“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). Who have you found to be reliable and insightful in the past? They’re 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.

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Bodhipaksa

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44 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.”

    • Thanks, Bill. The site’s not as old as it looks. I used to write these FBQ posts on my personal blog, and then decided to import them to a new blog so that it would be more of a “thing.” So although some of the posts are venerable and ancient, the blog itself is only two months old.

  1. Thanks to Gordy Turner who shared your link on FB. I look forward to much wisdom reading your blog.

  2. Thank yo very much for this website !! For long years I was reading buddhist quotes from the internet and I could not trust the real source of them. Simply I don’t trust in many internet websites made of copy&paste from others wich we cannot verify where it came from, what book, page, etc. I saw your comment on facebook pic. Thank you. kisses from Argentina.

  3. Thank you for enlightning the minds of people with correct Dharma. In aworld where lot of people are in serch of the truth I beleive your efforts will help some of them if not all !!!! , May the tripple gem bless all………

  4. Greetings & Salutations my dear Friend Bodhipakśa _/|\_
    I fully concur! This is probably, in my perception, this most frequently sited, commonplace atrocious “misquote” is truly a FAKE QUOTE.
    The reasons that you’ve outlined are excellent. The difference between what one’s “Common Sense” confirms, and the advice given to the Kalamans (Kalama Sutta, Pali Canon, AN 3.65 ) about ONLY trusting EXPERIENTIAL KNOWLEDGE once proven SKILLFUL, definitely makes this “interpretation” a Bonafide FAKE BUDDHA QUOTE.
    Namaskar _/|\_ With Metta & Sati, your Friend,
    ~Dharmamitra Jeff Stefani

  5. I almost used this quote, but I’m glad that I did a search before doing that.

    But be it reason, common sense or experience, until we attain enlightenment, I think ultimate truth is beyond us as long as ignorance is obscuring our perception.

    Thanks for clearing the air.

  6. Pingback: “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.” Buddha* « SatNav for the soul®

  7. “Logical conjecture” is not the same as reason; in fact, it is the opposite. Look up conjecture in a dictionary and you will see what I mean. The process the Buddha advises the Kalamas to take is one based on reason: “Does the behavior cause harm? If so, avoid it. Simple. The translator’s note in the Access to Insight link you provided makes the point clear that reason IS what the Buddha is talking about. “Instead, any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one’s understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise. The ability to question and test one’s beliefs in an appropriate way is called appropriate attention.”

    I thought I would point that out.

    • Thanks, Timothy. I have to say that formal logic is not my strong point.

      The word “conjecture” seems to be an “educated guess,” so I wouldn’t have thought that’s the opposite of reason, but a particular kind of reason. Questions could be raised in any given instance of what the observational basis is for making the conjecture (is your data sample representative, biased, etc.) or how sound your reasoning is, but conjecture doesn’t seem, in essence, to be a “un-reasonable” activity.

      The actual Pali term used for “conjecture” is takahetu, which my old friend Jayarava interprets as “reasoning disconnected from experience and especially from emotions and values; what we might call speculation.” He goes on to say “There‟s nothing wrong with reason per se, but one can‟t decide moral questions from pure reason, one must understand it from experience,” which I quite agree with.

      Jayarava’s interpretation here is the same as mine. Reason isn’t enough. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. One has to have a observational basis for your reason for it to be spiritually helpful.

  8. Thank you

    I came to this website after reading the quote “drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. Seeing “FAKE” stamped on the Buddha intrigued me.

    Before I knew anything about the Buddha, I was told that the Buddha said, “Choice is Misery” And this was also before the Internet. After being introduced to Buddhism I’ve been looking for it. Perhaps I will find it here.

    I believe that one attributes a quotation to another when one lacks the self confidence to own it.

    When a quote is attributed to the Buddha or an Ancient Chinese secret, it is an attempt to make the idea more wise, more credible.

    It matters not who said it…. If it rings true for us, we believe it, if it guides our lives, we own it.

    I look forward to finding pearls of wisdom that will guide my life.

    • Yes, it does seem lame to share a quote that’s either anonymous or attributed to a “nobody.” Although it’s honest. It makes us seem so much more sophisticated to forward a quote from the Buddha, or Socrates, or the Dalai Lama. But it’s dishonest to do so if they’re not the authors.

