Structure of Kalama Sutta (AN3.65)

The Kalama Sutta is the single sutta in which the Buddha seems to suggest that it doesn’t matter if one believes in rebirth or not - it would still be good to liberate the mind.

I don’t want to discuss the typical epistemological or philosophical implications but more structural ones.

First of all the name of the sutta is not kālāma sutta but kesamuttisutta. Kesa means hair, mutti means release/freedom.

The sutta begins with the declaration of the Kalamas about anonymous “some ascetics and brahmins who come to Kesamutta” and that their teachings confuse them.

What do we get to know about these teachers’ teaching? Only at the end of the sutta the Buddha says: “If it turns out there is another world, and good and bad deeds have a result…” and “If it turns out there is no other world, and good and bad deeds don’t have a result”. In other words he says “Even if there is no rebirth and kamma…”

But as it became more acknowledged recently, in Magadha and Kosala it was the common understanding that karmic retribution and rebirth are real. So who would at all have a teaching of non-kamma of non-rebirth?

There is only one prominent sectarian teacher with such a dhamma in these exact words: It is Ajita Kesakambali (as mentioned in DN 2).

Based on that the Kalamas were not confused by “some ascetics and brahmins”, but by Ajita Kesakambali. I would even go further and say that the name of the village could be related. “Kesamutti” could mean “Freed by Kesa(kambali)”.

In any case, the audience would be lay people who hold fundamentally diffierent beliefs than the Buddha (and most other setarian teachers). What kind of teaching would such an audience get? A teaching about nibbana? The gradual training? Most probably not. Keep in mind that Anāthapiṇḍika got the higher teaching only on his death bed (MN 143). See also other suttas in which only gifted individual lay people got the teaching of liberation (AN 8.12, AN 8.21, AN 8.22, MN 56, MN 91, DN 3, DN 5, DN 14).

So if higher teaching depended on the spiritual maturity of individuals it seems very unlikely that the Buddha would teach liberation (or brahmaviharas) to an entire village population which seems not ready/mature at all. We would rather expect a teaching on sila, basic ethics. And this is exactly what we get in the first half of the sutta.

Then there is a cut and suddenly the text continues with “Then that noble disciple (ariyasāvaka),”. Which noble disciple?! Look it up, he was not introduced before, there was no mention of noble ones or monastics at all before. To me, this is a clear insertion that was not originally there. And it is in this insertion that the brahmaviharas are taught.

My suggestion in summary is that there was a village whose main dhamma teacher was Ajita Kesakambali, who in contrast to most other important teachers claimed that kamma and rebirth don’t exist. Probably other teachers already tried to convince the Kalamas of their version of kamma and rebirth. But in the end it was the Buddha who convinced them of the relevance of ethical behavior, and maybe of rebirth too.


Let me ask a question.

Why did Buddha said this on these 2 suttas? Note: one can find more of these type of sutta.

MN 131: One Glorious Night

Don’t run back to the past,
don’t hope for the future.
What’s past is left behind;
the future has not arrived;

and experience in the present
are clearly seen in every case.
Knowing this, foster it—
unfaltering, unshakable.

MN 2 Sabbasava Sutta

Take an uneducated ordinary person who has not seen the noble ones, and is neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the noble ones. They’ve not seen good persons, and are neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the good persons. They don’t understand to which things they should pay attention and to which things they should not pay attention. So they pay attention to things they shouldn’t and don’t pay attention to things they should.

Because of paying attention to what they should not and not paying attention to what they should, unarisen defilements arise and arisen defilements grow.

This is how they attend improperly: ‘Did I exist in the past? Did I not exist in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? After being what, what did I become in the past? Will I exist in the future? Will I not exist in the future? What will I be in the future? How will I be in the future? After being what, what will I become in the future?’ Or they are undecided about the present thus: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? This sentient being—where did it come from? And where will it go?’

