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

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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. The Buddha himself came from a Republic in which there were, of course, no kings and no princes. In the early text there is no mention of him being a prince or his father being a king, and it’s clear that he lived at a time when the last republics (including the one in which he was born) were being swallowed up by the newly-emergent monarchies. Several hundred years later, monarchies were well-established, republics were unthinkable, and so the Buddha was seen 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.”

But on to the quote. In the original Kalama Sutta, we have:

“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:

  • 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.
  • 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 quote, accepting something 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 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 they are skillful, blameless, praised by the wise, and lead to welfare and to happiness.

This garbled version of the Kalama Sutta goes back to 1956, where it appeared in a 1956 book called “2500 Buddha Jayanti,” celebrating the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s parinirvana. I haven’t read the book, but this recasting of the Buddha’s teaching may have been done to make Buddhism appear more “rational.”

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Bodhipaksa

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35 thoughts on ““Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it…”

  1. “So first let me state that the Buddha was not a “Hindu Prince.” He was not a “Hindu” and he was not a “prince.””
    I was taking you seriously then when i came across the above statement it made me seriously doubt your knowledge. WHY??
    Buddha means ‘the enlightened one’, and if you are talking about Siddhartha Gautama then yes he was a Hindu prince, born and raised in what is present-day Nepal.His father, King Suddhodana, was leader of a large clan called the Shakya. The Hindu Puranas mention Shakya as a king of Ikshvaku dynasty, and can be found in 4th Book of Vishnu Purana,the Shrimad Bhagavatam and the Brahma Purana.
    Much like Christianity was originally seen as a type of reform of Judaism, Buddhism became a new way to view Hindu teachings and then eventually morphed into its own religion/philosophy. The doctrines of karma and rebirth come directly from the Buddha’s Hindu background.
    If you want to comment on a religion please know it first, it might take 5 to 10 years of research before commenting. Don’t believe me just Google Hindu Scriptures.
    Thank You.

    • I’ve been studying Buddhism for over 30 years, including at university.

      At the time the Buddha lived, the monarchies were busy mopping up the last of the northern republics, of which the Shakyan clan was one. The Buddha’s background was certainly aristocratic — he regarded himself as a khattiya — but the system of political organization was very different from a monarchy. Of course later tradition builds him into a king, because that sounds more impressive. You might want to read some modern scholarly works on the Buddha’s life and times. It would certainly be more informative than “Googling Hindu Scriptures” :)

      As for Hinduism, there were many religious traditions being practiced at that time, and they certainly were not unified into anything that could be called Hinduism. Can you point to a single term in the Pali canon that corresponds to the word “Hindu”? Can you point to anything in the Pali canon that even suggests the Buddha was formerly a follower of a Brahminical tradition? I’d be very interested to hear from you if you can.

      • Gosh, it seems to me that “Hinduism” is such a broad term who can determine what is or is not Hindu? I have heard guru define “Hindu” as Sanatana Dharma–eternal religion…as in every faith, now if Judaism or Zoroastrianism (the most opposite of faiths) can be called “Hindu,” then surely the religion of a Kshatriya noble named siddhartha gets in too right? You are a professor? In the spirit of learning clear this up for me. I love learning more about comparative religion.

        • Some Hindus will do this thing of saying that all religions are just alternative versions of Hinduism. We poor Buddhists, for example, keep forgetting that we’re really Hindus and that the Buddha is really one of their gods. It’s really an attempt to portray themselves as wise and accepting and the rest of us as blind and divisive. It’s the “nicest” form of intolerance imaginable. Ganesha bless you!

  2. Brahminism dates to somewhere around the 10th to 6th centuries BCE, and Guatama Buddha is supposed to have lived some time between the 6th and the 5th centuries BCE. Most records and traditions refer to Buddha as being born of Hindu “royalty.”

    Anyway, so I guess I’m going to have to call you out on your “facts” and ask for you to cite sources, because what you’ve got does not seem to line up with anything I’ve read.

