Doubting the Kalama-Sutta
Epistemology, Ethics, and the ‘Sacred’
Keywords:Kālāma-sutta, Buddhist epistemology
The Kalama-sutta is frequently cited as proof of the rational and empirical spirit of early Buddhist epistemology, ‘The Buddha’s charter of free enquiry’, according to Soma Thera. A close reading, however, calls that interpretation into question. The Kalamas do not ask what is the truth, and the Buddha does not tell them how to find it. Rather the Kalamas ask ‘Who is telling the truth?’ in what may have been the pursuit of sacred or quasi magical power through the person of a teacher. The Buddha, in turn, encourages them to adopt a set of attitudes and actions, which includes choosing a teacher. The method of evaluation that the Buddha gives, which includes the famous ‘know for yourselves’ is found to be as least as much ethical as it is epistemological and to invoke the opinion of authority and the public. The Buddha here seems to call for a decision that is partly based on faith, and the Kalamas respond not with independent research, but with an act of faith in committing themselves to (and being accepted by) the Buddha.
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