Filed in Theravada

Lost in Quotation

What do we miss when we don't read the whole sutta?Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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lost in quotationMany people who don’t know much about old Buddhist texts often know one passage from the Pali canon: the part of the Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 3.65) stating that old texts can’t be trusted.

Quotes from this passage come in many shapes and sizes. Some of them are short sound bites, like the message that was rubber-stamped on the envelope of a letter I once received:

Follow your own sense of right and wrong.
—The Buddha

There’s also the desktop wallpaper:

Believe nothing, no matter who said it, not even if I said it, if it doesn’t fit in with your own reason and common sense.
—The Buddha

Even scholarly citations of the sutta give the same message. Here’s the entire quote from the sutta in a recent book:

When you know for yourselves that these things are wholesome… these things, when entered upon and undertaken, incline toward welfare and happiness—then, Kalamas, having come to them you should stay with them.

Taken together, these quotes justify our tendency to pick what we like from the old texts and throw the rest away. No need to understand the larger context of the dharma they teach, the Buddha seems to be saying. Take what you need and leave the rest.

But if you look at the entire passage in the Kalama Sutta, you discover that these quotes give only part of the picture. The Buddha’s skepticism toward reliable authorities extends inside as well as out:

So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.”

Notice the words in italics, the ones that usually get dropped from the quote or sloughed over when they’re included. When the Buddha says that you can’t go by logical deduction, inference, or analogies, he’s saying that you can’t always trust your sense of reason. When he says that you can’t go by agreement through pondering views (i.e., what seems to fit in with what you already believe) or by probability, he’s saying that you can’t always trust your common sense. And, of course, you can’t always trust teachers, scriptures, or traditions. So where can you place your trust? You have to put things to the test in your own thoughts, words, and deeds, to see what actually leads to suffering and what leads to its end.

When you know for yourselves that “these dharmas are unskillful; these dharmas are blameworthy; these dharmas are criticized by the wise; these dharmas, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering”—then you should abandon them.

When you know for yourselves that “these dharmas are skillful; these dharmas are blameless; these dharmas are praised by the wise; these dharmas, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness”—then you should enter and remain in them.

The word dharma in these passages means three things in one: teaching, mental quality, and action. Teachings are naturally related to the mind states and actions they inspire, so they should be judged by the results they give when put into action. True dharma is what works in leading to genuine well-being. False dharma is what doesn’t.

But even when judging the results of your own actions, you can’t simply take your own ideas of “what works” as a trustworthy standard. After all, you can easily side with your greed, aversion, or delusion, setting your standards too low. So to check against this tendency, the Buddha recommends that you also take into consideration the views of the wise, for you’ll never grow until you allow your standards to be challenged by theirs.

Now, if you’re expecting quick access to a totally reliable authority, this may sound like a catch: If you’re not wise enough to trust your own judgment, how can you recognize who’s really wise? But it’s not a catch. It’s simply the way we have to operate when developing any kind of skill—your appreciation of good carpentry, for example, grows as you master carpentry yourself— and the Buddha is making the point that this is how to approach the dharma: as a skill to be mastered. As with any skill, your inner sensitivity and assurance as to who’s truly wise in the skill grows only through your willingness to learn.

In giving advice on how to learn this skill, the Buddha is speaking not with the authority of your creator who can tell you what you have to believe, but with the authority of an expert in his field, one who knows from experience what does and doesn’t work. If you want to learn from him, you’re wise to accept his observations on how it’s best done. The first thing to recognize is that there are others who have mastered the skill before you and that they have some important things to teach.

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marginal person's picture

The words of the original Buddha, if he did exist are lost in the fog of a pre-literate culture.
When people attempt to convince others that their Buddha stated this or that, basically what they`re hearing is the sound of their own voice.

Dominic Gomez's picture

OTOH, so-called "literate" cultures don't often contribute much of positive value to the world.

marginal person's picture

Preliterate simply means cultures which did not use written language. Any positive or negative connotations you bring to it are your own.
My point was the difficulty in ascertaining with any degree of accuracy who Buddha was and what he said.
No judgement was made or intended regarding the superiority or inferiority of preliterate societies

Dominic Gomez's picture

Pre-literate teachers utilized oral tradition to pass wisdom on to future generations. The onus was on trusted students to memorize accurately.

marginal person's picture

OTOH, in passing on wisdom to future generations, these preliterate teachers were extremely rigorous in omitting any beliefs or practices resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown or trust in magic or chance.
As for the clever students entrusted with passing on this wisdom, it is enough to say they had memories like elephants (in fact elephants often consulted them).
The palest ink is superior to the best memory. (Chinese proverb).

