The Truth is Merely As It Is

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about right speech, and one interesting point that came up from that was that the Buddha didn’t consider something being the truth as solely a good enough reason to express it; under some circumstances where it would cause harm it seems that a truth shouldn’t be spoken at all. This is an interesting aspect of his teachings to me, because it goes against  a commonly held notion that the truth is a virtue that transcends any consideration of the impact that it will have. The truth though, rather than being pure, is often pretty damaging – as a quote attributed to Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin says, “People often claim to hunger for truth, but seldom like the taste when it’s served up.” But as far as the Buddha was concerned this had to be borne in mind in our deliberations as to whether a truth was to be uttered or not.

Another important element to add to our deliberations was whether it was the correct time to tell the truth. This idea of time and truth set me thinking about the relationship between these two things, and made me wonder just how that can impact on what truth is. It also led me to a wider consideration into how much truth deserves its cherished and impeccable status – after all the Buddha wasn’t that interested in the truth, he was only ever unequivocal about the fact that we shouldn’t ever lie.

A conversation I had with my partner one day gave me a relevant insight into this investigation. As I was talking and listening, I had a point in mind that I wanted to make, but as the conversation progressed I became aware of remembering that I wanted to say something but wasn’t  able to remember what it was. This revealed to me a connection between the point in the conversation that I had something to say and the moment in time that it arose in. The thing I wanted to say, I saw, wasn’t a fixed entity; it was a response to a set of conditions that arose in one moment in time. Once those conditions had passed then the thing I wanted to say went with them, it was simply gone.

Normally I might say that I had ‘forgotten’, but it was made clear to me on this occasion that it wasn’t the case that ‘I’ held a set of opinions that were like discrete objects that existed in a stable form across time and could be retrieved in the same way over and over again, like opening a document on a computer. The things I had to say were instead the outcome of the meeting of different sets of conditions, so the ‘truth’ that I might express in any moment absolutely depended on the conditions that contributed to its arising.

Perhaps this is part of the reason that the Buddha included a consideration of timeliness in deciding if a truth should be told because the truth itself isn’t static, and it doesn’t exist in isolation to other factors. It’s easy to see occasions where if we wait too long after an event that the truth will have moved on. Perhaps it is also the case that if we act too quickly then we won’t have the full picture either. Or maybe there simply is no absolute ‘truth’, there are only moments in time that depend on conditions that arise and cease.

The Canki Sutta (MN 95) gives us a way to look at how to inhabit a position where we can hold to our own point but not exclude the possibility of other truths existing, and perhaps this can tell us something wider about the truth in general. In the Canki Sutta, the Buddha is giving a young Brahmin a lesson in understanding the truth. He points out that rather than our views coming from an absolute truth, instead when we examine the things that we hold to be true we will often find that they are being driven by the underlying factors of faith, preference, oral tradition, reasoned contemplation, or the acceptance of a view after consideration. But these five factors are not reliable indicators of truth, and the Buddha points out that:

“Even though you have full faith in something, it may be void, hollow, and false. And even if you don’t have full faith in something, it may be true and real, not otherwise. Even though you have a strong preference for something … something may be accurately transmitted … something may be well contemplated … something may be well considered, it may be void, hollow, and false. And even if something is not well considered, it may be true and real, not otherwise. For a sensible person who is preserving truth this is not sufficient to come to the definite conclusion: ‘This is the only truth, other ideas are silly.’” [1]

The dangers of fixed views are often explored in Buddhist practice, and this sutta shows us why our fixed views may often not be build on a sound foundation. To found our sense of something being true on our belief in our own feelings about it doesn’t guarantee us that we have tapped into the truth. In fact it shows how dependent on the workings of our own mind and preferences our personal sense of truth is.

Ajahn Chah once told of a Zen story that could perhaps be a good illustration of what happens when you don’t understand where your sense of something being true has come from:

“One day there was an assembly of monks gathered for a meeting. Outside the hall a flag was blowing in the wind. There arose a dispute between two monks as to how the flag was actually blowing in the wind. One of the monks claimed that it was because of the wind while the other argued that it was because of the flag. Thus they quarrelled because of their narrow views and couldn’t come to any kind of agreement. They would have argued like this until the day they died. However, their Teacher intervened and said, “Neither of you is right. The correct understanding is that there is no flag and there is no wind.” [2]

What stands out for me in this story is that the teacher says ‘the correct understanding is’ – he doesn’t say ‘the truth is’. The way that the Buddha continued the Canki Sutta suggests that our understanding of where our sense of truth comes from is crucial in maintaining the integrity of the truth:

“If a person has faith, they preserve truth by saying, ‘Such is my faith.’ But they don’t yet come to the definite conclusion: ‘This is the only truth, other ideas are silly.’ If a person has a preference … or has received an oral transmission … or has a reasoned reflection about something … or has accepted a view after contemplation, they preserve truth by saying, ‘Such is the view I have accepted after contemplation.’ But they don’t yet come to the definite conclusion: ‘This is the only truth, other ideas are silly.’ [1]

When we don’t understand truth as something that is based on our views, preferences, tradition etc. then you could say we are not having the correct understanding. The monks quarrelling about the flag and the wind could have realised that the perspectives they were arguing from were based on something other than the truth, then their viewpoints wouldn’t have mattered so much, and they would have been less likely to perpetuate the argument.