  9. I would rather say this is not EXACT quote but not FAKE!
    But what is irony is that Bodhipaksa fails in same fallacy!
    “Nope, I did not say that”- The Buddha
    “That sounds awfully suspicious”- The Buddha
    are really not said by the Buddha!

      • Surely it’s not either/or. The Buddha taught because he wanted to help us move toward having the kind of experience he had. So understanding what the Buddha taught is not separate from the project of studying the self, but part of that activity.

  10. Just saw this quote right now, again, posted by the Buddhism FB page, which links to Buddhism
    Worldwide Buddhist Information and
    Education Network ► http://www.TheBuddhism.net

    And this is what the admin said just 5 hours ago:
    Linda Linda: Some are saying this is a fake quote, so I followed the link to the “fake Buddha quotes.” Using my reason and common sense, I see this quote as not fake, but a conscise and modern update on the original…just like there are many versions of Bible quotes in modern day language. I will continue to use this quote because as far as I can tell, even though the words may be different, the meaning is pretty much the same thing.
    Sigh. It’s an uphill battle, isn’t it? Ignorance is pervasive. ;)
    Thanks for being here.

  11. I think an argument over a buddhist quote is contradictory to what the Buddha advises with the same quote. Reading your article, and the comments, I find more understanding than I ever would through the quote (misinterpreted or not) itself.
    Thank you
    :-)

  12. Question is whether or not to correct someone who has posted on FB something misattributed to the Buddha. Isn’t that kind of rude or, isn’t it their path to figure it out?

    • I think it’s a good idea, to point out Buddha misquotes, wherever you see them. I don’t think it’s rude. People shouldn’t misquote The Buddha. We need to preserve Dhamma, for future generations, as The Sangha has done for us.

    • Erica,

      Do you honestly believe it’s “rude” to correct someone’s error? I am disturbed if that is what people truly believe. We should strive to correct people’s errors and misconceptions. Their path to figure it out may include one of us along that path to assist them in that discovery.

  13. Nice one. Good on you for making this blog to dispel some of the “quotes” the Buddha is credited for. I have this theory that you can make any sentence seem important by simply putting a famous name at the end of it… Ha!
    I love quotes simply because they make me think in new ways sometimes. I shall pay less attention of “who” is supposed to have said it, even if I have said it, as long as it resonates with my current state of heart and mind and my blessed path in everyday’s spiritual awakening.
    Peace and gratitude :-)

    • You’re absolutely right. Take these two quotes:

      “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” Albert Einstein.

      “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” Conan O’Brien.

      Which quote would you rather use? And guess which one of these people actually said those words?

  14. Thank you for your insights. I grew up in Thailand and as you may well know the predominant tradition Thais adopt is one of Theravada Buddhism. This is not untrue of my own family.

    However I find the type of state sponsored religious practices by most Thais somewhat mired in local superstitions and Deistic/Theistic tendencies, veneration of the Buddha to the point of Deistic worship which I find out of step with Buddha’s original intention.

    The point you made that Buddha was not a Hindu Prince is well taken as it is a well accepted belief to the majority of Thais that Buddha came from a Brahman tradition. Other aspects of his life actual life are sketchy best and pure wish-thinking worst for lack of substantiated evidence

    So as with Socrates what we’re left wish is the message, which brings me to my question before I digress any further :)

    Referencing the quotation
    “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it…”

    I can certainly agree that those are not direct quotations of the Buddha since its an interpretation of his conversations to the Kalamas

    Please correct me if I’m wrong you. It strikes me you are arguing semantics here
    as I see the fundamental message being the same in so called fake-translations and your interpretation. albeit with slight differences.

    While the former encourages total self deliberation the latter argues self deliberation with the aid of reliable external inferences through experience.

    My point is one naturally leads to the other, both encourages the use of one’s own internal logic without sole reliance on external perspectives.

    Both advocating, essentially to take things with a grain of salt…

    A distinction which need not to have been stated, for it leads to the same conclusion. Its the core message that’s important not necessarily the delivery method

    • Well, in some cases fake quotations are similar in meaning to genuine ones, but in some case the fake quotes are almost meaningless or contradict what the Buddha seems to have taught. But my main point is to establish accurate citations. I assume you don’t have a problem with that, although some people clearly do.

