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Pali Canon - Kalama Sutta

by Sangharakshita

The Kalama Sutta Seminar

held at Padmaloka, July 1980
Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya i.188), trans. Soma Thera, Wheel Publication No. 8,
Buddhist Publication Society.
Those present: Urgyen Sangharakshita, Subhuti, Vajradaka, Punya, Manjuvajra, Abhaya,
Nagabodhi, Surata, Joss Hincks, Alan Miller, John Leah, Johnny Baker, Clive Pomfret.
S: Would someone like to read the first sentence?
Subhuti: "The Kalamas of Kesaputta go to see the Buddha. I heard thus. Once the Blessed
One, while wandering in the Kosala country with a large community of bhikkhus, entered a
town of the Kalama people called Kesaputta."
S: "I heard thus." I assume that you know who is supposed to be speaking.
___: Ananda.
S: It's Ananda. So how or why Ananda?
Subhuti: Because he recited the suttas to the council of elders at Rajagriha.
S: Yes, well not only the suttas, all the teachings after the passing away of the Buddha. So
one of the signs, or if you like one of the distinguishing marks, of a sutta is that it begins with
this phrase - "evam me suttam" in Pali - "thus have I heard" it's usually translated, or "I heard
thus". There is a discussion among scholars as to whether the next two words, which are
"ekam samayam", belong to the end of this sentence - thus have I heard at one time - or are
the beginning of the next sentence, but we won't go into that now, but this sentence is the
sentence which traditionally introduces a sutta. That is to say, something which was said by
the Buddha, a discourse delivered by the Buddha, heard by Ananda, repeated by Ananda after
the Buddha's death to the assembly of monks, and then transmitted to their disciples. Ananda
wasn't always, of course, actually present, but he had a sort of understanding, a sort of
agreement, with the Buddha that if the Buddha gave a discourse when he was absent, on
Ananda's return the Buddha would repeat it to him so that he could commit it to memory and
have a full repertoire of all the Buddha's sayings and discourses. Ananda was described
traditionally as 'bahushutra', one who had heard much or, as we would say nowadays, one
who is learned. All right, so much for "I heard thus".
"Once the Blessed One," the Buddha, that is to say, "while wandering in the Kosala country
with a large community of bhikkhus, entered a town of the Kalama people called Kesaputta."
I think I'd better start referring to the Pali text which I have somewhere. Wandering in the
Kosala country. Wandering of course suggests to us something rather aimless, but the Pali
idiom is 'carikam caramano' which means walking a walk, he was walking a walk or, if you
like, progressing a progress, in the Kosala country. Have you any idea where the Kosala
country was? Have you any idea about ancient Indian geography? The Buddha's personal
activities seem to have extended mainly over two areas - Magadha and Kosala - which were
two separate independent kingdoms. The Sakya republic was under the political influence,
not to say domination, at that time, of the kingdom of Kosala. So the Kingdom of Magadha
lay more to the north-east of [2] northern India. It was mainly what is nowadays the state of
Bihar with perhaps some parts of Bengal, whereas Kosala corresponded roughly to the
present-day Uttar Pradesh, so it's the north-western, not the extreme north-western but the
middle north-western part of northern India. Say from Benares up to Delhi and perhaps
beyond.
Subhuti: Magadha?
S: No that's Kosala. The first one was Magadha. So this is altogether quite a large area that
the Buddha was accustomed to wandering over. He had, apparently, regular routes which he
followed, with regular stages where he stopped and met people and talked.
So "Once the Blessed One, while wandering in the Kosala country with a large community of
bhikkhus, entered a town of the Kalama people called Kesaputta." With a large community of
bhikkhus, the number is not actually given. Sometimes we are told the Buddha wandered with
1250 bhikkhus. That may be a later exaggeration but no doubt a lot of bhikkhus would
wander with him and the expression used is bhikkhusanghena - a bhikkhu sangha, and it is
rather interesting this is translated "a large community" because what does that suggest? The
bhikkhu sangha is translated "community", at the same time they are wandering. What does
that suggest?
Nagabodhi: That what bound them wasn't just locality, possessions, property, and so on.
S: Yes, right. It suggests that a community is not necessarily a residential community. A
community can be on the move. You can have such a thing as a travelling spiritual
