Vedic response to the question of the Kalamas

Discussion in 'Eastern Philosophy' started by greenberg, May 2, 2008.

  1. greenberg until the end of the world Registered Senior Member

    In the Buddhist Pali Canon, there is the story of the people called Kalamas. They were perplexed by the multitude of doctrines they have heard from various teachers and didn't know whom to believe or on what grounds.

    They went to speak to the Buddha and this is how they presented their question, as accounted in the Kalama Sutta (Kesaputta is a name of a town):

    The situation of some -even many- people nowadays is similar: From books, newspapers, television, formal education, personal encounters with people, public debates, online forums, tradition, hearsay and what other sources of information there might be - we know from these various sources about various religious, philosophical, scientific and other teachings about the meaning of life, about things that one should and should not do.
    This variety can be perplexing.

    The Buddha answered the question of the Kalamas thus:

    I would be interested in hearing what the Vedic response to the question of the Kalamas would be.

    Thank you.
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  3. lightgigantic Banned Banned

    perhaps there is a similar situation in the gita when a dumbfounded arjuna says

    BG 2.7: Now I am confused about my duty and have lost all composure because of miserly weakness. In this condition I am asking You to tell me for certain what is best for me. Now I am Your disciple, and a soul surrendered unto You. Please instruct me.

    In essence what buddha is offers as a solution is the same - namely know a thing by its qualities. Kind of like if you set out to purchase gold, your first business is to know what gold actually is (especially since the market for it is rife with counterfeits). Similarly to know what is unskillful etc etc rests upon knowing what it is in essence - and the fact that the kalamas are inquiring from buddha tends to indicate how one comes to know these foundational elements.

    BG 4.34: Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.
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  5. greenberg until the end of the world Registered Senior Member

    Yes, this is beautiful - but at this point, Arjuna already declared himself a disciple of Krishna.
    What about those who haven't ... Probably the best one can do at this point is to train oneself into becoming a responsible potential disciple, developing some criteria that can enable one to better and more reliably recognize whom to put one's faith in, and whom not.

    Yes, learn to know the essence of this and that. I have found the process of learning this to be quite confusing though - as I can almost endlessly ask "And what is that?" and "How do I know that?" until the succession of arguments gets to the point of karma and aggregates, the basic building blocks that one must either realize or take on faith.

    It does help though to ask a certain kind of questions - just this process of asking those questions can be soothing in some way because the questions do seem relevant. Like these twenty questions to ask of a kalyanamitta:

    Something similar is said in the Pali Canon -

    You've mentioned elsewhere how it is important that there be love or friendship between the teacher and the student, and the Buddha also speaks about "growing close" - and this comes before lending ear.
    In Christianity, on the other hand, it tends to be taken for granted that one grows close and initial conviction is demanded, attempts to see for oneself if a person is worthy of having conviction in are frowned upon. - I don't mean so much to criticize Christianity, but I am beginning to notice where the Christian approach to knowledge takes unhelpful and even harmful turns.
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  7. lightgigantic Banned Banned

    The point is that a person who feels they already know has no proper inclination to approach a teacher (generally it is seen that such persons approach a teacher to display how learned they are .... and sometimes even seek initiation in a mood of "just see how much I know, so since I am already 90% liberated, why not give me initiation since I will be an easy student to teach" ..... needless to say, such students often work out as being the most difficult to teach)

    I've heard an incident of a famous music school in europe that calculates its fees in terms of how much the student has been taught - if they have been learning the violin for a few years it costs a certain amount. If they have been learning for a bit longer, it costs more .... and so and so.

    So as in the OP, the Kalamas are approaching lord buddha in a mood of "we really don't know what to do - please help us" as opposed to "hey listen up, what do you think of my spin on this mind-bender"

    have to go
    reply to the rest later
  8. lightgigantic Banned Banned


    ... and con't some more ...
    but it also helps to ask such questions to the right person
    like for instance an unwholesome person's version of what is wholesome may not be helpful.

    In sanskrit there is a word prabhava (pra= project bhava=state of emmotion/being)
    It is explained that the possession of good quality, via prabhava, exerts a presence/comprehension in others.
    IOW a person who properly exhibits wholesomeness extends a comprehension of wholesomeness simply by their being ..... as opposed to giving some sort of philosophical run down on it.
    So we could potentially learn more about wholesomeness from a person who is
    illiterate yet wholesome .... as opposed to decked out with a PhD in wholesomeness.
    The fact that the kalamas are inquiring from Lord Buddha would tend to indicate that his prabhava established him as a reliable authority to pose these questions to.


    I think that might be more of an inherently institutional issue than a christian one - basically the scourge of religiosity is when purity becomes institutionalized .... IOW when a person in a particular institutional position is given a certain status of purity when actual the standard of purity is explained by various scriptural references (eg - what is wholesomeness etc). I think the solution to it is not to burn down the places of worship and their administrations, but rather, for institutions to be constantly introspective and never rest easy that they are the "chosen ones" - at the very least we can be introspective with ourselves and become familiar with the proper standards of purity so we can recognize its absence (or presence)
  9. greenberg until the end of the world Registered Senior Member

    I know, and I myself am guilty of having approached or attempting to approach people for the wrong reasons. It's easy to take for granted that one is sincere and serious.

    It says in the Pali Canon:

    - A good way to reflect on one's motivations before venturing to ask questions of other people. Acting appropriately then, many unhelpful discussions can be avoided.

    Absolutely. It is difficult to know though who such a right person might be.
    I wish I could test people by asking them those twenty questions mentioned earlier. The way they would reply could certainly reveal much about them!

