Friday, May 19, 2017

The Truth About Truth


In the early 1980s speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill coined the phrase “The Third Rail of Politics” as a metaphor for addressing a topic too hot to openly discuss for fear of committing political suicide. In that case the topic was the looming bankruptcy of the Social Security system. Today that third rail is about many other systems ranging from our healthcare system, even the forbidden conversation of the political system governing our nation. Sometimes in order to solve a thorny problem it is necessary to stick your neck out and risk getting it chopped off. Politicians, who depend upon the votes of the public for their survival, have more times than not chosen to say what they think the public wants to hear rather than what they need to hear. Every institution has their own “Third Rail” and Buddhism, as an institution, has one too: The Third Rail of Truth.

All of us think we know the truth (absence of falsity) and as a ordinary yardstick this works most of the time. So as a human society we have created norms and standards by which we measure the flow of life to determine whether or not something is true or false. It works loosely which means “most of the time”—but not all of the time. Sometimes what we thought was true turns about into “fake news.

Ancient Indians believed they knew about truth and expressed their beliefs in the language of their time (Sanskrit). The Sanskrit word “Dharma” has a variety of definitions. One definition is “that which upholds and supports existence.” The root “Dhr” means to grasp (like in “understand”). An alternate definition is “Truth” as in Dharmakaya (Truth Body), which means the real/absolute, unseen body of The Buddha which all acknowledged Buddhist sutras say is The Buddha womb from which everything is made manifest: the pillar of The Buddha. 

Many enlightened persons have used different names for this Truth Body. Huang Po called it “The One Mind,” without defining characteristics, Ch'an Master Linji Yixuan (Zen Master Rinzai) called it True Man without rank,” and Master Bassui Tokushō would simply ask, “Who is it that hears? I call it Mind Essence (Bodhidharmas choice). In an unexpected way these definitions of truth are not counter to the ordinary yardstick—the absence of falsity. But there are important subtleties to this understanding which open the “Dharma Gate” and allows the flow of wisdom, and one of the most critical subtleties pertains to attachment to truth itself. The question is both simple yet profound: Is truth absolute? Relative? Neither? Both? Transcendent to both absolute and relative? Easy to ask the question but not so easy to answer, at least in a way that doesn’t entail touching that third rail. But today we will rush in where angels fear to tread.

We pride ourselves as being moral people and as such we cling to ideas about what it means to be moral. This moral (sila) framework has been institutionalized with Buddhist precepts, one of which has to do with truth telling, so we use this as a guideline to govern our conduct. So how much of the truth do we tell? All of it? None of it? Some portion? Which portion?

Mark Twain, in his whimsical fashion said,“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” Distortion seems to have now become the norm, even without getting the facts. Suppose we are talking about complete truth telling about ourselves. How exactly would that be done? Would we push the play-back button and share the second-by-second litany of every single moment of our present life? Do we share selected and edited versions? Edited according to what criteria? Who edits? Do you see the problem here? There is no solution to this dilemma when approached from the perspective of conditional reality. The matter is beyond comprehension.

In the sixth chapter of the Diamond Sutra The Buddha said an incredible thing regarding truth telling. He said, “..if these fearless bodhisattvas created the perception of a dharma (truth), they would be attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul. Likewise, if they created the perception of no dharma (no truth), they would be attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul.” To this Kamalashila wrote, “According to the highest truth, dharmas do not actually appear. Thus, there can be no perception of a dharma. And because they do not appear, they do not disappear. Thus, there can be no perception of no dharma. This tells us to realize that dharmas have no self-nature.” Let’s rephrase that: Truth does not have an independent status cut off from life. Truth is not a separate/abstract thing. Truth is a real thing which is reflected in the confused and unpredictable messiness which is life. Without wisdom this confusion becomes a Gordian knot so complex it is impossible to untie.

The ordinary way to fathom this complexity is to hold the feet of flow to the fire of inflexible standards and watch the sparks fly with the loud grating noise of friction. The infusion of wisdom turns this conflict upside down and allows the unfolding messiness to determine “expedient means” where the end (emancipation) dictates the appropriate (expedient) means. Life is not a one size fits all situation. Chi-fo (aka Feng-seng) says, “Before we understand, we depend on instruction. After we understand, instruction is irrelevant. The dharmas taught by the Tathagata sometimes teach existence and sometimes teach non-existence. They are all medicines suited to the illness. There is no single teaching. But in understanding such flexible teachings, if we should become attached to existence or to non-existence, we will be stricken by the illness of dharma-attachment. Teachings are only teachings. None of them are real.” To this Daoxin added, “Therefore the sutra (Nirvana sutra) says: ‘Since there are numberless (types of) capacities among sentient beings (the buddhas) preach the Dharma in numberless ways. Since the Dharma is preached in numberless ways, the meanings are also numberless. Numberless meanings are born from the One Reality. The One reality is formless, but there is no form that it does not give form to: it is called the true form. This is total purity.’”

This “One Reality” is of course the Body of Truth—the Dharmakaya: non-applied consciousness/Mind; the wellspring of all truth which is applied and conforms to the unfolding of life. Our ordinary human nature desires certainty and predictability, but life is fluid and complex. Every sentient being has a unique track of causal linkages and karma, which defines unique forms of illness. Daoxin said, “I expound this teaching (e.g., Essential expedient methods for entering the Path and pacifying mind) for those whose causal conditions and capacities are ripe for them...In the Prajna Sutra Spoken by Manjusri it says: World Honored One, what is the one-practice samadhi? The Buddha said, Being linked to the realm of reality (Dharmakaya) through its oneness is called one-practice samadhi. If men and women want to enter one-practice samadhi, first they must learn about prajnaparamita (e.g., perfect wisdom emanating from the unity of pure consciousness) and cultivate their learning accordingly. Later they will be capable of one-practice samadhi and, if they do not retreat from or spoil their link with the realm of reality, of inconceivable unobstructed formlessness.

To summarize this teaching. Truth is both absolute and relative. It is absolute within the realm of the Dharmakaya—the wellspring of all truth, where oneness reigns. And it is relative within the realm of our individual differences, where karma and causal conditions prevail. When our minds are pure (without retreat or spoilage; defiled with thought/non-thought) the Dharma Gate is opened and prajna flows freely. Prajna (e.g., wisdom) alone, the product of awakened awareness—the pipe-line from the Body of Truth—is capable of untying the Gordian knot of life’s complexity. Short of this we need guidelines, yardsticks and precepts and a tolerance for flying sparks and the loud grating noise of friction.
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