Questioning of Authority. The Buddha’s Charter for Enquiry. Commentary on the Kalama Sutta. A Masterpiece from the Buddha

The discourse of the Buddha to the Kalama People of north India constitutes one of the most profound statements ever uttered in the history of humanity in terms of the inquiry into beliefs, views and standpoints of people exercising authority.

Buddhists in all the traditions widely agree that this discourse has immense significance. The Charter questions authority and gives 10 examples often used to justify authority. The proper application of this Charter puts an end to conflict due to the abuse of authority. Violence depends upon identification with beliefs in authority, inner or outer.

The Buddha’s responded to their perplexity of claims of those in authority holding to their religious, spiritual, social or political views.  Doubts arose in the minds of people in Kesaputta – a common concern among thoughtful people of every generation.

The Kalama people came to the Buddha and said that some Brahmin priests, well-educated people, gurus, religious teachers and yogis elucidate their teachings and views and disparage and vilify the teachings of others. Then others come and do the same about those teachers. As a result, the Kalamas said they ‘experience perplexity and doubt about who speaks the truth and who speaks falsehood.’

The Buddha stated to citizens:

Do not go by anything because:

  1. Of repeated oral transmission
  2. Of lineage or tradition
  3. It has been widely stated
  4. It has been written in books, such as scriptures
  5. It is logical and reasonable
  6. Through inferring and drawing conclusions
  7. It has been thought out
  8. An acceptance and conviction of a theory
  9. The speaker appears competent
  10. Out of respect for the teacher

The Charter addresses beliefs, views and authority

The teachings point to a middle way between submission to authority of another and submission to a belief in self-autonomy. Wisdom takes priority as the middle way with self and other regarded as extreme standpoints.

The Buddhist tradition advocate mindfulness, inquiry, non-violence, tolerance, meditation, loving kindness, waking up to wisdom and liberation.  The Buddha showed the way to examine a wise relationship to authority long standing or contemporary.

This Charter for Enquiry stands free from dogmatism and intolerance through pointing out the importance of not drawing absolute conclusions based on questionable forms of authority. The discourse also makes clear a virtuous and wise way of life neither depends upon belief in rebirth nor in retribution from God, nor upon acceptance over what others with authority tell us.

Unresolved problematic states of mind become entangled in beliefs and views, as if an ideology were inherently true.  Investment in seized upon views gives believers the impression they know the truth and live in touch with reality. The grasping of views, beliefs and ideology reveal more about the believer than the believed.

The ten points in the Charter reminded the Kalama people in the town of Kesaputta the value of liberation from clinging to standpoints, whether broad or narrow views and notions of us and them, right and wrong, good and evil. The Charter requires full attention to comprehend its significance.  Wise application of the principles of the Charter dissolves the self’s grasping to secondhand knowledge, unexamined views and naïve transference onto an authority figure. Without reflection and insight, human beings remain impressionable.


  • First four of the 10 in the Charter belong to the category of received or second-hand knowledge.
  • Next four examples show misguided thinking culminating in views and standpoints. 
  • Final two show examples of inappropriate reliance on authority figures.

Examination of every one of the 10 features reveals the vulnerability of the authority due to dependency of a view(s) to exert a claim.

A precise translation from the Pali may help further to understand the significance of all 10 points.

  1. anussava ‘repeated hearing’
  2. parampara ‘after another’ (or ‘from other to other’) = series or succession
  3. iti-kira  ‘so it is reported’
  4. pitaka-sampadana ‘agreement with (or on the authority of) scriptures’  
  1. takka-hetu ‘because of logic’
  2. naya-hetu ‘because of inference’
  3. akara-parivitakka ‘careful examination of reasons’
  4. ditthi-nijjhana-kkhanti ‘forbearance with reflection (or speculation) on views’ 
  1. bhabba-rupata ‘appearance of being capable’
  2. samano no garu-ti ‘thinking “the guru is our teacher”’

1-4     = examples of received or second-hand knowledge

5-8     = examples of misguided thinking and reasoning

9-10   = examples of inappropriate reliance on authority figures


  1. Repeated Statements:

Human beings remain vulnerable to identifying with the repeated statements. The sheer repetition of statement becomes a “truth” rather than a view for examination. For example, Western politicians told repeatedly its citizens that the war in Afghanistan stops Al Qaeda launching suicidal attacks in the West. Are we expected to believe that Al Qaeda cannot spare four or five suicidal terrorists to go to the West?  Or a meditation teacher keeps telling students they should only use a particular meditation technique because it has been preserved in its purity for 2500 years.  The repetition of the statement in every retreat does not confer truth on the view nor a link with the Buddha’s vast exploration of Dharma practice.

