Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas

AN 3.65 PTS: A i 188 

Note: This is one of the Buddha’s teachings that is most often quoted everywhere, so it might be difficult to realise how significant or how valuable it is when we read it. We will write an article with some points that we see do not get enough attention in regard to this teaching, but first, here it is standing on its own merits.

It is quite ironic that the key paragraph, most often quoted, “do not be led by…etcetera” is translated in a particularly wide variety of ways everywhere you read it, even by the standards of the Pali Canon. For this reason we have made footnotes for the most words in Pali, and in most cases, links to their definition. More importantly, though, we advise the reader to check for himself if the instruction actually makes sense, and look for examples in his own experience of WHY it is true.

I have heard that at one time the Blessed One, while wandering in the Kosalans with a large gathering of monks, arrived at Kesaputta, a town of a tribe called the Kalamas. And the Kalamas of Kesaputta heard it said that “Gotama the monk – the son of the Sakyans, who went forth from the Sakyan family – has arrived at Kesaputta. And these wonderful things are said about him: 

“He is truly a Blessed One, worthy and rightly self-awakened, perfect in knowledge and perfect in action, well-gone, the one who knows all that is to be known, the highest teacher for those who are ready to learn, teacher of humans and divine beings, awakened, blessed. 

“He has taught and opened up all the knowledge of the law of this world, the world with its devas, maras and brahmas – as well as the generations of people with their monks and brahmans, their rulers and ordinary people. 

“He has taught the Dhamma that is excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle and excellent in the end. He has taught how to live a pure life of a monk – a life that is high and worthy both in its aim and in the details of how it is lived – entirely perfect, of the highest purity. It is good to see such a worthy one.” 

So the Kalamas of Kesaputta went to see the Blessed One, and when they arrived some bowed down to him and sat to one side. Some of them exchanged polite greetings with him, and then sat to one side. Some of them saluted him with their hands together at the heart and then sat to one side. Some of them sat to one side in silence.

As they sat there, a spokesman for the Kalamas of Kesaputta said to the Blessed One, “Sir, we have met several brahmans and monks who come to our town. All of them praise their own teachings and say that their own teaching is the best one. And all, while saying that their own teaching is the best one, say that the philosophies of others are useless, put down the philosophies of others, show disrespect and scorn for the philosophies and teachings of others.

This leaves us in confusion and doubt: how do we know which ones are right and which are wrong?” 

The Blessed One said: 

“Of course you are doubtful, Kalamas, of course you are confused. When there is a subject that is doubtful, a doubtful matter, it is normal that you will have doubt and confusion about it. So Kalamas in this matter,

  1. Do not go by reports or common opinion1
  2. Do not go by lineage or tradition2
  3. Do not go by hearsay3
  4. Do not go by texts or scriptures that have been handed down4
  5. Do not stand only on logic5
  6. Do not stand on the base of method or formula 6
  7. Do not go by reflecting on outward appearances and signs7
  8. Do not go by preference or liking for a view or teaching8
  9. Do not go by a capable or trustworthy apearance9
  10. Do not go by “this monk is our respected teacher” 10

When you know by yourselves that:

“These qualities11 are wrong, shameful, unworthy,  criticised by those who are wise; these things, when they are practiced and followed, lead to harm and bad consequences,” 

Then you should abandon those qualities and give them up.

“For example, Kalamas, what do you think: When greed12 drives a person, does it bring happiness and good, or does it bring harm?”

“It brings harm, sir.”

“And this greedy person,  taken over by greed, his mind full of greed – when he kills living beings out of greed, steals, goes after another’s loved-one, tells lies, and encourages others to do the same out of greed – all of this also brings harm?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now Kalamas, when anger and hatred13 arises in a person, does it bring happiness and good, or does it bring harm?”

“It brings harm, sir.”

“And this angry person, his mind full of anger and hatred, taken over by anger and hatred – when he kills living beings out of his anger and hatred, steals, goes after another person’s loved-one, tells lies, and encourages others to do the same, out of his anger and hatred – all of this, it also leads to harm?” 

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you think, Kalamas, when a clouded and dull mind14arises in a person, does it bring happiness and good, or does it bring harm?”

“It brings harm, sir.” 

“And this unaware person, with their mind lost in the cloud, inattentive to what they are doing, when they kill living beings out of being in the cloud, when they steal, when they go after another’s loved-one, tell lies, and encourage others to do the same out of being unaware and inattentive to what they do – all this, it also leads to harm?”

“Yes, sir.” 

So what do you think, Kalamas, are these things, these qualities, intentions wise or unwise? 

“Unwise, sir.”

“Are they shameful or admirable?” 

“Shameful, sir.”

