Thoughts on Truth?


First: quotes from Joseph Goldstein One Dharma

“Four basic principles, or understandings lie at the heart of One Dharma:  first, that philosophical concepts are only descriptions of experience, and not the experience itself; second, that mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom weave together as essential strands of a nonsectarian path of practice; third, that what is called in Buddhism “the two truths” – the relative and ultimate perspective of reality – together provide a framework for holding divergent points of view; and, last, that the mind of nongrasping is the essential unifying experience of freedom.” Goldstein One Dharmaat page 5.  

“As a way of understanding these two truths, think for a moment of being in a movie theatre, completely engrossed in the story on the screen.  We may feel happy or sad, excited or terrified, all depending on the movie being shown.  Now imagine looking up at the beam of light that is passing through the film creates all these images on the screen. As we sit in the darkened theatre and see that light above us, we realize that there is nothing really happening on the screen at all, except for a play of light and color.  And yet, when we are absorbed in the story it feels very real.  On the relative level, we live and act and relate as individuals, one with another, with all our personal stories and histories. On the ultimate level, there’s no “self”, no “I”, no one there at all.  It’s all a play of momentary, changing elements.  Moreover, what happens even to our perception of light when there’s no screen, no dust particles in the air, no place for it to land? “

“One of the most illuminating stories illustrating the relative and ultimate is told about the death of His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa …  In the last days of his illness, surrounded by his students and disciples who were saddened and concerned about the imminent death of their great teacher, he turned to them and said, “Don’t worry, nothing happens.”

“This is quite an amazing understanding:  on one level the body is sick and dying, and on another, nothing happens.  The union of these two truths, the relative and the ultimate, is the great mystery of our lives.”   Goldstein.” One Dharmaat page 105-106

Over the years I have often listened to teachers answer difficult questions about ‘no self’ (and emptiness) with the ‘two truths’ explanation.   It always rankled.  While I was prepared to accept that there were some things I didn’t understand, I found it unsatisfying.  I remember when I first started work for External Affairs being often told that I didn’t understand because I was ‘I had not been there or done that’.  I felt that if someone couldn’t offer a better answer than ‘wait and you will someday see’, then they likely didn’t really understand themselves.    

In the example of the two truths offered by Goldstein as the experience of watching a movie, I understood that the issue was one of perception (a mental factor arising after contact and feeling).   This suggested to me that ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ lay beyond ‘normal’ perception, but the idea could also be that it was just experience, not some ‘ultimate reality’.  He also had noted as the first principle of One Dharma that “philosophical concepts are only descriptions of experience, and not the experience itself.”

Still there is this word ‘truth’.  Truth is as Stephen Batchelor has pointed out an important concept in western philosophy. And I had spent years trying to understand the great philosophers.  By using this word, truth, especially with respect to the explanation of understanding the world, Buddhism seemed to enter the world of metaphysics – ontology, epistemology and the rest – a concern with what is real and how do we know what we know?  

In the story of His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa’s death, Goldstein seemed at first reading to take the ‘two truths’ into what Arthur J. Lovejoy labeled in The Great Chain of Beingat page 11 “metaphysical pathos”.  This Lovejoy wrote was exemplified 

“… in any description of the nature or things, in any characterization of the world to which one belongs, in terms which, like the words of a poem, awaken through their associations, and a sort of empathy which they engender, a congenial mood or tone of feeling on the part of the philosopher or his readers … Now of metaphysical pathos, there are a good many kinds; and people differ in their degree of susceptibility to any one kind.  There is, in the first place, the pathos of sheer obscurity, the loveliness of the incomprehensible …  The reader doesn’t know exactly what they mean, but they have all the more on that account an air of sublimity; an agreeable feeling of awe and exaltation comes over him as he contemplates thoughts of so immeasurable profundity … Akin to this is the pathos of the esoteric.  How exciting and how welcome in the sense of initiation into hidden mysteries!  And how effectively certain philosophers – notably Schelling and Hegel …- satisfied the human craving for this experience, by representing the central insight of their philosophy as a thing to be reached, not through a consecutive progress of thought guided by the ordinary logic available to every man, but through a sudden leap whereby one rises to a plane of insight wholly different in its principles from the level of mere understanding.”  (at page 12)

Lovejoy describes as a variant of metaphysical pathos, the ‘eternalistic pathos’ defined as the “aesthetic pleasure which the bare abstract idea of immutability give us…”  

The great mystery of life is death.  When life ends, what happens is called death, but nothing besides this label is truly understood.  Traditionally, death and life after death was the reserve of religion – of gods and, for Christians, God.  His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa died, as did Jesus, passing beyond life into this great silence leaving behind a body and hope, it seems for believers, for eternal life. 

