“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it…”

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This is just the start of a calamitous misreading of a famous passage from the Kalama Sutta. I’ve dealt with a libertarian mistranslation of this verse elsewhere, but this version is different.

But here’s the full quote, lifted from one of the well-known quotes sites that litter the web:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
Buddha quotes (Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.)

It’s ironic that this, one of the commonest Fake Buddha Quotes, is about not believing things just because you’ve read them somewhere, but for many people the assumption seems to be, “It must be true — I saw it on a website!”

So first let me state that the Buddha was not a “Hindu Prince.” He was not a “Hindu” and he was not a “prince.” We don’t know what, if any, religious tradition the Buddha-to-be followed in his youth, and the first mention that’s made of any religious endeavors is his encounters with the two teachers Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. These two teachers followed meditative traditions, but it’s anachronistic to refer to them, or the Buddha, as Hindus. The Buddha himself came from a Republic in which there were, of course, no kings and no princes. In the early text there is no mention of him being a prince or his father being a king, and it’s clear that he lived at a time when the last republics (including the one in which he was born) were being swallowed up by the newly-emergent monarchies. Several hundred years later, monarchies were well-established, republics were unthinkable, and so the Buddha was seen as having been born in a kingdom and (because people like their heroes) he was seen as an heir to that kindgom — an heir, no less, that rejected kingship for an even more noble spiritual “career.”

But on to the quote. In the original Kalama Sutta, we have:

“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.”

I won’t go through a point-by-point comparison, but look at the two criteria for acceptance of teachings:

  • But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
  • 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.

In the original quote, accepting something because it “agrees with reason” would seem to be rejected, because “logical conjecture” and “inference” have been rejected, at least as sufficient bases for accepting a teaching as valid. It’s not that logic is rejected as such, just that it can’t be relied on. What is needed is experience. We need to “know for ourselves.”

What we need to know for ourselves is not whether a teaching “agrees with reason” but whether when put into practice they are skillful, blameless, praised by the wise, and lead to welfare and to happiness.

This garbled version of the Kalama Sutta goes back to 1956, where it appeared in a 1956 book called “2500 Buddha Jayanti,” celebrating the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s parinirvana. I haven’t read the book, but this recasting of the Buddha’s teaching may have been done to make Buddhism appear more “rational.”

PS. The exact quote found in “2500 Buddha Jayanti” (page 39) is as follows (the typos and grammatical errors are in the original):

Do not believe in anything (simply) because you have heard it ; Do not believe in traditions, because they been handed down for many generations ; Do not believe in anything, because it is spoken and rumoured by many ; Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books ; But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

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19 thoughts on ““Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it…””

  1. Thanks for the clarification of the acceptance of information quote. I have long pondered this misquote Metta Barry

  2. I think that the most ironic thing about this article Bodhipaksa, is the speculation you supply us on a book (2500 Buddha Jayanti), a book in which you have never read.

    1. It would be ironic if I was making definitive statements about the book “2500 Buddha Jayanti” or claiming that a quote could be found in it when in fact it couldn’t, but since I make it clear that my speculation is in fact speculation and since the quote in question actually does come from that book, I fail to see the ironic angle. Perhaps you could elucidate, Shane?

  3. I have made many experiences of this quote…basically use all bodily faculties to accept any mental ideas thoughts beliefs etc and play with this without getting personal with idea…eventually the body gives the result…. For example, recently I have been some so common sense quotes… Eg all is fair in love and war… What does these quotes really do our cultures and mind sets….

  4. You know, I’ve seen various iterations of both versions over the years and have never really considered the difference. My reading of both concurs with your reading of the original. Perhaps that’s because, as someone who has studied and practiced Buddhism for many years, I assume that the experiential must reign supreme.

    Once you understand that principle, the revised quote, in my opinion, actually conveys the Buddha’s concept in a way much more understandable to 21st century audiences.

    Perhaps, there’s value in both versions.

  5. I read this quote everyday, I’m glad to know that it is the real deal!! I saw the “fake” quote about a year ago and am glad to have found this site!!

  6. I am not someone who has practiced or studied Buddhism for many years, but nevertheless I have an interpretation that it similar to Ray’s.

    First, I fail to see how the ‘internet quote’ is more “fake”, since both are translated into English and interpreted by individuals living in different cultural and historical contexts. And therefor I do not understand -especially with what I perceive to be the essence of this quote in mind- why anyone would put more confidence in the ‘original’. It is a bit of a paradox.

    Second, I think the essence is not to be found in the difference between to know something from experience or to agree with reason (after observation and analysis).
    Actually, ‘reason’ could very much refer to ‘perception of what is just’, i.e. “is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all”.

    It basically very much seems exactly the same as what is meant with ‘knowing from experience’. Note that the internet version mentions analysis/reasoning from observation, not just merely reasoning. Is observation not experience? And is reasoning not an act based on experiencing the ‘social world’?

