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The Buddha and the Kalamas

There is an old story called the Kalama Sutra. It is one of the oldest sutras and one of my favorites.

It goes something like this: The Buddha was traveling the world spreading the Dharma, teaching people that wanted to listen. He came upon a group of people known as the Kalamas and started explaining the Dharma to them. Their response was unusual.

They said, “We have had numerous spiritual teachers come here. Every new teacher comes and tells us to ignore the teachings we have heard before and to follow their doctrine only. This has made us doubtful and uncertain. What makes your teaching different? Why should we follow your authority and not the authority of the other teachers that came before you?”

The Buddha’s reply was unique.

He said, “You shouldn’t follow my authority. It’s good to be skeptical. It’s good to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Don’t believe things just because you’ve heard them from rumors or from authority figures or scriptures. Even if something has been repeated for generations, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge it. We should challenge everything. You should even challenge what I tell you. But challenge your own preconceptions too.

You didn’t need a religious teacher to come tell you that greed, hatred and delusion are bad. Your common sense agrees with that. You didn’t need a religious teacher to come and tell you that compassion and mindfulness are good. Your common sense agrees with that too.

I have only really come to teach skillful means, methods to deal with the suffering that pervades our lives. If my teachings are right, then the truth is within you already. Other teachings may be dogmatic and strict. Mine is not. I only teach suggestions for dealing with suffering.”

This is an important message in my opinion. I have a natural inclination to both be skeptical and to challenge authority. Unlike many other religious teachers, that is actually what the Buddha suggests to us. He had studied with several religious teachers in his time and he had decided that religion was not for him. He didn’t see the religions that he encountered as viable paths to spiritual truth or happiness. So, he created his own path.

In my opinion, he wasn’t trying to start a religion at all, he was just providing an example for us to follow, more of a way of life than a religion. His teachings weren’t given the label ‘religion’ until hundreds of years later.

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Kalama Sutra for Kids. Part Two

When I read my version of the Kalama Sutra to the children in Dharma School, they responded to it really well.

I said, “This is my favorite sutra. This is a teaching that, as far as I know, has never been given to children before.” 

 

The children took great meaning from it very easily. 

“When you yourselves can tell, ‘These things are not helpful. These things seem harmful,’ abandon them. Don’t accept teachings that don’t agree with your common sense.”

This is pretty straightforward and kids had no trouble understanding it. The Buddha is telling us to avoid spiritual teachings that seem to go against our reasonable logic. The truth is that we know the difference between right and wrong intuitively. Our moral compass doesn’t come from our spiritual path, if anything the opposite is true.

 

“Therefore, we know this. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, tradition, rumor, scripture, or another’s seeming ability.” 

 

This is equally straightforward. Question authority, don’t blindly follow it. It can be easy to put spiritual leaders on pedestals, to worship them as gods or think they’re better than us. The Buddha tells us that Buddha nature is within us, that we don’t need to worship our spiritual leaders. Elevating our spiritual leaders can be counterproductive on the path. 

The Buddha’s message, that we should challenge authority, is unique. The other spiritual leaders that the Kalamas encountered had very different messages.