6. Epistemology (iv): Kalama Sutta

In this post, we discuss the Kalama Sutta, in which Buddha makes known his opinion regarding using word-based knowledge in the search for an unchanging 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 was not only did the gurus’ teachings vary, but they also criticized each other. By asking Buddha whose teachings they should follow, the Kalamans wanted to know how to evaluate the gurus who taught only the Truth that was permanent and unchanging. 

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, making assumptions, etc. Invariably, the medium of transmission for all ten is through words. The gurus who came to visit the Kalamans got their knowledge from their teachers through words, either verbally or in writing. Similarly, they transmit knowledge to their students verbally or through writing.

As Dr. Fisch suggested in the previous post, inferentially connected words are like metaphors that give meaning to each other. All they can do is “render explicit” concepts that are “fashioned and conceptualized in our minds in ways that 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.” 

In Buddhism, “how things stand in themselves” refers to the underlying nature behind all the phenomena in the universe. In Buddhism, there is only one verifiable and perduring nature of reality in the cosmos, and that is mentality. Furthermore, mentality comes in two states: active and quiescent. The quiescent mentality is the Ultimate Reality and Truth in Buddhism because, without being active, the “realness” of the quiescent mentality can never change. In Buddhism, only an unchanging reality can be the Ultimate. So, for the Kalamans to have a teacher who can teach an Unchanging Truth, they must find an enlightened person.   

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 in words. When they had learned enough and were ready to realize the Ultimate Truth personally, Buddha told them to relinquish the word-based knowledge they learned from him so they could 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. 

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 have learned enough and are prepared to embark on the remaining journey to realize the Ultimate Truth personally, they should let go of Buddha Dharma he has taught them, let alone other non-Buddhist teachings. Again, Buddha practiced what he would teach his followers after his enlightenment. 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 to search for the Truth with ease. 

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. 

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