    PS Are you aware of the scientific debate on Buddhist critical thinking? I wonder what your opinion on this would be. See for example: https://www.academia.edu/7612709/Advanced_Analytical_Assessment_of_Buddhist_Critical_Thinking_Skills_and_Additional_Philosophical_Concerns_or_Perspectives_for_the_Field_of_Critical_Thinking

    1. Hi, Ala.

      I’m confused by your confusion. The fake quote is not a “translation,” in that it doesn’t reflect the content of the original source, and in fact seems to contradict it. In translation we have to take into account what was said and what we can validly assume was meant. Simply making something up and putting it in the mouth of the Buddha is not translation.

      As for your interpretations, to take one example, “reasoning” is clearly not the same as “knowing through experience.” We can certainly reason about our experience, but in this context to reason means to think about something in a theoretical way. Such reasoning can produce valid results, but I think we all recognize that people who try to reason about topics in which they have no personal experience tend to come to false conclusions: garbage in, garbage out.

  7. I know you will defend your point of view till the end of days but… To begin with, this is not a “fake” quote. It is what it’s called an “interpreted” quote. Every time you translate something into a certain language the process implies an interpretation of what the original says. More often than not, more so when it comes to certain languages, it is impossible to translate word by word since it would not made sense in English, for example. As an old old Tuscan proverb goes, “Traduttore, Traditore!” Translator, traitor. In many instances, translating a certain text requires a complete rewriting of it. More than that, what those behind the so-called fake Buddha quote have done was to clarify the meaning of the original. The word by word original can get confusing, and your interpretation of it makes a perfect case for that:

    – “In the original quote, accepting something because it “agrees with reason” would seem to be rejected, because “logical conjecture” and “inference” have been rejected, at least as sufficient bases for accepting a teaching as valid. It’s not that logic is rejected as such, just that it can’t be relied on. What is needed is experience. We need to “know for ourselves.” –

    Not true that,”because it “agrees with reason” would seem to be rejected, because “logical conjecture” and “inference” have been rejected…” According to our dictionaries, inference is “a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning.” You may want to rewrite and rethink that since there is some serious disagreement with reason and rational logic there.

    As for the “2500 Buddha Jayanti” that version of the quote has nothing to do with the “libertarians,” as you claim. This book was put together by a group of reputable Buddhist scholars, in 1956. The version of the Kalama Suta you refer to is a translation made by Thanissaro Bhikkhu in 1994. He is an American Buddhist who converted to a form of Buddhism practiced in a certain monastery in Tayland in the 1970s, when it was very trendy to do it. So, I am not sure I would put my money on the accuracy of his translation. Even so, as stated, there is no real difference in the message conveyed by both versions. More importantly, that message is much more clear in the 1956 version, the one most of us work with today, and for good reason. (Made a copy of this comment just in case it accidentally disappears from your blog.)

    1. Sorry for the delay, Paul, but I was on retreat for two weeks.

      You say “I know you will defend your point of view till the end of days…” but actually you don’t “know” this at all.

      “To begin with, this is not a ‘fake’ quote. It is what it’s called an ‘interpreted’ quote.”

      It’s called an “interpreted quote” by whom? I’m unfamiliar with this term, and looking it up on Google I found no evidence that this is a term that’s used at all widely. In fact, one of the few results that comes up is from Scott Adam’s blog:

      The cousin to the manufactured quote, and even more dangerous, is the interpreted quote. That’s when a person with low reading comprehension, or bad intentions, or both, misinterprets a quote, then replaces the actual quote with the misinterpretation. That path might look like this:

      Original quote: “Some men are rapists. Society needs to punish them.”

      Morph One: “He says men are rapists.”

      Morph Two: “He says all men are rapists by nature.”

      Morph Three: “He excuses rape because he says it’s natural.”

      “As for the ‘2500 Buddha Jayanti’ that version of the quote has nothing to do with the ‘libertarians,’ as you claim.”

      Please point out to me exactly where I made the claim that the “Jayanti” version of this quote had anything to do with libertarians. I did point out that I’ve dealt with a (separate) libertarian mistranslation of this verse elsewhere. The 2,500 Jayanti version predates the libertarian version by decades.

      1. Bodhi, defending something “to the end of days” is never to be taken literarily. We learn that in grammar school. It was obviously said in jest.

        Sorry you could not find “interpreted quote” in Google. I used that, and I am entitled to put words in a sequence that would convey a certain point. Just because you could not find it in Google it does not mean it has no meaning. I’ll make sure you’ll find in Google from now on.

        Am I misreading you when you state that “I’ve dealt with a libertarian mistranslation of this verse elsewhere, but this version is different?”

        You did not addressed the fact that the “fake Buddha quote,” as you call this wonderful authentic Buddha quote, was actually a translation buy a group genuine Buddhist scholars, as opposed to your version being the work of a 1970’s individual converted to a form of Buddhism which has nothing to do with the authentic, the original Buddha school of thought.

