Most accurate translation of the most famous passage from the Kalama Sutta

Translations of this famous passage from the Kalama Sutta are sometimes quite different.

I would be grateful if anyone knows of a VERY ACCURATE LITERAL TRANSLATION of each line in the first section (do not be led by). Here’s a PTS version of the passage I’m referring to. Translations of the first section vary widely… so a literal translation(s) would help me (and others) to discern which translations may be most accurate:

Yes, Kālāmas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you, Kālāmas,
do not be led by reports,
or tradition,
or hearsay.
Be not led by the authority of religious texts,
nor by mere logic
or inference,
nor by considering appearances,
nor by the delight in speculative opinions,
nor by the seeming possibilities,
nor by the idea: ‘this is our teacher.’

But . . . when you know for yourselves that,
‘These dhammas are unskillful and un-wholesome (akusala);
these dhammas are blameworthy;
these dhammas are criticized by the wise;
these dhammas, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and suffering,’
then you should abandon them . . . .

When you know for yourselves that, ‘These dhammas are skillful and wholesome; these dhammas are blameless;
these dhammas are praised by the wise;
these dhammas, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness,’ then you should accept and follow them
(Kālāma Sutta [Kesaputti Sutta], (PTS), AN I 188/AN 3.65)

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Okay, rule number 1: if you want accurate translations, never use the PTS editions of the 4 nikayas. Some of their translations of other texts are good, but these are not.

There are accurate and fairly literal translations on SC by myself and Bhikkhu Bodhi.

If you want useful answers, I would encourage you to narrow the scope of the question. Which specific phrases or terms are you seeking clarification on? To clarify a whole sutta, or even a passage, requires a substantial essay. So start small and we’ll see where we go from there.

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Thank you! I’ve tried comparing 5 different translations (including yours and Bodhi’s) which differ on a few points… I’ll start with the first 2 …(which immediately follow "Do not be led by… ) In each case 3 of 5 translators chose something similar to this:

  1. oral tradition (or oral transmission)

  2. the lineage (or lineage of the teaching)

just to explain… It would be helpful to know the literal meaning of these words because there is some disagreement among translators… If the source is rather ambiguous on any of these I’d like to make a note in the footnote acknowledging it.

This is for a Tibetan translation… The Kalama Sutta doesn’t exist in the Tengyur and Kangyur so this may be the only time some readers will read the text…and they may not have a way to look at alternate translations. So I want to be especially careful and clear about ambiguities/possible alternative translations

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Okay, thanks, that’s very helpful.

First thing is the syntax here, which is quite idiomatic. It consists of the prohibitive particle (don’t!) followed by terms mostly in the instrumental case, which could be rendered here by “by”. So perhaps the most literal English rendering would be:

Don’t go by oral transmission …

Then as far as the list of items goes:

  1. anussava: This consists of anu- (along, following) + sava (hearing, learning). The term refers to teachings that have been “heard” (i.e. learned or memorized) as passed down through an oral tradition. Though in a different case, it is the same word as found in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (pubbesu ananussutesu dhammesu “regarding teachings not learned before from another” or else “regarding teachings not part of any oral tradition”). Either “oral tradition” or “oral transmission” is fine.
  2. parampara: This is a reduplicative compound, with the element para repeated. As para means “beyond, after”, the compound means something like “one after another”. It refers to a lineage. Ven Bodhi has expanded this a little to say “lineage of teaching”, but I felt that just “lineage” was clear enough.
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Thank you so much! That is VERY helpful. The 5 translators all agree on #3 and #4. There is a little bit of disagreement on #6 and #7. You and Bodhi translated this as:

#5 Don’t rely on logic, (Bhante Sujato)
Do not go by logical reasoning (Bhikkhu Bodhi)

#6 inference, (Bhante Sujato)
by inferential reasoning, (Bhikkhu Bodhi)

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Hmm, I don’t see any disagreement. To me, “logic” is simply a more compact way of saying “logical reasoning”. The use of the word “logic” implies that there will be some “reasoning”…

Okay, so I think the differences is the third term are somewhat significant, so I’ll comment on that.