In his opening Dharma talk on the Satipatthana sutta, Goldstein commented that as a young man, before encountering Buddhism, he had studied philosophy.  He said that it was only when he began to study Buddhism that he realized that part of his disquiet with western philosophy was that it offered little by way of practical insights into life.  In his brief comment, he didn’t mention what kind of philosophy he studied or how deeply he looked into it, but point was that Buddhism was taught as a practice.  In this sense, until we stumble onto things like the “two truths’, most western philosophy and Buddhism seem quite different.  Buddhism as it is taught is more like psychology or, even, cognitive behaviour therapy.    Western philosophy may be misguided (or wrong), but it has always been about trying to understand this life.  The focus of Western philosophy was on ‘truth’ and ‘reality’.  Christian faith was deeply challenged by the horrendous cruelty of the religious wars and many thoughtful men (and women although there is little record of their thoughts) struggled to find refuge – a foundation for their lives other than God.   As the Enlightenment unfolded, belief in God faded.  Many scholars were likely surprised that they no longer believed in God, in a society in which such beliefs were ‘natural’ and ‘true’.   Scholars worried about a notion of truth, which required belief.   How could one know God?  And if God was unknowable, how was knowledge of anything possible?  It is not surprising that David Hume with his claim that there was no rational basis for morality woke Emmanuel Kant from his dogmatic slumbers.   And the repercussions of such thinking continue today – for example in ideas about the Rule of Law or the theory of rights.  

The theory of “two truths” echo Kant’s argument that reality is constituted by phenomena, the appearance of things, which constitute our experience, and noumena, things, which are the things in themselves and lie beyond our ability to experience directly.  Thinking of this I return to Lovejoy who writes:

“Now a formulated doctrine is sometimes a relatively inert thing.  The conclusions reached by a process of thought is also not infrequently the conclusion of the process of thought.  The more significant factor in the matter may be, not the dogma which certain persons proclaim – be that single or manifold in is meaning – but the motives or reasons which have led them to it.  And motives and reasons partly identical may contribute to the production of diverse conclusions, and the same substantive conclusions may, at different periods or in different minds, be generated by entirely distinct logical or other motives.”

The idea that reality is comprised of phenomena, which can be experienced, and nouema, which cannot be, is similar to the idea that truth is conventional, reflecting experience, and ultimate, being reality.   The motives or reasons for proposing such ideas are different.  Kant was interested in providing a description, and to a certain extent a defense, of human ability to understand, even know, through reason, if not God, then reality. Goldstein was offering a summary of what he had had been told and, I imagine, found useful about Buddhist dogma. He may have felt no need, and perhaps no interest, to examining the idea of two truths more critically.   However, I wonder if he had been aware of the intellectual history of ‘truth’, if he would have offered a better explanation of the doctrine in a book intended for western readers.  Perhaps the doctrine, as suggested by the cinema example, is meant to provide students with an explanation of experience, rather than of ultimate reality – intended as a pedagogic device rather than an ontological statement.

The doctrine, as a basic tenant of Buddhism, seems to impose a burden of on followers to believe, although what one is being asked to accept as a matter of faith is unclear.  On the one hand, one might be accepting the truth of the doctrine of ‘no self’ or ‘emptiness’?  On the other, one may be accepting as truth any statements of the Enlightened? And I am uncertain as to why it is necessary as part of one’s practice to accept anything.  It may be more useful simply to be mindful.  Faith is necessary, but belief that there is some “ultimate truth” available to the Enlightened seems as Lovejoy might describe it as an “eternalistic pathos”

Second, quotes from Stephen Batchelor After Buddhism

“The Dharma may have started out as a twofold ground and a fourfold task, but Buddhism ended up with two truths and four noble truths.  You will not find any reference in authoritative sources on Buddhism to either a “twofold ground” or a “fourfold task”.  These are examples of ideas that either failed to take off or were forgotten, suppressed, marginalized or lost.  Sometime in the centuries after Gotama’s death, Buddhism seems to have taken a metaphysical turn.  By adopting a language of truth, Buddhists move from an engaged agency with the world to the theorizing stance of a detached subject contemplating epistemic objects. Rather than consider injunctions to guide their ethical actions, they adopted the truth of propositions to support their beliefs. They shifted, seemingly en masse with little if any resistance from prescription to description, from pragmatism to ontology, from scepticism to dogmatism.”  Batchelor, After Buddhismat page 116.

