Sutta study, Kalama Sutta (AN3.65)

I thought I would kick off the much requested and anticipated Sutta study and discussion:

Kalama sutta AN3.65

Discussion here: AN3.65 Kalamasutta - To the Kalamas by Bhante G

Some relevant issues to think about and discuss here (among others).

  1. What is the outcome of doing the following in the minds of the listner: denigrate, deride, and denounce the doctrines of others.
  2. discuss: do not go by a collection of scriptures.
  3. discuss: do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay
  4. discuss: do not go by the acceptance of a view after pondering it
  5. discuss: do not go by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think: ‘The ascetic is our guru.’
  6. when, Kālāmas, you know for yourselves ‘these things are unwholesome;. How can you know something is unwholesome?
  7. do you agree? “What do you think, Kālāmas? When craving arises in a person, is it for his welfare or for his harm?”“For his harm, Bhante.”
  8. How would you summarise this sutta, and what are its implications?

with metta


In my little book onKālāma Sutta, I address many of these points. The sutta offers both negative and positive criteria for moral decision making.

However, the question that looms in my mind is always what to make of the structure of these sentences that have no verb, and to marvel at the variety of verbs that translators supply.

mā anussavena, mā paramparāya, mā itikirāya, mā piṭakasampadānena, mā takkahetu, mā nayahetu, mā ākāraparivitakkena, mā diṭṭhinijjhānakkhantiyā, mā bhabbarūpatāya, mā samaṇo no garūti. (AN I.189)

The grammar is obviously intended as a prohibition with meaning “don’t” and the instrument of the verb anussavena etc. Why is no verb given? How are we supposed to guess the intentions of the author?

The context suggests a very much narrower interpretation of this passage than is often given by Buddhists. Far from being a “charter for free enquiry” as Soma Thera has suggested, it is quite focussed on how we behave.

Also none of the standard translations really seem to make sense of the list of prohibitions. As usually translated they seem to form a more or less random set of don’ts. But since when were Buddhist lists random? When I thought more about it, I could begin to see some organisation. I see three sets of criteria

Don’t use revelation, don’t use lineage, don’t use a quotation & story, don’t use tradition;
Don’t use pure reason, or inference, or the study of signs, or speculation, don’t just accept what seems likely;
Don’t use respect for a toiler.

The first set about about teachings and they begin with the closest to the source and become more distant from the source.

The second set are about using reasoning to try to work out what is morally right, starting with better and moving onto the worse methods of reasoning. Later we see that morality is a matter of observing the impact of our behaviour on others, so it cannot be solely a matter of reasoning, but must involve our practical knowledge (vijjā) of interacting with people.

I was ambivalent about the last and perhaps it is a category on it’s own. OTOH one could put it with the other items in set two and think of it as the laziest intellectual approach: not thinking at all, but doing what you are told to do.

In one accepts my translation, though there is no reason to think that anyone will, there are two layers of structure here: teachings (closer and further from the source); and reasoning (better and worse methods). Which is a bit more satisfying to my mind.

The irony with the Kālāmas is that after the initial question they take the least advisable route: they accept the Buddhist traditional view without question and they do so because a samaṇa tells them so. So, ironically, the Kālāmas are an example of the opposite of the message in the teaching.


The section on the four assurances could be said to be pure reasoning / inference. He also questioned them on whether something is ‘censured by the wise’. Let alone ‘quotation’, when the subject is the suttas. And so on…

And yet, I read him putting to use the resources available and bringing the kalamas to the edge of a position to explored it’s implications.

No one could do anything without reasoning or inference. No one could do anything by automatically rejecting ‘what seems likely’. And only Buddhas could Nibbana without the help of quotation, etc.

But when taking things in, there’s a choice of taking it provisionally or asserting it is true based on it’s provenance.

So it seems to me that he is talking about taking something uncritically, and taking them automatically as true based on the mentioned sources alone (which appears to be the original question they put to him: who speaks falsehood?).

It is technically incorrect to conflate reasoning and inference. Reasoning is a type of inference, and since the mid 1960s there has been a growing body of research to show that humans use that type of inference much less often than is generally assumed. Mostly we use non-rational forms of inference to solve problems, unless we have specific training in using logic. There is a very good book on the subject by Huge Mercier and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of reason.

Post hoc rationalisations for our actions and statements make up the bulk of what we call “reasoning”. Especially amongst religious people. In other words, reasons are things that we make up after the fact to explain our behaviour or our beliefs and defend them to others.

So yes, we can all find interpretations of texts that make sense, especially interpretations that confirm our worldview (as though nothing has changed in 2500 years). We can all put a spin on it and resolve the tensions. If creating the illusion of certainty is our practice, then sure, we can do that.


My intent was to quote from your post (which, I gather, quotes your translation of the sutta). I’m sorry, I guess inadvertently treated ‘reason’ and ‘reasoning’ to be roughly the same in this topic.

If I’m able to summarize my thoughts, my point was either the Buddha is talking about essential cognitive functions (that both a wordling and a Buddha make use of) which seems an absurd to list as a “don’t”, or he is talking about some misapplication of these functions, which yields certain results that seem true though are not.

So, from what I see, either he is blaming inference itself, any kind of it (being guilty of using it himself, and teaching others to listen to his dhamma, etc) – or that’s not quite what he meant. Hopefully gathering some context to develop an interpretation is not such a spin, or misrepresentation of what he wanted to convey.

I think this is a nice choice of sutta to begin with. It is oozing with common sense. The stock formula at the end is fairly inevitable where everyone goes for refuge (probably in reality many, but not all, did and maybe of those some didn’t stay the course). However, arguing for a teaching that encourages non-hatred, non-greed and non-delusion makes a great deal of sense. Even how non-delusion is discussed is open-ended and non-dogmatic. The four assurances are also a very pragmatic formulation (arguing for the benefits even if there isn’t another life or karmic results of actions) . It’s understandable why Bhikkhu Bodhi included this in his sutta anthology (along with a number of other sutta excerpts with similar pragmatic introductory advice).


…because scriptures can be misunderstood or even corrupted. It doesn’t mean never go by scripture. Scripture might say the same thing which is arrived at by ‘when you know for yourself this is…’ However real world situations are infinitely complex and while scripture will show you how to think (avoid craving, aversion and delusion) it wont tell you what to think.

Just because the lineage, or the temple policy is, or the nation of people think a certain way, do not let this group-think override your moral conscience. Toeing the ‘party line’ is not an option, if cessation of suffering is one’s goal (and not some other worldly goal). Hearsay- experience the teachings in the pages for yourself- it is not enough that it is in those ancient texts, or that the Buddha said it. It is the only way to make the teachings one’s own and come to a place where one is not ‘dependent on another’ for the dhamma. This goes for moral decisions too.

Some views are logical, but they have unintended consequences downstream, when compared to others.

Do not buy your bhanthe a fleet of limousines! Stay with one teacher as long as their is development, but then always do not be exclusive in your dhamma sources, as otherwise it will lock you down into a worldview which might be quite different to what the Buddha taught. This would not lead to enlightenment. One could argue that even the Buddha was a ‘our guru’ and the one we venerate. Stay positive and experiment, explore and experience the teaching. It is only then one can know… However listening with a closed and fault finding mind will lead to negativity. If we come across something in the suttas which doesnt seem like the word of the Buddha, are we strong enough in our understanding of the dhamma to say, this is not correct/not in line with the rest of the dhamma, or feel obligated to accept unthinkingly- ie blind faith, which the Kalama sutta is advocating against?

with metta


I find this sutta to be related to the Canki Sutta (MN 95) in that it has to do with how the Buddha taught to correctly approach views and the truth.

Bhante @sujato had great talk on this in his sutta study classes. I should find a link to it…

@Piotr, if you were refering to Bhante’s comprehensive talk on the Kalama Sutta then perhaps this is the one:

Talk 4 Approaching the dhamma in

If it was for the MN 95 it can be found here Bhante Sujato---Sutta Class (Majjhima Nikaya)---Santi FM 2007--2012

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To clarify this, certain teachers have certain predispositions: AN4.94. This is quite natural. People go on to develop specialisms, and the objective is to make most use of these skilled techniques to progress in the path more. Approaching a teacher or teaching with emphasis on the divine abodes or wisdom for example would help you develop more in those aspects. I would say that if there isn’t any further progress for 6, 7 years by following a particular teacher, it would be useful to follow another teacher’s practices- these days that might not necessarily mean moving but merely a change of practice where you are. When in a certain tradition it is easy to pick up attitudes and view points about matters of practice that may not fulfil all of one’s practice needs as there maybe defilements or wholesome elements that may go under the radar or undeveloped, respectively.

With metta

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Thank you @musiko! It’s the talk on Canki Sutta (MN 95) that I had in mind.

What is the outcome of doing the following in the minds of the listner: denigrate, deride, and denounce the doctrines of others.

The outcome would be similar to AN6.54.

…If someone with malicious intent were to abuse and insult these six teachers with their hundreds of followers, would they not make much bad karma?” “Yes, sir.” “They would indeed. But someone who abuses and insults a single person accomplished in view with malicious intent makes even more bad karma. Why is that? Brahmin Dhammika, I say that outside of the Buddhist community there is no injury like that of harming one’s spiritual companions. So you should train like this: ‘We will have no malicious intent for those who we want to have as our spiritual companions.’ That is how you should train…

Any actions related to lust, hate, delusion are unwholesome.
Body misconduct, verbal misconduct, and mind misconduct are unwholesome.

What is meat by ‘delusion’ here? Is it not having mundane right view?

with metta

Delusion here is “moho”.

“Mendicants, there are these three sources that give rise to deeds. What three? Greed, hate, and delusion are sources that give rise to deeds (kamma). Any deed that emerges from greed, hate, or delusion—born, sourced, and originated from greed, hate, or delusion—is unskillful, blameworthy, results in suffering, and leads to the creation of more deeds, not their cessation. These are three sources that give rise to deeds". AN3.111

Or perhaps the difference of ‘essential cognitive functions’ developed by the noble contemplative without the misapplication and assumptions that mere inference would give.