Dominic Gomez's picture

And so we have the sutras, written records of oral transmissions.

mahakala's picture

Speaking of "lost in quotation.." The gods, claim the hymns of the Rg Veda, create the universe from chaos, they hold (dhar-) the earth and sun and stars apart, they support (dhar-) the sky away and distinct from earth, and they stabilize (dhar-) the quaking mountains and plains. The gods, mainly Indra, then deliver and hold order from disorder, harmony from chaos, stability from instability - actions recited in the Veda with the root of word dharma. In hymns composed after the mythological verses, the word dharma takes expanded meaning as a cosmic principle and appears in verses independent of gods. It evolves into a concept that has a dynamic functional sense in Atharvaveda for example, where it becomes the cosmic law that links cause and effect through a subject. Dharma, in these ancient texts, also takes a ritual meaning. The ritual is connected to the cosmic, and ‘‘dharmani’’ is equated to ceremonial devotion to the principles that gods used to create order from disorder, the world from chaos. Past the ritual and cosmic sense of dharma that link the current world to mythical universe, the concept extends to ethical-social sense that links human beings to each other and to other life forms. It is here that dharma as a concept of law emerges in Hinduism.

Morann's picture

This is possibly the best thing I've ever read, ever.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"where can you place your trust? You have to put things to the test in your own thoughts". And even these are not the wisest choices.

rosemary.franklin's picture

seasoned thought...maybe?

Dominic Gomez's picture

but seasoned with what?

rosemary.franklin's picture

time and experience and mindful observation with reasoned thought. tasty, yes?

lindaldavis's picture

Thank you, Than Geoff for continuing to steer the ship. Wonderful article!

donho's picture

What I find amusing is that all these conflicting comments actually prove the validity of the article. Some comments argue that the original Dharma is pure gold and should be cherished as such. Others seem to think it's a remnant of the iron age and has outlived it's usefulness. I read the article as saying that the original Dharma IS gold, but it can be very slightly alloyed to make it stronger and better suited to modern times.
The other amusing thing is seeing these "Buddhists" arguing how their way is the only way and everyone else is full of shit. Sounds like the Dharma of Rush Limbaugh. Your opinion is very important, but insulting others makes you look small-minded. "Just because he is not on the same path as you doesn't mean he is lost."

aasimmons3's picture

For a great many westerners we can only read the Dharma and the Sangha is online or in books. Don't put ones beliefs on a pedestal and deride others' beliefs. Lately I feel like I am seeing people claim that they understand the Dharma better than others and this really comes off as condescending.

safwan's picture

Buddhism is behaviour as a human being in dailylife.

It is not a theoretical philosophy, or a set of rules.

The author seems to put Buddhism above people, who, according to the article - should 'adapt to it'!

But true religion - in general terms - is that which serves people. When people are supposed to serve a religion we get a situation like in the MiddleEast.

Jones's picture

The truth is some people do understand the Dharma better than others. Some of these people choose to teach. I really don't understand why this situation would be offensive.

lindaldavis's picture

me either, Jones.

safwan's picture

The problem is with those who think they understand the Dharma "more then others".

To say that westerners 'should adapt' to Buddhism - this perspective ignores the fact that Shakyamuni himself adopted Hindu gods and ideas into his teachings - not the opposite.
The Dharma is not a fixed set of rules, it is behaviour in dailylife: compassion, wisdom and courage (to take action). In that many western activists are "Buddhist" although not following any particular school of Theravada or Mahayana.

Martin Luther King Jr and Mandela displayed wisdom, compassion and courage, and the essence of their actions where in accordance with treasuring Humanity, (acknowledging the Buddhanature in all people), this is in accorrdance with the Dharma.

Exclusiveness of some Buddhist teachers and putting their rigid views as standard "Dharma" is basically non-Buddhist in essence.

Jones's picture

So let's adapt Buddhism until it means everything and nothing at all?

The Dharma has a set of rules: the precepts. And being a Buddhist is more than being compassionate, courageous, wise, etc. It is to thrive to liberate ourselves from suffering according to the Dharma taught by Buddha. If you don't do so, you're not a Buddhist.

