The Kernel of Free Inquiry

with commentary.

It is said that Siddhartha Gautama, while with the Kalama people, was asked how to discern Truth. His words are reported as follows:

"It is essential to doubt, to question all things deeply, to inquire, examine, inspect and experiment.”

“Do not rely on what another says, be they a friend, a monk, a respected teacher or even a sage.”

“Do not rely on what tradition implies, mainstream culture dictates or what scripture may state.”

“Do not rely on comforting beliefs born of favorable ideas, traditional views, logical reflection, careful analysis or deep pondering.”

“Only when you know directly - having put them to the practical test of free and active inquiry, of living, dynamic embodiment and experience - 'these things are destructive; when enacted they lead to harm', then abandon them. And - 'these things are liberating; when enacted they lead to emancipation', then abide in them.

“Come to know directly - through the crucible of your own individual life - the truth that certain actions, thoughts and feelings lead to suffering - your own and that of other beings - then your vision will become clear.“

“Awakened Beings, with purified minds and harmonious of thought, word and deed, are those through whom boundless, panoramic dynamic peace is manifest in every event, in every moment and in every place.”

“Awakened Beings are complete, in need of no hereafter, and their Awakening precipitates the Awakening of sentient beings all around them.”


The above distillation conveys the kernel, the seed, the veritable germ of life of the Kalama Sutra and forms the basis for our means of inquiring into the nature of reality itself. Here, laid out before us, is the foundation of the door of free inquiry, dependent on no authority, requiring no power-over dynamics or dominant relationship of any kind. These forceful words of the Buddha bring into question the very position of authority. In short, the Buddhist method of free inquiry is anarchistic; for authority and rule by structures such as; “ideology,” “mainstream culture” and “traditional values” are rejected.

We live in a materialistic world. It’s true we do, all of us at multiple levels, if we are in the car showroom looking to buy a car or a poor beggar monk eyeballing his friend’s mala beads. It goes beyond just material goods; it extends into our perception of spirituality in that materialism permeates the spiritual realms in the form of “spiritual materialism.” There are all sorts of “materialisms” and universally they involve some aspect of oppressive thought; some nuance of “power-over” “dominance” dynamics. The erroneous idea that mankind is predestined to dominate all species on the planet originates early on in some traditions. Such thinking has manifest into a techno-economic paradigm that has brought us to the brink of ecological collapse. Perhaps there is the possibility of approaching living in the real world from a slightly different perspective, that of recognizing our interrelatedness with our fellow beings, our community, our environment, this is “free inquiry” level examination. Perhaps materialism and its dominance driven engine have had their run and are in decline.

I cannot answer these questions with authority, most assuredly! It’s up to you to make sense, or not, out of it. Sometimes all we can do is keep awake and avoid falling into the value judgment trap around worrying over how our behavior might be this or that… sometimes a swift kick in the pants or an aggressive scowl is Bodhisattva activity. Holding such an attitude levels the playing field and enables one to relate in terms that can possibly be understood in an alternative value system. Sometimes being “nice” is not the way to proceed in relating to an oppressor; sometimes confrontation is unavoidable.

James Baldwin proposes that, “Confrontation doesn't always bring a solution to the problem, but until you confront the problem, there will be no solution.” Fredrick Douglass amplifies: “Power concedes nothing without demand.” Furthermore, Paulo Freire challenges us with, “Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral." So there can be no simple answer from any authority, no great wisdom teaching to impart at all. We are left with nothing to do except stand on our own two feet and figure it out for ourselves.