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The Kalama Sutta – A Refined Dhamma
The Kalama Sutta – A Refined Dhamma is an article on the unique and direct path the Buddha taught for the forty-five years of his teaching career.
“Abstain from wrong-doing, work for the good of all, purify your mind,” this is the teaching of the Buddha” (Dhammapada)
In the Kalama Sutta  the Buddha addresses greed, aversion and deluded thinking directly as a way of pointing out how other teachings fail to directly address the defilements, and in many cases inadvertently promote deluded behavior.
The Buddha then uses the qualities of generosity, non-clinging and well-concentrated refined mindfulness developed through The Eightfold Path as the framework for Dhamma practice. The Buddha points out that through awakening developed within the framework of The Eightfold Path one becomes “mindful and imbued with equanimity, free of ill-will, undefiled and pure.”
The Buddha consistently presented The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as unique and distinct, not as a common teaching that could be integrated into other teachings according to the hardened beliefs of individuals. It is the insistence that the Buddha’s teachings can and should be accommodated to individual and cultural beliefs that have resulted in confusing, contradictory, and ineffective “dharmas.”
He instructed the Kalama’s to not “go by other’s accounts, or by legends or traditions. Do not follow scriptures (later developed texts) or logical conjecture (conditioned thinking). Do not form conclusions through inference, analogies or common agreement.”
His admonition here to “question everything” must also be seen in the context in which he made this statement. Often gleefully and compulsively taken by many today as license to practice anything and everything and call it “Buddhist practice,” taken in context it is clear that the Buddha is telling the Kalamas to question other teachings in the context of what he teaches and to then decide for yourself if the teachings are consistent with his Dhamma and effective. He also provides very skillful guidance how to precisely determine what his Dhamma is based on.
Another way that many have adapted his admonition to “question everything” was in reference to him telling students that “when uncertain, confused, or doubtful to question me directly” conveniently leaving out the part where the Buddha wants to be addressed directly. This should be obvious that there could be no useful answer by asking someone who has become confused by their own insistence that the Dhamma should be adapted to fit desired answers to questions that are rooted in ignorance and taken out of context.
The Buddha encouraged others to question his teachings directly to him so that he could provide an answer in the proper context, not to engage in endless debate or to convince someone of his Dhamma. The Buddha’s response was only to provide guidance within the proper context. Of course, since the Buddha’s passing, we can no longer question him directly but we can look to the only written record of his teachings still existing today, or question a teacher that has actually studied his teachings as preserved in the Pali Canon.
An article explaining the development of the Pali Canon and the maintenance of its authenticity is here: The Pali Canon
The Kalama Sutta
Anguttara Nikaya 3.65
The Buddha was walking with a large group from the sangha. They arrived at Kesaputta, the town of the Kalamas. The Kalamas have heard that the Buddha was an awakened human being who teaches a complete path that is admirable in the beginning, in the middle and in its conclusion.
The Kalamas went to the Buddha and told him of the many teachers that come through their town all claiming to have taught the one true “dhamma” while ridiculing other teachers and their teachings. “How are we to know which is a useful and effective dhamma and what is not.”
The Buddha replies “Of course you are uncertain and filled with doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty will follow. Do not go by reports, or legends, or traditions, or scripture, or conjecture, or inference, or analogies, or common agreement, or unexamined loyalty.
“When you know from your own experience that the qualities taught are unskillful, shameful, confusing, and distracting these teachings should be abandoned. When these teachings are criticized by the wise they should be abandoned. When these teachings lead to harm and suffering they should be abandoned.
“What do you think, Kalamas – when the three defilements of greed,
aversion and deluded thinking arise in a person do they arise for benefit or for harm?”
“The defilements always bring harm.”
“And when a person is driven by the defilements, their mind possessed, they kill other beings, they take what is not given, they take another’s spouse, they lie and induce other’s to lie, all of which create long-term harm and suffering for themselves and others.
“What do you think, Kalamas – are these defilements skillful or unskillful, shameful or shameless, criticized or praised by the wise?”
