Trust and the Kalama Sutta

The Kalama Sutta may be the most quoted Buddhist scripture in the West. Even people who don’t know the Perfections from potatoes can quote the Kalama Sutta to support whatever they want to believe about Buddhism.

If the title Kalama Sutta isn’t ringing a bell for you, you might recognize this quote of the Buddha —

“Don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe me because others convince you of my words. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts.”

This is the Buddha speaking to a clan of people called the Kalamas. People cite the Kalama Sutta to argue that the Buddha advocated logical reasoning to arrive at the truth, or that people should decide for themselves what is true, and of course the all-time favorite — Buddhism is not a religion.

I bring this up because I have found an essay on the Kalama Sutta by Thanissaro Bhikkhu that I hope everyone reads. Let’s take a look —

The Bhikkhu writes that the many variations of the quote above that are plastered all over the Internet (and possibly also T-shirts and coffee mugs) seem to cancel out everything else the Buddha taught.

“Taken together, these quotes justify our tendency to pick what we like from the old texts and throw the rest away. No need to understand the larger context of the dhamma they teach, the Buddha seems to be saying. You’re better off rolling your own.”

The Bikkhu provides his own translation of the text, bolding some words —

“So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical deduction, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.'”

Buy the Book at Amazon

There are several different translations of the Sutta sluicing about the Web, but Thanissaro Bhikkhu is a respected scholar and teacher of Theravada Buddhism, and I trust that he’s positioning the English as close to the original Pali as it can be positioned. And here, the Buddha plainly is warning us to put blind faith in neither external nor internal authority.

In other words, do not put blind faith in teachers or texts; and do not put blind faith in logic, or the odds, or “figuring it out.” The Bikkhu continues,

“When the Buddha says that you can’t go by logical deduction, inference, or analogies, he’s saying that you can’t always trust your sense of reason. When he says that you can’t go by agreement through pondering views (i.e., what seems to fit in with what you already believe) or by probability, he’s saying that you can’t always trust your common sense. And of course, you can’t always trust teachers, scriptures, or traditions. So where can you place your trust?”

“Where Can You Place Your Trust?” is a great dharma question. The Bikkhu answers his own question in his essay, but it’s such a good question I want to come back to it later this week. Please feel free to add your own thoughts.

[This post originally appeared on Buddhism on September 3, 2012]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *