The Buddha and the Kalamas

There is an old story called the Kalama Sutra. It is one of the oldest sutras and one of my favorites.

It goes something like this: The Buddha was traveling the world spreading the Dharma, teaching people that wanted to listen. He came upon a group of people known as the Kalamas and started explaining the Dharma to them. Their response was unusual.

They said, “We have had numerous spiritual teachers come here. Every new teacher comes and tells us to ignore the teachings we have heard before and to follow their doctrine only. This has made us doubtful and uncertain. What makes your teaching different? Why should we follow your authority and not the authority of the other teachers that came before you?”

The Buddha’s reply was unique.

He said, “You shouldn’t follow my authority. It’s good to be skeptical. It’s good to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Don’t believe things just because you’ve heard them from rumors or from authority figures or scriptures. Even if something has been repeated for generations, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge it. We should challenge everything. You should even challenge what I tell you. But challenge your own preconceptions too.

You didn’t need a religious teacher to come tell you that greed, hatred and delusion are bad. Your common sense agrees with that. You didn’t need a religious teacher to come and tell you that compassion and mindfulness are good. Your common sense agrees with that too.

I have only really come to teach skillful means, methods to deal with the suffering that pervades our lives. If my teachings are right, then the truth is within you already. Other teachings may be dogmatic and strict. Mine is not. I only teach suggestions for dealing with suffering.”

This is an important message in my opinion. I have a natural inclination to both be skeptical and to challenge authority. Unlike many other religious teachers, that is actually what the Buddha suggests to us. He had studied with several religious teachers in his time and he had decided that religion was not for him. He didn’t see the religions that he encountered as viable paths to spiritual truth or happiness. So, he created his own path.

In my opinion, he wasn’t trying to start a religion at all, he was just providing an example for us to follow, more of a way of life than a religion. His teachings weren’t given the label ‘religion’ until hundreds of years later.


Kalama Sutra for kids part one.

I’ve written my own version of the Kalama sutra to teach to the children at Dharma school. This is part one of a two part series that will end in my commentary. 

1. The Buddha traveled to a town of people called the Kalamas. The Kalamas were excited about his visit. They had heard the tales of his Enlightenment and his great teachings.

2. The Kalamas went to where the Buddha was camping. Some of them bowed, some saluted, and some simply sat down before him.

3. One of the Kalamas said, “There are many teachers who have come to visit us. They tell us their teachings and they tell us that the teachings of others are bad. This happens over and over, with each new teacher telling us that the other teachings we’ve learned are bad. How do we know who is telling us the truth? How do we know if you are?

4. The Buddha said, “Doubting is good. Do not believe something just because you’ve heard it a lot, or because it’s an old teaching, or because it’s in a book, or because it’s what a seemingly wise person tells you. When you yourselves can tell, ‘These things are not helpful. These things seem harmful,’ abandon them. Don’t accept teachings that don’t agree with your common sense.

5. “Does greed cause harm?” the Buddha asked. The Kalamas said, “Yes.” “Greed can cause us to take life, steal, and tell lies. And to tell others to do the same. This is very harmful.”

6. “Does hate cause harm?” “Yes” “Being given to hate can cause us to take life, steal, tell lies, and cause others to do the same. This is harmful.

7. “Does delusion cause harm?” “Yes” “Being given to delusion can cause us to take life, steal, and tell lies, and to cause others to do the same. This is harmful.”

8. “Are these things bad?” “Yes.”

9. “There fore, we know this. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, tradition, rumor, scripture, or another’s seeming ability. The truth is that we know the difference between right and wrong. Someone doesn’t need to tell us. If any teaching leads to harm, you should abandon it.”

10. “When things are good, we know they are good.”