Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything 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.
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.
The Kalama Sutta, emphasizing, as it did, taking up a teaching, practicing it and then observing its beneficial or harmful effects, was a “skillful means” for me in much the same way as it served the Kalama people. Growing up with a devotional orthodox Jewish mother and a skeptical Marxist father left me with a polarization between, on the one hand, “religion,” which was full of dogma, superstition and an insistence on blind faith and, on the other, “science,” which was rational and demanded confirmation by pragmatic testing. The choice to identify with science and the intellect in order to feel “intelligent” pushed all matters religious into concealment behind a deep shadow.
Years later, Krishnamurti’s teaching allowed me to engage in a spiritual life while still remaining skeptical and critical. It was Krishnamurti’s praise of the Buddha for his emphasis on dialogue and personal inquiry that led me to the Kalama Sutta. I have returned to it countless times to deepen my sense of its significance. When Krishnamurti died, a dhamma talk on this sutta was my way of showing appreciation for him as a great teacher.
The Kalama Sutta is helpful to me in working with students in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I teach. Students today who are trying to discover their own spiritual directions may find themselves in a dilemma similar to those of the Kalamas as they tried to make sense out of the large number of teachings competing for their adherence. Cambridge bulletin boards, totally covered with enthusiastic announcements of a seemingly endless array of virtuous teachers and teachings, are but an outward expression of the state of mind of many meditators. So many claims, practices, books, photographs, retreats, workshops, empowerments, dharma talks—help! The Kalamas were asked to discover, not to believe. The good sense embodied in this sutta is still able to help people cut through an overwhelming jungle of possibilities—ehipasseko (an invitation to come and see) sanditthiko (immediate fruit, here and now).
These days I conceive of our practice as an epic drama where panna (discernment) is engaged in a profound struggle with the kilesas (defilements) for the loyalty of the human heart (citta). When craving, aggression and unawareness are guiding the course of our actions, do they make for harm and unhappiness? If this is true, can it be verified may times in our experience? When, instead, generosity, kindness and discernment are present, is it our experience that the outcome is more likely to be beneficial for all concerned? Encouragement to doubt and inquire freely, seems itself to be an important condition to help educated and intellectually minded people take up and develop vipassana meditation.
Some years ago Anagarika Munindra introduced me to the practice of thinking of the body as a bag of skin containing, among other things, urine, feces, blood and phlegm; and to also reflect on the body’s unloveliness, foulness, ugliness (Asubha meditations). My resistance was immediate and fierce. I felt that many people already had negative views of their body; these practices would just reinforce the tendency to denigrate the body. How could the Buddha have said this? I liked the rest of his teaching—perhaps this was a later addition put there by unenlightened commentators? The truth is that I was very attached to Hatha yoga and natural healing at the time and merely wanted a marvelous body that would live forever.
Munindra-ji enjoyed my problem immensely. He laughed and said: “Just consider the possibility that there was a good reason for this teaching. It might be very helpful for celibate monks and even at times for lay people. Don’t agree or disagree for a while, just consider all this. Remember the Buddha was not trying to encourage aversion to the body, but rather to weaken infatuation and eventually to help us simply see that there is a body and it is not “I” or “mine.”
The considering took many years, and actually became an important part of my practice, challenging me to continue to care for and appreciate the body but in a more balanced way. A period of intensive practice with Tan Achaan Maha Boowa in Thailand was a big help. In his teaching these bodily reflections were used skillfully and were of obvious benefit to the monks of Wat Pa Boen Toad.
I am grateful to Munindra-ji for not trying to enforce compliance with his teaching, making it possible for me to use reason and self-examination, which eventually led me to see the value of this practice.