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Kalamma Sutta
Kalamma Sutta
by Ross Robertson
Kalamma Sutta

A friend of mine recently posted on his blog about the Kalama Sutta -- something I'd never heard of, but was glad to become familiar with.

In brief, the Kalama Sutta purports to be the Buddha's response to the questions of how do we know, and by what measure should we evaluate teachings and traditions.

Most of the advice is framed in the negative: don't base your beliefs solely on tradition, hearsay, convention, sacred texts, suppositions, tenets, flawed logic, common knowledge, charismatic personality, or supposed authority.

The only affirmative recommendation is whether a teaching or practice leads to benefit and happiness and away from suffering.

This is logically clever. For if we are to take this advice, then the advice itself must be suspect. It is not enough to simply believe just because the Buddha said it, or that it is by now a sacred writing, or that we find it lovely and agreeable. There must be a test, and what matters here is less a matter of veracity or authenticity, but of utility. Can we improve the condition of living beings or not? If a path does not lead to some degree of betterment, then its value is latent at best, and dangerous at worst.

Moreover, the responsibility for proof is nowhere but upon ourselves. Jesus and Gandhi did great things, worthy and admirable things, but if we do not use their teachings to make life better, then their examples are no more than historic tales of interest. If they inspire, that is fine so long as they inspire more than emotion.

Morihei Ueshiba bequeathed to us a path riddled with enigma. We call him O Sensei, "Great Teacher," while blithely ignoring the fact that he was a terrible teacher. He may have demonstrated brilliantly, but by most accounts he simply had no pedagogical method that was accessible to any of his students. Perhaps that was part of the intended lesson: if we were going to understand at all, it would have to be because we could do it for ourselves and not just because he said so.

No Buddhist himself, O Sensei nevertheless exemplified a range of high and low, inner and outer, averaging toward an almost Buddhist middle way. His aikido was base inasmuch as he seemed able to satisfy our basic need to survive amidst the most hostile circumstances. He could take all comers and prevail. Many are drawn to this facet of the art as if it were all that matters, and they eschew any of the frou-frou Shinto language of light and energy and kami. And yet it is to this latter that many others are drawn, and these disciples would rather not be bothered with the dirty business of warfare, predation, and the concomitant blood and grit that it takes to stand against injustice. Some will study the way O Sensei moved and strive to become faithful imitators. Some will look past the superficial and strive to divine the inner causes and reasons for the outward movements, only to become increasingly inscrutable the more they succeed.

How do we know when we're on a right path? Can you protect yourself and survive combat? No way to know for sure unless you enter in to the real deal, so best not to make any claims otherwise. Even then, what good is there in becoming the baddest man around? Self defense is justifiable in its own right, but it's only when you can protect your family, your village, your allies, your resources, and your environment that you progressively demonstrate value to others.

Or perhaps, aikido has nothing to do with fighting and everything to do with serenity. Inner peace is a blessing if you can find it, and let none be the detractor. But can you communicate it? Do others benefit from your equanimity or does it infuriate them? Are you calm and immovable at times when action is required? Or if you are truly morally directed, do your efforts blind you to how your sanctimonious attitudes and behaviors are received? Do you ever ask yourself, what good is goodness? Do you really want to know?

Value, whether of a teaching or of a person, is always stretched on a tight wire strung between nodes personal and social. If a thing is fun, entertaining, wondrous, or delightful, it is valuable. But what if the same thing is at the expense of others? How is value placed then? Or, if social value trumps individual value, when does the habit of self-sacrifice increase the overall level of suffering in the world? When we hear of calamity in far away countries and are moved to sorrow, do our tears water the fruits of compassion, and can the distant victims eat of these?

I think these are essential questions in any discipline. Whether our aikido is for recreation or salvation, it matters that we are clear on its value in our lives, and its value to others. I hope we can all agree that that a human being should be permitted some activities that are purely self-indulgent. But if an agreeable pastime benefits others, then the indulgence is likely to be sustainable and possibly even rewarded and encouraged.

As important as these issues are, there's something about all this ethics and epistemology that makes my head hurt. Aikido is supposed to be a way of nature, which I take to mean a way that reconciles human nature with physics and ecology.

Whenever I strain too much toward the high-minded, I look to rocks and trees and streams and starlight. These things do me more good than many humans ever will, and with no mind to do so whatsoever. These things exist in a many-dimensioned gauze of interconnectivity and fluid balance. All things support and sustain each other, simply by being. Effortlessness is achieved far beyond that found in any dojo.

