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.