In reactions to his post, Secularizing Buddhism–Making it Accessible or Stripping the Roots?, the first comment to Vince Horn was a quote directly from Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of the Kalama Sutta.
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.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.
This excerpt has widely been used to promote the notion that the Kalama Sutta is “the Buddha’s charter of free inquiry”, as the monk Soma Thero and many others have named it. The message is empowering. Your experience is the final arbiter of the truth. But this perspective often gets carried away, as Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
[T]hough the discourse certainly does counter the decrees of dogmatism and blind faith with a vigorous call for free investigation, it is problematic whether the sutta can support all the positions that have been ascribed to it. On the basis of a single passage, quoted out of context, the Buddha has been made out to be a pragmatic empiricist who dismisses all doctrine and faith, and whose Dhamma is simply a freethinker’s kit to truth which invites each one to accept and reject whatever he likes. But does the Kalama Sutta really justify such views? Or do we meet in these claims just another set of variations on that egregious old tendency to interpret the Dhamma according to whatever notions are congenial to oneself — or to those to whom one is preaching?
I have always been personally more moved by the words that follow that overquoted paragraph from the Kalama Sutta, namely the passages that list the four assurances of the noble disciple. For those who wonder about the afterlife or the nature of karma, these passages say something slightly different than to just use one’s own judgment.
Our personal experiences color the way we understand the world, as I’ve written before, such that even the same words may take on vastly different meanings. My understanding of the Kalama Sutta is different now than when I was reckless teenager. The text even resonates differently now that I’ve just read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s essay. If I were to frame the Kalama Sutta as a discussion of karma and rebirth, it would seem as though I were explaining some other Kalama Sutta than the one most monolingual English-speaking Buddhists are familiar with. In light of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s analysis, this latter perspective would be missing the broader picture no more than the perspective of the simple “freethinker’s kit to truth.”
When we read from the Pali Canon, it’s important for us to consider the words in context, to think on them and to revisit them. We learn more about a particular sutta as we deepen our practice and also as we expand our knowledge of Buddhist texts. Memorizing suttas provides us with the luxury of keeping them with ourselves at all times, of reflecting on them at our leisure. But don’t take my word for it. You might just want to genuinely try and see for yourself.