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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Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism has only been acknowledged in America since the 1950's. It took 2,500 years prior just to reach our shores. Give it time. The Law is only just now beginning to sprout from seeds sown relatively recently in the lives of Americans. And that's where you'll begin to find genuine, home-grown American teachers of the Law.

ravasb's picture

Could you please explain what you mean by "The Law"?

rinchen_wangmo's picture

"Law" is a literal translation of "Dharma", as in "the natural law of how things are".

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Law is the ultimate reality, or truth, of life and the universe. Buddhist practice is to awaken to the Law within one's own life. In the practice of Nichiren Buddhism, this Law is identified as Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.