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Friday, November 4, 2011

Two Truths, One Path

Truth is one of the most important things to us as beings able to contemplate our own knowledge and perspective about the world. There are two schools of thought that have propagated in opposition to each other. The first is a hard type of relativism, as opposed to soft relativism, which I’ll explain in conclusion, which says all truth claims are equal in that they all originate from individuals and thus all have a similar amount of validity to them. This is invalid on its face because truth is not merely a matter of our assertions from different perspectives without considering the conflicts that may exist between each of them. I may see things a particular way, you see them another way and we could be both right, but with many situations, there tends to be one side that has the only correct answer, such as 1+1=2 or other very basic truths and facts. The second position is that of hard absolutism. It isn’t a bad thing to hold to absolute truths in the sense that they are valuable for establishing a foundation. But to hold to them inflexibly and without any sense of distinction or nuance, you become resistant to virtually any kind of change because it threatens the well established tradition that instilled those rigid values in your mind. This is incorrect for a different reason. If you put forth a truth as applicable the same way in every situation, you fail to recognize that in certain cases, stealing, lying, even killing can be permissible, albeit one has to weigh the cause and effect within those contexts, which can only be done by thinking critically about those absolute truths and applying them in a case by case contextual basis. If this is not done, you regress to a repressive and dangerous position that uses the law as your justification instead of considering the principle behind the law itself. In Buddhism, there are said to be two kinds of truth. They are the relative and absolute, or conventional and ultimate for another phrasing. Each of these should be explained in more detail as well as the relationship between them afterwards. The importance of both cannot be overstated to understanding Buddhism as a whole.

With relative or conventional truth, it is not always so clear what is meant.  Perspective is not always the factor as to whether something is right or wrong, some things are such irrespective of whether we perceive them that way or not, albeit with philosophical issues, this is never absolutely certain. With Buddhism, the idea of this first truth is accessibility to everyone. If I want to explain the teachings, I have to first speak in a way any person can understand. This can involve using parables, metaphors and other twists of language as well as colloquial expressions to make any particular point. The idea of no self, for instance, can be explained and not imply any contradiction if I also consistently refer to myself with that pronoun. This doesn’t mean I believe there is some soul that my identity consists in, but merely a way to have a cogent conversation with people who do. Having an open mind doesn’t mean you automatically accept everything as true, but are receptive to new ideas that people have so as to understand them better than if you just threw ultimate truth at them and expected them to believe it without experience or consideration of why their own beliefs are mistaken in some sense. With the truth of dissatisfaction, we can look at it relative to each situation and person and see that it is not always the same everywhere at all times. Sometimes it seems as if some group is doing great and another is failing miserably. Relative impermanence also reflects on how each of us is in a different state and cannot fully understand each others’ positions unless we were that person. We can see impermanence in particular situations, but are not always mindful of it. With no-self you have the obvious individual perspectives we have of ourselves and others which creates diversity in the world. We each have our own existential paradigm we develop as we grow up and interact with others and introspect. To value relative truth is to appreciate perspective and context without making it the final determinant factor in our appropriation of truth as a whole.

With ultimate or absolute truth there is less a sense of specific or rational/discursive explanation. A basic idea of absolute truth is that it is so regardless of one’s belief to the contrary. But this becomes very abstract to minds that commonly require concrete examples. Something being true independently of our perspective also makes it seem very distant and mechanical instead of organic as we ourselves are. In this way, Buddhist absolute truth considers things as a whole to possess an absolute truth as you experience it. The absolute truth is when you see things from a larger perspective as well as the smaller perspective. You neither miss the forest for the trees or the trees for the forest, but see trees and forests as is pertinent to a discussion or situation. Impermanence as absolute truth is that things are fundamentally without any semblance of stasis. As much as things may seem to remain the same, such as a mountain, even that slowly erodes away. Ultimate dissatisfaction is that the states we cling to are not ultimately fulfilling and thus cause us suffering as we linger on bad things and yearn for good things instead of letting things come and go as they will. Meaning comes from within, not from without. And with non-self, there is both the idea that our deaths preclude any possibility of survival after them as disembodied consciousness or the like and that we do not truly or ultimately possess anything that we come into contact with, even our own self perception which is conditioned by particular circumstances outside of our control. There are things we can control and this is where it becomes relevant to the relative. Similarly, with our individual suffering and experience of transience, we can see how our part relates to the whole and how our contribution to the whole is distinct by incidents that aid us in progression towards wisdom and subsequent enlightenment. There is both an abstract and concrete notion of relative and absolute truth through interactions of individuals with the world that can be observed, but not always explained. And even if one attempted it, as said before, it wouldn’t necessarily be effective, since some people still need to let go of particular preconceptions to even consider the possibility of many initially mystifying Buddhist ideas, many of which I’ve explained in previous articles.

There are not precisely two levels of truth so much as two expressions of truth to different minds. The two truths are not hierarchical, since ultimate truth isn’t always best when speaking to large groups or even individuals if they aren’t disposed to understanding truths in different lenses. The two truths are side by side, not one on top of the other. They might even be said to exist within one another, not unlike the idea in Chinese philosophy of yin yang, which has its own origins in the I Ching text. In contrast to the hard relativism and absolutism, you can have a soft form of each in admitting things are relative in some sense, but that there are absolute truths amongst the relative.Ultimate truth in some sense ineffable, but able to be experienced, conventional truth able to be expressed, but not expressing the fullness of whatever it is. You can’t have one without the other in either situation, much like yin and yang. Without absolute truth, the relative truth is merely pandering to people’s dispositions, but without conventional expressions, the ultimate truth is never reached. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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