At the beginning of the year I had a Facebook friend ask which books impacted his followers the most. Quite a few titles have changed my thought process over the last five years. Many of these books are appropriate to where we are as a country in this moment although that wasn’t really my intention for picking them up initially. The books cover issues like truth, lying, deception, and belief. I came away with a new way of thinking about each one of them.
Two of these books came out when I was seventeen and would have helped me immensely at that time. You could say that this essay is what I would have written to my younger self. I wasn’t aware how much of the Christian teachings I was brought up in aligned with Buddhist thought that pre-dated it. While this mysterious connection was interesting one difference in particular was even more so. It wasn’t just a matter of having divergent isolated topics but the entire explanation of truth which lays the foundation for just about everything couldn’t contrast much more.
Since many foundational teachings of life were not examined or taught early on I underwent the laborious task on my own. I needed to have a way to make comparisons between different thought processes and test what held up and what could not. I should have been further along with my understanding of the basics of life at this point but here I am still stuck near the beginning in many ways.
This is where I come to tying this in with my thoughts on where we are as a nation. Even though it seems very strange to say I think it is a good thing that there is so much blatant dishonesty in politics now. It forces the discussion of truth to the forefront. Truth is a topic that is not dissected as in depth as it should be. At least not in a large part of our society and not in the mainstream. Truth is not an easily understood topic although it seems like it is not all that hard to understand on the surface. Even though it may see like America is in a worse position at the moment examining whether our foundational beliefs are faulty is really the better position to be at. I continue to look at this as it relates to politics at the end of this blog post but first I think it would be good to flesh out several things before I get there.
When I had a high school teacher on Facebook ask alumni what they wished they knew as students this topic immediately came to mind; how Eastern and Western thought differed in their explanations of truth. One talks about speaking truth while the other teaches that you can only speak in frozen or conceptualized views. Truth is only something that can be observed not spoken. I used to think that people would give their own views of reality and by having discussions with people of different views you would arrive at the whole truth. I started to question what the term “half truth” even meant. Why do we not talk about quarter truths or 5% truths? How did we arrive at half truths? Some may say this is semantics but what people really think about the way speech works is not a minor thing since nailing this issue down correctly can change just about everything you deal with in life.
When I first read about these new explanations it was difficult for me to understand what they meant. Coincidentally around the same time I was listening to a podcast on science that helped me grasp this idea a bit more. I can’t remember exactly what the topic was but for whatever reason I really wanted to know the explanation. When it seemed like they had finally settled on a valid reason for the phenomenon another view would come up and then another and another. As the hosts and the scientists were unable to quickly arrive at a conclusion I started to loose my patience. I wanted for them to “speak the truth” and move on to the next topic.
Whatever was true about this hypothesis is still true despite the fact those speaking are not putting that ultimate truth into words. My emotions that were propelling me to “just get to the bottom of it” are not important concerning whatever truth is. This can be carried into other areas as well. Just because something really seems true or we want it to be true doesn’t mean it is. Much of the basis for Buddhism has to do with avoiding Dukkha by forgoing desire. Many of us put our desire for so called “speaking truth” in place of pointing the way to truth. I don’t see how people can come to truth in this way.
While relativism can be a problem so is what we label “absolute truth” because it is not absolute truth. There is something comforting with the illusion that we have a greater handle on reality than we actually do. The so called “absolute truth answers” are easier to come up with and easy to get to conclusions but I can’t see how they can be real. To be very clear (and it is easy to miss this point) the claim is not that there is no absolute truth. The claim is that it can’t be put into words in any ultimate sense. There are those in the speak absolute truth camp who look down on the people who claim to have their own “personal truths” but I don’t see how so called “speaking truth” is better from believing “personal truths.” All I can see are two flawed extremes.
Excepts from the book Buddhism Plain and Simple
to hold onto any particular view is to freeze Reality, to try to encapsulate the world into thought. To take a view is like taking a snapshot—you’ve frozen the scene right there. Once we hold a view, it’s not long before our view will buck up against other views. After that, the people holding the various views will file off into separate camps. And then we start to go after each other.
