The Guy in the Woods

I suspect that hundreds of years from now, as people look back at the transmission of Buddhism to the West, they’ll see that this passage from the Kalama Sutta had more influence on the shape of that transmission than did any other text:

“Any teaching [said the Buddha] should not be accepted as true for the following ten reasons: hearsay, tradition, rumor, accepted scriptures, surmise, axiom, logical reasoning, a feeling of affinity for the matter being pondered, the ability or attractiveness of the person offering the teaching, the fact that the teaching is offered by “my” teacher. Rather, the teaching should be accepted as true when one knows by direct experience that such is the case.” – Buddha

I see this on coffee cups, on t-shirts, on posters…. About once a month, one of my friends on Facebook discovers it for the first time and shares it. I remember seeing it (or some version of it) for the first time on a coaster about 15 years ago. My first response was to doubt that it was authentic–it was too perfect, too much what I wanted to hear, what I wanted Buddhism to be.

There are abbreviated versions that I see more often than the original, along these lines: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense.” This is a very different idea. The original says we need to verify through direct experience; the popular version says that we can stand back from the practice, at a distance, and use reason to determine its authenticity. One of the things I have always loved about Buddhism is that it stands up very, very well to rational analysis. And there are some beautiful, ancient texts that are as clear and reasoned in their approach as any scientific paper today. It’s not at all non-rational–if it were, it wouldn’t present itself in such mathematical terms. But at its core, even though it works on that level, it’s not really rational, either. It’s trans-rational. That reasoned framework is scaffolding for a kind of seeing that doesn’t lend itself to easy analysis. That’s the realm of experience.

In the last post, I mentioned the idea of sticking to fundamental principles. How do we determine what those are? How do we not lose track of what is at the center? I think much of it comes down to this idea of experiential verification. For years, when I’ve come across a teaching that is particularly difficult–either difficult to understand, or difficult to swallow–I’ve run it through my “guy in the woods” test. It’s a silly game, and so hypothetical, perhaps, as to be contrary to everything the Buddha was trying to say in the quotation above. But here it is:

There’s a guy who lives in the woods, and has always lived in the woods. (This could be a gal in the woods, of course. But in order to run the test, I kind of have to play the character myself in my mind, so for me, it’s a guy.) He has no exposure to Buddhist teachings or teachers, or to religious/philosophical instruction of any kind. He has only his experiences and observations. Of all the myriad teachings that fall under the wide umbrella of “Buddhism,” which ones might this guy have a reasonable chance of discovering on his own? We can acknowledge from the start that regardless of circumstance, he probably wouldn’t find much–most people don’t, or else the Buddha would have had a lot more peers. We can also grant that the Buddha himself had teachers and access to religious instruction; the Buddha never was the guy in the woods. But for me, if the truth is the truth, it’s critical that it be discoverable. The truth of this life is always, ever-present–otherwise, by definition, it’s something else. So this sensitive, observant, inquisitive guy in the woods always has a chance. What might he find?

Let’s look at the basic basics, the Four Seals:

  1. All things are impermanent. This one is easy. It’s one of the hardest teachings to drive home, but rarely because we don’t believe it’s true–it’s just a truth that’s hard to keep in mind in all of its ramifications. The guy in the woods could definitely find this one.
  2. All experience is characterized by dissatisfaction. Again, yes. This can be hard to see in oneself–it helps to be able to spend time with others and see that even when things are at their best, we use that moment as a new standard by which to devalue other times that don’t quite measure up. We find a way to be dissatisfied. This is definitely possible.
  3. All phenomena lack inherent existence. This one is, to a great extent, a different way of expressing #1, so I think he might discover it. We can see that a tree comes from something, that it goes to something else, that it has no permanent, unchanging tree-ness. Out in the woods, there are a million examples in every direction.
  4. Enlightenment is beyond concepts. This one might be tougher. A sensitive person will recognize, probably early in life, that there are experiences, aspects of each moment, that are beyond conceptualization, that escape language or even our mental ability to put them into a clean framework. A moment of awe could point to this. So could love. But the only real road to this one is enlightenment itself–definitely not out of reach for our guy, but a little harder to stumble onto than the above.