One young woman told me that her father, a powerful businessman, constantly told her she would “never be anybody, never come to anything.”  He expressed aggressively his view about her future as if he had a crystal ball. While he worked every hour possible, he also showed her no love, no support and appreciation to her. Hearing his constant fault finding, she became an adult stricken with feelings of worthlessness. It took sustained commitment to meditation and therapy to realise her natural worth as a human being.

  1. Of lineage or tradition.

The Buddhist tradition goes back 2600 years.  The tradition has established itself in various countries and cultures. Lineages within Buddhism have passed on from teacher to teacher for many centuries. Some traditions and lineages believe the preservation of their tradition matters above all else. The Charter makes clear that there is no justification for giving authority to a tradition or lineage simply because it has survived many generations.  It requires discernment to know what shows insight and wisdom in a tradition and what in the tradition obscures wisdom. A tradition or lineage can become narrow and sectarian through grasping after a single unexamined view or a handful of views.   The Charter neither rejects a tradition or lineage nor grasps onto it. The Buddha neither adopted a conservative approach to tradition nor a progressive approach at the expense of tradition. The finding of love and wisdom matters.

  1. Widely stated.

Dharma inquires into commonly held views. These views might have a certain limited usefulness in specific situations but become very problematic when generalised through taken out of a certain context. The widely stated can become grasped as a self-evident truth inhibiting inquiry and questioning. Contemporary examples of the widely stated include:

  • “God loves us.”
  • “The world began with the Big Bang.”
  • “The developed world and the developing world.”
  • “We live in a free society.”
  • “Everybody has a choice.”
  • “Nobody can get enlightened in these times.”
  • “Everybody is already enlightened.”
  • “There is only the Now.”
  • “Life is about survival of the fittest.”
  • “My mother didn’t love me.”
  • “If only I had more money, I would be happier.”

One liner rhetoric often form part of the daily discourse according to the social circles of people.  It takes a vigilance to stay mindful of the widely stated without assuming the widely stated reflects a genuine truth.  Some of the widely stated forms a fashion of language, lasting perhaps weeks or decades, while other statements last centuries. The widely stated may obscure the mind from going deep.

  1. Written in a book or scripture.

The tendency to transfer authority onto a book, especially a religious or political text, has a long history of painful consequences – cults, sects, dogmatism, intolerance, inquisitions, violence. The selections of specific passages from sacred books then justify personal prejudices. The issue of granting authority to books extends further than the holy book.  A reader may grasp onto a book on a subject, fiction or non-fiction, and become blind to the opportunity to discover further insights in other books. Readers of the Kalama Sutta, itself, could draw the mistaken conclusion that this discourse of the Buddha points to endorsement of scepticism towards traditions, books or teachers. It is important to read carefully the whole of the discourse, not just the Charter of the 10 points.  Thoughtful men and women bear in mind all 10 concerns.  The Buddha cautioned against accepting any one or more of these points if it leads to harm and suffering for oneself and others.

  1. Because of logic, because it is reasonable.

Is the Buddha pointing a cautious finger to the Dharma, itself? Many followers of the Dharma find an attraction to the Dharma because it is reasonable. Dharma does not demand blind acceptance. It is reasonable for human beings to question life, to go deep into themselves, to reveal the previously unrevealed. Yet, due to reason, the Dharma can intellectually stimulate the mind without going deep within and without realisation. Something can appear logical and then with a change of mind become illogical.  Reason has its benefits and limits. The willingness to take risks may seem to some unreasonable and illogical yet lead to liberating discoveries. Meditation explores deeper than logic and reason. It can sound reasonable to stay in a secure job, put money away for old age and take out a long mortgage. Some opt for a safe and sheltered life while others see the opportunity for an adventure.

