U Nu, Protestant Buddhism and the Kālama-sutta

unu

U Nu (1907-1995) was the first Prime Minister of an Independent Burma and the only one democratically elected. He was Prime Minister on three occasions, 1948-56, 1957-58 and 1960-62.

He was in many ways a devout Buddhist but his understanding of Buddhism shows many of the trademark themes of what scholars have termed ‘Protestant Buddhism’. The primary text of Protestant Buddhism is often held to be the Kālama-sutta with its supposed scientific and empirical advice to rely on ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ in the search for truth and salvation.

In a remarkable interview U Nu describes his understanding of Buddhism:

He explains that many practices of the Buddhist such as making offerings to the Buddha, acquiring merit, performing acts to counteract ill-luck are not important parts of what Buddhism is really about. What is Buddhism about according to U Nu? It is about meditation ‘which will deliver one from all suffering’. U Nu states that he only became a ‘true Buddhist’ when he learned that ‘the truths of Buddhism can be tested’. He states that the Buddha said that ‘you must not believe anything that you cannot test yourself’. In this sense, Buddhism is not based upon a set of true doctrines, but a set of theories, comparable to scientific theories that can be empirically tested and accepted or rejected. One is a ‘genuine Buddhist’, for U Nu when one understands Buddhism in this way, and this is what attracts him to Buddhism. Doctrines are tested in meditation.  This meditation need not take place in a monastery but can be practiced at home, if it is a quiet home. One need not be a monk to meditate. Further, U Nu states that anyone can become a Buddha – a version of the  ‘Buddha as an ordinary man’ or ‘the scientific Buddha’ idea explored by Donald Lopez (The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life; see also Lopez, Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed, Lopez, From Stone to Flesh: A Short History of the Buddha).

All this has much in common with what has been termed Protestant Buddhism (originally by Gombrich and Obeyesekere). The defining characteristic of Protestant Buddhism is the importance given to the laity and the subsequent lessening of the importance of the Sangha, the Buddhist monastics. Of course, the prominence of the laity in some religions is often taken for granted. However, in Buddhist history that history is often the history of the Sangha, of the monastics, and the uniqueness of the movement needs to be emphasised. The laity is then given this enhanced importance û this is somewhat different to, arguably, all previous forms of Buddhism. This movement was then lay in leadership.

Another feature of Protestant Buddhism is a suspicion of  hierarchies. Buddhism in this modern manifestation is all about ‘meditation’ – this is the essential practice of the Buddhist. However, traditionally lay Buddhists did not meditate. Those who wished to do so became monks. In Protestant Buddhism meditation is learned from a book, not from a teacher. Buddhism is also egalitarian, there are no elites, no caste distinctions – all have the capacity for spiritual attainment. Buddhism is a rational religion for all.

Protestant Buddhism tends towards:

a. fundamentalism

b. despises tradition

c. holds that Buddhism is ‘scientific’ and in fact not a religion but a philosophy

d. teaches that Nirvana is a this worldly goal – not a distant aspiration, and indeed the aspiration of the religious virtuoso, but of the lay person

e. portrays the Buddha as an ordinary man who achieved release from ‘suffering’

Indeed dukkha is sometimes now translated as ‘stress’, the Buddha overcame ‘stress’ This is not what dukkha is, nor what a Buddha is. A Buddha lives for countless lives as an animal, human or god (but rarely, if ever, a woman), in order to generate a body fit to become a Buddha

The Kālama-sutta

In What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula cites the Kālama-sutta (A I 188-193) as expressing an essential point of the Buddha’s teaching. Stated simply this is the following: those seeking freedom from suffering should know for themselves what is ‘wholesome’ (kusala) and ‘unwholesome’ (akusala) and not rely on other things to achieve the end of dukkha. This simple piece of advice Rahula called ‘unique in the history of religions’.[1]

Clearly, in some instances, like in the thinking of U Nu which I am considering here, this basic idea is expanded upon and exaggerated.