      By the way, I find it odd when people say things like “you are just arguing semantics” Since semantics is the study of meaning, what they’re in effect saying is “you’re only talking about the meaning of things.” Talking about the meaning of things seems to me to be a non-trivial thing to do :)

  15. “Buddhism is not a faith-based system in the traditional sense. In fact, when the Buddha first began to teach, he advised his disciples not to blindly accept his teachings out of faith, but rather to investigate the validity of his theories and test his methods for themselves.”
    Excerpt From: Lama, Dalai. “The Art of Happiness, 10th Anniversary Edition.” PENGUIN group, 2010-03-01. iBooks.

    • Apologies if Im mistaken, but I assume you’re making the point that the Dalai Lama said this, so the quote must be true. But what’s more likely to be happening is that the Dalai Lama is merely repeating the quote. The fact that he’s the Dalai Lama doesn’t mean that he can’t be taken in by a fake quote. The Buddha did definitely encourage people to put his teachings into practice in order to establish their validity, but the quote itself isn’t something that’s found in the scriptures.

  16. This is an interesting website, in that it tries to achieve accuracy with regards to citations. This must be really time consuming work. On the other hand, this whole thing also strikes me as bit dogmatic when we get into the issue of description/meaning of some of the quotes/passages found in historical documents. Oral traditions to transfer and impart knowledge are subject to “slippage” and change. One possible interpretation for the different schools of thought in Buddhism and Yoga can be partially attributed to the shifting of the oral message through time. While the spirit of a specific teaching may remain relatively unaltered for a long time, drastic departures are also possible. While there is never 100% certainty that a specific quote or scripture passage can be attributed to someone, we can be reasonably assured the quote about not taking things at face value is probably in line with what S Gautama taught to his followers. To take passages and quotes written 400 to 450 years after the death of the Buddha as literal statements coming from Buddha himself, strikes me as a bit of wishful dogmatic thinking. But I have to say that it is possible some are pretty close to a carbon copy.

    The meaning of the quote or passage is an entirely different topic. Any one can say what they like about this. I find no overriding need to favor one interpretation over another. But to try to claim that the exact meaning of the passage is this or that based on exaggerated attention on any one ENGLISH word is a bit silly. First, there is the translation issue. These translations are really complicated as we are taking about an ancient language that is no longer in use. We have a different versions of the translations of Buddhist and Hindu scriptures and this is a function of the fact that given our lack of specific understanding there is perhaps too much room in the translation process. We have to rely on context to try to come up with the best possible meaning for specific words and characters. In short translations are a necessary step for us to make, but hopefully in the process we don’t alter too much the meaning and spirit of the message. Why then try to argue here that the word inference or reason changes the meaning if the passage in this or that way? Come on !!! The truth is that given all the uncertainties and room for slippage in oral traditions and now in translations we have to go for the spirit of the passage. Some details can be important, but to just focus on the placement of a word and what it may mean is just not helpful. This is the realm of religious zealotry.

    my two cents

    • “To take passages and quotes written 400 to 450 years after the death of the Buddha as literal statements coming from Buddha himself, strikes me as a bit of wishful dogmatic thinking.”

      And to think that’s what I’m doing would be a drastic misreading. We can’t possibly know for sure what the Buddha said. All we have are scriptures, which may or may not reflect what he said. But we can point out when those scriptures are mistranslated or misrepresented, or when non-scriptural materials (quotes from GK Chesterton or Marie Curie, for example) are cited as having come from the Buddha.

  17. Excellent site. Kudos to you for actually LOOKING instead of taking for granted. I have enjoyed the Buddhist studies I have undertaken thus far and will be visiting your site often to deepen my understanding.

  18. Thank you for tracing the quote back to its original context, the Kalama Sutta. This “Believe in nothing” buddha quote sounds great from the surface, but the depth of it, is unscratched. And in fact, if left unexplained, does no benefits to anyone by reading it out loud.

