. When you test something out for yourself and see the truth of it before your eyes, then is when you can really stop to have doubt in it.

Do not be led by….

  • do not be led by reports or hearsay –

When you hear reports from people, from news stations or from any other means, there are several reasons that you should check first their truth, and then their importance, before deciding to take actions based on them. 

Firstly, reports and hearsay are based on memories of people, copied from memories of other people, and often re-told several times. In your own life, have you seen that your memory is perfectly reliable? Or not? 

The more something is repeated and reported, the more it is distorted. Have you ever played the game Chinese Whispers, where one person says a sentence to another, and this person passes on the sentence to the next one, all the way around a table full of people? If you’ve played the game, you will know that it is rather rare for the message to come out intact as it was in the beginning. When people tell stories, it is even worse: they imprint them with their own idea, their own twist, they tell the story not as it is, but as they think it should be told. 

Another point about this subject is that we are often led to live our lives, fight for causes, and take actions based not on what is really important and good to do, but what is available to us, what is fed to us. And what is fed to us through radio, internet, social media, youtube and whatever other channels – all this is fed to us to get our attention and make us busy, not to make us into good people who take good actions.

If you open your eyes a little wider, do a bit more digging, you can see how much time and energy of everybody ends up being spent on issues of relatively little importance. Why is that? 

  • do not be led by traditions

While some traditions may indeed be good, you should not follow a tradition just because it is a tradition: that something has been done for a long time is not a good reason for continuing to do it.

There is a story of a school of zen meditation, which had a rather peculiar ritual of keeping a cat tied on a leash in the room whenever they sat down to meditate. A guest came to visit the school one day, and was puzzled by this: was it some sort of spiritual protection? An amulet against evil spirits? 

After some investigation, he found out the reason for the tradition: years previously, the zen master who founded the school owned a cat. This cat would constantly come and bother him whenever he sat down to meditate. (Anyone who has ever tried to work on a computer with a cat in the same room will sympathise with him.) At some point, he said, “that’s enough now,” and he decided to tie the cat with a rope whenever he sat down to meditate so that it could no longer come and disturb him. After he died, all his students continued to do the same. To meditate well, it seemed you needed a cat tied next to you! 

  • do not trust in common opinion

The sun used to be known by all to revolve around the earth. Before that everyone knew that the earth was flat. Not long ago we knew the milky way was really big, now we know the milky way is really small, when considered as part of the larger universe around. In the 1980s everyone “knew” they had to eat low-fat everything in order to lose weight, now we “know” the best way of losing weight is to eat a diet of mostly fat and no sugar. A few years ago cars were the main culprit of climate change, now it’s supposed to be cows.  In the sixties and seventies, plastic was joyfully accepted as a marvellous material, now it’s considered the devil. What is now “known” by all to be true and right is just one way of viewing the world, that has changed since times past, and that will change again. It’s not a fixed, solid or dependable thing. It is not because we are all much more clever than people of the past, that we have all found out The Truth. There are completely different ideas about right and wrong, good and bad, what is true and what is not true, depending on where you look on the map. 

  • do not be led by the authority of texts

Let’s say you want to cook a recipe from a book; we’ll say you want to make a cheesecake. You’re halfway through when you notice something that you find a bit strange, there’s no sugar mentioned in the recipe. Strange, since this is a cake after all, it’s supposed to be sweet, isn’t it? 

You can at this point either say that they must have made a mistake in printing the book, and either find another recipe or add sugar according to your taste – or you can trust to the Authority of the Text, think that this must be a no-sugar cheesecake recipe, and continue on with it. (In which case, I hope you are not planning on giving the cake as a birthday gift.)

When you come across something written down in text that does not work with the rest of the teaching, that does not make sense, you can try to twist your understanding of the rest of the teaching to make it fit with this nonsensical part, or you can disregard it, seeing that it must have found its way in there by some kind of mistake. Possibly through mistranslation, through an addition from someone who thinks their own idea is so good that it must be included in the text, or by someone with their own reasons for doing so. 

Quite opposite to the Christian/Muslim/Jewish belief in a holy book, whose words cannot be challenged, early Buddhist teachings were purposely not written down by any monk. The teaching is always meant to be fresh, always present, always spoken to a particular person, adapted for them and for their situation in that moment. What was the right teaching for one person at one moment in time will not necessarily be the right teaching for another. 

Teachings were retained by monks in memory, and some were written down by laypeople, non-meditators, which is another reason to be careful about how we are guided by everything that is written down.  

  • do not be led by mere logic and
  • do not be led by mere reasoning

These points are very similar, so we will deal with them together.