The teacher in their story decided to cut to the chase and point out that talking about the flag and the wind was merely talking in conceptual terms – outside of the human mind the concepts of ‘wind’ and ‘flags’ simply don’t exist. So if we are looking for truth, we also need to understand what level of truth we are looking for, because there isn’t just ‘truth’, there are contexts and conditions we need to take into account too. Ajahn Chah was asked if  defilements such as greed or anger merely illusory or are they real and his reply was that they are both, it really just depends on what level of truth you are looking at it from:

“The defilements we call lust or greed, or anger or delusion, these are just outward names, appearances. Just as we call a bowl large, small, pretty, or whatever. This is not reality. It is the concept we create from craving. If we want a big bowl, we call this one small. Craving causes us to discriminate. The truth, though, is merely what is. Look at it this way. Are you a man? You can say “yes.” This is the appearance of things. But really you are only a combination of elements or a group of changing aggregates. If the mind is free, it does not discriminate. No big and small, no you and me. There is nothing: Anatta, we say, or non-self. Really, in the end there is neither atta nor anatta. [2]

If you are used to Buddhist ways of describing the world then this kind of exposition from Ajahn Chah will be familiar to you, that the world isn’t made of objects but of endlessly changing phenomenon –  even we ourselves are not fixed but are always changing. The sense of fixity and duration we have about anything only comes from concepts; the reality that they point to is never quite the same as the idea we have about it. A half moon or a crescent moon is only our idea of how the moon looks, because in reality the moon itself is still exactly the same size and shape as it always is.

But while we can come to understand material phenomenon this way, perhaps we don’t always apply the same logic to more intangible things, like the truth. If we break it down, we can see that truth too relies on conditions, such as human minds and human actions, as well as time and context. Digging at our governments has probably been a universal human pastime since governments were invented, and politics is driven by simplified polarities of good and bad, success and failure; but to what extent can we fully say that ‘x government has failed on y subject’? In any moment we can say yes or no, but if we pay attention to our responses across time then we can notice that as the conditions change then so does that sense of what is true and correct.

For example we can have a very strong sense at the moment that some countries handled the Covid-19 pandemic better than others, but as time passes and more factors emerge we might have a different idea about who has had the better outcomes. It’s no wonder that we never run out of books about history because the conditions we have available to us change constantly, and that changes our sense of what the true story is.

There’s a very famous parable that comes to mind, of the Chinese farmer whose horse runs away one night. His neighbour comes to commiserate with him, saying how unfortunate it is but the farmer replies ‘who knows what’s good and bad?’. The next day his horse comes back and brings six wild horses back with it. The neighbour says how lucky the farmer is to have so many horses now, but he just says, ‘who knows what’s good and bad?’ Then the farmer’s son tries to tame one of the wild horses and he falls off, breaking his leg. The neighbour comes around again to commiserate, but again the farmer just says, ‘who knows what’s good and bad?’ A few days later the army come around to the village, and they recruit all the healthy young men to go to war, but they leave the farmer’s son because he has a broken leg. The neighbour tells the farmer how fortunate he is that his son has been spared, but of course the farmer simply replies, ‘who knows what’s good and bad?’

A story like this neatly illustrates the shifting nature of the truth; as conditions change the outcome for the farmer changes, and he recognises that there is no need to delight in or get hung up on how things seem at one moment in time because the moments are just going to keep changing. The farmer didn’t know how the story would end, he saw that life was a state of flux, so he didn’t take a position on how things seemed at any one moment.

So yes, perhaps we can say part of the reason why the Buddha included timeliness in right speech is because truth is subject to the same constant change that everything else in the universe is. Going back to my conversation with my partner, what I was saying was dependent on the conditions that were there at that moment, and once the conditions changed then so did what I wanted to say. To hold onto the point I had originally wanted to make would have been, for me in that moment, an act of ego – a clinging to a statement that I wanted to make, and an ignoring of whether it was useful, relevant, or timely.

Of course we all do this in conversation  all the time without noticing it, I know I certainly do, but it is interesting when we can notice some of the mechanisms that are normally hidden. I don’t think that we should feel like we have failed if we have an inharmonious conversation with someone, conflict is a fact of life, but we can certainly learn what it is that we bring to the table that exacerbates or ameliorates these situations. Sometimes what we bring is a fixity to a certain point and an unwillingness to concede that the truth around that point has shifted, and this is just clinging in the same way that we cling to anything else that we are attached to. When we recognise this then we can sometimes learn how to let go a little sooner, and oil the wheels of cordiality and cooperation a little more.

I can’t claim that there is no absolute truth in the world because I simply don’t have the evidence to say either way, but I do recognise that what we often treat as truth – and are prepared to go to battle over – is subject to the same continuous changes as every other conditioned thing. The nature of living in the world is that it asks us to take a position on things though, but if we apply the Buddha’s advice in the Canki Sutta then we can do that in a way that doesn’t exclude the room for change, or for the other information that we don’t have. If we recognise that the position we are taking is because we have faith in it, we have been told it on authority, we have a preference for it, we have come to the conclusion by reasoning, or we have come to the conclusion by contemplation of it, then we haven’t shut out other possible truths or viewpoints. We then don’t need to cling to our position because we know what the conditions are that led us to take it, and hopefully we can be a bit less argumentative about it because we also know that it isn’t an absolute truth – it is liable to change with time, or with new information. It is just a conditioned truth, and it only applies at this particular moment in time.                     

Photo by Marija Zaric on Unsplash

References

1.    Bhikkhu Sujato. Caṅkīsutta MN 95: With Cankī. https://suttacentral.net/mn95/en/sujato. Accessed 24 Mar 2021.

2.    Ajahn Chah. Bodhinyana: A Collection of Dhamma Talks. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/chah/bodhinyana.html. Accessed 24 Mar 2021.

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