And yet, these same things also do great harm, without any mind to do so. Rocks move and cities collapse. Waves crash and the waters drown. Even the placid trees wage chemical warfare against their botanical relatives The heavens themselves may strike the earth.

If you look to nature, it is breathtaking in perfection and horror. All that lives, does so by taking life away from something else. All that eats is also consumed, sooner or later. From a grand perspective, nothing is ever lost, all things are sustained and preserved.

But life is lived and experienced by individuals, and we are all frail and transitory. Permanence and durability cannot ultimately be the true assay of value, else none of us are worth a damn.

So it is that all things exist in a cocoon of relative value. We may do good, but not if we exhaust ourselves beyond restoration. We may take goodness from others to make ourselves better, but not if we exhaust our resources beyond replenishment. We may do endless harm, until there is nothing left for us to further harm.

Rumi said (distantly echoing the Kalamma Sutta) "... simplify your worrying lives. There is one righteousness: Water the fruit trees and don't water the thorns."

Such simplification of a worried life has tremendous appeal. Both Siddhartha and Rumi seem to be offering a manageable path that embraces comfort and solace. Jesus also spoke of the lilies of the valley as examples of splendor without toil. And before him was Hillel, who famously said "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."

But as is so often the case, a kernel of simplicity, once planted, may yield great complexity and even confusion. As any gardener will tell you, thorns grow whether or not we water them, and much of agriculture is devoted to the bloody hand of pulling briars. We still don't know how to clothe the poor however much we toil and spin, and never mind Solomon in all his glory. And what is hateful or blissful to one person, may be the opposite to another.

Nevertheless, health, fitness, wellness, prosperity, and quality of life are not impossible to define. We do well when we adhere to actions and habits of thought which promote these things. Aikido has a role to play in promoting individual, social, and ecologic wellness. But its proving ground is not likely to be in either the MMA ring or some hallowed hall of enlightenment, but rather a broad avenue that meanders in between.

Since the time of the Kalamma Sutta, the list of negative recommendations for assessing cogency has only increased. We now have an extensive catalog of logical fallacies which, if used rightly, can result in greater clarity.

Such tools are not just for the mind, but can and should also be applied to the body. The rightness of posture and movement must have a means of assessment. It is not enough to imitate what we see, what we are told, or read in books (or articles). It is not enough to be persuaded by elaborate descriptions. It is not enough that certain forms have been passed down through centuries.

We seek fluidity of movement, solidity of stance, and effortless transition from one to the other. Not only for their own sake, but because in so doing, there is the potential to reduce misery and increase vitality.

In the 1960's people would say "If it feels good, do it." Such a hedonic imperative is not far from the center and only needs a minor upgrade. Since feelings and perceptions are not always accurate, we could rather say "if it is good, do it."

Do no harm. If harm is unavoidable, do minimal harm. Do what is best. Improve all that you can. If improvement is unavailable, then at least do no harm.

Anything else can be safely discarded.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA

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Old 04-26-2011, 07:00 PM   #2
graham christian
Dojo: golden center aikido-highgate
Location: london
Join Date: Oct 2010
Posts: 2,697
Re: Kalamma Sutta

Hi Ross. A nice thought-filled piece. I look at things in a similar manner and yet for myself add on one thought to do with good as you explained it.

That thought is there always is an action which would produce good for all parties concerned yet it is us and our own thoughts which get in the way of seeing it, thus we accept our own lesser substitutes.

This action which does the above comes from a real place and that place is harmony. Something we strive to be aware of.

Thus for me there always is a good way which can only bring about good results yet the question is can I face it?

For me we each have our true path to follow and thus we have our true universe. The whole universe actually is in harmony with your true universe and thus when your actions are at one with your true universe then the whole universe is of course in agreement and all goes well. All benefits. All in harmony. All good.

From there there is no selfishness and at the same time there is no all for others to the detriment of self. There is only the way.

Your column has the power of humility, thank you.

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Old 04-27-2011, 09:40 AM   #3
Join Date: Oct 2005
Posts: 428
Re: Kalamma Sutta

Thank you Ross for your thoughts provoking column. I'd like to add a koan by Hakuin Ekaku "At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully"
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Old 04-27-2011, 10:23 AM   #4
SeiserL's Avatar
Location: Florida Gulf coast
Join Date: Jun 2000
Posts: 3,902
Re: Kalamma Sutta

Looks like we were both on the same track this month.

Yes, the Buddha advised we don't take his word for it but to contemplate and look deeply into our own experience for the truth.