    • Well, it would be ironic, in the context of the Kalama Sutta, to argue that the Buddha was a Hindu based on the fact that you’d read it in a lot of books. There are lots of things you’ll read about the Buddha — for example that he saw Four Sights” — which simply aren’t in the Pali canon at all!

      I can’t, of course, prove a negative. The onus is really on those who say the Buddha grew up as a “Hindu” to justify that claim.

      But the term Hindu didn’t exist at the time of the Buddha. The term “Hinduism” wasn’t created until the 19th century. There’s no evidence that there was a caste system in the Sakyan territory, and the Buddha seemed to regard the four-fold caste system of Brahminism as a foreign affair. There’s no reference that I’m aware of to the Buddha having ever followed Brahminical teachings — even if you do accept the anachronism of calling that tradition “Hinduism.” You could call some of the religious traditions that were around at the time as “Vedic” or “Brahminical” and that would make more sense — although again there’s no evidence that the Buddha ever practiced these religions. But “Hinduism” is just an inappropriate term.

      The “prince” thing is arguable, depending on how you understand that word. Here’s Vishvapani in his Gautama Buddha (Quercus, 2011):

      So far as we can tell, Gautama’s father Suddhodana, was a Shakyan aristocrat, and some sources call him a ‘raja’. But despite the version of Gautama’s life made familiar in legendary accounts, this doesn’t mean that he was a king (they were called ‘Maharajas’). It is possible that he was just one aristocrat among many, but according to some sources, Suddhodana was the Shakyans’ chief raja. We know from descriptions of other gana communities that chieftains were elected in a meeting of representatives of aristocratic families at the assembly hall…”

      Excavations of the likely candidates for the Buddha’s home town don’t reveal any palaces, and in fact the term the Buddha uses when he does describe his father’s houses as “palaces” is not the same as the term used for the dwelling of a Maharaja. Probably the term “mansion” should have been used. What we do see are wooden houses, often above the animals’ accommodation. So Suddhodana was more like a “tribal chief” than what we would think of as a king. Which would make Gautama the “chief’s son” rather than what we would think of as a “prince.”

      Trevor Ling in “The Buddha” makes essentially the same point — the father as an elected head of an aristocratic ruling class.

      The word “prince” — without reference to the above — is highly misleading. And to call him a “Hindu prince” is doubly misleading.

    • Here’s Richard Gombrich, one of the world’s leading Buddhist scholars, on the Sakyan Republic:

      The Buddha came from a community called (in Sanskrit) Shakyas; hence his commonest Sanskrit title, Shakyamuni, ‘the Sage of the Shakyas’. This fact is of great historical importance, because according to the Buddha (or, strictly speaking, according to words attributed to him in the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta) he modelled the organization of his Sangha on that of such communities as his own. Historians usually call these communities ‘tribes’, but I am wary of that term, which corresponds to no word in Sanskrit or Pali. ‘Tribe’ evokes an isolated community with no socially structured inequality. The Shakyas seem not to have had a varna [caste] system but they did have servants. They were isolated to the extent that they were self-governing, and their polity was of a form not envisaged in brahminical theory. We deduce that the heads of households – maybe only those above a certain age or otherwise of a certain standing – met in council to discuss their problems and tried to reach unanimous decisions. Some historians call this an oligarchy, some a republic; certainly it was not a brahminical monarchy, and makes more than dubious the later story [emphasis added] that the future Buddha’s father was the local king. This polity presented the Buddha with a model of how a casteless society could function. In the Sangha he instituted no principle of rank but seniority, counted in that case from ordination; maybe age was the ranking principle in the Shakya council.

      (From Theravada Buddhism, page 49–50)

  3. I know nothing about Buddhism but I am an English teacher.

    You say:

    In the original quote, accepting something 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 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 they are skillful, blameless, praised by the wise, and lead to welfare and to happiness.

    I would not say “agrees with reason” has been rejected. You’ll notice the quote contains the conditional phrase, “After observation and analysis” which is what you call “experience.” Any good scientist wants evidence, and so should any good moralist. “Logical conjecture” and “inference” are not synonymous with “reason,” although they might be, at times, part of the process of reasoning. Certainly, no reasonable person would wish to rely upon conjecture and inference alone unless faced with no alternative. And the second part of the quote, the moral component, “and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all,” is there. It’s not either/or, it’s both.

