“Doubt Everything. Find Your Own Light.” What the Buddha Really Said.
The instruction of the Kalamas (Kalama Sutta) is justly famous for it’s encouragement of free inquiry; the spirit of the sutta signifies a teaching that is exempt from fanaticism, bigotry, dogmatism, and intolerance.
“Doubt Everything. Find Your Own Light.” What the Buddha Really Said
The Buddha is often quoted as having said, “Doubt everything. Find your own light.” The “quote” is actually a 6 word summary of a much longer teaching, The Kalama Sutta. As Soma Thera writes in the quote above, this teaching is important as it reminds us to actively cultivate our capacity for critical thinking, thus avoiding the pitfalls of extremism.
What follows is my re-writing of The Kalama Sutta. I’ve based it on Soma Thera’s translation of the scripture in Pali and the commentary by Bhikkhu Bodhi. The original has a lot of repetitive phrasing, and is beautiful to read. I recommend finding some quiet time to appreciate the full text. My version, with all due respect, is concise, and I apologise for anything that’s been lost in translation. The description at the beginning of how the Kamalas go to the Buddha, some bowing, some with their hands in prayer position etc, is found in the translation from the Pali texts. I think this detail of the scripture is particularly lovely.
The Kalama Sutta: Doubt Everything. Find Your Own Light
THE KALAMAS WELCOME THE BUDDHA
1. Gotama the Buddha, with his monks, would walk from village to village, sharing his teachings which are known as the Dhamma. One day, they stopped at a town called Kesaputta, and the citizens, known as the Kalamas, welcomed the Enlightened One and his disciples.
2. The Kalamas were in the habit of receiving preachers, but given this man’s particular reputation, they were curious as to whether he could clarify their concerns. They went to him.Some bowed to him. Some exchanged courteous and friendly greetings. Some of them saluted him with their hands held in prayer over their hearts. Some announced their name & clan. And some simply sat down in silence.
3. Having taken their place, they presented to him their dilemma.
“We are often visited by teachers,” they explained. “They speak of rebirth, and karma, and good and evil. But each one tells us something different. Each one tells us that his doctrine is right, and to disregard the teachings of others. Who should we believe? How can we distinguish between what is true and what is false?”
DOUBT AND VALIDATION
4.The Buddha reassured them that, under the circumstances, it’s right to doubt everything. He advised them: “Don’t believe in something just because it has been aquired or seemingly validated through
- rumour or gossip
- surmise, that is, lack of evidence
- axiom that is, regarded as self-evident
- specious reasoning, that is, clever but unsound
- personal bias, opinion or prejudice
- someone’s ability or reputation
- or because you’ve heard it from your teacher
He clarified, “When you yourselves know that something is bad, blameable, and dis-encouraged by the wise, then stay well clear of it. When you know that certain actions will lead to harm and malice, abandon them. But, as we know, ethical boundaries are not always clearly defined. Let’s look at this in detail.”
DEFINING THE NEGATIVE
5, 6, 7. “What do you think, Kalamas?’” the Buddha asked, “Do the attitudes of greed, hatred and delusion help us or do us harm?”
“They harm,” replied the Kalamas.
“So, a person who is motivated by greed, hatred and delusion, and who consequently kills, steals, is adulterous, and lies, will inevitably prompt others to do the same. Will that lead to long-term negative consequences?”
“Yes, of course,” the Kalamas replied.
8. “So what is your conclusion?” the Buddha asked. “Are these things good or bad? When these things occur, do we look to blame someone? Are these things discouraged or encouraged by the wise?”
“Oh, they’re bad,” replied the Kalamas. “They incite us to seek someone to blame. They’re discouraged by the wise.”
“So can we be clear?” said the Buddha. “If these things are acted upon and observed, are the long-term consequences harmful and negative, or not? What do you think?”
“These things.” replied the Kalamas, “Most definitely lead to harmful and negative outcomes.”
9. “Well, then, this you know,” said the Buddha, “Don’t believe something just because it has been aquired or seemingly validated by repetition, tradition, rumour, scripture, surmise, (lack of evidence), axiom (regarded as self-evident), specious reasoning (clever but unsound), personal bias, another’s ability or reputation, or because you’ve heard it from your teacher. You yourselves know: These things are bad, blameable and prohibited by the wise. You know that these things will lead to harmful and negative outcomes. So abandon them.”
