“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

This is a bad translation of the Kalama Sutta — so bad, in fact, that it contradicts the message of the sutta, which says that reason and common sense are not sufficient for ascertaining the truth.

And it’s very common as well.

Here’s the original version, from Access to Insight:

“Now, 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.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.

The Buddha is talking to some people who live near his home country. These people, the Kalamas, are confused by the multiplicity of teachings that they hear. Many teachers arrive, who extoll their own teachings and disparage the teachings of others. And the Kalamas want to know, “Which of these venerable brahmans and contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”

The Buddha’s reply is very full, but it’s clear he says that “reason” (logical conjecture, inference, analogies, agreement through pondering views) and “common sense” (probability) are not sufficient bases for determining what the truth is. It’s not that these things should be discarded, but ultimately it’s experience and the opinion of the wise that is our guide.

So this brings up at least two questions:

1. If experience is to be our guide, does that mean we have to test out every theory and practice? No. If a teacher says something like “taking drugs is the path to happiness” you don’t have to try drugs. Your experience includes observation of other people’s experience, so that if you have seen others suffering through taking drugs you don’t have to repeat their mistakes.

2. Who is to say who the wise are? You are. Through your experience (see point 1, above), whom have you found to be reliable and insightful in the past? Those people are “the wise”. Now you don’t have to take everything they say as being the absolute truth. You can use your reason, your common sense, and your experience as a guide. Not all of “the wise” will agree, for example, so you’re still going to have to figure things out for yourself ultimately.

It’s this second criterion that is often overlooked.

The first instance of this version of the quote that I’ve found is in a libertarian book by the pseudonymous author, “John Galt” — Dreams Come Due. I strongly suspect that Galt’s libertarianism caused him to alter the quote in order to make it supportive of his position.

Incidentally, the “no matter where you read it” is an anachronism, since spiritual teachings were orally transmitted at the time of the Buddha.

22 thoughts on ““Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.””

  1. It’s impossible to not do what the quote says. Literally. It’s ‘supposed’ to be the word of Buddha, so the only way you can reject it is to use your own common sense and reasoning. It’s self fulfilling. Properly attributed or not, it’s brilliant.

    1. Thanks, Logic Lover. Actually, people already believe what they think agrees with their “logic” (which is often faulty) and “common sense” (which is usually another word for “what we accept without thinking deeply”). So this quote could be interpreted as more or less saying “Keep believing what you believe, as well as anything that confirms those existing beliefs.”

  2. I bet that you all believe every word of the new testament, even though it was written decades after the events occurred mostly by people who weren’t there. Not to mention the several translations and edits an re-edits over the centuries that have given us dozens of “Christian ” versions.

    1. Who are you addressing your question to, Abel? If it’s me, I’m a Buddhist, not a Christian, so I’m not sure why you’d think I have a belief in the absolute truth of the New Testament.

  3. I have to disagree with the others comments. This makes sense to me in the context of religion, or I guess any authority. A lot of people do a lot of things they are very uncomfortable with because religion says so. Like polygamy, a lot of people hated it but they did it anyway because God. So if some asshole named Joseph Smith tells you to steal other peoples wives because God said he would destroy them if they didn’t accept, you would think of this quote and realize you are deeply uncomfortable with it, and therefore wouldn’t just go along with anything anyone claiming to have authority says.

  4. Realize that you have read an ENGLISH translation of the quote. And to make it worse, you based your judgement only after reading ONE version of the translations. Use common sense, if a translation uses words such as “logical conjecture”, “inference”, “analogies” and so on that translation must be HIGHLY SUBJECTIVE as Buddha could not have used those words himself. As for me, the English quotation that you stated as “bad” in fact contains the ESSENSE what Buddha tries to convey.

    1. I should mention that I studied Pali at university, am familiar with the original text, and have read numerous translations of the sutta.

      “As for me, the English quotation that you stated as “bad” in fact contains the ESSENSE what Buddha tries to convey.” Based on what evidence?

