“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.

34 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.

  9. The problem with this is you’ve basically rubbished the quote but not given a real quote of what was really said and meant – you seem willing to pull Buddha down, but not look at what was really said

    To me this betrays an agenda – although I suppose that’s obvious seeing as you bothered to set up a website about it

    1. I have no idea what you’re talking about, Tiny. The genuine quotation is in the fifth paragraph, after the sentence “Here’s the original version, from Access to Insight.”

      How is it “pulling the Buddha down” to point out a fake quotation and to tell people what his teachings really say?

      My “agenda” is to help people recognize quotes that are inaccurately ascribed to the Buddha.

  10. Thanks for the right quote. I still like the wrong quote but may have I a different interpretation from you.
    Not about the original scriptures but only about the wrong quote.
    I never studied the Sutras, Pali nor Sanskri so I can’t say I know something. I’ve just realized a year a go that I didn’t know anything. I was just blindly following someone else words and belief. I was not criticizing/thinking enough.

    So my understanding of the “false” quote would be : Do not follow blindly, observe, analyze and understand. Always think by yourself and always keep in mind you could be wrong. You also have to criticize your own thinking. Never take things for granted.

    And my my interpretation is kind of wrong, at least deeply subjective 🙂

    Thanks for your work, your site and your kindness.

    1. I agree we should do all the things you say, Oliver. The Kalama Sutta appears to be implying that all of those things (observing, analyzing, understanding, thinking for yourself) should take into account observed reality and also the testimony of people who have more experience than oneself. That hopefully is covered by your suggestion that we should be open to the possibility that we might be wrong, and that we should examine our own thinking processes.

  11. So to conclude, we are the master of life. We are the wise, gaining experiences we encountered. Even the wise can teach and advice wrong things. Ultimately we make wise decision to reject the wrong things the leaders taught..

  12. Hii..sir…

    I just want to ask you question…
    .
    Why you named your website fakebuddhaqoutes… ???

    It is sending negative message among the people……
    .
    .
    I think you should have used another positive name for your website..

    .
    .
    Like…… Real quotes of buddha…
    .
    .
    I think you are spreading negativity rather than positivity….
    .
    ..plz think about it…

    1. Hi, Swapnil.

      The site is called fakebuddhaquotes.com because it’s about helping people to identify fake quotes. I do often include passages from the Buddhist scriptures, but calling the site “real quotes of Buddha” would be misleading. Anyway, I don’t think there’s anything negative about providing people with accurate information.

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

  13. Hi Bodhipaksa,

    if the translation of the quote you are offering is indeed as close to the original meaning, then still I arrive at a quite different understanding, or none at all. First I was dumbstruck when I read it, since it seems to read: “Don’t do this and that to evaluate offered teachings. Except, do exactly that, which I just said you shouldn’t, to reach your evaluation.” – which would have Koan-like qualities.

    How to arrive at the “knowledge” that certain qualities are skillful or blameless (what ever that is..) if not through logic, inference and analogy. How would I arrive at the conclusion that certain qualities lead to happiness, if not through probability or by the logical evaluation of my already established practice? Who are these “wise man” if not our teachers? By the way, what is “a contemplative”?

    If this was a text of the Upanishads the obvious solution would be in the word “yourself” (as in “When you know for YOURSELVES”) since it would be most likely a substitute for the “true self”, the Atman (and as such recognizable by the use of a corresponding sanskrit term). But there is no Atman according to Buddha, everything is condition, so there is no higher self capable of knowing the truth.

    One could, rather cheekily, insert the phrase “by heart” instead of “yourselves”. I don’t know anything of the Buddhas teaching according to the Pali Canon, maybe such an inference would sound right in the context of other suttas, but the phrase itself doesn’t lend to it. And what would that be, “knowing by heart” – an approach via the left side of the brain, emotional intelligence, association over differentiation? Wouldn’t that sound a tad anachronistic?

    The third way to read this passage is by accentuating the word “know” as in: if you KNOW sth. is right then don’t try to argue it in your mind..
    again, that would postulate some higher wisdom “inside”, i.e. the Atman. And additional to being a potentially harmful advice would sound no more insightful than any book title in a New Age library.

    Ok, fourth try: how about I postulate “practical knowledge” as the critical factor, i.e. “Do it, then you know it”. But, if your rendition is right, it says specifically “when you know […] then you should enter [the aforementioned qualities]” – and since entering comes before practicing..