So by this test, the Four Seals are, unsurprisingly, central. They are self-revealing, self-authenticating. (Sometimes this list is just the first three, and in running this test, maybe we can start to understand why.) It’s similar for the Four Noble Truths: the first two (1. all experience is characterized by dissatisfaction; 2. dissatisfaction is caused by desire) are readily available to someone who observes his/her own reactions and processes; and the third (the way out of dissatisfaction is to go beyond desire) is just simple math, a kind of filler. But the fourth, the idea that the way to go beyond desire is by following the Noble Eightfold Path, is tricky. I won’t say it’s impossible, but it’s a little too thought out, a little too religious in its framing to be at all obvious. Personally, I would like to see what the alternate-reality Buddha comes up with as a fourth truth, if not that one. It might be great.

How about karma? Well, if we’re talking about it as the law of cause and effect, the principle that all phenomena are born of multiple factors (and then become factors themselves), then I think that’s very accessible to the guy in the woods. It’s common sense. But if we take it another step further, say, to reincarnation, then we hit a wall. How would the guy in the woods come to the idea of reincarnation? If we mean it metaphorically, as a rebirth that comes moment by moment, a poetic expression of the third seal, sure, that works, maybe. But if we imagine that it goes from body to body, based on physical death and birth, then I don’t think the guy in the woods will find that. How could he?

Reincarnation, in that literal sense, seems to be a teaching that requires a kind of blind faith, and so, based on the quotation above, it’s dangerous ground. In fact, believing in it based on the teachings around it would seem, in this context, to be irresponsible. And I think I’m not alone in that view. Those same people who look back on Buddhist history hundreds of years ago will notice that, at least in Zen circles, teachings about reincarnation somehow just didn’t survive the trip across the ocean. Other Buddhist schools in the West still hold tight to it, but it’s my impression that Zen is letting it go. Good for us.

We can do this forever. The Lotus Sutra? It’s full of great stuff, but in itself, it can’t be central–the guy in the woods would not, could not stumble upon the Lotus Sutra. That doesn’t mean it’s not important, or that some of its contents would not pass this test. But it doesn’t offer the same independent verification as something like impermanence. The middle way? Sure. The teaching of the six realms of existence? Nope, not in my imagining of the woods, anyway. Dependent arising? Yes, I think so, in some form. Nirvana? Probably not.

All of this is just a long way of saying that reality is right in front of our noses all the time. It’s in our skin. We smell reality. We sweat it out of our pores. We absolutely should pay attention to the teachings that are most central, but not because they are important teachings. We should pay attention because we should pay attention. Encountering Buddhism can be a revelation, an inspiration. But in that same encounter, in discovering these big ideas, we can also put them on a high place, a place reserved for “buddhas” who are “enlightened,” then spend our lives just trying to reclaim those truths as our own.

In Buddhism, we find a beautiful, sophisticated, generous system of teachings and practices designed over hundreds of years to help us gain access to what has always been right here, in the woods all around us. Coming to the exact same insights as the Buddha himself is not some lofty goal reserved for the elite–it’s the basic expectation of the practice. We say Buddhism was born 2500 years ago, but if we’re doing it right, it was born just now.

And now.

And now.

12 comments on “The Guy in the Woods

  1. mgindin says:

    Thank you for the great post. I wanted to address the message of the Kalama sutta itself: what I wish I saw more when it is discussed is what the original sutta actually says, which can be found here:

    In brief this brilliant sutta actually says is that one should judge a spiritual teaching by whether or not it reduces greed, hatred, and delusion in one’s direct experience and is approved of by the wise. This second factor is key: one cannot rely only on one’s own experience but must check with the wise as well. This is essential in Zen practice- in a sense the whole of koan literature, and certainly the tradition of dokusan, is based on this.
    One good question that should occur to us is: “who are the wise?”. I would argue that according to the internal logic of the sutta the wise would be those with less greed, hatred, and delusion then ourselves.

    • Koun says:


      Thank you, and thanks also for the great link. You’re absolutely right–there’s much more to be said about this. I think your definition of the wise is a good start–the hard part, it seems, is having the discernment necessary to recognize them, especially if our own wisdom is already lacking. We can fool ourselves in lots of little ways.

      Take care.