“The defilements are unskillful, shameful, and criticized by the wise.”
“When the defilements are acted upon do they lead to long-term suffering for one’s self and others, or not?”
“They always lead to long-term suffering for one’s self and others.”
“So as I said ‘Do not go by reports, or legends, or traditions, or scripture, or conjecture, or inference, or analogies, or common agreement, or unexamined loyalty. When you know from your own experience that the qualities taught are unskillful, shameful, confusing, and distracting these teachings should be abandoned. When these teachings are criticized by the wise they should be abandoned. When these teachings lead to harm and suffering they should be abandoned.’
“Now ‘do not go by reports, or legends, or traditions, or scripture, or conjecture, or inference, or analogies, or common agreement, or unexamined loyalty. When you know from your own experience that the qualities taught are skillful, shameless, unambiguous, and direct these teachings should be developed. When these teachings are praised by the wise they should be developed. When these teachings lead to unbinding and calm they should be developed.’
“What do you think, Kalamas – when the defilements do not arise in a person is this for their long-term welfare and happiness and for others long-term welfare and happiness?”
“For everyone’s long-term welfare and happiness.”
“And this person, free of the defilements, does not kill living beings or take what is not given or take another’s spouse, or lie or induce other’s to lie. So what do you think – are these qualities skillful, shameless, and praised by the wise?”
“They are, sir. When developed and acted on they bring long-term welfare and happiness to one’s self and others.”
“Now, Kalamas, one who follows the Dhamma, free of greed, aversion or deluded thinking, alert and mindful of the path, experiences their life imbued with good will. Everywhere they go their mindfulness is imbued with good will, with gratitude, with a mind resting in equanimity. They are abundant and free from all agitation towards themselves and all humanity.
“When one follows the Eightfold Path, free from greed, aversion, and deluded thinking, undefiled and pure, there are four qualities they will naturally develop:
1. They will give rise to pleasant experiences in the present.
2. They will give rise to pleasant experiences in the future.
3. If harm is dome with no intention no suffering will touch them.
4. If they remain harmless than they can know that they are pure and no suffering will touch them.
“These are the for qualities naturally developed in one free of the defilements from following the Dhamma.”
“Great Teacher, you have shown a way to those who were lost. Through clear reasoning, you have made the Dhamma clear and taught us how to know a true Dhamma. We take refuge in you the Great Teacher, in your Dhamma and in your Sangha. Please remember that from this day forward we have taken refuge.”
End Of Sutta
The Kalama Sutta concludes with the Buddha describing the results of awakening directly through the Eightfold Path: “Now, Kalamas, one who follows the Dhamma, free of greed, aversion or deluded thinking, alert and mindful of the path, experiences their life imbued with good will. Everywhere they go their mindfulness is imbued with good will, with gratitude, with a mind resting in equanimity. They are abundant and free from all agitation towards themselves and all humanity.”
There continues to be strong desire to accommodate the Buddha’s direct teachings to fit cultural and individual traditions and hardened beliefs. The Buddha taught to avoid the desire to make his teachings fit self-referential views. He taught The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path as the framework for deciding what is skillful to be mindful of in order to recognize conditioned thinking, abandon clinging, and develop a life of lasting peace and happiness.
The Buddha taught a distinct and direct path to develop lasting peace and happiness. He also taught that recognizing differences in philosophies was not intolerant or in any way discriminatory. Anyone seeking the truth of their own existence should and must be encouraged to abandon that which proves to be distracting from that search.
Maintaining a refined focus is the essence of refined mindfulness of the Dhamma and will prevent the confusion and continuing distraction of attempting to incorporate all things into an initially refined, complete and specific dhamma.
Here is an article and talk on the Thicket Of Views that have developed in modern Buddhism as a result of ignoring the Buddha’s direct teachings and adapting and accommodating his teachings to fit charismatic individuals and cultural views: Modern Buddhism – A Thicket Of Views
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.