One more thing. MLK Jr could not have been in accordance with Buddhism for the simple reason that he was Christian. He believed in a god. That's OK. Live and let live. But that does not mean we should associate him with Buddhism. To believe in the Dharma means you can't believe in Christ and God.

And I know, I know. We all wish we could be all right. But the sad truth is somebody's religion is wrong. We believe Buddhism is the answer. Christians believe they are right. But still, somebody is wrong. Let's not sugar-coat reality.

celticpassage's picture

"To believe in the Dharma means you can't believe in Christ and God."

"We all wish we could be all right. But the sad truth is somebody's religion is wrong. We believe Buddhism is the answer. Christians believe they are right. But still, somebody is wrong. Let's not sugar-coat reality."

Your position is quite naive.

jairosoft's picture

"To believe in the Dharma means you can't believe in Christ and God."
Where did the Buddha state that? I believe that God and Ground of Emptiness (or Boundlessness) point to the same. And I suspect that the Kingdom of God is a Buddha's Pureland. In that case, Jesus is a Buddha. And if you have to determine who is wrong, then let's play it safe and declare that everyone is wrong. Otherwise, entertain that everyone is partially right, it is just that each one uses different vocabulary and definitions of words may differ slightly from person to person.

safwan's picture

We may be using words in different meanings. Dharma is understood to be the Truth or the Teachings of Buddhism. Dharma conveys the Law of Impermanence, Interconnectedness, Sunyatta-Void, nonSelf, Middle Way and the Law of Cause and Effect. The Precepts are means for cultivating the mind of enlightenment, (not a goal by themselves).

Liberation from sufferings cannot be achieved without the mind of wisdom to know the cause of sufferings, the compassion to help others avoid sufferings and courage to act - as the Buddha did.

All human beings have the Buddha within. NonBuddhists have the Buddhanature within their life, but they are not aware of that.
The "Buddha" manifests in all actions to eradicate sufferings of humanity, and those who act with compassion and courage against injustice and arrogance - simply manifest their Buddhanature, even if they are not aware of it.

Exclusiveness and dividing humanity are nonBuddhist in nature. Of course there are many wrong religions, but the Buddhist approach is not accusation and criticism, it is compassionate view on how to see the positive points and start a dialogue to end sufferings. This was what Shakyamuni struggled for.

celticpassage's picture

"All human beings have the Buddha within."
No they don't.

"Of course there are many wrong religions"
Prove it.

Jones's picture

I agree with you. Your definition of the Dharma is succinct. Now imagine a teacher who understands none of this or, teaches the opposite (to get back to the initial issue), wouldn't this teacher be not good compared to others? So rationally, some teachers would be better than others. If this is the truth, wouldn't it be OK for those teachers to think they are better than others and act accordingly?

Anyway, I think ultimately we both agree on the same things. We are both Buddhists whether or not our views on teachers differ.

Good luck with the Dharma!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Condescension? A vestige of Christian dualism: More enlightened than thou?

marginal person's picture

The writer gives a thoughtful interpretation of a sutta from the Pali Canon.
What we have to keep in mind is that this is one person's perspective on a passage from a text that was written in a language Buddha didn't speak. Also the Canon was composed 500 years after his death.
The composers of the Pali Canon were monastics who probably had several agendas in writing down the words of Gautama and veracity was only one of them. The main task of any religious follower would be to preserve the teachings and to propagate them.
In other words, it's probably best, to read the writer's words carefully and take them with the proverbial grain of salt.

gr82brees's picture

Most excellent post - answered many questions for me. Thank you.

foggedin's picture

Monks, these two slander the Tathagata. Which two? One who explains what was not said or spoken by the Tathagata as said or spoken by the Tathagata. And one who explains what was said or spoken by the Tathagata as not said or spoken by the Tathagata. These are the two who slander the Tathagata.
—AN 2.23

Don't know what all the fuss and anger is about (this place is as contentious as the political blogs). If we accept this quotation as authentic, does our practice reflect it? If we don't accept it, on what basis do we judge the authenticity and relevance of anything that he is reported to have said?

