What People Say the Buddha Said

So I guess I really am basically nuts. I really don’t need another project.


As I was writing my morning pages this week, I was pondering the Kalama Sutra we looked at last week, and it occurred to me that there was a need for “readable” versions of the sutras, at least some of them. Not that the various translations aren’t good, or aren’t readable — they’re far better than some of the Victorian atrocities I’ve railed at before — but what if the sutras were redone more as they might be written down today? So today’s column is a little experiment.

As best anyone can tell, the historical buddha lived in the 5th-to-4th century, in the plains around the Indus and Ganges Rivers, mainly in what we now call northern India, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Roughly 100 years later, Asoka the Great conquered nearly all of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other random small countries. He then had a “moment of clarity” looking at piles of dead people; he became a student of, and then a convert to, the teachings of the Buddha. Asoka adopted or adapted those teachings, becoming for his time a very “liberal” and enlightened king.

As interesting a fellow as Asoka is, though, he comes into this story mainly because he erected a series of monuments memorializing events in the historical Buddha’s life, and a series of 50 foot stone pillars with the Edicts of Asoka, the rules he established for running his kingdom. Those rules speak of the Dharma, and they’re pretty much the first written record of the Buddha or his teachings.

But we get the sutras by another route. Shortly after the Buddha’s death, there was a Great Council convened where the Buddha’s followers decided to agree on how they could remember and retain the Buddha’s teachings. His cousin Ananda, who had been the Buddha’s attendant and sort of his “chief of staff” who was with the Buddha every day, either had a perfect memory (as tradition says) or was one hell of a storyteller. In any case, he recited the stories of the Buddha’s life that became the foundation of Buddhism.

When they were written down 500 years later, between Ananda’s time and when the sutras were first written down, they were transmitted word of mouth. And they show it — they are full of poetry, repetition, all the things that make epic poetry easy to remember.


Which is fine. I like the sutras, I think they are sometimes poetic and — unlike most Zen people — I think a lot can be learned by actually studying the sutras.

They also can be just a little bit dull.

Here’s a little example. The fifth section of the Kalama sutra, as translated by Soma Thera, goes like this:

“What do you think, Kalamas? Does greed appear in a man for his benefit or harm?”

“For his harm, venerable sir.”

“Kalamas, being given to greed, and being overwhelmed and vanquished mentally by greed, this man takes life, steals, commits adultery, and tells lies; he prompts another too, to do likewise. Will that be long for his harm and ill?”

“Yes, venerable sir.”

The sixth section, with perfect parallelism, goes through hate; the seventh, through delusion. Exactly the same words, within the limits of grammar in an inflected language.

Now, I can see how this might be sort of entrancing being chanted or sung, but a modern reader, well, doesn’t have the same experience. So here’s a retelling of the Kalama Sutra in what I hope will be an interesting and readable form.


What Buddha Taught the Kamalas

Here’s how I heard it. As the Buddha was wandering in a part of India known as Kosala, he came to a town called Kesaputta. The inhabitants of Kesaputta were called Kalamas. When the Kalamas heard that this new teacher was arriving, they came out and greeted him — some of them with reverence, some of them politely, and some of them sullen and suspicious.

Then a Kalama asked the Buddha, “There are a lot of monks and holy men who visit Kesaputta. They explain their own doctrines, and they despise other people’s doctrines. The next monk comes along, expounds his own doctrine, and tears up the previous man’s teaching. It’s all very confusing. How can we tell who is telling the truth and who isn’t?”

Buddha said, “Well, of course you’re confused, and you’re right to be confused; what they’re saying is confusing. To really know the truth, you can’t be convinced just by what you’ve heard repeated over and over; you can’t depend on tradition; you can’t depend on Scriptures; you can’t depends on your guesses; you can’t just depend on saying something is self-evident, nor on pure logic; you can’t just accept something as the truth because it’s ‘what you’ve always believed’, nor because someone really smart said it, nor because it’s what your teacher told you.”

“What you can believe is your own experience. When you know through experience that something is bad, and leads to suffering if you do that thing, then you’ll know it would be wise to stop doing them.”

“Think about it, Kalamas. If a man, through greed, or hate, or delusion, kills, takes what’s not been given to him, or seduces another man’s wife, or lies, is this going to hurt others, and also hurt him as well? Will it cause suffering and anxiety and agitation?”


The Kalamas didn’t have to puzzle long on that. “Of course it will cause harm, Siddhartha. That’s obvious.”

“So, there you have it. If doing those things causes harm to yourself and to others, then you shouldn’t do them. It’s that simple. Those are things that a wise person wouldn’t do. And if a wise person doesn’t do those things, doesn’t kill or steal or seduce or lie, will that hurt others and hurt him, or will it reduce the suffering and anxiety and agitation?”

“Well, certainly that would be better; people won’t suffer or be anxious or agitated then.”

“So, there you have it again. Those are the things a wise person does. Now, a person who doesn’t give in to hate has room to remember compassion. A person who doesn’t crave another’s wife or wealth, and who doesn’t envy someone else’s good fortune, has room to be happy. And someone who remembers that things are transitory, that things come and go, is able to preserve a level-headed calm, even when terrible things are happening around them. That is a wise person who will be happier and have to endure less suffering in life.”

The Kalamas thought about that for a bit, digesting it, until one of the more traditional Kalamas raised his hand. “Siddhartha, that’s all fine, but what about in our next life? If we act as you say is wise, what will the Gods think? Will we have fortunate rebirth? Will we go to Heaven?”

Siddhartha told him, “Look, suppose there is another life beyond this one, and some reward or punishment in that life to come. If you do these things, you’ll certainly have been a good man, and if there is a Heaven, you’ll certainly deserve it. So if you believe in an afterlife, you can be comforted by that thought.”

“On the other hand, if there’s nothing after this world, then the eventual results don’t matter. But you’ll have been happier, safer, and your family will be happier and safer as well. If you don’t believe in an afterlife, then you’ll still have been happier and safer in this life, and you can be comforted by that.”

“Or think of it from the other direction,” Siddhartha said. “If you believe in an afterlife where evil is punished, and you don’t do evil things, then you won’t receive those punishments. You can be comforted by knowing that if you don’t do evil things, you won’t be punished for them.”

“On the other hand, if there is no afterlife and no punishment, and you haven’t done evil things, you still will know that you’ve avoided doing those evil things, and that in itself is a comfort.”


“No matter what, whether there is a reward or punishment in a next life, or not, a wise person who doesn’t give in to hate and craving and who remains level-headed and calm, has those four kinds of solace: afterlife or no afterlife, they’ve made their lives better now, and if there is an afterlife they will go to it having done good deeds and avoided evil deeds.”

“So there you have it. When someone tells you a new doctrine, you can tell whether its true or not by just asking yourself ‘Does this doctrine lead to good? If so, then it’s true. If, in your experience, some doctrine or practice leads to suffering, then it’s a false doctrine and you should give it up. That’s the answer to your question.”