There’s a story of a prisoner condemned to death. One day, the prison guard comes to tell him that his execution will happen next week, on either Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. “And you won’t know what day it will be, I’m not going to tell you,” says the prison guard. “I’ll just show up at your door at midday one of those days, it will be a surprise to you. That is part of your punishment.”

The prisoner has studied mathematics in the past, and he decides to see if he can figure out the day of his execution by use of logic and reasoning. 

First, he says to himself, “Well, it can’t happen on Friday. Because if it hasn’t happened on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, then I’ll know it will happen on Friday, so it will not be a surprise anymore!” So in that way, he rules out the option of Friday. 

Then he says to himself, “Okay, so now there’s only four days left, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. But if it hasn’t happened on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, then that leaves only Thursday, so I’ll know it will happen then, and it’s still not a surprise.” In that way, he rules out the option of Thursday. In exactly the same way, he goes on to rule out the options of Wednesday, Tuesday, and Monday. 

“Wonderful!” he says, joyfully, having come to this conclusion. “So I’m going to escape, they can’t execute me after all!” And he goes to bed feeling very happy. 

The next week, Monday and Tuesday pass by, but then at midday on Wednesday, the prisoner has a knock on his door. It is the prison guard, telling him that the time has come, he is about to be executed. And it is a complete surprise to him. 

Even an argument that seems perfectly logical can lead to a conclusion that makes no sense. It is possible for there to be mistakes even in an argument that seems logical, and it is possible for logic to have a starting point that is wrong. Use logic, absolutely. It’s a very useful and important tool. But do not be guided only by this. 

  • do not be led by a first impression of good sense, and 
  • do not be led by what fits with your own ideas and personal beliefs

The mind is as lazy as the root of a tree. It takes the easiest path it finds. Therefore it is wise to be aware of this, and beware of accepting immediately the first thing that seems to make good sense.

All cruel dictators and dodgy gurus of the past and present have played on the fears and desires of people they want to recruit as followers, and told them what they want to hear, what is agreeable for them to believe, in order to take advantage of them and use them for their own means. 

We always tend to accept first the ideas that are most comfortable to us, but of course what is most comfortable and easy to accept is not necessarily the truth; in fact it’s quite unlikely to be the truth. Do you believe, really, in your bones, that you will die? Or will you be shocked if your doctor tells you the next time you see him that you have a mortal cancer and will die within one year? Even this most basic of truths you cannot believe, so how can you trust that the rest of your ideas are the truth?

  • do not be led by a trustworthy appearance. 

What can lead to a trustworthy appearance? Maybe somebody is a good talker and knows what to say. Maybe they remind you of your favourite teacher in primary school. Maybe the book is printed on expensive paper and in a professional-looking font. Maybe there is a lot of quoting from scientific studies and pictures of data tables. Maybe somebody is well-respected with a great many followers. 

None are genuine reasons for placing trust in a person. The only legitimate reason for really trusting somebody is when they speak morally and wisely, when you see for yourself that what they say is true, and when there is no disagreement between what they say, and what they do.  

  • do not be led by the idea, “This person is my teacher”

One of the most famous stories from the time of the Buddha is the story of the serial killer Angulimala, who began his life as an ordinary, well-intentioned young man. He was sent to learn with the best teacher of the city, and with his intelligence and great respect and faith, progressed quickly and became the favourite student of the teacher. 

Several other students became jealous of him, and so they decided to sabotage him. Gradually they worked to make the great teacher believe that his favourite student was carrying on an affair with his wife. Overcome with jealousy and anger, the teacher now wondered how he would get rid of the youngster. 

“If I kill him,” he thought to himself, “I will lose all my reputation, but if I cause him to do actions that will get him killed…” And so he called his student to him and told him that, if he wanted to continue learning with him, he would have to kill one thousand people, and bring the teacher back the little finger of each of the people he had killed as proof. At first the young man hesitated, but so great was his faith in the teacher and so great his desire to learn more and more, that he agreed, and set out to become the most feared and hated killer of that time. 

We  should probably make clear that this part of the teaching is not meant to discourage you from being guided by any and all teachers. The teacher of Angulimala is untrustworthy and acts in an immoral way, and it is for this reason that being guided simply by the idea that “this person is my teacher, I have to do what he says ”  has such terrible results for him. 

It is rare to find a teacher that is both truly moral and really  wise – but if such a teacher can be found, then in that case it is the smart thing to do to be guided by them, to give way to their idea when it goes against your own, knowing that your own ideas may be influenced by all kinds of things that are not wisdom, especially your emotions and your attachments.

Having said this, it is still very important to try to see the sense of the advice you are given, to understand why you are doing something; or to ask for an explanation if you do not understand.

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