“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it”: 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. Certainly, by the time he was “Buddha” (The One Who Is Awakened) he’d rejected all of the major teachings derived from the Vedic tradition, including the caste system, the worship of the gods, the efficacy of sacrifice, the power of prayer, the notion that one can purify oneself through ritual, and so on. If we were to (anachronistically) describe those beliefs and practices as “Hindu” then the Buddha had thoroughly rejected Hinduism.
The Buddha himself came from a Republic in which there were, of course, no kings and no princes. In the early texts there is no mention of him being a prince or his father being a king. The Sakyan Republic from which he came was governed instead by a ruling council, probably comprising the heads of the most important families. His father may have been the elected head of this council. That’s very different from his father having been a king.
The Buddha lived at a time when the last republics (including the one in which he was born) were starting to be swallowed up by the newly-emergent monarchies. In his own lifetime his homeland was conquered by and absorbed into a neighboring kingdom. Several hundred years later, monarchies were well-established, the republics were largely forgotten and unimaginable, and so people imagined the Buddha 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.” This story, although powerful, if a myth.
But on to the quote. In the original Kalama Sutta, we have (in Thanissaro’s translation):
“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:
- Fake Quote: 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.
- Scriptural Quote: 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 scriptural quote, accepting something merely 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 entirely 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 it is skillful, blameless, praised by the wise, and lead to welfare and to happiness.
This garbled version of the Kalama Sutta appeared in a 1956 book called “2500 Buddha Jayanti,” celebrating the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s parinirvana. I haven’t been able to get hold of this book, but I suspect that this recasting of the Buddha’s teaching may have been done to make Buddhism appear more “rational.”
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.
However, it goes back further. A commenter below pointed out that the same quote is found in the first of three lectures given in 1951 by Sayagyi U Ba Khin, who was S. N. Goenka’s teacher. These lectures are available online here and are also published in a book called “What Buddhism Is” (download for free here).
There the quote is:
Do not believe in what you have heard; do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations; do not believe in anything because it is rumoured and spoken by many; do not believe merely because a written statement of some old sage is produced; do not believe in conjectures; do not believe in that as truth to which you have become attached from habit; do not believe merely the authority of your teachers and elders. After observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and gain of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
This is almost identical, the differences being mere changes in wording. This is no doubt the prototype of the “Buddha Jayanti” quote. Unfortunately my local library has been unable to get me a copy of “2500 Buddha Jayanti” through Inter-Library Loan, so I can’t tell if Sayagyi U Ba Khin was the speaker at the conference who used this quote. However, I have searched the Google Book version linked to above, and no results appear for his name.
In “What Buddhism Is” Sayagyi U Ba Khin gives a reference for his quote. In a footnote he says it’s from the Pali Text Society’s “Book of the Gradual Sayings Vol I” (Anguttara Nikaya), page 171 onward. But his version of the quote doesn’t at all resemble that found in the “Gradual Sayings.” That translation, by F. L. Woodward, has:
Now look you, Kalamas. Be ye not misled by report or tradition or hearsay. Be not misled by proficiency in the collections [pitakas], nor by mere logic or inference, nor after considering reasons, nor after reflection on and approval of some theory, nor because it fits becoming, nor out of respect for a recluse (who holds it). But if at any time ye know of yourselves: These things are profitable, they are blameless, they are praised by the intelligent: these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to profit and happiness,—then, Kalamas, do ye, having under taken them, abide therein.
Although the language is archaic, it’s not hard to see that this closely resembles Thanissaro’s translation above, and that it disagrees with Sayagyi U Ba Khin’s fake quote because it too recognizes that reason is not a sufficient basis for accepting something as true. Here again the criteria for accepting or rejecting a truth are knowing for oneself that it is profitable (in terms of long-term human happiness), blameless, and praised by the wise.
So at the moment my hypothesis is that Sayagyi U Ba Khin changed the wording of the Kalama Sutta in order to make it appear more rationalistic, or that he use an altered version created by someone else.
And then subsequently, a speaker at the 2500 Jayanti Conference (probably not Sayagyi U B Khin himself) tidied it up a little and presented it in the context of a talk, leading to it appearing in this book and thus gaining wider currency. Who the actual speaker is remains unknown to me, and will do until I can get hold of the 2500 Buddha Jayanti text.