“… A statement is “true” because it corresponds with the “truth”, and the person who makes such utterances is said to be “truthful”. “

“Such a correspondence theory of truth came to be taken for granted in Buddhist philosophical thought, much as it has been in most Western philosophy. …  One of the dangers … in such a view is that it easily gets elevated into a basis for certainties about what constitutes “the Truth”. It becomes… “the shorthand for something like ‘a natural terminus to inquiry, a way things really are, and that understanding what that way is will tell us what to do with ourselves.” … Truth thus assumes qualities of ultimacy and finality, which turn it into a rhetorical weapon in the armory of religious, political, and scientific fundamentalists alike.” (at page 118)

“As the concept of truth metamorphosed from a virtue into a synonym for reality, it exerted a deep and lasting influence on how Buddhism came to understand the nature and purpose of their practice.” (at page 120)

““Craving is the origin of suffering’ is a metaphysical dogma no different in kind to “God created heaven and earth.”  It claims to state a fundamental truth about the source of all experience, a truth that is impossible to verify or to falsify.  As Buddhism became an Indian religion, this dogma became one of its fundamental tenents. “

“… the doctrine of two truth:  ultimate truth (paramattha sacca; Sanskrit:  paramartha satya) and conventional truth (sammuti sacca; Sanskrit: samvrti satya).  The germ of this idea may have originated in the Buddha’s vision of twofold ground, that is, conditioned arising and nirvana.  … Simply stated, the two truth doctrine is a way of distinguishing between the conventional truths of everyday life that we need in order to function as social and moral agents and the ultimate truth.  By gaining direct non conceptual insight of the latter we achieve the liberating knowledge that frees us from suffering and rebirth.  There are different Buddhists interpretations as to what constitutes the higher or ultimate truth, but for the Madhyamaka school … the term refers exclusively to the emptiness of inherent existence. Such emptiness is constantly and irreducibly true; everything in one’s experience is at best only conventionally true.” (at page 130)

“… “Ultimate truth” becomes a signifier of what really is, whereas “conventional truth” signifies merely what people agree upon as true and useful.” (at page 131)

“… Part of the appeal of the two truths theory is that it seems to make life so much more straightforward and clear-cut.  The “enlightened” can now be understood as those who have gained a direct understanding of ultimate truth, whereas the “unenlightened” are those who remained mired in the ambiguous truths of custom and convention. When phrased in this way, the achievement of enlightenment become the private affair of a person who has gained a privileged mystical cognition of the Truth with a capital T.”

I spent many years studying after graduating from high school.  Fifteen years – a BA (Political Science), an LLB (or JD), LLM, and then a PhD.   I also worked between each degree and so was in my late 40’s when I received my PhD. I was introduced to Buddhism in my 20’s but did not begin to practice until my early 40’s.  When I read the credentials of Buddhist teachers such as Joseph Goldstein and Stephen Batchelor, the comparing mind arose.  And I envied their years as Buddhist monks. What did I gain through my years of study?  – certainly not enlightenment, but a sense that I understood the magic and mystery of this life and this understanding, I feel, enhances rather than detracts from my practice. 

Not infrequently “Buddhist” teachers would suggest that it was necessary to think less, to move from the head to the body, and so on.  For me, so often lost in my head, this was helpful in developing mindfulness and concentration.  I constantly work on it.   At the same time, I feel that the mind, the intellect, is at the heart of the process. To breath and to know that one is breathing – to train the mind and, maybe to understand the mind, is the point. Non-reactivity is a process of the mind. Thinking is an amazing, and, at times, joyous, quality of life.  However, this does not mean that there is a mind and body split.  For me, we honour the mind, even as we learn how to think critically.  As Batchelor notes “The quality of your ‘doubt’ – of the questions you ask – is directly correlated to the quality of your insight” (at page 10).  

I rebel against the anti intellectualism implicit in the dogma of the two truths. Why two truths?  Why not none or many?  The disregard for Western philosophy also bothers me.  If Buddhism is to move to the ‘west’, it will have to engage with Western thought, and yes, western concepts of truth.  For such ideas about ‘truth’, the impossibility or the immutability of truth, is part of this world.

And then, truth

The Buddhist doctrine of “two truths” may be lost in translation.  In English – “truth” is reality.  It is possible, if not likely, that it is not intended that this “truth” is not what was intended in the original Pali (or whatever other language spoken by the Buddha).  In the critique of modern philosophy, with pragmatism and then the ‘post modern’, the coupling of truth and reality has, it seems, been loosened. In science, with Kuhn and Popper, even scientific facts were gradually recognized as ‘true’ because they were found true in the particular context or paradigm in which they were true.  As Batchelor noted, quoting Gianni Vatimo, “We don’t reach agreement when we have discovered the truth, we say we have discovered the truth when we reach agreement.” The problem is, again as Batchelor notes, is the “so embedded is this usage of “truth” in our language that we generally fail to remark upon it.” (all at page 119).

