Critical Thinking in Buddhism: The Kalama Sutta

by Alfred Bloom, Professor Emeritus, University of Hawaii

“Reverend Gotama, who by yourself have understood clearly through direct knowledge, there are some monks and brahmans who visit Kesaputta. They expound, explain and glorify their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they deprecate, revile, show contempt for, and disparage. As a result we are in doubt about the teachings of all of them. Which spoke the truth and which falsehood?”

Buddha said, “Of course, under such circumstances it is only natural to be uncertain and in doubt, Kalamas. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. This is how to live:

“Do not go by reports (repeated hearing), by legends, by traditions, by rumours, by scriptures, by surmise, conjecture and axioms, by inference and analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by specious reasoning or bias toward a notion because it has been pondered over, by another’s seeming ability, or by the thought, ‘This monk (contemplative) is our teacher.’

“However, Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘Such and such things are unskilful (bad); blameworthy; criticized by the wise; and if adopted and carried out lead to harm and ill and suffering,’ you need to abandon them…

“So what do you think, Kalamas? Are these things skilful or unskilful (good or bad)? Blameworthy or not? Criticized or praised by the wise? And if undertaken and observed, do these things lead to suffering, harm and ill or not?…

“Great proficiency in living leads to benefit and happiness – equanimity that is free of hate or malice, a hate-free, malice-free, and purified mind. Even in this world, here and now, you should keep yourself free from hatred, free from malice, safe, sound, and happy.”… (Kalama Sutta)


The Kalama Sutta (Sutra) is a famous text, popularly described as Buddha’s “charter of free inquiry.” It has been used “for advocating prudence by the use of sound logical reasoning arguments and the dialectic principles for inquiries in the practice that relates to the discipline of seeking truth, wisdom and knowledge whether it is religious or not. In short, the Kālāma Sutta is opposed to blind faith, dogmatism and belief spawned from specious reasoning.” (Kalama Sutta, Wikipedia) Here Gotama Buddha gives advice on how seekers should respond when they are confronted by diversity of views concerning the path to enlightenment and spiritual fulfillment, even Gotama’s. He advocates a questioning, inquiring spirit, refusing to accept anything simply based on invoking an authority.

This aspect of Buddhism came to the fore at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 at the Chicago Exposition. While not giving the details of Buddhist traditional beliefs, Buddhist exponents, such as Anagarika Dharmapala of Ceylon (presently Sri Lanka), promoted the harmony of Buddhism and science in contrast to Christianity which conflicted with science, particularly on the theory of evolution. Consequently:

“…the early missionaries of Buddhism to America purposely stripped Buddhism of any elements that might appear superstitious, mythological, even mystical. Dharmapala, Suzuki, and Vivekananda clearly ascertained that Americans measured truth in science, and science posed little theological threat to a Buddhist and Hindu worldview. After all, Buddhism had unique advantages for someone who rejected their faith (Christian) due to its authoritarianism and unscientific outlook.” – Martin J. Verhoeven. “Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason,” Religion East and West, (June 2001, issue 1, pp. 77-97;

According to Dharmapala:

“Buddhism may be called the Religion of Analysis. It analyses every phase of cosmic phenomenon, the constituents that go to make up a human being, and the differentiating states of mentality; it categorizes the differentiation of Good, Evil and Neutral; it rejects every phase of superstitious belief that is based on mere tradition, speculation, revelations, magic, analogy, logic, authority, and collected discourses, and appeals to the purified heart to distinguish the good from the bad, and to avoid doing anything that is correlated with covetousness, anger and lust. All that is pure and free from covetousness, anger and lust are productive of good, and therefore to be acted upon. Such was the doctrine that the Blessed One enunciated to the chiefs of the Kalama country…” (Anagarika Dharmapala, “Life and Teachings of the Buddha”)

The story of Gotama’s search for enlightenment illustrates this principle. During his quest, Gotama did not inquire with religious authorities, but, rather, studied with several teacher-philosophers, similar to Socrates in the West. However, dissatisfied with their teachings, he left them. Eventually he even departed from his five companions who focused on asceticism, which placed severe restraints on the body, in order to pursue an independent path to enlightenment.

