Discussion Around Truth

The most fruitful dhamma explorations, I find, are the ones that are delved into communally – the ongoing dialogue among seekers that allows us to push beyond our limited understandings to explore themes too vast to be encompassed by just one viewpoint. This week’s exploration has been around speech, and the unimpeachable value of Truth.

On Sunday, Bhante Jayasāra and Tahn Pamutto explored Truthfulness (Sacca) and its practice and development. How do we know the Truth? How do we commit to it? How do we draw on its power in relating to others and the world? Truthfulness, we find, is not one thing but a continuum. When we begin we are beset by our defilements – Greed, Hatred, and Delusion lurking in the background of our mind – and speech seems like just another tool to get what we want. At some point, though, the pain caused by being deceitful will tip the scale and we’ll be ready to commit to the Fourth Precept and train ourselves not to tell lies. Not to others, not to ourselves, not ever.

How often do we bend or break the truth to avoid an unpleasant reality or shield ourselves from blame? How often do we misdirect another so we can get what we want? Some people of the world see life as a competition, where we are all in a struggle to get to the top. When we take this fourth precept to heart, though, we start to perceive higher truths. There is no competition. The only goal, the only point of completion in human life, is the one that we all reach whether we are fast or slow, bright or dull, rich or poor … the finish line of death. When we pass on, the only thing we take with us are the consequences of our actions and the strength of our commitment to truth.

Wednesday’s Tea and Dhamma session continued the conversation. Even once we’ve given up lying, a conundrum remains: What is Truth? How do we know it? And what do we do if the people around us see things differently?

It can be tricky to mix frames of reference. There is a popular social term, ‘gas-lighting’, which refers to a situation where someone is forcefully told what is right and/or wrong. There’s a lot of this going on these days, so it’s fitting there is a term. There was also a lot of it happening in the Buddha’s day too, 2500 years before Facebook, but in the Buddhist framework there is no one thing that describes gas-lighting. We can be pressured to abandon our views and opinions, or adopt new ones, in many ways: through harsh speech and insults, through divisive speech and threats of being separated from a group, even through having our viewpoints dismissed or minimized. We’ve all experienced these tactics, and we know how it feels when what we’ve seen, heard, or felt is aggressively denied.

So too, the roots of this behavior are manifold. It can happen equally based on Greed, Hatred, or Delusion. What is important to recognize in the face of this is the place of truth. When we give in to an unwholesome motive, truth is often the first victim. One who tries to cultivate truth comes to understand this intuitively – most of the truths with which we operate in daily life are subjective. Finding truth in a conventional sense is as much identifying basic facts as it is leaving room and sensitivity for differences of perspective. Truth in the midst of opinion is a quiet and reflective place, often missed, where we know what we believe without holding to this belief too tightly. It is the strong, aggressive absolutes in our speech and the speech of others that tip off the mindful as to where Perception and Ego are overshadowing what is really there.

In the face of unwholesome pressure to abandon what we know or to take on ‘truths’, even those coming from large groups of people, sometimes our only recourse is to be clear about our own reality. Having seen this, we say, “I saw this,”; having not seen this, we say, “I didn’t see this.” It’s not much, but here we can actually have a stable base to stand on – not unshakable, but sturdy enough. Any attempt to reduce things further won’t yield any worthwhile results. Only doubt, and distrust. We know what we know, and we know where our knowledge ends.

As the years of practice go by, and we weather or witness dispute after dispute, the mind turns away from viewpoints and controversy to seek what is really true and stable. This was the focus of the Buddha’s teaching: to point to ultimate truth, that which is the same from every perspective. It is here that we can actually have a strong conversation and reach agreement. There are truths that can be known: suffering; aging, sickness, and death; the consequences of wholesome and unwholesome actions; the peace of the mind beyond constructions … to devote ourselves to this is a lifelong effort, and to bring our thoughts and speech in line with ultimate truth will be an endeavor unlike any other. But nothing can yield such abundant fruit. What will our lives be like when we can openly speak about the things that matter most?

We don’t pursue this truth alone, nor do we have to figure everything our for ourselves, and that’s the joy of sangha. For as many false truths and purveyors of these as there are in the world, there are just as many good people seeking a way out. I encourage you to walk this path for yourself, and join the conversation.

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