    I find the quote a pretty good paraphrase although lacking some of the poetry and subtlety of the original.

    • Whether, and to what extent, a paraphrase is accurate is one of those subjective things that can never be completely settled. But a paraphrase is not a quote, and so this is not a Buddha quote.

  4. I get that. I don’t know enough about translations to argue it. I believe your translation.

    I only meant to reply to your characterization of the paraphrase as an inaccurate representation of the passage’s meaning.

    I like your site.

    Thanks.

  5. Apparently, the word Hindu comes from the word Sindhu meaning people who live east of the Indus river. The Persians pronounced Sindhu as Hindus and as a result Indians became to to known as Hindus.

  6. I really appreciate arguments and points made out here.
    I like this site.It gave me some insights about things which i never thought of.

  7. I’m very interested in your translation of this quote, which I’d like to use in a research paper. I assume it appears somewhere in the Pali Canon. Maybe not. Would you mind providing the exact citing where I can find a written translation? Many thanks.

  8. well, i don’t consider myself to be too much of a scholar, but aren’t the first enscribed ‘buddha quotes’ from the pali canon, which was written down 450 years after the buddha’s death?
    seems like the whole idea of a ‘buddha quote’ is inherently spurious, as 450 years of oral hand-me-down tradition is like the world’s longest game of ‘chinese whispers’ or ‘telephone’.

    • This is something I’ve address ad nauseam throughout this site. We can never say with absolute certainty that the Buddha definitely said anything in the Pali canon, but we can say with a high degree of certainty that a given quotation was not said by the Buddha — for example if the purported quotation didn’t appear until recently, or can be accurately attributed to someone else.

      However, many scholars are confident that much of the Pali canon does reflect the Buddha’s teaching, and in some cases even his exact words. It’s worth bearing in mind that what we call the Pali canon was originally just one canon amongst many. The others, committed to writing in other languages and in various geographical locations, although existing as fragments, are very similar to the Pali canon. These provide us with a way of cross-checking the fidelity of the oral tradition. So it would be wrong to assume that the phase of oral transmission involved a high degree of distortion. The techniques of oral tradition included collective chanting in order to maintain the integrity of the “text.” To those brought up steeped in a literate culture, the idea of accurate oral transmission seems oxymoronic, but techniques for accurate memorization are current even today — ask any actor or singer, or participants in International Memory Championships :).

  9. I don’t understand the reason for argument. In Sanskrit (and Hindi) we use a word “SAAR” , the essence of a teaching. As long as a person understands the Saar, and the knowledge is understood in its right contex( Saar ) . Translations can be out of context and subjective. It is important to understand the motive (Saar ) behind the teachings.

  10. The problem with the “fake quote” given above is that it loses the emphasis of the more accurate translation given by Bodhipaksa.

    It seems to me that the real point of this teaching is expressed in the words “These qualities are skilful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness”.

    Notice the word “qualities”. The Buddha here is not talking about belief in facts e.g. whether you should believe in evolution or the existence of the Higgs Bosun (or whether the Buddha was a Hindu Prince). He is talking about belief in an ethical teaching – a teaching about how we should live our lives. “Qualities” that can be “adopted and carried out”.

    The point here is that you have to look to your conscience and answer yourself honestly – By taking this direction in life, am I likely to contribute to the welfare and happiness of myself and others? Or am I more likely to contribute to suffering?

    This “knowing for yourself” (or looking to your conscience as I have phrased it) might involve a combination of reason and emotion and memory and the example of others.
    – Do I believe this is good? “These qualities are skilful”
    – Could anyone reasonably say otherwise? “these qualities are blameless”
    – Would someone I trust to have true integrity and wisdom agree with me? “these qualities are praised by the wise”.

    (In my experience, when faced with a dilemma, asking these questions usually makes me realise that deep down I knew all along what the answer was – I just didn’t like that particular answer.)

    The point is that we shouldn’t follow a teaching, or a tradition or an instruction from those in authority without first genuinely considering whether the outcome is likely “to lead to welfare and to happiness”.