      1. Pali is my mother language. I don’t need anyone to translate and add his/her own subjective interpretation of the words.

        And since you claim to be an expert in Pali why are you still referring to someone elses translation and interpretation? Is there something wrong with yours?

        1. Pali is your mother language? It’s a classical language, not a living one. I’m afraid such a statement damages your credibility, Iqbal.

          Also, I’ve never claimed to be an expert in Pali.

          1. Busted, Santoso!

            Good comments, Bodhipaska. And I really enjoyed this short article, and this is a great site. I’m just learning about Buddhism and very attracted to it. Teachers like you help me learn the true essence of Buddha’s teachings.

  5. Hi!!! Just to see if i understand correctly: the real text says that wise human beings are a good guide but, ultimately you rely on experience and common sense to follow that guidance?

    Best regards!!!!!

    1. Kind of. You’ll learn in life, through experience, that some people are better than you are (in some respects) at knowing what’s a wise course of action and what isn’t. And so you learn, through experience, who are “the wise.” And they are one source of guidance, that can supplement your own discernment. And of course you need to reflect on their advice. Sometimes you might decide to disregard it, which you are free to do. Sometimes that’ll be the right thing to do and sometimes the wrong thing! Experience will tell!

  6. This is an excellent site. Really has exposed my own lies and inferiority complex. How much fear to defend a persona that is not real. Then most of your energy makes you feel contracted. Almost natures way of saying you must stop faking. The tricky part is to accept death and live free. Such a rare quality. However it is the only way to live. “Society is a mutual benefit scheme to preserve the
    self” -Leo Actualized.org

  7. Your study of Siddhartha Gautama is limited. He is also known as Shakyamuni Buddha or just Shakyamuni, by about 90 percent of Asians. He was born near Nepal in India and was called Shakyamuni because his father was the king of the Shakya mountain range area. His father, during his mother’s pregnancy, was visited by a traveling shaman who told him that his son would be a great leader or a great holy man. He WAS a prince and part of his story is that during his early life, his father basically had him held inside the city walls and one day his chariot driver helped him “escape” from the city, and so they went out and he saw the real world. That is where he developed the part about “suffering” in the four noble truths. He saw people who were old, dying, poor, and the birth of children into this world caused suffering (“displeasure”) so he meditated under the Bodhi tree and discovered the four noble truths and the eightfold path, which he spent the rest of his life sharing, along with the other Sutras. In Wikipedia, “…At the age of 29 Siddhartha left his palace to meet his subjects. Despite his father’s efforts to hide from him the sick, aged and suffering, Siddhartha was said to have seen an old man. When his charioteer Channa explained to him that all people grew old, the prince went on further trips beyond the palace. On these he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic. These depressed him, and he initially strove to overcome aging, sickness, and death by living the life of an ascetic.
    Accompanied by Channa and riding his horse Kanthaka, Gautama quit his palace for the life of a mendicant. It’s said that, “the horse’s hooves were muffled by the gods” to prevent guards from knowing of his departure.
    Gautama initially went to Rajagaha and began his ascetic life by begging for alms in the street. After King Bimbisara’s men recognised Siddhartha and the king learned of his quest, Bimbisara offered Siddhartha the throne. Siddhartha rejected the offer, but promised to visit his kingdom of Magadha first, upon attaining enlightenment.” Also see : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gautama_Buddha#Early_life_and_marriage

    You Sir, are the one who is a fraud. Kalama wasn’t from Siddhartha Gautama, that was his predecessor. He was not Hindu because at the time there was no such thing. They were Brahman, which later became Hindus. Now that you have finished being self righteous over a quote and quoted something that has no bearing on his quotes as proof, you are just as erroneous.

    1. “He WAS a prince and part of his story is that during his early life, his father basically had him held inside the city walls and one day his chariot driver helped him “escape” from the city”

      That story is in the Buddhist scriptures, told by the Buddha, and it’s told by him about someone else — a mythical previous Buddha called Vipassi. Nowhere in the early scriptures does the Buddha talk about this story as applying to himself. What’s happened is that over time people have changed the story — because it is a damned good story — so that it’s about the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, rather than about the mythic Buddha, Vipassi.