Similar to the Kesaputta/Kālāma Sutta there is SN. 35.153 – Atthinukhopariyāyasuttaṃ (Discourse on ‘Is there a Method). Here the emphasis is also direct empirical knowledge where inference is simply kept in its place as something ‘apart’ (aññatra) from such.

“Is there a method of exposition, bhikkhus, by means of which a bhikkhu—apart from faith, apart from personal preference, apart from oral tradition, apart from reasoned reflection, apart from acceptance of a view after pondering it — can declare final knowledge thus: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being’?” (Bodhi)

One deluded does not know the good,
One deluded (moho) does not see the Dhamma;
Blinding darkness then prevails
When delusion overwhelms a person.

But one who has abandoned delusion
Is not bewildered by confusing things.
He puts an end to all delusion
As the sunrise dispels the dark.
Iti 88

This sutta suggests that delusion (moho) is related to moral conduct as well as the development of insight; a statement which neatly ties into attaining nibbana.

“Mahāli, greed is a cause for doing bad deeds; hatred is a cause for doing bad deeds; delusion is a cause for doing bad deeds An 10.47

Lobho nidānaṃ kammānaṃ samudayāya, doso nidānaṃ kammānaṃ samudayāya, moho nidānaṃ kammānaṃ samudayāya- AN 6.39

Kamma and moral acts have delusion or lack thereof, at its root.

“And what, bhikkhus, is right view that is affected by the taints, partaking of merit, ripening in the acquisitions? ‘There is what is given and what is offered and what is sacrificed; there is fruit and result of good and bad actions; there is this world and the other world; there is mother and father; there are beings who are reborn spontaneously; there are in the world good and virtuous recluses and brahmins who have realised for themselves by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world.’ This is right view affected by taints, partaking of merit, ripening in the acquisitions.

“And what, bhikkhus, is right view that is noble, taintless, supramundane, a factor of the path? The wisdom, the faculty of wisdom, the power of wisdom, the investigation-of-states enlightenment factor, the path factor of right view in one whose mind is noble, whose mind is taintless, who possesses the noble path and is developing the noble path: this is right view that is noble, taintless, supramundane, a factor of the path.

“One makes an effort to abandon wrong view and to enter upon right view: this is one’s right effort. Mindfully one abandons wrong view, mindfully one enters upon and abides in right view: this is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three states run and circle around right view, that is, right view, right effort, and right mindfulness. MN 117

Right view, being one of the components of wisdom (panna) in the Noble Eightfold Path, the other component being Right intension, seems to lead to a wholesome (ie moral) view of the world. MN117 itself states that the 8 steps of the noble eightfold path have a causal sequence, at least in a supportive kind of causality, when it says the right concentration is arrived at by the seven previous steps giving rise to right samadhi (and not just any concentration).

It can be successfully argued that it is not a necessity for belief in kamma, etc. for a person to be moral. This is clearly stated in the Kalama sutta. It is a must to rely on one’s conscience, head and heart, to know if something is wholesome for oneself, and others. However belief in kamma, the causes of rebirth, the fortunate rebirth of devas, parents being kammically different, enlightened beings after removing the three stains, all lead to moral behaviour and are all in one way or the other connected to alobha, adosa and amoha (generosity/letting-go, loving-kindness and wisdom).

Of the beliefs noted above as mundane right view, importantly a belief that Nibbana has been achieved in the past and remains achievable in the future is necessary to embark on the path, and not postpone it to a later date. This could be seen as a wise belief, leading to what is good for oneself and others.

Amoha, or wisdom guides the practitioner along the whole of the Noble Eightfold Path.

with metta

I don’t know if this has been pointed out before, but the four ‘consolations’ at the end are not an open-minded discussion about the afterlife, it’s a direct reply to the sectarian teachers Ajita Kesakambali and Pūraṇa Kassapa.

Which also clarifies who is meant when in the beginning the Kalamas say “some ascetics and brahmins come to Kesamutta and explain and promote only their own doctrine”

To prove my suggestion see the following by Buddha (from Kalamasutta) and Ajita/Pūraṇa (from DN 2) side by side:

Buddha: If it turns out there is another world, and good and bad deeds have a result…
Sace kho pana atthi paro loko, atthi sukatadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko

Ajita: There’s no fruit or result of good and bad deeds. There’s no afterlife.
natthi sukatadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko, natthi ayaṃ loko, natthi paro loko

Buddha: If it turns out that bad things happen to people who do bad things…
Sace kho pana karoto karīyati pāpaṃ

Pūraṇa Kassapa: They do nothing wrong when they kill, steal, break into houses, plunder wealth, steal from isolated buildings, commit highway robbery, commit adultery, and lie.
…dinnaṃ ādiyato, sandhiṃ chindato, nillopaṃ harato, ekāgārikaṃ karoto, paripanthe tiṭṭhato, paradāraṃ gacchato, musā bhaṇato, karoto na karīyati pāpaṃ

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Interesting observation!

I’ve never seen that pointed out before; not sure it’s “proof” but it is suggestive.