    As unenlightened human beings, much of what we believe about ourselves and the world from one minute to the next is irrational, inconsistent and not based in fact.

    Today we are very used to the idea of challenging our own beliefs as to their rationality and their source. But what the Buddha is asking us to do more that this – to ask “Is my acting on this belief helpful to living beings – or is it likely to bring about suffering?”

    This is a personal ethical judgement for which each of us has to take responsibility. And sadly, it is lost in the inferior translation criticised above.

    (Bodhipaksa – can I suggest you include the more accurate translation in full on your Real Buddha Quotes page. Also it might be useful to put the “fake” and the “real” on a single page in 2 columns to contrast each “fake” with its “real” equivalent.)

    • Those are both excellent suggestions, Dharmacomedian. Thank you.

      The word “dhammā” in this context is very interesting, and even challenging. Since the Kalāmas are asking about “teachings” (or teachers”) you might think that those are the terms in which the Buddha would answer. Normally the word dhammā works best if translated as “mental states,” and actually I think that what’s meant by dhammā here is “mental states that the teachings/teachers give rise to.” Interpreting it in that way allows us to connect the terms of the question with the terms of the reply.

      • It seems one quote focuses on doctrines and beliefs and using reason/observation/analysis/common sense and the other on qualities and experiencing things for yourself but both stress that what is conducive to the welfare of self and others is the goal.

  11. I accept that the quote is not a wholly literal and accurate translation of the translation you offer as a source, it is however a very pertinent, useful and wise statement. If Buddha didn’t say it, then I a glad someone else did, because it is probably one of the most sensible statements regarding the testing of religious teaching I have encountered. I would like to see these words in six foot high letters in every religious building in the world behind those doing the preaching..

    • Good point.

      I like both the “fake” buddha quote and the version from the Kalama Sutta, both offer important valuable insights. Perhaps common sense alone is not enough but is important and if you combine it with experiencing things for yourself then even better. After all common sense helps you avoid experiencing things for yourself that perhaps you may be better off not experiencing.

    • I agree that the “fake quote”, however diluted,still contains a great amount of value. In fact, by researching that misquote and reading what has been shared by others I have reached a deeper understanding of its’ meaning.

  12. It seems one quote focuses on doctrines and beliefs and the other on qualities but both stress that what is conducive to the welfare of self and others is the goal.

  13. It seems one quote focuses on doctrines and beliefs and using reason/observation/analysis/common sense and the other on qualities and experiencing things for yourself but both stress that what is conducive to the welfare of self and others is the goal.

  14. Alas, I found the fake quote at Buddhanet.net, the Buddhist Education and Information Network. You’d think they’d know the real from the fake. More reason to turn to the Pali Canon itself instead of relying on stuff from the internet.

  15. I saw this quote attributed to Buddha posted on the bulletin board at a Mahayana temple in Canada.

    I guess it’s so wide spread most people assume it’s a real quote, including at Buddhist temples. If the Buddha didn’t originally say it, it’s at least become a Buddhist saying by now I guess…

    I think it’s a great saying anyway. True regardless of origin.

  16. Personally I don’t take offence to the fact the writer of this quote believes that Gautama was a Hindu Prince. This most likely, but not a given, tells us that the writer is possibly a Hindu. Or, the quote was copied from a source that believed Gautama was Hindu. I, like you, understand that Hinduism did not yet exist, as it exists today, in the days of Gautama. The caste system wasn’t fully developed either.

    As well, it is most likely Gautama wasn’t a prince, and did not live in a palace, or at least what we think of, in today’s terms, as a palace. He most likely lived in one of the better mud huts, in the village his family lived. His father, most likely, was of some influence for some reason. Who knows for sure what reason? This is just speculating. What we do know is that stories sound impressive when embellished, and the foolish blindly believe.

