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Sutras from the Old Way 2002 – 3rd Sutra – Kessaputta – Part 2

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 11/30/2002
Location: Berkeley
In Topics: Buddhist Sutras, Early Buddhism, Pali Canon

This is part 2 of the fourth talk on the Pali Canon sutras. The text referred to in the talk is the photocopied booklet “Sutras from the Old Way – Selections from the Pali Canon,” which can be downloaded as a PDF.



Sutras from the Old Way – 3rd Sutra – Kessaputa
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 30, 2002 (Part 1)
Transcribed and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum


The next sutra is called “Those of Kesaputta.” This is a sutra that speaks directly

with phrases like, “Be a lamp unto yourself,” “Rely on yourself,” “Don’t believe anybody else,” and ” Know from your own experience.” These phrases are often cited as Buddha’s primary attitude.

Thus have I heard. On a certain occasion the Exalted One (one of the many epithets for the Buddha) while going about his rounds among the Kosalans with a great company of monks came to Kesaputta, a district of the Kosalans.

One of the things that I like about these sutras is there are many stories and many details about the Buddha’s life and personality that come through. They’re not the main point of the sutras, but I find them very interesting, because it gives you a flavor for how the Buddha lived and what he was like and how he handled the events of his life.

The Mahayana sutras are mythical and cosmic. You don’t get any sense of the Buddha as a person, and that’s, of course, quite on purpose. But here you do, so this is interesting to me, because it tells you how the Buddha lived. He would wander around. He was homeless, but as a homeless person who was homeless on purpose. He would wander around with just one or two fellow monks or with larger groups. Sometimes several groups would come together for an event or teaching or ceremony. In the winter time, when it rained, it was very hard to walk around, and they would all get together in one spot and have a special period of meditation and practice, which in Zen became the ango, the practice period. They actually call a practice period in Theravada Buddhism “a rains”! If you want to ask somebody how long they’ve been a monk or a nun, you say “How many rains have you?” And they say, “I have twenty-two rains.” That means they’ve been a monk for twenty-two years, every year doing retreat.

Now the Kalamas of Kesaputta heard it said that Gotama, the recluse, the Sakyans’ son, who went forth as a wanderer from the Sakyan clan, had reached Kesaputta. He it is, the Exalted One, Arahant, a fully enlightened one, perfect in knowledge and practice. It were indeed a good thing to get sight of such arahants.

In the beginning, the Buddha wasn’t particularly famous or well known, but at this point, apparently, he has a large company of monks travelling with him, and he’s now well known. So when they hear that the Buddha’s coming, although he’s probably been there before, still, they’re excited. Just to catch sight of him is going to be a very wonderful event.

So the Kalamas of Kesaputta came to see the Exalted One. On reaching him, some saluted the Exalted One (with a bow, probably, not a military salute) and sat down at one side, some greeted the Exalted One courteously (apparently meaning short of a prostration) and after exchange of greetings and courtesies, sat down at one side, some raised their joined palms to the Exalted One and sat down at one side . . .

These are various ways of greeting, apparently in some sort of graduated form, some of which are more pious and more intimate than others.

. . . some proclaimed their name and clan and did likewise, while others without saying anything just sat down at one side. Then as they thus sat, the Kalamas of Kesaputta said this to the Exalted One:

Sir, certain recluses and brahmins come to Kesaputta. As to their own view, they proclaim and expound it in full. But as to the view of others, they abuse it, revile it, deprecate it and cripple it. Moreover, sir, other recluses and brahmins, on coming to Kesaputta do the same thing. When we listen to them, we have doubt and wavering as to which of these worthies is speaking truth and which speaks falsehood.

This is not an unusual thing. In fact, this is how we know what we think. I know what I think because it’s not what you think! And you’re wrong! That’s the nature of assertion, right, we’re always asserting something, and whatever one asserts is always in opposition to what someone else might assert, or a counter-assertion. So there’s always an assertion and a counter-assertion, and this is human discourse and human dialogue. It becomes confusing, and it also sometimes becomes disastrously hurtful as the one person feels disrespected and denigrated by the person who’s expressing a counterview in an uncomplimentary way. And people get in fights over this, they go to war over these sorts of things!

Anyway, that’s just what was going on here. Only here, the only result of it was that the Kalamas were confused. The Buddha came and they asked him about it.

Yes, Kalamas, you may well doubt, you may well waver. In a doubtful matter, wavering does arise.

So he begins by appreciating their confusion. The Buddha never says in these sutras Sometimes I’m confused myself! Maybe he did, but they didn’t report it later. Anyway, he appreciates that it is a doubtful and difficult situation. So now the Buddha is going to, he hopes, give them some useful ways of unraveling this situation.

Now look, you Kalamas don’t be misled (and this is a very famous line in the sutra) by report or tradition or hearsay. Don’t be misled by proficiency in the collections (meaning religious texts) nor by mere logic or inference, nor after considering reasons, nor after reflection on and approval of some theory, nor because it fits becoming (it seems right), nor out of respect for a recluse who holds the view.