Goldstein’s explanation of conventional truth suggests that while using the word “truth”, he is not intending for the word to be an accurate representation of the reality but rather an example of ‘experience’ and how easily experience may be misapprehended.  The movie is experienced as real until it is examined and seen as simply the play of light on a screen.  His discussion of the death of His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa as an example of the union of conventional and ultimate truths is more difficult to interpret. How are two truths ‘united’?   If an understanding of the play of light of the screen is ‘ultimate truth’ in the sense that it is reality and the experience of the movie as ‘real’ is conventional, where does unity lie?  Can there a union between the conventional truth that the reality is the movie and the ultimate truth that it is not? Perhaps what is meant by ‘ultimate truth’ is it is the experience of the world as related by those who have “done what is needed to be done”.  Their understanding of the world and their ability to describe and explain this understanding – to teach others how to follow the path – is ‘ultimate reality’. This suggests that in this sense of the word, there are not only two truths, but many.  They may all be ‘true’ in the sense that they represent some aspect of reality or reality itself, which in turn suggests that some may be more real that others.  

What is important is to accept that the elephant has many parts – and it is important not to cling any understanding as ‘this is’ or ‘this is not’.   However, it is a matter of right view, not no view. The elephant does exist.  There is gravity and things fall down.   I feel that the radical idea of the Buddha was not that there was no truth or two truths or many truths, but that in order to live without suffering we needed to learn, through practice, to experience the world for ourselves without preconception (need the name of sutta here).  

So the “Truth” of emptiness / no self

Watching the cat, I cannot help but think, she knows that she exists.  From the way she eats the cat treats, it seem clear that she find the treats pleasant.  When she sees the neighbour’s cat, she knows that this cat exists and, as she races out to run her off, it seems clear that she finds this cat unpleasant.  At the same time, I suspect that this cat does not know that she is Charlie (short for Charlotte).  Nor does she care that the other cat is Esme, that she is ‘owned’ by Sammy and that Esme lives down the street.  

While I have a ways to go, I am beginning to understand ‘no self’ and ‘emptiness’.  It is not simply an intellectual exercise – although I have thought a lot about it.  For ‘my’ whole life, I have accepted that “I” existed.  And as long as I can remember, I have been ‘me’. Over the years, my body and my thoughts have changed – everything has changed except, the thought that “I am still here”.  I would constantly find myself asking myself when meditating ‘who is watching’?  And then – it came to me that the watcher was ‘me’ but this ‘me’ was simply a thought.  It is no more than a pulse of energy in my head – gone as quickly as it comes.  I had been looking for something only to realize that it didn’t exist.  The thought arose from somewhere deep in myself that this “I” was nothing but in that thought, there was the realization that this “I” was everything.  I could only laugh.  It seemed so true – and liberating.  

True. But maybe not…  this “I” keeps looking and asking questions.  

One thought on “Thoughts on Truth?”

  1. First, thank you for sharing. We’re all on a journey, but I’ve discovered that sometimes, the little ones already have it, yet we can be educated out of our understanding.
    I used to think truth is just what is. Whatever is…is, I thought. But even as I had repeated that, it didn’t quite sit right with me. You see, there was thought and ideas, then there is reality. I’m here. I exist. I can “see” my thoughts, be aware of myself, consider others’ views, wonder, and more. For some reason, this has not made “sense” to me. Why, I wondered, am I here? Why all of this?
    Over time, through considering and research, I realized that everything we see (and don’t see) did not exist at one time. Time was a key, but also cause and effect. There had to be a beginning, a point of origin, and that required physical existence to come from a starting point. Why, someone asked, a beginning? Well, to have befores and afters, there has to be the first before to have afters. Also, to have cause and effects, there has to be an original cause of all the effects. And my own awareness, soul if you like, tells me something else is going on. I didn’t put myself here. How did I come to be? How did my siblings come to be? My parents? Everyone else?
    Yes, I have read the bible. Yes, I have read about other religions, even much of texts. I remember, one minister saying, when I was dealing with doubts, that doubt is a person. So, I thought about this. That was all he said. After some years, I remembered a passage in the bible in which Jesus Christ said I am the truth, the way, and the life. I get it. Truth is not just what is, though it is. As there must be an origin to everything, that origin begins with He Who created everything (Perhaps One who lives outside time and space, for time and space are created things.). And that One is the truth. Meaning, truth is Him if you will. Our understanding, our ability to live and realize is because He made us and gave us life. It’s His life inside us that allows us to breathe and understand. But we were also created, not having always existed, so we have choices. To believe or not, to do what our consciences tells us, or reveals, or live in our imaginations and make up our own beliefs. But if we’re choosing to move away from understanding, who are we listening to: doubt or truth? And why? And who is the author of doubt?

    Liked by 1 person

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