    Anyway, the essence of this quote is that your experience is what one should go by, that speculating, even with being logical, could lead to error. On top of this Gautama throws in being virtuous. He may not say it that way, but does say, among other things, not to have sex with another’s wife. Well, actually he doesn’t say that either, he says not to ‘go after another person’s wife’. Does this mean to not go after with a knife, or with another object, or does it, as implied, mean not to be having sex, or wanting to have sex with another person’s wife? My point? Implication is critical to understanding, in context with the explicit.

    The problem with stating this as a fake Buddha quote is that, like some of the comments are suggesting, the whole quote is fake. That is, some posters believe the entire quote is not true. Yet the posters’ are stating that they saw it at a Buddhist temple, or on a reputable website, and now they don’t believe the quote at all. That the people who posted at the temple or website have it wrong. This means a very important teaching, a good message is missed. The message here is that if you don’t use ‘wisdom’, you may well suffer. We all know that the Buddha taught one thing -freedom from suffering.

    Really, a disservice to those trying to understand the teachings as it is truly possible that none of the Pali Canon was said by Gautama, as none of it was written down until well after his death. Even if it was written down sooner, still it doesn’t mean Gautama said any of it. Most likely the Pali Canon is some version of what he said. The general theme of his teachings are captured but not the actual word for word message. There are just too many dialect, dialect translations, contextual considerations, scribe errors and influences, et cetera to deal with for the current Pali Canon to be free from error.

    As John Holder says, “Buddhism did not arise in a vacuum. The teachings were formulated in response to the social and intellectual conditions of ancient India.” And, “The texts of the Pali Canon, as they exist today, show clear evidence of having developed over time. Often in a single discourse there are passages that almost certainly were constructed at different times; and some passages were very obviously assembled by interpolating material borrowed form other sources.”

    I agree in disputing the obvious errant quotes, but to nitpick, is not conducive to helping people find their way. To learn of these great teachings and the message, the essence, as errant as the current written words may be with regard to accuracy (having been formulated over centuries as to not being composed at one sitting with Gautama), is the way or path to realizing the goal of freedom from suffering.

    Still, sound and practical if the correct balance of employing the implicit and the explicit. Even if the quote is “don’t blindly believe anything until you know for sure …” is all there is as a teaching or quote, then at least the student can use that as they go about life, not creating anymore suffering in their life.

    Keep up the good work.

    Thanks for your patience,

    ~ Pearce

    • I’ve noted many times here that we can never be certain of what the Buddha actually said, and that all we have to go on are scriptures written down several hundred years later, and which we know were manipulated. So in saying that a quote is “fake,” what I’m really saying is that it isn’t found in the scriptures, or even, in some cases, disagrees with them.

      I don’t think it’s “nitpicking” to state that a purported Buddha quote advising us to rely on reason is fake, when the scripture itself says not to rely on reason. A 180 degree reversal in the meaning of a teaching is not a trivial change.

      Like you, I take no offense in the Buddha being described as a Hindu. It’s simply an inaccuracy to be corrected.

  17. Pingback: My Chosen Prison | Zensible

  18. The quote impressed me a lot – thank you for clearing the confusion and revealing the truth behind it.
    I was born in India in a traditional Hindu family. Lived all my life as a Hindu. Now I’m at a point where I realize “Hinduism” is not a monopoly of Indians. The protocols and value system it upholds is for the “all of mankind” – for anyone who can “Reason”. That is one of the reason Hindus dont have a hierarchy of institution. Having said that – the way Hinduism evolved was terrible. The concept of “purusha” which contributed towards the caste system where Brahmins naturally inherited “Standards and privileges”, Dharmashastra and Laws of Manu – they are all political. For the sake of argument one can say it was the need of the hour but I beg to differ. Buddha opposed these ideologies and I think that thought was wayyy ahead of his time and I respect him for that. Hindu literature and ideas had an influence on him but he only took the positives out of it. To quote an example – Look at the similarities in “Moksha in Hindusim” and “Nirvana in Buddism”. Again – practically speaking “Buddha” is only a model to follow – its the people and the organized structure that survived after his death that really spread the ideas of Buddha. Unfortunately none of those people and their efforts were acknowledged.

    NB: I am at a point where I like to be called myself a “Homosapien” and a better human being. I dont need support of a religion or ideology to lead a moral life

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