Sutta to the Kalamas: Mind Opening or Mind-Manipulating?

All of you know one of my main goals in life is to help genuine science and genuine spirituality interact in ways so each helps the other.  An interesting aspect arose in discussion with colleagues recently, that I wrote my friend Shinzen Young, meditation teacher, about.  Some of you might find this interesting, it’s about fooling ourselves and others (perhaps?) in our search for the “truth”………..

Dear Shinzen,

Here’s an opening/interesting thought.  I’ve always cited the Sutta to the Kalamas (a translation I use is below for convenience) as showing that the Buddha was basically scientific in his attitude.  Don’t take anything on Authority or apparent logic, keep testing it against experience, only adopt it (subject to change later if the right data comes along) if the ideas/concepts keep agreeing with reality/experience.  It’s my idea of how basic science is done, data first, always, theory second.

Mentioned it on one of my discussion lists a couple of days ago, with the addendum that while lip service was paid to it, Buddhism as I had come across it, often didn’t seem to honor it.  The actual rule seemed to be think about something until you come to the same conclusions the Buddha is reputed to have come to, then you can stop thinking.  Since the Buddha knew everything, now you are right.  Authority Forever!!!

A Buddhist scholar on the list complimented me on my attitude, it was certainly me, but perhaps I had it wrong, perhaps Gautama Buddha’s actual intention, and/or the intention of later Buddhists, might indeed have been to get you thinking only until you agreed with the Buddha.  Thus your faith was strengthened, etc.  Wow!  The Buddha doing a little mind fucking, even if for my and everybody’s good?  Well maybe…..I did tell my kids about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, with the best of intentions and it worked out pretty well…..

So my mind is more open, but not comfortable, it’s a slippery slope misleading people for their own good…..I generally don’t want to start down that slope at all since it’s so tricky……And absolute honesty is essential to doing real science…..

I touched on this some in an interview with Vince Horne of the Buddhist Geeks program last week.  Vipassana, I opined (following your ideas), is a great invention, it’s a microscope you can use to discover the fine and otherwise implicit structure of your own mind, then maybe change it intelligently.  But if you get a microscope, you don’t just wave it around at random, you may be given certain slides (and not others) to look at, and those slides have been prepared in certain ways, selecting materials, stains, etc.  Nothing wrong with this tool as long as you realize you’re using it within certain limits and you constantly seek to understand these limits and how they might slant your observations.  If you forget these limits and think you’re seeing Unlimited Truth, though, you may get quite deluded….

Any thoughts?

Charley, who might be a little less deluded because he now knows another way in which he might be deluded about being deluded…..      😉

Gautama Buddha’s Sutta to the Kalamas

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.

(from Gates, 1989).


  1. I think the buddhas words here are quite clear, we just have to distinguuish the difference between the way others interpret those words and what the words actually say. Clearly the buddha expects us not to believe anything that we haven’t tested for ourselves. Just because some think that the idea is to find the right answer and stick with that doesn’t mean that we have to.

    1. “…Hi Nick,

      Awesome!! Thank you, Nick–that is *very* generous of you. Your
      figures are correct based on my own measurements. The difference between
      the length of the MuMetal core and that of the wired portion of the coil is
      2.4525inches, so yes, that is close enough to 2.5”.
      I don’t know if the grids are necessary, but that might provide some
      added measurement structure, so go ahead and overlay/underlay it if you
      think it to be important.
      Once again, thanks for helping me out with this scale drawing! It is
      greatly appreciated.


      —–Original Message—–
      From: nick herbert []
      Sent: Wednesday, September 21, 2011 5:28 PM
      To: Richard Knowles
      Cc: Charles Tart; Thilo Hinterberger
      Subject: Scale drawing


      I will make you a scale drawing.
      One with a grid background and
      one without. Format = jpg.

      You can use these as templates
      to add your own notations in whatever
      drawing program you possess.

      Please confirm these figures

      R(1) = 2.25 inches
      R(2) = 2.746 inches
      L (coil) = 13.687 inches

      D(mu-core) = 3 cm = 1.181 inches
      L(mu-core) = 41 cm = 16.14 inches

      From these figures it looks like the mu-metal core
      is about 2 1/2 inches longer than the wired portion
      of the coil. Is this roughly correct?

      I’ll produce the scale drawing template as soon as you confirm these

      Photoshop is not primarily a drawing tool but it’s simple to make
      scale drawings
      with PS that just contain rectangles and ellipses/circles.

      I have Photoshop 8.0 on my Mac–not the latest version but good enough.

      PS doesn’t produce grids but I had the bright idea of scanning a
      piece of graph paper.


      __________ Information from ESET Smart Security, version of virus signature
      database 6483 (20110921) __________

      The message was checked by ESET Smart Security.

      __________ Information from ESET Smart Security, version of virus signature
      database 6483 (20110921) __________

      The message was checked by ESET Smart Security.

      “….clearly the Buddha…..” yes, it seems pretty clear to me, but that’s at least partially because that’s the way I want the Buddha to have thought. I also know there must be many translations of this Sutta, so there’s always the possibility of shading meaning when you translate.. It’s interesting to me to think that the Buddha might have actually been doing a number on me and others, for our own good as far as he knew, interesting for me to think that way as it’s so different from the way I teach people…..”OK, I want to help everybody move toward enlightenment, but these intellectual types are very hard to get moving. Maybe if I make them feel like they are figuring these truths out for themselves instead of my giving it to them it will help get them moving, even though delusion is involved……

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