The quotation limits itself only to what the Tathagata did or did not say. It certainly doesn't restrict the Dharma to ONLY his words.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Take 5, Boys: “My skill has become unbelievable,” boasts Kwai Chang Caine. With a flick of his wrist a fly drops dead in front of him.
"Excellent, Grasshopper," remarks Master Po. "Please observe."
Master Po clutches at another fly, which continues to fly around the room.
"I observe that honorable fly is still alive," comments Kwai Chang.
“Yes,” replies Master Po, “but honorable fly will never be a father again."

wtompepper's picture

Thanks Dominic. Things were getting a bit ridiculous. An old joke can always be refreshed with a "Kung-Fu" or "Six Million Dollar Man" reference!

And I still say this is the best article I've ever read in Tricycle.

(and by "things," I mean me--I was totally misunderstanding what people were posting, sorry.)

iamuami's picture

Who said it was supposed to be easy. If we're "easy" would you value it / believe it ?

wtompepper's picture

This is exactly the kind of nonsense one of those bad teachers would offer. Only value what is difficult, and only believe what is hard to understand--a bunch of fortune-cookie slogans cribbed from Master Po.

Then they tell you that anything that requires thought or hard work isn't "real" Buddhism, "real" Buddhism is sitting and doing nothing, and never, never thinking. Of course, this is a "paradox" that is "hard to understand." Nonsense. It's "bombast" and smoke-and-mirrors. Perhaps there are so few good teachers because of the popularity of this kind of claptrap?

It isn't difficult to tell if a teacher is bad--they ask for blind devotion and spout meaningless platitudes and always tell you not to think or ask hard questions. And if the ones who think they're good are trying to prove it by playing hide-and-seek, well, they aren't good either.

johnnie.durbin's picture

.

wtompepper's picture

Great essay. Probably the most important thing I've ever read in Tricycle.

Just one question: does anybody have suggestions for how to find teachers in the U.S. who are "open to questions," who avoid "bombast," and who don't offer the cut-and-paste Buddhism that tells students whatever they want to (or will pay to) hear? The idea of apprenticeship is really important, but most Buddhist "teachers" seem to want disciples, not apprentices, they need praise and worship, and can't be bothered with instruction and difficult questions.

I can't help thinking there must be some teachers that do what Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests, but they don't seem to be easy to find.

lindaldavis's picture

I've been on retreats or studied with many teachers who are open to questions and offer traditional teachings, including Thanisarro Bhikku. He would be an excellent resource for your "apprenticeship" question. He will likely respond if you write him at Metta Forest Monastery.
From my 35+ years of experience studying/practicing Buddhism as it has come into our culture, It has been important to me to try to find teachers who were authentic in terms of who their teachers were and how well they seemed to be preserving the Buddha's teachings. There are many. Teachers I respect include Joseph Goldstein, Andy Olenski, Leigh Brasington, Rodney Smith, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Bhante Gunaratana & Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. And... Thanisarro Bhikku. There are also many "less-famous" teachers who also don't seem to be "selling" the Dharma. I hope your search is fruitful.

Dekyi's picture

When the student is ready the teacher will appear.

wtompepper's picture

Ah, another Master Po fan! Good one, Dekyi. We've all heard these cliches a million times, right? Where are the Buddhists who can say something they didn't read in a Dr Strange comic?

But of course, as Dominic points out, it has been only a few decades, and things are far better than they were in the sixties.

Dekyi's picture

I was being sarcastic but per usual you took it way too seriously. You seem to do that a lot so perhaps taking the "cliche" as your personal mantra will help you lighten up a bit. And, I've never read a Dr. Strange comic in my life nor do I know who Master Po is. What I see via your defensive commentary is an angry person who likes being right and therefore is not open to a teacher as he seems to think he knows everything already.

wtompepper's picture

Oh, I thought you were making a joke--you know, responding to my complaint about Buddhists talking in tired old platitudes by offering the worst one of all. I didn't realize you were trying to insult me, sorry.

Why would you think what I said was "angry"? Because I pointed out that empty cliches aren't really wisdom? Perhaps having that pointed out makes you angry, and you're projecting? I was just joking.

Dekyi's picture

Of course you were just joking! That is so clear now! You are most entertaining, really.

fightclubbuddha's picture

Are you a Buddhist? You seem pretty angry, and your anger here seems rather misdirected. Of course, maybe you're trying to teach us something. But, if that's the case, you seem to be guilty of the very thing you are railing against - having your view challenged. Have a nice cup of tea and listen to a cat purr for a few minutes.

wtompepper's picture

Very funny. I think you covered them all, except you left out "finger-pointing-at-the-moon/reality-is-ineffable" (or was that meant to be implied?). Thanks for the laughs.