    I came across a building block from the original passage that “reason and common sense are not sufficient for ascertaining the truth.” Then I ponder upon myself on what is truth? And I wonder what if my reason and common sense are completely wrong from my lack of experience and exposure of myself to the world? Then I made the assumption that… most of us must have used our own reason and common senses to arrive at a decision in our past, yet the decisions that we made are still completely wrong. This puts me in a spiral of thoughts that how can I trust my own common senses when the decisions I made in the past are wrong? So when this quote tells me to believe in my own common sense, how can I be so sure? Because really, my common senses have failed me in the past from the wrong decisions that I have made. And it brought me back to the Kalama Sutta: “reason and common sense are not sufficient for ascertaining the truth.” So what is truth? Truth is only when you understand the depth of your qualities and your weakness. Truth is only when you fully understand yourself of your limitations. But how can I be so sure of the definition of the word “fully”? Was “fully” the same meaning several years ago compared to today? And when is “fully” really fully for me to understand myself of my qualities today? In my opinion, there is no truth. There is just “is” and there is just “now”. I have been searching for Truth and I don’t want to die searching for Truth. I will never find Truth. This is the moment and this is “it”. Truth is now. Although, I must say, “nice quote”, it did made me stop and ponder from my daily activities. I need an awakening from time to time. The dogma of my daily activities can make me forgetful sometimes. And this, it made me stop and contribute to the world.

    Vo
    “I’m not sorry for any spelling mistakes that I may have made, for I am known to make mistakes as much as anyone else.” Sorry!

  19. In 2006 my wife and I did decided to explore America by car.My wife went into a small curio shop in Georgia and returned with a small refrigerator magnet with the “Believe nothing…” quote and said to me “This is for you”. I had no interest in Buddhism at the time,nor did she-I was introduced to Buddhism in late 2011.I like to tell people now that I have received permission from Buddha to not try and apply words attributed to his teachings to my journey unless they sit well with my own personal DNA data base.
    I am aware that we live in a time where the elite thrive off the confusion of the masses and put forth effort to perpetuate that confusion. The slogans “question authority” and “trust but verify” are not trivia in my quest for enlightenment.
    The “Believe nothing” quote actually exist in my universe, it matters not whether it manifested itself on the walls of a toilet at a bus stop or was inscribed in stone at the top of ancient chapel .The point is that it was made manifest to me.
    To quiver over the delivery method, to my mind, is about as silly as refusing to accept a message that you are the sole heir to an enormous fortune because you don’t recognize the uniform of the messenger.
    As for common sense and reasoning;The DNA that informed the construction of my body have existed since the beginning of this form of existence-A log book of the journey,if you will.with modifications and updates made by each generation that it passed through to reflect what worked and what didn’t work during that time frame. This DNA data base is accessible to me through meditation.
    Sidarta Guatema and I came to inhabit our bodies through completely different circumstances, he was crazily rich,I was crazily poor,Yet I can apply much of his “teachings” to my journey,but some I cannot identify with.He gave me permission to do that.

  20. I understand what people on here are saying. “It’s still a great quote,” or “he said the same thing only slightly different.”

    It is very important to understand true facts of life. It’s important that you have heard or read a quote that has inspired you. When you then cross a path, such as this very website, it is also very important to understand, respect, reflect on new truths. Learn from experience, and ‘experience’ shouldn’t be thought of as ‘an event’ because then you could make the assumption that ‘experience’ happens sometimes. You should always learn from experience an never take an experience for granted.

  21. Well if we’re arguing semantics here, he didn’t say that either because Buddha didn’t speak English.

    I think the quote is a pretty accurate summary. No where in the quote does it say disregard the advise of others that makes sense to you and no one has wisdom but yourself. I never thought Buddha actually uttered those exact English words. Yes, it’s important to keep religions pure but it’s also important to make them understandable. I’m not a scholar and I don’t want to be. Maybe someday when I’ve lived a very long time and I’m not busy with life I will argue about some very small thing that doesn’t matter and act like reforming words and using modern ones for someone who’s never spoken a word of my language is a deceitful thing.

    I think you missed the forest for the trees and now you’re lost somewhere that isn’t a forest.

    • So, you’re saying that the Buddha’s view — not to rely purely on reason or common sense, but to go by experience and the testimony of the wise — is the same as relying on reason and common sense, Ashleig? That’s an interesting interpretation.

  22. Reason and common sense will vary depending on one’s knowledge hence can not be trusted to unearth truth. It seems to me that reason and common sense will result in theory. Experience will test the theory out in real life. So without the experience, theory can not be proven. Therefore, it makes sense for Buddha to tell us to test out the theory. So the experiential part will be important to be included in this instance IMHO.

  23. There is a huge group of thugs who need to twist and bend whatever the Buddha had taught. These people are around you. Just remember, the Buddha said : come and investigate. He did not say come and believe.

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