  1. Because of inference.

The tendency to assume a single cause for an effect exposes blind spots in consciousness.  This is an example of a common inference. “This happened beCAUSE of that,” we infer, such as I am a product of my childhood. It is a simplistic generalisation. Inference easily leads to more views feeding the judgemental mind.  Careful examination of causes and conditions dissolve the tendency of reliance on an inference. Inference often becomes viewed as a fact. The wise see an inference as an inference, such as:

  • Jesus died for the sins of the world.
  • The husband works late at night in the office. His wife assumes he is having an affair.
  • A devotee assumes his or her master is fully enlightened.
  • A committee infers that a person in authority exploits his or her role.
  • A scientist claims religion has caused most of the world’s problems.
  • A religious person claims atheism has caused most of the world’s problems.

In such examples, beliefs feed the inference.

  1. It has been thought out.

Knowledge, philosophy and the intellect have a high status in our society. Education focuses primarily on academic development so that the young think through answers on various subjects. This approach develops the mental faculties but does not assure the capacity to handle with wisdom daily life situations. Much thought goes into planning various strategies and organising the future.  The desire to think things through can be useful but our conclusions may not confirm clarity of mind.  The fact that something has been thoroughly through does not confirm wisdom in the resolution.

Reliance on others for guidance has its problems, too. It is easy to live in the shadow of experts who have thought an issue through. We can transfer much authority onto to experts. The so-called experts often draw widely differing conclusions after years of educating themselves on a specific topic. The businessperson may spend hour after hour thinking it all through about his crumbling business. What went wrong? What mistakes did I make? Who is at fault? What will happen in the future?

Despite much thinking, possibly obsessive, the  thinker has no inner peace and sees no resolution of the situation. The Buddha endorsed examination of causes and conditions to dissolve the suffering. He warned against putting lots of faith and dependency on thought for insights and understanding.  With its reliance on thought, the mind, experts and authority, education has failed to develop the whole person. Wisdom includes ethics, mindfulness, reflection, sharing of experiences, inner depth, finding space within, insights and action.  Application of thought makes a modest contribution.   Excessive thinking obscures profound realisations.

Bias and conviction towards one’s own opinions. It is not unusual to resort to clichés due to conviction around views. A person rejects the views and authority of another and instead relies upon one’s own authority but still does not resolve the suffering in a situation, whether about the past, present or future.

Here are 12 commonly held views of those who claim self-autonomy.

  • I must be patient
  • I will get over it in time.”
  • I must accept myself.
  • It’s all my fault. I have nobody to blame but myself.
  • God is testing my faith.
  • I am the only person who can resolve my issues.
  • There is no point in talking with others about my situation.
  • I create my own suffering.
  • What can I do? It’s my karma.
  • I have to let go.
  • I can’t do anything about it.
  • All I have to do is to be in the now.

People tell themselves such one-line statements, which make little or no change to the suffering.  Acceptance, patience, self-compassion become the answer to the problems of daily life.

Others confuse a theory with truth through becoming totally convinced that a theory is the truth.  Unlike truth, a theory may well change if fresh information becomes available. Truth has power to it. Truth reveals the wisdom to end suffering. A theory or set of views makes no significant difference to unresolved issues.

  1. The speaker appears competent.

Currently, there is a cultural environment of charismatic spiritual figures, stars, celebrities, and clever persuasive individuals. People grasp after such individuals and become identified with them. Listeners, viewers and readers become impressed. Such figures appear very competent and communicate with authority.  The speaker may appear quietly spoken, low key or extraverted and flamboyant.

Personality features of the leader may persuade the listeners to swallow the views. Sometimes, presentation can take priority over substance. If these competent speakers reveal some of the problematic areas of their daily life, listeners marvel at their openness, honesty and capacity to share. Or, the speaker appears reserved, says little or nothing about themselves, their inner life and any daily struggles. Then the listener may think that the speaker has transcended mundane matters of daily life.  Attention to wisdom takes priority over any apparent competence of the speaker.