In the sutta the Kālamas explain to the Buddha that the recluses and Brahmins who come to Kesaputta, the setting of the discourse, proclaim their own doctrine (vāda) but abuse the doctrines of others.[2] They go on to say that they have ‘doubt and wavering’ (kakhā [] vicikicchā, A I 189) as to which recluses and Brahmins are speaking truth and which are speaking falsehood (sacca āha, ko musā, ibid.). [3] The Buddha replies that they may well doubt, they may well waver, but it is on a doubtful point that wavering arises.[4] The Buddha explains that they should not be misled by:

1. Report/oral tradition (anussavena);

2. Tradition (paramparāya);

3. Hearsay (itikirāya);

4. Not by proficiency in the collections (piakasampadānena);

5. Logic (takkahetu);

6. Inference (nayahetu);

7. Reasoned cogitation (ākāraparivitakkena);

8. Acceptance of a view as a result of reflection (diṭṭhi-nijjhānakkhantiyā);

9. Not because it fits becoming (bhabbarūpatāya);

10. Out of respect for a recluse (samao no garū).[5]

The Buddha explains what they should understand:

‘When you know for yourselves: These things are unwholesome, these things are blameworthy, these things are censured by the wise; these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to loss and sorrowùthen reject them.’[6]

This is all very well up to this point and one might consider that U Nu and others who follow a rational and scientific understanding of Buddhism to have some justification in their evaluation. But is the point of the Buddhas advice to the Kālamas really to teach that his teachings should be tested ‘scientifically’ and ‘empirically’ –  that his is a teaching based upon ‘reason’? Is this really the case? Reading through the list of ten means of knowledge that are not to be relied upon, ‘logic’, ‘inference’ and ‘reasoned cogitation’ are also rejected. Is there then something much more essential being taught in the Kālama-sutta?

The Buddha explains that the ten incorrect means of knowledge are rooted in greed, hatred and delusion (lobha, dosa, moha). The reason for this is based on the Kālamas’ earlier statement that the recluses and Brahmins proclaim their own doctrines and abuse the doctrines of others.[7] The aim of the dhamma is to overcome what is unwholesome. As the conduct of the recluses and Brahmins does not suggest that their teachings are achieving this, the Buddha takes them as wrong teachings. The Buddha explains this: with the arising of greed, hatred and delusion there is ‘loss’ (ahitāya) not ‘profit’ (hitāya, A I 189). Losing control of their minds, those overcome by greed, hatred and delusion kill living beings, take what is not given, commit adultery, tell lies, and get others to do the same.[8] All these things are ‘unwholesome’ (akusala) not ‘wholesome’ (kusala), ‘blameworthy’ (sāvajja) not ‘blameless’ (anavajja), ‘censured by the wise’ (viṭṭū-garahita), and when undertaken conduce to ‘loss and sorrow’ (ahitāya dukkhāya, A I 190).

It is for this reason that a person should not be misled by the ten incorrect means of knowledge, for they are unwholesome.[9] They should not be depended upon. They are incorrect means of knowledge precisely because they are unwholesome. The person should know what is wholesome, blameless, praised by the wise, and what, when undertaken, conduces to profit and happiness.[10] Freedom from greed, hatred and delusion produces ‘states’ (dhammā) that are wholesome, blameless, praised by the wise and, when performed, conduce to happiness (A I 190-1).[11] The teachings of the Buddha, the teachings of a Buddha, leads to wholesome action, false teachings leads to unwholesome action.

The conclusion one is tempted to reach is that the Kālama-sutta is not the Buddha’s ‘charter of free inquiry’, nor necessarily ‘unique in religious history’. It does not teach that ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ should be used to test the Buddhas teachings, as one would test a scientific theory. It suggests that any religious doctrine held with attachment and defended in opposition to other doctrines leads to unwholesome action. Any means of knowledge can lead to suffering, and this includes reason, logic, meditation, wisdom, inference and belief. U Nu is in no way wrong in his understanding of Buddhism but we should appreciate that his religious outlook was shaped by certain factors which influenced his interpretation of the essence of Buddhism. They shaped his understanding of what is essential to Buddhism.

Much of what I have said about Protestant Buddhism relies heavily on Richard Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Banares to Modern Columbo.

As a final note the famous writer and U Nu’s personal assistant and cousin, Khin Hnin Yu reported that at his home in Rangoon U Nu had a very large  traditional shrine room in which he made daily offerings to the Buddha.


[1] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (London, 1967), p. 2.

[2] samaabrāhmaṇā kesaputta āgacchanti, te saka yeva vāda dīpenti, jotenti, paravāda pana khusenti, vambhenti, opapakkhi karonti, paribhavanti, A I 188

[3] In identical terms to those that we shall meet in the Pāṭali-sutta which I will consider in chapter five.