community. Well, clearly you had on this occasion. They weren't all staying in any particular
vihara, in a particular place. They were wandering. They were walking their walk with the
Buddha from place to place throughout Kosala but they remained a sangha, they remained a
community. So it is quite important to bear this point in mind: that a spiritual community is
not necessarily what we call sometimes a residential spiritual community. We don't have to be
all in our spot together all the time in order to be a spiritual community. In our own case the
Order is a spiritual community, whether it's actually assembled in the same place at the same
time or not. Even if it isn't, it's still a spiritual community. The fact that you are a spiritual
community does not require you to be tied, or chained even, to one particular spot. Of course,
yes, you may be. There is such a thing as a residential spiritual community and sometimes it
may help the spiritual community to be residential, but the spiritual community isn't
necessarily residential. You could have one that's 'on the wing' all the time. You could even
have, conceivably, a floating spiritual community or a flying spiritual community. (laughter)
So, "Once the Blessed One, while wandering in the Kosala country with a large community of
bhikkhus, entered a town of the Kalama people called Kesaputta." All right let's go on then.
[3]
___: "The Kalamas who were inhabitants of Kesaputta heard: Reverend Gotama, the monk,
the son of the Sakiyans, has, while wandering in the Kosala country, entered Kesaputta. The
good repute of the Reverend Gotama has been spread in this way: Indeed, the Blessed One is
thus consummate, fully enlightened, endowed with knowledge and practice, sublime, knower
of the worlds, peerless, guide of tamable men, teacher of divine and human beings,
enlightened, blessed."
S: All right. "The Kalamas who were inhabitants of Kesaputta heard: Reverend Gotama, the
monk, the son of the Sakiyans, has, while wandering in the Kosala country, entered
Kesaputta." Now you've probably realized that in those days means of communication were
rather primitive. There were of course no newspapers, there was no radio, probably people
didn't even write letters. Letters were known only for purposes of business correspondence.
But none the less "the Kalamas who were inhabitants of Kesaputta heard." They heard about
the Buddha, they heard that the Buddha was coming. In India, even today, by word of mouth
rumour travels very fast indeed. It's really amazing how quickly some news flies, especially if
some well known personality is travelling around. News flies from village to village very
quickly indeed, and this must have been all the more the case in the Buddha's time when
people relied entirely on word of mouth for their information, for their news. So "the Kalamas
who were inhabitants of Kesaputta heard: Reverend Gotama, the monk, the son of the
Sakiyans, has, while wandering in the Kosala country, entered Kesaputta." You see at once
we encounter here slight nuances in the translation "Reverend Gotama". What does that
suggest to you?
Abhaya: Vicar-like.
S: A vicar-like figure, yes. Well what does the text say? The text says bho Gotamo - bho is
just a polite term used in referring to somebody. In the Dhammapada you remember the
brahmins are referred to as 'bhovadin' - those who use the expression bho. They use it to one
another, they speak politely to one another. They do not usually use it when speaking to
non-brahmins. You see what I mean? So bho is just a polite prefix. You put bho before
somebody's name if you just want to be polite and respectful. It is used with regard to lay
people as well as with regards to those who have given up the world as monks or wanderers.
So it doesn't have this sort of ecclesiastical ring that 'reverend' has. It's really quite impossible
to translate it. I mean if you were translating into French you could say 'Monsieur Gotama' -
that would be a bit nearer than "Reverend Gotama". "The monk" - again, monk, well that has
all the wrong connotations, it's samana. The distinction was in ancient India, in the Buddha's
time between brahmana and shramana. The brahmana was the one who followed the
traditional Vedic teaching, the traditional Vedic religion, especially in so far as it involved
sacrifices and observances of various kinds. The shramana was the freelance spiritual
aspirant, you could say. He'd cut himself off from all home ties but he'd cut himself off from
all conventional brahminical religion. He did not perform any ceremonies, he did not perform
any sacrifices. He relied ...

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