Don’t believe something because it’s an age-old respected tradition. Don’t believe it because it was reported that some important person said so, or it is reported that it’s really true. Don’t be misled by people who can quote scriptures right and left and seem to be very proficient. Don’t believe it because it’s logical. Don’t believe it because it seems true by inference. Don’t believe it after considering reasons or thinking about it, or believing in a theory from which it comes. And don’t believe it because the person who’s saying it is very charismatic and convincing.

But, Kalamas, when you know for yourselves these things are unprofitable (meaning, cause suffering, cause trouble), these things are blameworthy, these things are censured by the intelligent, these things when done create loss and sorrow . . .

So he’s not giving any of the ordinary criteria for discerning the truth or falsity of a statement. In effect, he’s saying that it doesn’t matter what anybody says. That’s not important. Whether something is true or false is unimportant. What’s important is whether or not you take a statement, act on it, and then whether it causes suffering and difficulty. In other words, the proof is in the pudding. The truth is in when you make use of it, and you take it in, and you discover that it causes suffering and trouble. Then you reject it. He doesn’t even say it’s not true. He’s just saying, it’s not important whether it’s true or not, you reject it when it causes pain and suffering.

Now, what do you think, Kalamas? When greed, attachment, arises within someone, is this beneficial or troublesome? Does this lead to good things happening or bad things happening?

They say, Bad things. They apparently respond right away, because they’ve had experience. They’ve all lived, and they’ve see that that’s really true. When they have greediness and obsessive desire for something, it doesn’t go well.

Now, Kalamas, does not the person who becomes overcome with attachment and desire in this way, obsession, lose control of his or her conduct? Doesn’t he kill a living creature, take what is not given, go after another person’s spouse, tell lies and lead another into such as state as causes his loss and sorrow for a long time?

In other words, these are the precepts. Doesn’t the person who is driven by obsession acts in an immoral way, causing trouble, break the precepts?

Now what do you think, Kalamas, when the opposite of this, when obsessive hatred or aversion arises within a person, is this a good thing, does this lead to good results or bad results?

You can imagine that in a small village all these things are completely understood. That’s right, when there’s malice like that, when a person can’t overcome it, it doesn’t go well. There is precept-breaking, and that does lead to trouble.

So listen to what’s going on here: they’re asking him about what’s true, and he’s talking about conduct. He’s not talking about metaphysical truths; he’s talking about how people conduct themselves. He’s saying the way that people conduct themselves – meaning we ourselves – the way that we conduct ourselves, and what we find from noticing the states of mind that lead to this kind of conduct, is the only thing important to discern. When it comes to truth or falsehood, it’s all irrelevant other than that. He doesn’t say that directly, but that’s the implication of what he’s talking about here.

These are the famous three poisons: greed, hate and delusion. Or attachment, aversion, confusion – however you name them. Same formula. When delusion comes up, is this a good or bad thing? No, we know it’s bad. When a person is deluded, doesn’t the person have bad conduct leading to trouble? Yes, he does. In the beginning he said that things that lead to bad results are “censured by the intelligent and wise” and are things to be rejected.

So, then, Kalamas, as to my words to you just now, be ye not mislead by proficiency in the collections, nor mere logic or inference, nor after considering reasons, nor after reflection on and approval of some theory, nor because it is fitting or out of respect for a recluse who holds it, but, Kalamas, when you know for yourselves these things are unprofitable, these things are blameworthy, these things are censured by the intelligent, these things, when performed and undertaken conduce to loss and sorrow, then indeed you reject them.

So the other thing that I get out of this, which is important to me, and I think by implication a key point that the Buddha’s making here is, is how are you going to find out what is true? By studying your own bitter suffering and the suffering of those around you. The only way you’re going to find out if a certain state of mind leads to these unwholesome and unprofitable and sorrowful actions is because you’ve done that! And you’ve seen it. Then you know for yourself.

I think what he’s saying is that when you have negative states of mind and troublesome things happening in your life, instead of running away from that, thinking that it’s a mistake, or blaming yourself or somebody else, you should study that. Because that’s exactly how you’re going to find out what it is you have to let go of. How did I get into this mess? What happened? What was I thinking? What were the conditions that caused me to think that? Now that I’m really looking at what has happened here, I’m beginning to understand that when I look at things in this way, and begin to proceed with my speech and action based on that view, this is the kind of thing that happens, and I’m really getting tired of it now, and I think maybe, through the study of my own suffering, maybe I’ve gotten a little wiser.

So that’s what he’s saying. The way you ascertain what’s true: A) it has to do with conduct, not with metaphysical assertions; B) it’s something you discern from your experience, not from your thinking (although there’s thinking involved, because you reflect on your experience, but really, it’s about your experience); and C) you discover it by studying your own suffering.

So that’s what he’s telling the Kalamas when they’re complaining about all these wise men and women coming into town with all their doctrines: look to your conduct, study your suffering, validate for yourself.

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