[4]Again, in identical terms to the Pāṭali-sutta: ala hi vo kālāmā kakhitu ala vicikicchitu, kakhanīyeva ca pana vo hāne vicikicchā uppannā, A I 189.

[5] A I 189. Three of these occurred in the earlier list of five items (oral tradition, anussavā, reasoned cogitation, ākāraparivitakkā, and acceptance of a view as a result of reflection, diṭṭhi-nijjhānakkhantiyā); see Jayatilleke, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, pp. 182-88, 274-6.

[6] yadā tumhe […] attanā’va jāneyyātha:ime dhammā akusalā, ime dhammā sāvajjā, ime dhammā viññūgarahitā, ime dhammā samattā samādinnā ahitāya dukkhāya savattantī ti: atha tumhe […] pajaheyyātha, A I 189.

[7] I am arguing that when the Nikāyas state that the dhamma is superior they hold that it is superior because it does not give rise to craving and attachment.

[8] For greed: luddho panāya kālāmā purisapuggalo lobhena abhibhūto pariyādinnacitto pāṇampi hanti adinnam pi ādiyati, paradāram pi gacchati, musā pi bhaati, param pi tathattāya samādapeti, ya sa hoti dīgharatta ahitāya dukkhāyā ti. eva bhante, A I 189.

[9] iti kho kālāmā ya ta avocumha. etha tumhe kālāmā mā anussavena, mā paramparāya, mā itikirāya, mā piakasampadānena, mā takkahetu, mā nayahetu, mā ākāraparivitakkena, mā diṭṭhinijjhānakkhantiyā, mā bhabbarūpatāya, mā samao no garū ti. yadā tumhe kālāmā attanā va jāneyyātha: ime dhammā akusalā, ime dhammā sāvajjā, ime dhammā viññūgarahitā, ime dhammā samattā samādinnā ahitāya dukkhāya savattantī ti. atha tumhe kālāmā pajaheyyāthā ti iti ya ta vutta idam eta paicca vutta, A I 190.

[10] etha tumhe kālāmā mā anussavena, mā paramparāya, mā itikirāya, mā piakasampadānena, mā takkahetu, mā nayahetu, mā ākāraparivitakkena, mā diṭṭhinijjhānakkhantiyā, mā bhabbarūpatāya, mā samao no garū ti. yadā tumhe kālāmā attanā va jāneyyātha, ime dhammā kusalā, ime dhammā anavajjā, ime dhammā viññuppasatthā, ime dhammā samattā samādinnā hitāya sukhāya savattantī ti. atha tumhe kālāmā upasampajja vihareyyātha, A I 190.

[11] iti kho kālāmā ya ta avocumha: etha tumhe kālāmā mā anussavena, mā paramparāya, mā itikirāya, mā piakasampadānena, mā takkahetu, mā nayahetu, mā ākāraparivitakkena, mā diṭṭhinijjhānakkhantiyā, mā bhabbarūpatāya, mā samao no garū ti. yadā tumhe kālāmā attanā va jāneyyātha: ime dhammā kusalā, ime dhammā anavajjā, ime dhammā viññūppasatthā, ime dhammā samattā samādinnā hitāya sukhāya savattantī ti. atha tumhe kālāmā upasampajja vihareyyāthā ti iti ya ta vutta idam eta paicca vutta, A I 191-92; compare to S IV 138-9.

[12] In the Devadaha-sutta (M II 214-228) at M II 218 it is also stated that the five means of knowledge may turn out in two different ways, they may have two different outcomes. The Buddha cannot find any legitimate defence of the Jain position based upon the five.

[13] api ca bhāradvāja, susaddahita yeva hoti, tañ ca hoti ritta tuccha musā, no cepi susaddahita hoti, bhūta taccha anaññathā. api ca bhāradvāja, surucita yeva hoti. tañ ca hoti ritta tuccha musā, no cepi surucita hoti, bhūta taccha anaññathā. api ca bhāradvāja, svānussuta yeva hoti. tañ ca hoti ritta tuccha musā, no cepi svānussuta hoti, bhūta taccha anaññathā. api ca bhāradvāja suparivitakkita yeva hoti. tañ ca hoti ritta tuccha musā, no cepi suparivitakkita hoti. api ca bhāradvāja sunijjhāyita yeva hoti tañ ca hoti ritta tuccha musā, no cepi sunijjhāyita hoti, bhūta taccha anaññathā, M II 170-71.