DEFINING THE POSITIVE
10. “Knowing this,” continued the Buddha, “you also intrinsically know what is good, what does not incite blame, and what is praised by the wise. You understand that positive actions and attitudes, if undertaken and observed, will lead to benefit and happiness for yourself and others. So these things can be believed and acted upon. But, as we know, ethical boundaries are not always clearly defined. Let’s look at this in detail.”
THE ABSENCE OF GREED, HATE AND DELUSION
11, 12, 13. “From your own observation of life, Kalamas, tell me what you think’ said the Buddha. ‘Does the absence of greed, hate and delusion lead to benefit or harm? Put another way, do generosity, a loving attitude, and a clear mind reap beneficial or harmful consequences?”
“They have beneficial consequences,” agree the Kalamas.
“Do you agree, then,” continued the Buddha, “That a person who is motivated by generosity, loving-kindness and clarity will respect life in all its forms, will be content, will be faithful and honest, and will thus encourage others to act likewise? Will that result in long-term happiness for himself and others?”
“Oh, absolutely,” replied the Kalamas.
14. ‘‘So what is your conclusion?” the Buddha asked. ‘Are generosity, loving-kindness and clarity good or bad? When these things occur, do we look to blame someone? Are these things discouraged or encouraged by the wise?”
“These things are good. They do not incite us to blame someone. These things are praised by the wise.”
“So, from your own ethical and moral enquiry,” asked the Buddha, “What do you know to be true? If these things are undertaken and observed, will they lead to happiness for self and others, or not?”
“They will lead to happiness,” replied the Kalamas. “We know this to be true.”
15. “Well, then, this you know,” said the Buddha, “Don’t believe something just because it has been aquired or seemingly validated by repetition, tradition, rumour, scripture, surmise, (lack of evidence), axiom (regarded as self-evident), specious reasoning (clever but unsound), personal bias, another’s ability or reputation, or because you’ve heard it from your teacher. You yourselves know: These things are good, they do not incite blame. They are praised by the wise. You know that these things will lead to happiness and positive outcome. So abide by them.”
THE FOUR EXALTED DWELLINGS
16. “Kalamas,’ said the Buddha, “The follower of the Noble Ones wants for nothing, bears no ill-well, and is free from delusion. He exhibits clear comprehension and mindfulness. Having pervaded all, he lives with the attitudes of friendliness, compassion, contentment and calm. He has pervaded all four quarters, above, below and throughout. He has pervaded all because he is that which exists in all living beings everywhere, throughout the entire world. And this great, exalted boundless, energy of friendliness, compassion, contentment and calm is free of hate and malice.”
THE FOUR SOLACES
17. “Kalamas,” said the Buddha, ‘the follower of the Noble Ones has a mind which is free of hate, free of malice, a mind which is innocent, and pure. To such a mind, four consolations are immediately and always available:
- Supposing there is life after death, and that harmful or beneficial actions have consequences, then, having done good, I will rise to heaven, and attain the state of bliss.
- Supposing there is no life after death, and harmful or beneficial actions leave no trace, then, if I live free from hatred and malice, with generosity and loving-kindness, at least in this world and in this life, I will be happy.
- Supposing negative consequences do indeed follow negative actions, and yet I choose to always act with goodness – then no negative consequences will arise for me.
- And supposing negative consequences do not follow negative actions, I will nonetheless be purified.”
“Marvelous!”, cried the Kalamas. “Wonderful! It’s as though someone has turned right way up that which was upside down! It’s as though one has revealed that which was hidden, has given direction to one who was lost, has shone light into the darkness! Those who have eyes will see, and so, Blessed One, you have explained to us the Dhamma. Let us come to you, Gotama the Buddha, for refuge. Let us come to your disciples for refuge. As of today, O Blessed One, regard us as your lay followers, who come to you for refuge!”
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and that the next time you see the Buddha’s “quote”, “Doubt everything. Find your own light,” you’ll appreciate it’s significance in a new way.
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