  1. Out of respect for the teacher.

Compensation for feelings of lack of self-worth may show as grasping after the guru figure, male or female who becomes viewed as a person of authority. The Buddha attempted to bridge this gap through seeing the teacher as a good friend (kalyana mitta) rather than the Guru, the Master. Respect for a teacher becomes a blind spot through naively accepting everything the guru states. There can be the projection of the ideal parent figure upon the teacher. An authority in one area may show an incredible naivety in other areas of life.

It is far too easy to become increasingly reliant on the voices of authority. Rather than act as a good friend, the teacher/guru/therapist will become a father/mother figure who exerts an enormous amount of control over your life. Control may show itself through insistence of weekly attendance of sessions for months, years ahead, taking vows, telling us what to do, or not do, where to go or not go or keep you confined to their approach. You find yourself submitting to the authority of another which increases dependency due to your projections. You start thinking he, she or they (group/organisation/faith) are only means for personal transformation. The authority figure governs your daily life, inhibits your love of travel/exploration and ties you down to their need to control.

There are some traditions in the East where devotees rely totally on the words of the guru as the ultimate authority on a diversity of themes far beyond the guru’s remit. Omniscience is a fallacy.   In the discourse to the Kalama people, and in other discourses, the Buddha expressed deep concern about personal claims of an authority figure, sometimes amounting to an abuse of authority.

There is a danger of sacrificing authenticity, the capacity to make mistakes and learn from them through handing over all responsibility to a guru, to a spiritual teacher or prominent psychologist to resolve concerns. Such submission to the will of the authority figure can all end in tears and real disillusionment through finding out the teacher does not have the power to change you, as you imagined.

For example. A Buddhist meditation teacher encourages making a strong resolution to sit still for one or two hours without moving, or forsake sleep and meditate all night or suggest completion of 100,000 prostrations. Out of respect for the teacher, devotees follow the instruction even though the practices could place a severe strain on mind and body, intensify desires and increase dependency on the teacher in order to get approval.  Dharma practice includes listening to the wise counsel of teachers, mentors and seniors but not at the expense of the voice of intelligence within.

A Wise Approach

The 10 points of the Kalama Sutta address a wise approach to three primary areas – to the past, to reason and authority figures. The Kalama Sutta continues to be a profoundly important message for humanity. It challenges us to examine our views, beliefs and the conditions that give rise to them. A blind spot in the inner life will often rely upon tradition, belief in reason or grasping of authority. This applies to those in authority and those who project onto those in authority.

The Buddha went on: “When you know for yourselves these things are unwholesome, these things are blameable, these things are censured by the wise, these things, if undertaken and practised, lead to harm and suffering; then you should abandon them.’

He explained to the Kalama people that when greed, hate and delusion controls thoughts, then that person could destroy life, take what is not given, engage in sexual abuse and lie. This will be conducive to his or her harm and suffering for a long time.

The Buddha then repeated his Charter for Enquiry from start to finish. ‘It was for this reason that we said do not accept anything because of oral transmission….or out of respect for the teacher (leader, authority figure, secular or religious). He or she will abstain from causing suffering when thoughts remain free from greed, hate and delusion. Undertaken and practised, this leads to one’s welfare and happiness.

The Importance of Kindness and Compassion

The Buddha repeated himself yet again: He continued: ‘Devoid of envy, ill will, unconfused, clear and mindful, one imbues all the directions and the entire world with loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity, vast exalted and measureless.’

The Buddha then gave assurances to the Kalamas if they make use of the Charter they will experience the benefits, the happiness (heavenly world) in the future or immediately. One experiences freedom from blame, ill will and knows an end to any intention to harm others.

He concluded: ‘A noble person is free of negativity and uncorrupted.

In the loss of foolish belief and loss of reinforcement of unhealthy tendencies, the bright light of liberation shines freely.

May all beings be free from dependency on self and other

May all beings live with wisdom

May all beings know a liberated way of life

3200 words





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