“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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9 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!!

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