What is praised by the wise?

Binara Full Moon Poya is the day we commemorate the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sangha or the Order of the Female Buddhist Monastics. The very first Bhikkhuni ordained by the Buddha was his stepmother, Mahapajapathi Gothami. The other significant event of Binara is that it falls in the Vas retreat of Bhikkhus. They get engaged in performing or guiding the lay in Dhamma path byways of sermons and advising them in religious rituals in gratitude who look after the Bhikkhus in providing them with the essentials of a Bhikkhu: robes, alms, shelter, and medical care (Ceevara, pindapatha, senasana, gilanopastana).

In 1948, Darley Road was famous for British Sterling Company’s presence and a leading Catholic School, St Joseph’s College. A student in the Junior School Certificate class was walking to Maradana railway station after school; he stops near the second-hand bookman on the pavement. In his own words,

“KKS, I always read with great interest your Poya column, you know its uncommon common sense,” he was at his office as the Chairman of National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA). Then he went on to relate how he accidentally came across Kalama Sutta as a fifteen-year-old student. “I picked up a copy of Martin Wickramasinghe’s 1914 novel Leela from vendor’s mound of old books. The first thing that my eyes banged, when I opened it, was the Kalama Sutta. It mesmerised me. It was years later that I realized the Kalama Sutta had changed the course of my life.”

Contemporary relevance

Five decades later, as a respected public figure and a retired teacher to thousands of physicians, he enrols in a Buddhist faculty of a state university to read for a Master’s in Buddhist Philosophy. His dissertation was on ‘The Contemporary Relevance of the Kalama Sutta’. Kalama Sutta is the Sutta No. 65 of Anguttara Nikaya, Mahavagga.

Professor Carlo Fonseka, writing under ‘The Kalama Sutta and freedom of thought’ in The Island, July 8 2014, says:

“Thus, there is no doubt that in the Kalama Sutra the Buddha enjoined us to take account of what is ‘praised by the wise’ when making up our minds about matters of life, death and truth. The question is: Who are ‘the wise’? Such wise men as existed in the days of the Buddha are no longer available to us. In this context, I am inclined to take the view that the wise men and women of our time are the natural scientists endeavouring to figure out how the world works and have been remarkably successful in the enterprise. In other words, for me what modern science has to say about the natural world has greater credibility than what is taught in religion or philosophy. That is why I turn to science for knowledge, to philosophy for epistemology and to religion for ethics.”

We lost an exceptional politician and iconic public figure that made valuable contributions both in the Buddhist philosophy and literature. Professor Fonseka was courageous, witty, and never shied away from expressing himself on any subject. Such an inspirational expedition of his life will always be an encouragement to all of us. When he spoke, everybody listened, because they wanted to, not that they had to. In Carlo, we saw a legend. He will be remembered by generations to come.

Insightful understanding

The Dhamma requires each individual to work out his/her emancipation from misery through an insightful understanding of the true nature of things. A critical examination of everything before accepting them is a must in it.

The Buddha’s advice to the young Kalamas is well known:

“Yes, Kalamas, it is natural that you have doubt, that you have bafflement, for an uncertainty has arisen in a something which is doubtful. Kalamas, do not go by tradition or reports, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of scriptures, or by the amusement in speculative views, nor by apparent possibilities, nor by the thought or design: ‘our teacher said so’. But, Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are harmful or unpleasant, and wrong or bad, then give them ‘…But when you know for yourselves, “These things are wholesome, these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise, these things, if undertaken and practised, lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should engage in them.”

Jawaharlal Nehru was imprisoned under Colonial rulers’ political repression. He used his jail term effectively to pen The Discovery of India. Here he explains the philosophy in Kalama Sutta:

One must not accept my law from reverence, but first, try it as gold is tried by fire”. Buddha preached without any religious sanction or any reference to God or another world. He relies on reason and logic and experience and asks people to seek the Truth in their minds. This is what the Kalama Sutta says.

Free inquiry

The instruction to the Kalamas is justly well-known for its encouragement of free inquiry; teaching that discourages dogmatism, fanaticism, intolerance and bigotry. The Buddha, while travelling in the Kosala State with a community of monks, reached a town called Kesaputta where the inhabitants were Kalama people.

The Kalamas addressed themselves: “Venerable Gotama, son of the Sakyans, has entered Kesaputta. The Blessed One is thus skilful, enlightened, endowed with knowledge, peerless, sublime, knower of the world, teacher of divine and humans; by himself, he has clearly understood through direct knowledge. Seeing such consummate ones is excellent indeed.”

Then the Kalamas went to where the Buddha dwelled. On arriving there, they exchanged pleasantries with him and sat down on one side; some saluted him raising their joined palms and sat down on one side. The Kalamas ask for direction from the Buddha

“Venerable sir, there are some monks and Brahmans, who visit us in Kesaputta. They talk about and explain their own doctrines; the beliefs of others they revile, despise and tear to pieces. There are other monks and Brahmans too, that come to Kesaputta. They also expound and explicate only their own doctrines. Venerable sir, there is doubt and hesitation; there is uncertainty and vagueness in us concerning them. Which of the Brahmans and monks spoke the truth, and which deceives?”

The Buddha advised the Kalamas: “It is proper for you to doubt and to have confusion and bafflement when doubt has arisen in a doubtful topic.” He instructed them that it is wiser to make a proper assessment before committing. He said this was applicable to his own teachings too.


Kalama Sutta at a glance

Ma anussavena: Do not believe something just because it has been accepted along and repeated for many generations.

Ma paramparaya: Do not believe something merely because it has developed into a traditional observe. Not be led by whatever handed down from generations.

Ma itikiraya: Do not believe something simply because it is well-known universally. Not to be led by hearsay or common opinion.

Ma Pitakasampadanena: Do not believe something just because it is quoted in a manuscript. Not to be led by what the scriptures say.

Ma takkahetu: Do not believe something exclusively on the grounds of rational reasoning. Not to be led by mere logic.

Ma nayahetu: Do not believe something purely because it accords with your viewpoint. Not to be led by mere inference or conclusion.

Ma akaraparivitakkena: Do not believe something because it appeals to common sense. Not to be led by considering only superficial appearance.

Ma ditthinijjhanakkhantiya: Do not believe something just because you are akin to the idea. Not to be led by preconceived notions.

Ma bhabbarupataya: Do not believe something because the narrator seems reliable. Not to be led by what seems acceptable or believable.

Ma samano no garu ti: Do not believe something thinking, “this is what our instructor says”. Not to be led by what your teacher tells you is so.

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