But seriously, isn't it odd that this is the only article that has gotten no attention at all, except from one "angry non-buddhist"? Says something about the Tricycle readership, I guess.

Dekyi's picture

Which apparently includes you since you are constantly on these comment boards puffed up and trying to prove your "I'm the only smart guy in the room" nonsense. Ok Tom, we all get it...you think this is all a big farce and we are all fools for reading the likes of Thich Nhat Hanh, Kornfield, Korda, (insert all other Buddhist writers here), and whomever else you find to be full of malarkey. So, it begs the question: why don't you just mosey along and leave the rest of us to enjoy. Probably because you have nothing better to do as evidenced by your inane argumentation on just about every comment that is posted. Now, I'm going to go drink some tea and get my enlightenment on. :-)
"The truth is simple, and the teachings are extremely clear; but I have seen again and again, with great sadness, that as soon as they begin to touch and move us, ego tries to complicate them, because it knows it is fundamentally threatened." SR

melcher's picture

What Dekyi said. Virtually every comment that wtompepper makes is in the form of attack or defense (he will of course respond that this statement is an attack and that everything I say is a projection). There is no point in responding to people who are not here to learn or to listen, and who have little respect for those who are. It's like walking into a hall of mirrors or arguing with an alcoholic. I do agree that the article, like everything I've read by Thanissaro Bhikku is very clearly written and insightful. Perhaps he is the teacher wtompepper seeks. Incidentally, Dr. Strange is my favorite comic.

wtompepper's picture

I may be smarter than you, and I'm sorry that makes you so very angry. Perhaps you should take that as your subject for meditation, why you wish to silence anyone you perceive to know more than you do? You say I'm angry, but it really seems to me that you are terribly angry and insulting--why do you need to be sarcastic and insulting and ask others to shut up when they challenge your comfortable ignorance? You could always not bother responding to me, right? You could "mosey along" to another discussion (there are really only four or five I've commented on).

Dekyi's picture

"You could always not bother responding to me, right?"
Right!

fightclubbuddha's picture

Well, at least I was funny. I was taught the fine art of Zen sarcasm by my cat. His name is Master Po.

I am not arguing with you, nor am I arguing against the need for a good teacher. Everything is subject to challenge. Nothing is sacred if it does not withstand intellectual scrutiny. Of course, There is a Buddha quote along these lines referenced above in this very article. Unfortunately, I have not read the entire Sutta, so I may not truly understand it. How appropriate.

I own season one of Kung Fu on DVD if you want to borrow it. Master Po wasn't such a bad guy.

wtompepper's picture

I didn't think you were arguing with me, I thought you were kidding. I guess I'm just dense today. You gave all the stock "cut-and-paste Buddhist's" responses: You aren't a real Buddhist; you're angry, so you're a bad Buddhist (and "angry" means, of course, you had a thought); you're attached to views; and, of course, real Buddhism is drinking tea and petting your cat/looking at flowers/being content. I seriously did assume you were making a joke, parodying the stock answers that serious thought usually gets on Tricycle. Sorry to be so dense.

I saw all the old Kung-Fu episodes when it was on tv--I can't believe anybody would want DVDs of that show!

fightclubbuddha's picture

No problem. I do love parody, and you understood my intentions. The DVD set was a gift, but I did watch the entire season. As simplistic as the insights may often be, I do enjoy when popular culture contains Buddhist references. Of course, you could probably tell that already from my screen name. And I do like a nice cup of tea, and I do like to listen to my cats purr. But, none of that can substitute for sitting on my Zafu and staring at a patch of empty wall space. None of it can substitute for trying to fathom the depths of the Genjo Koan.

I live in a mid-sized city (Tallahassee, FL). We have a Shambala group and a more traditional Tibetan group and a Korean Zen group and a Chinese Zen group, and I have sat with all of them, on occasion. But I grew up in northern California and initially sat with a Soto Zen group, and we don't have one here. So, I truly do understand your comments about the need for a good teacher. Mostly, I sit alone. My sangha these days consists of my yoga class, my cats and these discussion threads.