Modern teachers of Buddhism often cite the Kalama Sutta to show that Buddhism is a rational and critical teaching for understanding the nature of life and spiritual liberation from the bondage of ego and suffering in its many forms. It aims at seeing things as they truly are which is a basic principle of Buddhism and its goal. Also it is also fundamental not to be attached to views. According to Dharmapala: “The strongest emphasis has been put by Buddha on the supreme importance of having an unprejudiced mind before we start on the road of investigating the truth. Prejudice, passion, fear of expression of one’s convictions and ignorance are the four biases that have to be sacrificed at the threshold.” (The World’s Debt to Buddhism, A paper read at the Chicago World Parliament of Religions, 1893)

Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, which are the basis of his teaching, display a rational analysis where there is a problem, (suffering in life); a cause for that suffering (passions, lust, cravings); and, based on the principle of cause and effect, a solution to the problem, the eightfold noble path. His method is sometimes compared with medical diagnosis and treatment. What, however, began as a philosophical-life discipline approach, common in ancient times, East or West, was transformed over time to a religion replete with myths, legends, a complex symbol system and monastic discipline. Its monastic character, where followers revered monks, and rituals encouraged popular devotion. For many, Buddhism became a belief system rather than a way to understand and deal with life issues.

Gotama lists the various forms of information that should be questioned:

  • Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing. False or incorrect information does not become true because it is repeated over and over. People often defend a point of view by repeatedly asserting it, usually with rising voices and tempers.
  • He cautions against legends which are stories based on unproven facts. A legend or tradition appears factual but cannot be fully verified. Religion and history are full of legends and traditions which are suggestive stories aimed at exalting famous leaders or teachers, or to highlight the truth of a teaching.
  • He questions rumor, that is, information from unknown and unverified sources usually circulated from one person to another. We also call it hearsay. Through modern media urban legends and rumors spread rapidly.
  • Even scriptures are to be questioned. Scriptures gain their authority through belief in their divine origin or that they record the words of a sage. In tradition they become unquestioned. In Gotama’s day, the Indian Vedic scriptures were viewed as sacred revelations. In our day, the Bible is regarded by most Christians as the Word of God, though conceptions vary. The belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible is the basis for some of our highly polarized social issues, where people invoke the Bible as the authority for political or social views. Muslims regard the Qur’an as a revelation directly given to Mohammed and accept the principles he taught as God’s (Allah) laws for governing society. Jewish tradition regarded the Torah, first five books of the Bible as a body of laws, similar to the later Qur’an. However, the Jewish Rabbis (teachers) relied on reason to interpret the meaning and application of those laws. A story is told that once in a dispute one rabbi insisted on his opinion as the truth in the dispute, and threatened to call down the voice of God back him up. However, the other rabbis replied that the voice of God is no substitute for a good reason and argument and they would not accept the decision even if the voice of God supported it. Revelation cannot replace reason. In our modern time we are reminded by Porgy’s comment that what’s written in the Bible, tain’t necessarily so.
  • We are not to simply accept a surmise, something accepted as true while as yet unproven. We make surmises frequently, concluding that something is true, though we may not have all the facts or information. Such conclusions are easily shaped by prejudices and are to be questioned, even when recognized authorities assert them.
  • We are not to accept something because it is an axiom, axiomatic, that is, an unquestioned, apparently self evident, or assumed truth. To question an axiom seems to go against reason, but may be the highest reason. Many things once accepted in society as axioms, givens, such as the separation of races, male superiority, that the earth is flat, etc. have given way to questioning, resulting in the progress of society and culture.
  • Specious reasoning asserts ideas which are plausible, seemingly correct or logical but with investigation are found to be erroneous or false. They can be what we regard as half truths. Political campaigns and religious debate often employ such assertions.
  • We are to check our biases or prejudices that arise from long study of a teaching or subject matter.
  • We should not be swayed to accept ideas simply because of the ability or expertise of the exponent. Having advanced academic degrees does not automatically make a person an authority in any field other than the field he/she has studied.
  • The final consideration questions even one’s teacher. According to Gotama, one should not accept a teaching simply because one’s teacher advocates for it. In all traditions this is the most difficult. Lecterns and pulpits are the strongest barriers to questioning.

Running through these ways of acquiring information and achieving spiritual understanding and faith is the issue of authority. There is a contemporary motto: “Question authority.” Ultimately, no matter what the character or the source of an idea, we each have to judge whether that idea is fruitful or unfruitful for our lives. As the Buddha charged his disciples at his death to be a refuge to themselves, a light for themselves, so here also the responsibility for determining the truth of your life is within yourself. Thus the Buddha concluded: “Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.”