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The True Lamp

September 8, 2013
'Walk Away' by Thomas Hawk, via Flickr.com; photo of the lamps at the LA County Museum of Art.

‘Walk Away’ by Thomas Hawk, via Flickr.com; photo of the lamps at the LA County Museum of Art.

The Kalama Sutta is often used by Western Buddhists as a kind of balm when they start stumbling over the trickier parts of Buddhist teaching or cosmology. “Do Buddhist’s really believe…?” they ask, and someone inevitably brings up the Kalama Sutta and the quote “Be a lamp unto yourself.” However, I find that the real heart of the sutta goes well beyond this comforting aphorism. The sutta lays down systematic criteria by which teachings of any kind, but particularly moral and spiritual ones, can be judged.

In the beginning of the sutta, the Kalamas approach the Buddha and describe their problem. He agrees that it is indeed a problem and their concern is well founded. Then he tells them,

So in this case, 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 unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.[1]

“So in this case,” the Buddha said. His teaching was specific to the situation of someone being told different things by people generally respected, such as ascetics and teachers. Nor was he advising them not only to follow their own judgment, but to also consider what is “criticized by the wise” and, later in the sutta, “praised by the wise.” This provides a standard against which to judge both the teaching and one’s own judgment of it, a check, if you will, against our own intuition and reason.

However, the sutta does not end there. It systematically lays out, in the form of a dialogue, a set of three principle vices that lead to suffering. Buddhists often refer to these as the “three poisons” of greed, aversion, and delusion (sometimes translated as anger or attachment, hatred, and ignorance). The Kalamas readily agree to these vices as harmful without further testing.

In fact, in describing the three poisons, the Buddha nimbly sets forth the criteria by which actions are to be judged moral or immoral, good or bad. Actions are immoral when they are unskillful, blameworthy, criticized by the wise, and lead to harm and suffering. Likewise, actions that are moral are skillful, blameless, praised by the wise, and lead to welfare and happiness. So although the Buddha tells us to judge for ourselves, he also gives us simple criteria by which we can judge.

The Buddha then discusses several key virtues, beyond merely the lack of greed, aversion, or delusion. These virtues are described as “an awareness imbued with good will. …compassion. …appreciation. …equanimity.” In each case, the virtue is not enough by itself; it must pervade one’s awareness, so that it is active in all one’s thoughts, words, and deeds. Those who practice the virtue are free from its opposite, “free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, & pure.” [sic] This description has the added benefit of providing criteria by which we can judge who is a suitable teacher, who are “the wise” whose judgment we are to trust.

Finally, the Buddha describes the benefits of such virtues that come to “a disciple of the noble ones.” He frames these as if-then statements called the “four assurances” and avoids making ontological claims.

‘If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance he acquires.

‘But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance he acquires.

‘If evil is done through acting, still I have willed no evil for anyone. Having done no evil action, from where will suffering touch me?’ This is the third assurance he acquires.

‘But if no evil is done through acting, then I can assume myself pure in both respects.’ This is the fourth assurance he acquires.[2]

Following the assurances, the Kalamas agree with the Buddha’s “magnificent” teaching and say that he has shown “the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark…” These are the words of the Kalamas in praise of the Buddha, not the Buddha’s advice to us. In many commentaries on the Kalama Sutta, such as the one by Larry Rosenberg, “Be a lamp unto yourself,” is attributed to the Buddha.[3] However, a brief search does not reveal the source of this quote in the Kalama Sutta or another. At this point, I am inclined to deem it apocryphal unless someone more educated than I can dig up the direct translation.

It strikes me that this overreliance on the Kalama Sutta as a pedagogical tool to help new Buddhists get over some of their perfectly valid doubts has the, perhaps unintended, consequence of devaluing the sutta itself and glossing over the wealth of teaching it truly contains. As a convert Buddhist, I can say this was true for myself. In reading the sutta again now, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the greater teaching. I have also heard the sutta and the quote invoked in many conversations with other new Buddhists for the sake of soothing qualms. It was never, in my experience, followed up with a conversation of the criteria for judgment set forth in the sutta, the vices, virtues, or benefits. I think this is a shame and a real disservice to anyone learning about Buddhism for the first time. I hope we, as a sangha, and convert Buddhist’s especially, can rectify this in the future. Just as the Buddha was a lamp to the Kalamas and advised them to find other lamps among “the wise” and “the disciples of the noble ones,” perhaps we can all be lamps for each other to light up the world.


[1] “Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas” (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 29 August 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html . Retrieved on 8 September 2013.

[2] “Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas” (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 29 August 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html . Retrieved on 8 September 2013.

[3] “The Right to Ask Questions”, by Larry Rosenberg. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/rosenberg/righttoask.html . Retrieved on 8 September 2013.

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