[14] eva me diṭṭhi-nijjhānakhantī iti vada saccam anurakkhati, M II 171. ‘[If] a person gains an acceptance of a view as a result of reflection, [or reaches a conclusion based upon any of the other four factors] he preserves truth when he says : ‘My acceptance of a view as a result of reflection is thus’; but he does not come to the definite conclusion : ‘only this is true, anything else is wrong” (diṭṭhinijjhānakhanti ce pi […] purisassa hoti, eva me diṭṭhinjjhānakhantī ti iti vada saccam anurakkhati, na tveva tāva ekasena niṭṭha gacchati : idam eva sacca, mogham aññanti, M II 171).

[15] ajāna vā vadeyya jānāmī ti, apassa vā vadeyya passāmī ti, M II 171.

[16] para vā tadatthāya samādapeyya ya paresa assa dīgharatta ahitāya dukkhāyā ti, M II 172-3.

[17] dhamma deseti, gambhīro so dhammo duddaso duranubodho santo paṇīto atakkāvacaro nipuo paṇḍitavedanīyo, M II 172-3.

[18] na so dhammo sudesiyo luddhenā ti, M II 172; na so dhammo sudesiyo duṭṭhenā ti, M II 172; na so dhammo sudesiyo mūḷhenā ti, M II 173.

[19] Bhikkhu Bodhi, referring to the commentary, interprets this phrase as the investigation of things according to anicca, dukkha and anattā (The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p. 1300, note 889).

[20] kāyena ceva paramasacca sacchikaroti. paññāya ca na ativijjha passati, M II 174.

[21] Stream-attainment is realised (Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p. 1301, note 892).

[22] dhammāna āsevanā bhāvanā bahulīkammā saccānupatti hoti, M II 174. Arahantship realised.

5 thoughts on “U Nu, Protestant Buddhism and the Kālama-sutta

  1. I think Buddha just said you should not be misled. So all ten methods which of course, can possibly delude the user, can be used with conscience whenever relevant. In our country, monks often proclaimed that Buddha undermined all mundane thinking techniques and emphasized to rely on empirical reflections.

    But we see No.8 is exactly the empirical reflection. Yes, what we empirically reflect as ‘I’ can never be actually experienced. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” is an empirical reflection but the one who thinks as ‘I’ and the one who comes as an ‘I’ being can never be found. Empirical illusion or logical contradiction as Kant said. The Pali Cannon criticized that such self-experiential empirical assertions as ‘I’ are mere self-conceit and self-delusion.

    Seeing the conclusion, Buddha offered us authentic answers and I think his answers are sufficient. “These things are unwholesome, these things are blameworthy, these things are censured by the wise; these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to loss and sorrow—then reject them”.

    By unwholesome, Buddha meant formal rules (Lokapala – shame and guilt from doing misdeeds) to guide man’s action. To cheat or steal, to torture or betray confidence, is always held to be bad irrespective of whether or not a particular instance benefits from such misdeed.

    By blameworthy, Buddha meant he would like us to have an open transparent attitude to welcome criticism from the wise, perhaps also by the common. For example, after the Lord’s death, monks gathered to determine which minor Vinaya rules were to be held no longer valid, for Buddha had said the small ones can be adjusted or removed from Vinaya depending on circumstances. Ven Kassapa advised the Sangha “OK, let’s decide this matter later. It is not good that our Teacher just passed away and his disciples were removing his rules. People will criticize what kind of monks Gautama’s disciples are”.

    By conduce to loss and sorrow, Buddha meant whether your unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) regresses more or infinitely that we shall observe introspectively rather than deluding in manifests of sorrow or happiness. The third is pretty arcane in its meaning. For example, many of our Burmese monks will think it is hilarious to hold a parade to condemn Muslims. That hilarity is a superficial apparent manifest, and somebody can observe inwards infinite transgression of unsatisfactoriness in his deluded happiness, that Buddha had already instructed him to avoid this caught red-handed “real” sorrow at any cost.

  2. Pingback: Ethnocentric Buddhism | Dr Paul Fuller: Buddhist Studies

  3. Pingback: The ‘Buddhist Flag’? Blasphemy and disrespect to Buddhism | Dr Paul Fuller: Buddhist Studies

  4. Pingback: Ethnocentric Buddhism: A new theme in Burmese Buddhism | Dr Paul Fuller: Buddhist Studies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s