    But can this exertion of prabhava overrun the listener's own doubts, hesitations and insecurities?

    The Kalamas were also known to be very moral people to begin with - I think this plays a part in how the Kalama Sutta is to be understood. It could be that not everyone who has such questions as the Kalamas will be able to profit from the teachings in that sutta.

    Agreed. One would be prudent to make an effort to become a responsible listener. Probably much substandard religiosity can spread because people are not responsible enough about whom they listen to and discuss religious topics with.

    For example, there are some atheistic arguments in Thai Buddhism that apparently developed in response to Catholic missionaries attempting to convert the Buddhists. Those arguments can't be found in other Buddhist traditions and countries who didn't respond to the Catholic challenge. (E.g. "If God is good, then we wouldn't have bodies that grow old, ill and die. If God exists and he made us so, then God is evil.")
    On the other hand, some Catholic doctrines apparently developed as a response to atheism in an attempt to convince atheists of the rightness of the Catholic church, and are as such shaped by the atheist position and don't apply to everyone who inquires about God, yet are sometimes used generally, regardless whether one is an atheist or not (Descartes' Meditations being a prime example).
    Last edited: May 6, 2008
  10. lightgigantic Banned Banned

    amongst good qualities, such as the ability to remain cerebrally cool headed or bear incredible burdens with grace and elegance, is the reluctance to promote one's good qualities (humility). The reason being is that whatever faults one may have very quickly come to the forefront of the introspectively humble

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    for others, who can't see their mistakes what to speak of rectifying them, the process is a little longer

    It says in the Pali Canon:

    What do you see as playing a difference between
    One asks a question of another through stupidity & bewilderment.
    One asks a question of another when desiring knowledge.

    lol - and exactly where would that leave sciforums?

    Its a prabhava thing

    a person may not be able to exhibit the quality of wholesomeness but they can recognize it in others.
    the basic idea is that god is the possessor of all good qualities, and being his separated parts and parcels, we simultaneously exhibit those qualities (like a drop of salt water, much like the entire ocean of it, exhibits the qualities of saltiness) and have an attraction to them in others. - of course in the material world, things are necessarily a bit topsy turvy since it offers a mode of life without god - so our vision of things can be a bit skewed. Kind of like how wearing purple glasses makes everything appear purple.
    That is why religious practice in general glorifies life in the mode of goodness, since it offers a clearness of vision that is simply not available in passion or ignorance. Whether our doubt, etc is cleared or not depends on a range of issues - our desire, our previous conditioning, our backlog of pious credits and also the prabhava potency (or purity) of the person in question. There is a general focus in appealing to the mercy of a saintly person, since simply by that persons desiring of goodwill to us, vast tracts of our conditioned nature can be surmounted

    if you don't know 1+1=2, going on to trigonometry will not be too fruitful

    I guess the current situation is perhaps something like medical practice in the 1800's - you have all sorts of people peddling all sorts of wares and people caught in the middle are thoroughly confused (or cynical)

    the problem with logical refutations is that they can also be refuted by logic - there is a chinese saying - water floats a ship and sinks a ship - similarly arguments based on logic can, at one time, raise an argument, and alternatively, dismiss it again later. The only thing that ends logical discussion is practice, since that paves the way to conviction.
  11. greenberg until the end of the world Registered Senior Member

    Absolutely. One can not venture to fix something if one thinks there is nothing wrong with it.

    I think that when one asks a question of another when desiring knowledge, the asker has at least some general or even specific idea about what he wants, whom to ask, in what circumstances and how to properly formulate the question. There is at least some focus and direction. Such a person will also have some measure to tell when a question of his has been answered.

    But when one asks a question of another through stupidity & bewilderment, there is a characteristic lack of such a focus and direction. The attention of a stupid and bewildered person is scattered all over. Such a person does not know what he wants, so he is unable to coherently formulate a question, and instead blindly follows whatever comes blurted out of his mind. He doesn't know who could be appropriate to ask the question of, so he talks to anyone he meets, or reads any book he comes across. He can't tell when a question of his has been answered or not.

    However, it is important to note that a person doesn't always ask all their questions either because they desire knowledge, or because they are stupid and bewildered, or for any other of the earlier listed five motivations.
    A person could be seeking knowledge in one field, but be greedy or stupid in another, for example.

    Out of business!

    I've heard of this, yes.
    It is interesting that you say "vast tracts of our conditioned nature can be surmounted" and not "all the tracts of our conditioned nature can be surmounted" - this speaks of a sense of graduality, and implies that one would be wise to not expect of oneself to be fully cleansed after learning that a saintly person has wished them well. I remember back in Christianity, we had notions like "What are you doing still sinning, when so and so has prayed for you?! You ungrateful brat!"

    Agreed, but I have an objection-clarification to what you are saying: If there is such a thing as Right View, then it has to be possible to present it in consistent, coherent logical discourse - as you often point out the importance of normative descriptions.
    Otherwise, we fall into the danger of agnostic/nihilistic views like "Oh well, we cannot understand this, we cannot come up with a logical argument about it, and we shouldn't endlessly seek one either, but still we must press on, against all odds / there is nothing we can do about it anyway."
    In other words, I think it is important that one's reasons for stopping an unfinished logical progression or for claiming victory in a logical argument - that those reasons be the right ones.
    Calling to practice is fine; but if one isn't sure why one should practice then practice can turn out very bad. - There's the notion of "trying to punish yourself into being a good person", for example.

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