        At least please refrain from calling “fake” something you disagree with while having little supporting evidence for your version of the story. This quote is clearly something religious organizations hate because it annuls their otherwise illegitimate authority. For that reason alone it is certainly not fake, it makes sense and it is fully supported by rational logic. Once again, if you want to embrace a dope, love, peace converted Buddhist’s dubious interpretation of an ancient text, at least do not spread false rumors, and yet who could stop you from doing that. One must reach his own conclusions, though, and as an ancient Buddha saying goes, “Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in… a blog on the Internet.” I don’t think that’s fake.

        1. I’m afraid it’s never really “obvious” online, and often offline, when someone is joking or whether they intend their words to be taken literally. But it wasn’t the expression “to the end of days” that I was critiquing, it was your claim that you “know” whether or not I’m open to changing my mind. That is not something that can be known.

          Sorry you could not find “interpreted quote” in Google. I used that, and I am entitled to put words in a sequence that would convey a certain point.

          You’re entitled to write anything you want, but what you wrote was “It is what’s called an ‘interpreted’ quote.” If you’d said “It’s what I’d call an ‘interpreted’ quote,” that would be one thing. But to say it’s “called” an ‘interpreted’ quote indicates that this is some kind of widely known term, when in fact it isn’t.

          “You did not addressed the fact that the “fake Buddha quote,” as you call this wonderful authentic Buddha quote, was actually a translation buy a group genuine Buddhist scholars.”

          I didn’t address this because it’s a nonsensical position. You’re committing the fallacy of “appealing to authority.” Just because the translation was done by a “scholar” doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Lots of scholars produce inaccurate translations. Also, I very much doubt you could name the “scholar” (or “scholars,” as you insist) who concocted this quote. What was his//her/their track record in translation? Did he/she/they even know Pali? You’re simply creating a story in your mind in an attempt to validate this quote.

          In calling this a “wonderful authentic Buddha quote” you’re committing the logical fallacy of “proof by repeated assertion.” Doubling down and repeating that something is the case, regardless of contradiction, and without evidence (for which you’d have to refer to the original Pali or a valid translation) doesn’t make your case any stronger. This is simply a propaganda technique.

          The thing is, what’s paramount in translation is representing accurately what the original says. If you change the message in a substantive way, then it’s a bad translation. It’s even a fake translation, if the inaccuracies are the result of intentional bias.

          As for your disparagement of Bhikkhu Thanissaro, I didn’t address that because it also didn’t really deserve to be addressed. It was in fact nothing more than an ad hominem attack, and thus another logical fallacy.

          You wrote: “He is an American Buddhist who converted to a form of Buddhism practiced in a certain monastery in Tayland (sic) in the 1970s, when it was very trendy to do it. So, I am not sure I would put my money on the accuracy of his translation.”

          The fact that Thanissaro is American is irrelevant. What possible bearing could his nationality have on his ability to translate Pali accurately? The fact that he “converted to a form of Buddhism practiced in a certain monastery” is also irrelevant. He became (and remains) a rather orthodox Theravadin Bhikkhu. Your attempt to make it sound like he joined some kind of weird and obscure branch of Buddhism is laughable, as is your rather sad insinuation that he became a monk because it was “trendy” to do so.

          Perhaps you’re also disparaging of Bhikkhu Bodhi (another American!) who became a bhikkhu in the 1970s (when, apparently, it was “trendy”) to do so. But here’s his translation:

          Come, Kalamas, do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view by pondering it, by the seeming competence [of a speaker], or because you think, “This ascetic is our guru.” But when you know for yourselves: “These things are wholesome; these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should live in accordance with them.

          You really think that “But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it” means the same as “But when you know for yourselves: ‘These things are wholesome; these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to welfare and happiness,’ then you should live in accordance with them”?

          You really think that the emphasis on accepting a teaching because it “agrees with reason” is the same as “do not go … by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation”?

          Well, we have you arguing that something is “obvious” when in fact it cannot be obvious, implying that a term is in common use when in fact it’s not, using the fallacy of the appeal to authority, the fallacy of proof by repeated assertion, and the fallacy of argumentation ad hominem. All this suggests to me that you may have some fundamental difficulties in thinking logically about the differences between the fake and real versions of this passage.

  8. Retards.

    You think a buddha cannot see cause and effect in motion.
    Dont try to revide words or masters when you dont have the knowledge to see trough illusions yourself.

    What you know about the spiritual logic to revide hes words mentally retarded consumers.
    The hell with you planet destroyers mind and earth poiseners.

    IDIOTS.

      1. ‘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.” –Too bad there is no mention of anything being true.

        1. You’re right, Joel. There is no mention of truth in that extract from the sutta. But the Kalamas were fundamentally asking about how to discern the truth of competing spiritual teachings. What the Buddha’s responding to is this question:

          “Lord, there are some brahmans & contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. And then other brahmans & contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt: Which of these venerable brahmans & contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”

          It’s interesting that the Buddha’s reply doesn’t mention truth. In a way he may have been saying is “truth, spiritually speaking, is what works, in terms of liberating you from suffering.” He’s more interested in method than in confirming particular statements as factually correct. But he does engage in a Socratic dialog with the Kalamas, in which he leads them to see how his teachings are effective (and therefore, presumably, true).

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