    Conclusively, if I accept your statement that the offered translation is truthful (which means that you did not only translate the words but transferred the semantics) – and I am actually convinced that you did a real good job! – then I see the discernment of “state of knowing” from the “process of coming to conclusions” as the most relevant point made in this quote. But this would mean that there has to be someone to know this truth and the only one to know a truth is a true self, an Atman. Without an higher self, which sanctifies truth, the text reads like “never question your believe system, except you suddenly know something different, and then don’t use your faculties of discernment or ever after” or blander “don’t think. just know” – which, as an answer to a bunch of people who just asked him how to discern truth would be nothing short of a slap in the face.
    This in turn would sustain a long-held theory of mine, that the “anatman-doctrine” of the buddha wasn’t so much the dogma it seems to be understood as, but merely a philosophical construct, a meditative technique, and a political statement against the vedic tradition of his time. As far as I know, Buddhists where known to Shankara and other Advaita philosophers as “atheists”, mainly because of their refusal of the Atman – which points to the social/political/religious relevance of this stance. But here and there I come across apparent quotes of the Buddha which imply the existence of a core self. As far as I am informed, there are quotes in the Pali Canon where Buddha both proposes and refuses the concept of re-birth. And – if I am informed right – he does the former explicitly on the grounds that there would be no Self that can be reborn. Gautama Buddha seems to use the technique of “no-self” as a meditation and consciousness practice in the process of awakening, he certainly used the term as a statement against brahmin traditions, to send ripples through established religion, he successfully used it to shake the core believes of his followers – but did he ever shake fully his own contextual conditioning? Or was he fully aware of it being a tool rather than a truth?

    Sorry for my ramblings, I discovered this site by accident, started thinking and found pleasure in typing it out while in the process.
    Sorry, too, for my insufficient english. It is a possibility that some conclusions of mine were lead on by language-based misunderstandings.

    Thanks for your attention and thanks for sharing this site with us!

    Best regards

    Kiran

    1. The translation offered is not mine, Kiran, but is by Bhikkhu Thanissaro. He’s generally a reliable translator. Here are two other translations for comparison, also by reputable translators.

      …don’t go by oral transmission, don’t go by lineage, don’t go by testament, don’t go by canonical authority, don’t rely on logic, don’t rely on inference, don’t go by reasoned contemplation, don’t go by the acceptance of a view after consideration, don’t go by the appearance of competence, and don’t think ‘The ascetic is our respected teacher.’ But when you know for yourselves: ‘These things are skillful, blameless, praised by sensible people, and when you undertake them, they lead to welfare and happiness’, then you should acquire them and keep them. (Bhikkhu Sujato)

      And:

      …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 after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think: ‘The 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. (Bhikkhu Bodhi)

      I can see how this quote in isolation would seem to be koan-like, or even hypocritical (don’t take up practices just because a teacher says you should .. now try this practice that I, a teacher, am suggesting to you). But in the context of the sutta the Buddha is asking the Kalamas to disengage from the world of speculative views and to connect with their actual lived experience. So he asks them to reflect on what the observed effects are of acting out of greed and non-greed, hatred and non-hatred, and delusion and non-delusion. Thus he’s throwing them back on their own observation, and helping them to learn from it, rather than simply offering a new “view” for them to take on board. In fact, as I understand it he’s not offering a “view” in his terms at all, because it’s not speculative.

      As far as the “anatman doctrine” goes, I’ll go further than you. I don’t think the Buddha taught a no-self doctrine at all, and I don’t see anything in the scriptures corresponding to it. As far as I can see, all he did was to ask people to stop identifying any experience as the self — to stop trying to define themselves, to use more accessible language. He explicitly identified that holding the view that there is no self was spiritually unhelpful and a source of suffering. I believe that the “no self doctrine” is a modern invention. I don’t think this should be taken to imply that the Buddha believed there was some kind of “atman” that was indefinable, however. That again would be a speculative view.

  14. Bodhipaksa, I think it’s great you take the time to reply to all the comments here in great detail.

    I wasn’t intellectually sharp enough to grasp the meaning from the original post alone, but reading though your responses in the comments has helped me a lot.

    Keep up the good work, with metta,

    Michael

  15. I know it may seem out of place at first, offering an ACIM quote on a Buddhist site, but having studied both Buddhist and ACIM teachings (I’m not a master of neither), I find this quote to be true, and relevant;

    “A universal theology is impossible, but a universal experience is not only possible but necessary.”

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