The term is itikira. It is a compound of two particles, iti meaning “thus, such”, and used to mark a direct quote; and kira meaning “so it seems”, “they say”, “it appears”. Kira is often used in a dubitative sense, such as saccaṃ kira tumhe “Is it really true that you …”. Like several of these terms, it only appears in this passage in the early texts, so nailing an exact meaning is difficult. But I think it is related to itihītiha in a similar sense, also a name for ancient texts or knowledge, and meaning something like “They say it was like such and such”. I suspect this means “legends”, and is possibly a reference to such myths as the Mahabharata, etc (in their archaic forms). Thus in the list of traditional brahmanical lore we find itihāsa, “So it was”. Also compare the well known itivuttaka. These are idiomatic expressions for a kind of traditional lore or knowledge. Whereas Ven Bodhi has “hearsay”, to me this is too casual. It’s not talking about something that gets randomly passed down as gossip. I used the translation “testament”, as this conveys a similar sense of reporting another’s truth, but has a formal religious connotation.

The next one is takkahetu. I guess Ven Bodhi included the word “reasoning” in this entry and the next because the second element in these compounds is hetu, “cause, reason”. However, I don’t think hetu in this sense means “reasoning” as such. In these two terms, the instrumental case is lacking, and I believe the hetu has a purely syntactical role here. If we translate the other items literally as “don’t go by oral transmission”, etc., these two terms might be rendered, “don’t rely on logic”, etc. Such nuances are usually smoothed over in translation, but perhaps they shouldn’t be.

In any case, takka (Skt. tarka) is a standard Buddhist term for “logic”, and will be very familiar to the Tibetans!

Naya means something like “inference, drawing out a conclusion”. It’s not used much in the early texts, but the sense can be seen in such sentences as Mil 6.3.10:

sakkā pana tassa nibbānassa rūpaṃ vā saṇṭhānaṃ vā vayaṃ vā pamāṇaṃ vā opammena vā kāraṇena vā hetunā vā nayena vā upadassayitun
But is it possible to show that nibbana’s form or shape or age or measure by means of simile or reason or logic (hetu) or inference (naya)?

Or in Mil 1:

Nāgasenakathā citrā opammehi nayehi ca*
Nagasena’s speech is fancy with both simile and inference (naya)


After reflecting more on the grammatical nuances of the passage, I have revised my translation to better reflect the richness in phrasing.

Don’t go by oral transmission, don’t go by lineage, don’t go by testament, don’t go by canonical authority, don’t rely on logic, don’t rely on inference, don’t go by reasoned contemplation, don’t go by the acceptance of a view after consideration, don’t go by the appearance of competence, and don’t think “The ascetic is our respected teacher.”

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Thank you so much! This is VERY helpful.

I realize I should probably ask about # 4 -

as Tibetan readers will surely want to know about the literal meaning (as this will be a very surprising teaching for most):

I think it’s mā pitaka,sampadānena

Don’t rely on canonical authority, (Bhante Sujato)
Do not go by a collection of scriptures (Bhikkhu Bodhi)
Be not led by the authority of religious texts, (PTS)
Do not go by scriptural authority. (Piya Tan)
Do not go by scripture (Thanissaro)

and also

  1. mā ākāra,parivitakkena
    reasoned contemplation (Bhante Sujato)
    reasoned cogitation (Bhikkhu Bodhi)
    analogies, (Thanissaro)
    reasoned thought [by specious reasoning]. Piya Tan)
    considering appearances (PTS)

Okay, no worries!

  • piṭaka-sampadānena: The word piṭaka appears rarely in the canon. It has a basic sense of “basket” which occurs a few times in the Vinaya. The more familiar sense of “three baskets” for the Buddhist texts only appears in later strata. Sampadā is a very common word meaning “success, fulfilment, endowment”. Ven Bodhi’s reading as “collection of scriptures” seems a little obscure; I’m not sure where he gets the “collection” from. There does seem to be a possible sense of sampadā in this case, but it seems unlikely. If we compare a Sanskrit phrase like sarva-upaskara-sampadā “by all the paraphernalia for worshiping the Deity”, the sense would be something like “because of the success/completeness/endowment of the piṭaka”. In other words, one is impressed by the authority of the canon.
  • ākāra-parivitakkena: In this case, ākāra means “reason”, and vitakka means “thought”, so the terms together denote a process of rational contemplation. There’s no need for it to be “specious” reasoning; it is about the process of reason itself, not about a particular fallacy. The PTS translation is incorrect, as it relies on a different sense of ākāra.