      • mgindin says:

        Sharing the link was my pleasure. I lived with the translator for three years, and tho I am not a stalwart Theravadin per say any more his brilliant teachings are a great influence on me. Thete is another sutta where the Buddha says that anyone with greater conduct, concentration, or discernment than you is a worthy teacher until you are their equal. I agree with you that discerning this can be difficult (although sometimes easy!). Thanissaro Bhikkhu teaches that Buddhist practice is, among other things, the gradual development of discernment. One discerns that someone is wiser, and experiments with learning from them on that basis, and perhaps one later discerns that one was wrong and moves on. This is the growth of discernment- not a failure but part of the path. Thank you for the conversation- Gassho, Matthew

  2. David Ashton says:

    Wonderfully said! Bows.

  3. Daily Alice says:

    It’s interesting that “born right now” is verb-indicative, where “born again” indicates making a better tomorrow, from yesterday. When you write, I imagine. When you write about a guy in the woods I imagine also what you would imagine a guy in the woods like. He is like you — but lacking some knowledge? I think of Emerson who in his “Nature” suggests a similar imagination,

    “Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy.”

    That is, there is a guy in the woods who finds enough provocation in reality to question, because curiosity is somewhat or somehow inherent to self-awareness (“guy” + “woods” reality). This represents a kind of suffering, at the same time.

    Emerson extends his previous thought, which is critical and rational, in his next sentence:

    “Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition … Let us inquire, to what end is nature?”

    Orienting this quoted to your query, I would say that “this great apparition” involves conceptual mind; would you say that The Four Noble Truths exist, if at all, as aspects of conceptual mind? Because if they are found in the woods, then nature would be conditional; at least in my thought-experiment. In any case, where Emerson goes is interesting — he recommends that we interrogate. We are not seeking outcome or truth so much as engaging in a process. With great apparitions, no less. Emerson, like the Buddha, expresses absolute certainty that answers are to be found (“we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable”), both Emerson and the Buddha stress direct experience. I find, entering with similar questions you pose, one of the answers closest to my sense of truth comes from poets, particularly Ammons, who writes,

    The reality is, though susceptible
    to versions, without denomination:
    when the fences foregather
    the reality they shut in is cast out:
    if the name nearest the name
    names least or names
    only a verge before the void takes naming in,
    how are we to find holiness,
    our engines of declaration put aside …

    Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

    In a way, a guy in the woods is in dialogue. One’s language of explication can take many forms. Yet at root both in your suggestion and in Emerson, and in Ammons, there is an encouragement to question. In all cases the answer involves that which deepens. In both compassion and surprisingly perhaps kinship.

    • Koun says:

      Daily Alice–

      Thank you–a lot to think about here. I think the guy in the woods is like me in that he has my limitations–I can’t conceive of any other way of being. But I think he’s more curious, and probably more perceptive, than my day-to-day self. There are teachings I’ve struggled with, and others that, upon hearing them, thought, “Of course! On some level, I knew that.” But perhaps I started reading this stuff fairly young, not much of it was ever my independent discovery. In an alternate universe, I don’t know how much would have been.

      I recently read an article by Issho Fujita in which he talked about those posters that reveal a 3-D design if you stare at them long enough and in the right way–he was saying that a lot of people think zazen is that same process, and that’s a mistake. I agree with him, and I think that’s the danger of giving too much value to the guy in the woods. The truths attributed to the Buddha are valuable only insofar as they were offered up as useful constructs to people like me, who have used them as supports in the practice. But there’s no actual need for the guy in the woods to find these things–they’re available, and they’re useful, but one can offer oneself up completely to the moment without all the philosophical scaffolding. As you’re suggesting, in my imagining of the guy in the woods, there’s a huge discursive element to his process. That’s not bad, but it’s also not the point.



  4. Doko says:

    This is a little bit different point of view on Kalama sutra:

  5. Raj says:

    Great discussion. Let this’guy in the woods’ change rooms and company and sharpen his insight. Let him read ‘Lotus sutra’ . Thank you.

  6. Federico says:

    Great post. I’ve always thought of writing something similar but instead of the “man in the woods” it would be something like “the man who was born after the end of the world and had to rediscover truth” =P
    Would he believe in Jesus (i don’t think so) or would he rediscover Dharma? Well if you listen to some quotes from american natives there are many similarities.
    I would like to translate it to Spanish and post it in my facebook. Does that bother you?

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