“Are they right or wrong?”

“Wrong, sir.”

“Are they criticised by the wise or praised by the wise?”

“Criticised by the wise, sir.”

“When they are practiced and followed, do they lead to harm and bad consequences, or not?”

“They lead to harm and bad consequences, sir. That is how we see it.” 

“So as I said, Kalamas, 

  1. Do not go by reports or common opinion
  2. Do not go by lineage or tradition
  3. Do not go by hearsay
  4. Do not go by texts or scriptures that have been handed down
  5. Do not stand only on logic
  6. Do not stand on the base of method or formula
  7. Do not go by reflecting on outward appearances and signs
  8. Do not go by preference or liking for a view or teaching
  9. Do not go by a capable or trustworthy appearance
  10. Do not go by “this monk is our respected teacher”

When you know by yourselves that:

“These qualities, intentions and actions are wrong, shameful, unworthy,  criticised by those who are wise; these, qualities, intentions and actions, when they are practiced and followed, lead to harm and bad consequences” 

Then you should abandon and give up those qualities, those intentions and those actions.” 

That was what I said, and it was with regard to this that I said it. 

And Kalmas, again, remember: 

  1. Do not go by reports or common opinion
  2. Do not go by lineage or tradition
  3. Do not go by hearsay
  4. Do not go by texts or scriptures that have been handed down
  5. Do not stand only on logic
  6. Do not stand on the base of method or formula
  7. Do not go by reflecting on outward appearances and signs
  8. Do not go by preference or liking for a view or teaching
  9. Do not go by a capable or trustworthy apearance
  10. Do not go by “this monk is our respected teacher”

But when you know by yourselves that: 

“These qualities, intentions and actions are right and good, wise, admirable, worthy, praised by those who are wise; these qualities, intentions and actions, when they are practiced and followed, lead to good and happiness,” then you should practice and follow them, you should keep and strengthen them. 

Kalamas, what do you think: When there is no greed in a person, does it bring happiness and good, or does it bring harm?”

“It brings happiness and good, sir.”

“And this ungreedy person, not taken over by greed, his mind free of greed – because of not having greed, he will not kill living beings out of greed, nor steal, nor go after another’s loved-one, nor tell lies, nor encourage others to do the same. All of this also brings good and happiness?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now Kalamas, when there is no anger in a person, does it bring happiness and good, or does it bring harm?”

“It brings happiness and good, sir.”

“And this compassionate and patient person, his mind free of anger and hatred, not taken over by anger and hatred – he does not kill living beings, nor does he steal, nor does he go after another person’s loved-one, nor does he tell lies, nor encourage others to do the same, because of being free from anger and hatred. All of this, it also leads to happiness and good?” 

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you think, Kalamas, when a person’s mind is aware, careful, attentive to the consequences of his actions, without dullness, does it bring happiness and good, or does it bring harm?”

“It brings happiness and good, sir.” 

“And this aware and attentive person, with their mind not lost in the cloud, careful and attentive to the consequences of their actions, they do not kill living beings, nor do they they steal, nor do they go after another’s loved-one, nor tell lies, nor encourage others to do the same, because they are attentive and aware of what they do. All this, does it also lead to happiness and good?” 

“Yes, sir.” 

So what do you think, Kalamas, are these qualities, these intentions and actions, wise or unwise? 

“Wise, sir.”

“Are they shameful or admirable?” 

“Admirable, sir.”

“Are they right and good, or are they wrong?”

“Right and good, sir.”

“Are they criticised by the wise or praised by the wise?”

“Praised by the wise, sir.”

“When they are practiced and followed, do they lead to happiness and good, or not?”

“They lead to happiness and good, sir. That is how we see it.” 

So as I said, Kalamas, 

  1. Do not go by reports or common opinion
  2. Do not go by lineage or tradition
  3. Do not go by hearsay
  4. Do not go by texts or scriptures that have been handed down
  5. Do not stand only on logic
  6. Do not stand on the base of method or formula
  7. Do not go by reflecting on outward appearances and signs
  8. Do not go by preference or liking for a view or teaching
  9. Do not go by a capable or trustworthy apearance
  10. Do not go by “this monk is our respected teacher”

That was what I said, and it was in regard to this that I said it. 

Now, Kalamas, one who is a student of the noble ones – free of greed, free of anger and hatred, aware, attentive, and determined for the sake of good:

 He fills every direction, the east, the west, the north and the south, with good will for all beings. 

And so he fills every direction – above, below and all around, everywhere and in every way, the whole universe he fills with good will – abundant, unlimited, unmeasurable, infinite – free from conflict, free from ill-will. 

He fills every direction: the east, the west, the north and the south, with compassion for all beings. 