The view of a buddha is of how things actually are— which, in light of the constant flux and flow of the world, is no one way in particular. After all, how can a hard-and-fast view of a world that is never hard or fast possibly be accurate? It’s not the particulars of the world that provide us with right view, but the world itself, as an ever-dynamic Whole. Right view is Wholesome—that is, it’s of the Whole. It’s all inclusive. It leaves nothing out. Such a view, by definition, does not go to war with any other view. In fact, it cannot. Since it’s already of the dynamic world as a Whole, we can’t conceive of anything that opposes it.
At one point in my life I may have given a simple one sentence answer to what truth is such as to not lie but that doesn’t go far enough. If we do not have definitions that are deeply thought out and debated we will be laying a bad foundation to every significant area of life. Discussions of morality will be impossible. Comprehending what truth is and how it works has to be firmly established before any claims can be asserted.
Everyday when I go onto social media I hear how a claim about how politician is dishonest or lying while their own side is laying everything out exactly the way it is. By being totally enthralled by particular politicians or parties seems like these discussions are missing the forest from the trees. If there was more questioning about if or how ultimate reality can be put into words it would change everything. There needs to be more thought as to how the world was rather than how it seemed to work. The problem to me with founding a country on freedom of speech is that many haven’t thought enough about how speech really works. The Dunning–Kruger effect is in full swing and that compounds the problem.
Some people are intentionally deceitful of course but I would bet more just haven’t had a lengthy time to think about this topic. Some of what I had been taught in high school at the time were quotes like (paraphrasing) “People get into arguments when both sides are right.” However it is possible for one or even both sides to just be wrong. Saying people speak frozen views and not truth would be a bit more accurate. Another teaching was (again paraphrasing) “The smarter you get you realize the dumber you are.” This one might be closer than the last. If someone is acting like a know-it-all it is a quick way to realize they don’t know as much as they thought. I just wish it would have tried to explain the details between frozen views and whole truth.
The book has an interesting dissection of “wholesome” in a way that I have never thought of before. It showed wholesome as being made up of a root word “whole.” I never thought about it having a root word so it amazed me that I would need to totally rethink something I had learned in elementary school.
A dictionary search showed that the Sanskrit use of the word “some” has a very different or almost opposite definition from the way we use it in English. In that language it instead means “any” or “every.” This intrigues me because in English the two part word sounds like a contradiction with the first part of the word meaning all and the second part meaning the opposite of that. The words “any, every” are closer to the word “whole” now. Curiously this mixes an Old English word with a Sanskrit one yet makes more sense than using the two words in English. I am not a linguist but I would love to know why those words go together so well.
I don’t understand way the people would be taught about this has more to do with a person’s geography (given what religions are the most common in that area) than which ideas can be the best justified. Before I read books about Buddhism most of the teachings I had heard were similar to western thought like karma (like the biblical “you will reap what you sow”) and reincarnation (an afterlife belief like heaven.) I don’t think either of those are as important teachings as the truth teachings since that is foundational to everything. It’s not just about one aspect of life.
I like what Scott Adams said - if there was one religion that could get everything right all the others wouldn’t survive. I can’t understand when you have religious leaders say don’t mix religions together. Which religion did not come about by way of mixing with prior religions? I would argue that new religions didn’t always improve on top of the older ones. On the flip side I don’t know of evidence that older religions are purer forms handed from god and then diluted through human proximities of them. When some see failures happen in society many are quick to chalk it up to human nature or sin. I am still not 100% sure what human nature is and what a sin is changes from one religion to another. Neither term can be easily pinned down. When you see wide spread failure I don’t think it is enough to just consider those two loosely defined terms are is where the problem is. You also need to think about the broader ideologies that the big groups of people base their beliefs on.
As I was writing and re-writing this essay over the course of a couple of weeks I came across a Carl Sagan quote. I felt it flowed well with what I was writing at the same time so I decided to close this letter out with it.
The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counter-intuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true.
— Carl Sagan