In that introspection we often see the cause and effect consequences of our choices and actions. We also can we that we all already know the right things to do.

We just have to have the courage and discipline to get up everyday and do them.

Good column. Compliments and appreciation.

Lynn Seiser PhD
Yondan Aikido & FMA/JKD
We do not rise to the level of our expectations, but fall to the level of our training. Train well. KWATZ!
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Old 05-01-2011, 09:26 AM   #5
  AikiWeb Forums Contributing Member
niall's Avatar
Join Date: Apr 2010
Posts: 394
Re: Kalamma Sutta

Hi Ross. Your Rumi quote parallels Thoreau's "Simplify, simplify" quoted in my column this month.

But do you really think Morihei Ueshiba was a terrible teacher? Perhaps if you critique his methods by modern Western pedagogical standards. But do the Buddhist evaluation. Did it work? Well you and I and hundreds of thousands of other people are doing aikido. And we're thinking about it and talking about it. Not such a bad result.



we can make our minds so like still water, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life
w b yeats

aikiweb blog|wordpress blog
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Old 05-02-2011, 04:39 AM   #6
Tony Wagstaffe
Location: Winchester
Join Date: Oct 2005
Posts: 1,211
United Kingdom
Re: Kalamma Sutta

Bl..... blimey it's a good thing I put my glasses on I nearly read this fred as Kama Sutra......

I would have been all ears and eye's........
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Old 05-03-2011, 12:29 AM   #7
Benjamin Mehner
Dojo: Salt Lake Aikikai, Zen Bu Kan
Location: Midvale, Ut
Join Date: Apr 2010
Posts: 53
Re: Kalamma Sutta

Thanks for the thought. I recently wrote a paper for my psych class that touched upon some of what you said. I have always liked the Buddha's message that you can't just rely upon the words of others, no matter how qualified they are. You have to experience it for yourself.

Let silence be my mantra.
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Old 05-06-2011, 12:47 PM   #8
R.A. Robertson
Dojo: Still Point Aikido Center
Location: Austin, TX, USA
Join Date: Jul 2002
Posts: 346
Re: Kalamma Sutta

@Graham: I like your thought. See my article "Pareto Optimum" for more thoughts along these lines.

@Carina: Thanks for channeling the wisdom of Hakuin. I doubt everything he's ever said. (-;

@Lynn: Indeed! If we are on the same track, it's always good to know we're heading in the same direction.

@Niall: The question of O Sensei's pedagogy is complex, and I don't dispute your point. At the same time, I'm not basing my statement on Western interpretations only, but on the testimony of many who were there (I, of course, was not). In particular, Henry Kono sums it up well, as he's repeated many times that no one who was there could do what O Sensei was doing, nor even understand much of what he was saying -- not even the native Japanese. So it's an open question if any of us are actually doing aikido as Ueshiba understood it, or if that's even important. He left us a koan, and that too is a kind of teaching, if only in a very limited sense. "Discover for yourself" might indeed be the only way any of us will ever get there, but that's more of a philosophy than a pedagogy. At a minimum, we'd still need someone to show us, to guide us, to (dare I say it) teach us how to discover for ourselves. As with the Kalamma Sutta, we still have responsibility for being our own ultimate authority, but this doesn't mean that authentic teachers and guides are not priceless. Just my thoughts.

@Tony: I tend to save my Aiki Kama Sutra articles for February each year, for Valentine's Day, which is also the anniversary of my starting aikido. Some are more overt than others. Check the archives and let me know what you think.

@Benjamin: You should post your paper to AikiWeb, if you think it's appropriate. I'm sure a lot of us would be interested.

Thanks everyone for the great conversation!

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Old 05-06-2011, 02:17 PM   #9
Diana Frese
Dojo: Aikikai of S.W. Conn. (formerly)
Location: Stamford Connecticut
Join Date: Nov 2010
Posts: 386
Re: Kalamma Sutta

Yesterday I went into the back lawn to check on the old magnolia, it seemed to have recovered somewhat from the past couple of years. Oh no, the blackberries have gotten out of control. I hate to kill plants, but we need the lawn for practice!

(See I have been thinking about your column... I re read it and think about it from time to time...)
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Old 05-13-2011, 11:46 AM   #10
R.A. Robertson
Dojo: Still Point Aikido Center
Location: Austin, TX, USA
Join Date: Jul 2002
Posts: 346
Re: Kalamma Sutta

Diana Frese wrote: View Post
(See I have been thinking about your column... I re read it and think about it from time to time...)

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