When they attend improperly in this way, one of the following six views arises in them and is taken as a genuine fact. The view: ‘My self exists in an absolute sense.’ The view: ‘My self does not exist in an absolute sense.’ The view: ‘I perceive the self with the self.’ The view: ‘I perceive what is not-self with the self.’ The view: ‘I perceive the self with what is not-self.’ Or they have such a view: ‘This self of mine is he who speaks and feels and experiences the results of good and bad deeds in all the different realms. This self is permanent, everlasting, eternal, and imperishable, and will last forever and ever.’ This is called a misconception, the thicket of views, the desert of views, the trick of views, the evasiveness of views, the fetter of views. An uneducated ordinary person who is fettered by views is not freed from birth, old age, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. They’re not freed from suffering, I say.

1 Like

truth_of_rebirth.pdf (289.7 KB)

It would be good if you could add a link to the sutta in your op.

Well, suttas can have different names, can’t they? As well, there is a variant reading where the town is named “Kesaputta”.


This sutra in one of those cases when looking at parallels is eye-opening. MA 16 is a little different in a way that’s significant to modern readers, lacking the bit modern readers fixate on that sounds like modern skepticism.

Your theory about the name of the town is interesting, and MA 16 supports it in a certain way. It appears to have been Keśaputta in the Sarvâstivāda version, which could well mean “Keśa’s disciple.” This matches the alternate readings in Pali that give the town’s name as Kesaputta.

One of the problems with this theory in general is that the theories ascribed to the different heretical teachers aren’t consistent across canons. So, it makes sense that the belief in no rebirth would be ascribed to Ajita in Pali sources, but in other canons it was a different heretic. The different early Buddhist schools agree on the names of the heretics and on the different heretical theories quite well, but which theory was who’s is mixed up.

So, to give a couple concrete examples, the Dīrgha Āgama version of the Fruits of the Ascetic Sutra (DA 27 = DN 2) has Maskarin Gośālīputra as not believing in karma and rebirth. In the Ekôttarika Āgama parallel (EA 43.7), it appears to be Pūraṇa Kāśyapa who doesn’t believe in rebirth.

I’m not entirely sure ATM if Ajita had the same wrong view in Sarvâstivāda sources after doing some searching. I’m not finding a passage that tells us in Chinese, but it’s difficult to search because the Indic name is transliterated in so many ways. It would be really interesting to know if they give him the same view as Theravada do. It would really bolster this way of reading the Kalama Sutra.


Please specify your question. I don’t know what you mean. Of course I don’t know why the Buddha said anything specifically…

Could you please specify that? In the Pali suttas also there are instances where Purana Kassapa appears to not believe in kamma - specifically in SN 2.30, SN 22.60, SN 46.56. Also he has teachings of no sin and no merit, so basically no kamma in that sense (SN 24.6, SN 42.13, SN 44.9, MN 60, MN 76, DN2).

What makes the connection of the kesamuttisutta to Ajita special is the specific wording: “natthi paro loko” and “natthi sukatadukkaṭānaṁ kammānaṁ phalaṁ vipāko”. These are part of a text module repeated quite often in the suttas and explicitly associated with Ajita in DN 2, i.e. “There’s no fruit or result of good and bad deeds. There’s no afterlife.”

Is this explicit teaching associated with different ascetics in the Sutras? Is anyone named at all in connection with them?

If you follow my links to translations, you can see the way the different theories were presented in the parallels to DN 2. My main point is just that this particular heretical view that includes “there’s no present or future world” etc moves around from one heretic to another in the parallels. It’s true, there are a couple of them that have that theme, so there’s wiggle room.

Oh, there are parallels for the Sarvâstivāda version of the heretical views in SA. I translated the sutras parallels to DN 2 a while back, but they are also parallels to SN 24 suttas that also present the views without attaching them to the heretics by name. They start as SA 35.40 and continue to SA 35.67.


That’s the case in the Pali suttas as well. Sometimes Makkhali and Ajita are mixed up, sometimes Makkhali and Purana Kassapa. Possibly post-Buddha teachers/commentators didn’t distinguish no-kamma from no-free-will and so names were wrongly attributed and thus found entry into the suttas/sutras.