Indeed. I wonder whether it would even be worth making a Sanskrit translation of this passage? One problem, though, is that many of these terms have senses in early Pali that might be quite different in the Sanskrit texts which Tibetans would be familiar with.

Thank you so much! These are the last three. Sorry that some of the transliteration symbols are coming up as little boxes here…

(8) mā dihi,nijjhāna-k,khantiyā
acceptance of a view after consideration, (Bhante Sujato)
by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, (Bhikkhu Bodhi)
by agreement through pondering views, (Thanissaro)
Do not go by acceptance [being convinced of] a view after pondering on it. (Piya Tan)
nor by the delight in speculative opinions, (PTS)

(9) mā bhavya,rpatāya
the appearance of competence, (Bhante Sujato)
by the seeming competence of a speaker, (Bhikkhu Bodhi)
by probability, (Thanissaro)
Do not go by (another’s) seeming ability (Piya Tan)
nor by the seeming possibilities, (PTS)

(10) mā samao no garu
or respect for your teacher. (Bhante Sujato)
or because you think: ‘This ascetic is our guru.’ (Bhikkhu Bodhi)
or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ (Thanissaro)
Do not go by the thought, “This recluse [holy man] is our teacher” [“This recluse is respected by us”]. (Piya Tan)
nor by the idea: ‘this is our teacher.’ (PTS)

Your source is not in Unicode. That is bad! Please get another source! Unicode has been the universal coding standard for a couple of decades now, we should not be using old, deprecated encodings at all.

Diṭṭhi is “view, theory”. Nijjhāna is to contemplate or think deeply about something. The tricky part of this is the word khanti. This most famously means “patience”, and is often mistranslated in such contexts. In fact here it means “acceptance, intellectual acquiescence”. The PTS translation is especially misleading.

The first element here is more commonly spelled (in a more Pali-sih, less Sanskritic way) as bhabba. It means “competent, capable”. The second element is rūpa, which is familiar in the sense of “material form”. But it has a number of uses, and used as a suffix like this it means “appears, seems”. Ven Bodhi has inserted “of a speaker” here, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Both Thanissaro and PTS seem to go by another sense of bhabba, but I can’t find any support for that meaning.

In my revised translation I moved towards a more literal reading as followed by most of the translators here:

and don’t think “The ascetic is our respected teacher.”

Ven Bodhi has “guru”, but I think it’s best to avoid modern Indianized words where possible, especially one with such charged connotations. I’m not sure why PTS has left “ascetic” out.

Bhante, can you explain the difference between takka, vi-takka, and anu-vitakka?

And the difference between jhāna and nij-jhāna? Going by context, “contemplation” would make sense in several contexts, but those two words sometimes appear together as if they’re synonyms. And there is a Dhamma-nij-jhāna that appears in some passages directly causing awakening.

Normally an unprefixed word tends to be less specialized—but not here! Takka seems to be used specifically in the sense of “logic, rational thought”, whereas vitakka has a more general meaning of “thought”, except in higher meditation where it means “application, placing the mind”. Anuvitakka also means “thought”, but has the nuance of “continued thought”.

Nijjhāna doesn’t have a strong or clearly defined doctrinal sense like jhāna. But it has a general sense of “pondering, deep thought, contemplation”.

When used in the stock phrase jhāyati pajjhāyati nijjhāyati avajjhāyati it is satirical or critical in intent.

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Thank you so much! The word “akusala” in the next line of the Kalama Sutta (see below) is either translated as “unwholesome” or as “unskillful”… What is the literal translation of that word?

As in:
But when you know for yourselves: ‘These things are unskillful, (Bhante Sujato)
But when you know for yourselves: ‘These things are unwholesome; (Bhikku Bodhi)
When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are unskillful; (Thanissaro)
When you know for yourselves, Kālāmas, ‘These things are unwholesome. (Piya Tan)
But when you know for yourselves that, ‘These dhammas are unskillful and unwholesome (PTS)

It’s descended from a root meaning “skilful”, but in usage is close to “wholesome” or simply “good”. It does tend to have a very “Buddhist” ring to it, in contrast with the more general ideas of “merit”, so I have used “skilful” to preserve that nuance. But I went back and forth on it many times!

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