22. Epistemology (ii) Kalama Sutta

In this post, we discuss Buddha’s teachings in the Kalama Sutta regarding using word-based knowledge in the search for Truth. 

Kalama Sutta (Chinese=卡拉瑪經), also known as Kesamutti Sutta, “is a discourse of the Buddha contained in the Aṅguttara Nikaya (Chinese=增一阿含經) of the Tripiṭaka (Chinese=三藏經).” 

On the day that Buddha passed the village of Kesaputta, he was greeted by its inhabitants, a clan called the Kalamans. While the Kalamans were very happy to see Buddha, they were also eager to ask him for advice on a dilemma they faced when other gurus visited. They asked Buddha, Many wandering holy men and ascetics pass through, expounding their teachings and criticizing the teachings of others. So whose teachings should we follow?” 

In other words, the Kalamans wanted to know how to judge the holy men and ascetics who came to preach. They wanted to know whose teaching to believe in. Their dilemma is that not only do the gurus’ teachings vary, but they also criticize each other.   

In evaluating these holy men and ascetics, Buddha instructed the Kalamans not to rely on the following ten sources.

These ten instructions are (Pali expression in parathesis):

1) Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing (anussava);

2) nor upon tradition (paramparā);

3) nor upon rumor (itikirā);

4) nor upon what is in a scripture (piṭaka-sampadāna);

5) nor upon surmise (takka-hetu);

6) nor axioms (naya-hetu);

7) nor upon specious reasoning (ākāra-parivitakka);

8) nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over (diṭṭhi-nijjhān-akkh-antiyā);

9) nor upon another’s seeming ability (bhabba-rūpatāya);

10) nor upon consideration, “The monk is our teacher” (samaṇo no garū).

A careful look at the list reveals that all ten items are ways of transmitting knowledge verbally, through writing, or by making assumptions. Invariably, the medium of transmission for all three is through words. For example, the gurus who came to visit the Kalamans get their knowledge from their teachers verbally or in writing. Similarly, they transmit knowledge to their students verbally or through writing.

As Dr. Fisch suggested, words are like inferentially connected metaphors that give meaning to each other. All they do is “render explicit” the conceptions created in “our mind in ways we do not govern.” While words allow humans to “know pretty much about the self we experience, the world we experience, the world we find ourselves living in,” they do not allow us to understand how things stand in themselves. 

Citta is the quiescent mentality of the Ultimate Reality and Truth of the Cosmos that never changes in Buddhism. Mentality is how things stand in themselves in nature. However, knowledge about mentality cannot be gained through inferentially connected words but must be obtained empirically, as Adyashanti and others have shown. Therefore, if these holy men and ascetics only had word-based knowledge, they could not be relied upon to be consistent with themselves, let alone with each other. Indeed, as Buddha teaches in Two Truths, conventional truths are relative, and the gurus’ knowledge could change as they continue to learn. 

In fact, Buddha himself experienced what the Kalamans experienced. The two gurus he studied under, Alara Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra, taught Buddha differently. When Buddha discovered they had not realized what they taught, he refused their invitations to join their hermitages and teach with them. Instead, he left them and their knowledge behind to search for the Truth himself.  

Moreover, Buddha followed his beliefs regarding what and when to teach. Shakyamuni Buddha chose not to start teaching until after his enlightenment. Once he is enlightened and realizes the Ultimate Reality and how things stand in themselves in nature, his teachings are bound to be consistent because nature never changes. Only then can his teachings be consistent not only with himself but also be consistent with the teachings of Buddhas before him and those who will follow him. The teachings of all Buddhas from eons past or future are consistent with each other because they are all about how things stand in themselves in nature. 


Of course, Buddha wanted the Kalamans to know the Ultimate Truth. Therefore, he advised them to be cautious when using word-based knowledge as their only means of knowledge in their search for a consistent Truth. It is the same instruction Buddha gives to his followers. He asked his followers not to be too attached to what he teaches them. When they had learned enough and were ready to realize the Truth, Buddha told them to relinquish the knowledge they learned from him to finish their remaining journeys on their own. 

Diamond Sutra (Chinese=金剛般若波羅蜜多經/金剛經) is “a Mahāyāna (Buddhist) sutra from the genre of Prajñāpāramitā (‘perfection of wisdom’) sutras. Translated into a variety of languages over a broad geographic range, the Diamond Sūtra is one of the most influential Mahayana sutras in East Asia, and it is particularly prominent within the Chan (or Zen) tradition, along with the Heart Sutra.”

In the Diamond Sutra, Buddha instructs the bhiksu (Sanskrit, commonly translated into English as a Buddhist monk, Chinese=比丘) as follows:

“You bhiksus should understand my teachings as the Parable of Raft: even Buddha Dharma must be relinquished, let alone the non-Buddha dharmas (Chinese=如等比丘,知我說法,如筏諭者,法尚應捨, 何況非法).” 

The parable of the raft involved a person using a raft to cross a river. Once the rafter was on the other side, he wondered if he should continue the journey with or without the raft. Buddha suggested that he should continue without the raft.

The raft is a metaphor for Buddhist teachings. Like the rafter who has reached the shore was ready to change course, Buddha wants his followers to know that when they are prepared to change course, they should let go of what he has taught them, let alone other non-Buddhist teachings, to embark on their journeys on their own. Again, that was what Buddha did himself. By the time he sat down at the Bodhi Tree, he had relinquished everything he ever had: his princely life, lessons from the gurus, and Jainistic asceticism. By letting go of his attachments to worldly possessions, Buddha was ready to go on a different path in pursuit of the Truth he searched for. 

That was also why, in their first encounter, Master Zhang Ja told his student, the future Dharma Jing Kong, that “seeing through, letting go” is the principle behind all Buddhist cultivations. In acquiring knowledge about the Ultimate Reality/Truth, it is better to relinquish all secular attachments and maintain a hate-free, malice-free, undefiled, and purified mind to make enlightenment easier. 

Indeed, Buddhism is the only education where a teacher asks his students to relinquish his teachings in order to graduate.