And so he fills every direction – above, below and all around, every where and every way, the whole universe he fills with compassion – abundant, unlimited, unmeasurable, infinite – free from conflict, free from ill-will. 

He fills every direction: the east, the west, the north and the south, with equanimity. 

And so he fills every direction – above, below and all around, everywhere and in every way, the whole universe he fills with equanimity – abundant, unlimited, unmeasurable, infinite – free from conflict, free from ill-will. 

Now, Kalamas, one who is a student of the noble ones – his mind in this way free from conflict, free from ill-will – here and now, wherever he is, no matter what his situation,  he has these four securities:

“If there is a next life, and there is a result, a fruit of good actions and bad actions; then it is possible that after death, when the body breaks up, I will arise in a heavenly world, in the state of joy.” This is his first security.

“Even if there is no next life and no fruit, no result of good actions or bad actions – still, in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from ill-will, safe and secure, I keep myself peaceful and happy.” This is his second security.

“Suppose that when one does harmful actions, he receives harm in return. I never think of doing harm to anyone – why should harm come to me?” This is his third security. 

“Even if doing harm does not bring harmful results, still I purify myself of all harmful intentions.” This is his fourth security.”

So it is, Blessed One! So it is, O One Well-Gone. A student of the noble one’s whose mind is free from conflict, free from ill-will, unstained and pure, here and now, wherever he is, no matter what his situation,  he has these four securities.

“If there is a next life, and there is a result, a fruit of good actions and bad actions; then it is possible that after death, when the body breaks up, I will arise in a heavenly world, in the state of joy.” This is his first security.

“Even if there is no next life and no fruit, no result of good actions or bad actions – still, in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from ill-will, safe and secure, I keep myself peaceful and happy.” This is his second security.

“Suppose that when one does harmful actions, he receives harm in return. I never think of doing harm to anyone – why should harm come to me?” This is his third security. 

“Even if doing harm does not bring harmful results, still I purify myself of all harmful intentions.” This is his fourth security.”

Magnificent, venerable sir! Magnificent! It is as if he has turned the right way up what was upside down, as if he has shown clearly what was hidden, as if he has pointed the way to one who was lost, or as if he has carried a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see – it is in this way that the Blessed One has made the Dhamma clear to us in many ways. We go to the Blessed One for refuge, to the Dhamma for refuge, and to the Sangha of monks for refuge. May the Blessed One know us as lay followers who have gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.” 

  1. anussava – what has been heard or repeated, reports, traditions.
  2. paramparā lit. “after the other,” – succession, series, or repetition.
  3. itikirayā
  4. piṭakasampadānena – Pitika refers to the Pali canon, collections of teachings, and sampadanā -“handing on”.
  5. ma takkahetu – takka means logic, thought or reasoning, and hetu refers to cause, condition, the base on which something stands. Together: “don’t stand only on logic” or “don’t have logic as your only foundation.” (It does not mean “throw away logic” or “do not use logic”)
  6. ma nayahetu naya means method, plan, inference. hetu – cause, condition, the base on which to stand.
  7. ma ākāraparivitakkena. ākāra – form, appearance; external characteristic, sign. parivitakkena – thinking over, considering.
  8. diṭṭhinijjhānakkhanti
  9. bhabbarupata – bhabba meaning “capable, able, fit” and rūpa – “appearance, form”
  10. ma samano no garūti – caution, this does NOT mean “don’t trust any teacher” or “don’t have respect for a teacher.” It means that you should not base everything you practice on “my teacher said so,”, especially before you have known and seen from experience that this teacher is worthy of trust and respect
  11. dhammas. “qualities” is the most straightforward translation here for the word, but it can be translated even more simply as “thing”. It is more complex and profound word than “thing” in English, however – while we say “thing” to talk about a material object, such a s cup, we will not often use the word “dhamma” to talk about a cup, but more often to refer to things that cannot be seen with the eyes or touched with the senses – here, for example, it refers to a quality, intention, action, or teaching.
  12. lobha – greed, selfishness, stickiness to things, attachment, desire – (careful, do not think that lobha is only for money, or only for millionaires. )
  13. dosa – anger, hatred, ill-will, irritation
  14. moha – one of the most commonly mistranslated words, not least because we don’t have a simple translation for it in English. Often translated as “delusion” or sometimes “bewilderment”, or “stupidity” (the latter two are slightly better but still imperfect), it refers to the state “having one’s head in the clouds” – or as they say in French être dans la lune. That is, a state of mind that is not clear, not attentive, the one who acts automatically without thinking, who walks into an anthill without noticing until it is too late, who burns the house down because they didn’t notice that they had left the gas oven on, who even while being well-intentioned, can do enormous damage!

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