      Just because you read erroneous information over and over again doesn’t make that information correct. Neither does using all caps.

      I’d suggest replying less on second-hand knowledge and spending more time reading the scriptures. if you want to know about the Buddha, it’s essential to disentangle yourself from traditional fables and to steep yourself in the earliest writings.

      The story about Vipassi and the so-called four sights is in the Mahapadama Sutta of the Digha Nikaya. Here’s a link, in case you don’t happen to have a copy of the Digha Nikaya handy.

      To my mind the most interesting account of why the Buddha embarked on his spiritual quest is in the Attadanda sutta, where he talks about being terrified by the violence and instability he saw around him. It’s a very human passage. Reading between the lines, this may well have been connected with his uncertain status as the son of a tribal leader in one of the republics threatened by growing monarchies. He was a smart guy, and it must have struck him as pointless to be groomed for leadership in a “country” that was soon no longer going to exist.

      A few hundred years after the Buddha, when the monarchies had swallowed up the whole of India, people couldn’t even remember or imagine that there had been other ways of living, and so when they thought about the Buddha as a political leader in the making, they conceived of him as a prince, and his land as a kingdom. But it never was; it was an oligarchic republic. That, too, is clear from the scriptures.

  8. I believe that all the paraphrasing was done from this quote: “…Bhikkhus, those bhikkhus who exclude the meaning and the Dhamma by means of badly acquired discourses whose phrasing is a semblance [of the correct phrasing] are acting for the harm of many people, for the unhappiness of many people, for the ruin, harm, and suffering of many people, of devas and human beings. These bhikkhus generate much demerit and cause the good Dhamma to disappear.

    “Bhikkhus, those bhikkhus who conform to the meaning and the Dhamma with well-acquired discourses whose phrasing is not [mere] semblance are acting for the welfare of many people, for the happiness of many people, for the good, welfare, and happiness of many people, of devas and human beings. These bhikkhus generate much merit and sustain the good Dhamma.”
    This can be found on page 160 of “The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha,” translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi.
    (I found this on this site, at the link that said what Buddha said about fake Buddha quotes. A.K.A. “paraphasing diminishes the message”.)
    Also, I was wrong about the Kalama Sutra, which I wish to immediately admit and set this as retraction of my previous statement, as Kalama was a previous teacher to Gautama Buddha but there was a message put out to his followers in the Kalama Sutta.
    The biggest problem with quotes by anyone who lived in ancient times is a) that the teachings were orally transmitted AND that most people at the time could NOT read or write, so who quoted them by writing these down? According to Buddhist followers from Asia that I have spoken to, they believe that the teachings were made into chants to the best of the ability of the “voice hearers” (The monks and nuns that actually were there to hear the teachings transmitted by voice only.) to remember them. They carried them on my each one chanting one of the lines until later they were written down. Many of the writings are still available on palm leaf parchment in small wooden frames. The Pali Cannon was supposedly all from memory. Anyone who has seen a picture of a copy of the Pali Cannon realizes this was WAY TOO MUCH for anyone to remember exactly. An image is available here: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2c/Tipitaka1.jpg/800px-Tipitaka1.jpg

    1. I’m glad you’re digging into the Pali scriptures, Steve.

      It sounds like you’d confused Alara (the) Kalama with the Kalama people. The Buddha, before his awakening, had two teachers that we know of. One of them was Alara, who was of the Kalama clan, who lived not far from where the Buddha came from. Later in life, after his awakening, he delivered a famous teaching to a number of people from the Kalama tribe, who were confused about how to make sense of the bewildering variety of teachings they were encountering. The fake quote being addressed here is a bad paraphrase of that sutta.

      Alara wasn’t the Buddha’s predecessor, but an older contemporary, who introduced him to the meditative state known as the sphere of no-thingness. You can read about Gautama’s history with Alara in the Ariyapariyesana Sutta.

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