Dragon's Gate Temple Library

Truth in Buddhism

When everyone around you makes certain unspoken assumptions, it's hard to keep from making them yourself. That's one of the greatest problems we Buddhists have in western society.

The assumption I'm concerned about is "literal truth". People may argue over whether the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, or even the Book of Mormon is literally true, but they all make the assumption that "literal truth" is possible.

I say it's not.

Look at the nature of language. A word, for instance "dog", is a pattern of air vibrations, ink on paper, electronic on-off signals or whatever, that 2 or more entities have agreed to use to represent something else.

Incidentally, since all this is needed before there can even be words, you can see how I might be a bit skeptical about "In the beginning was the word".

A dog has four legs and chases cats. The WORD "dog" has three letters and never changes. Since words don't act the same as the things or actions they represent, they can never represent them perfectly. Truth, as the Buddha said, is not expressed by words.

Fortunately, in Buddhism, the goal is not to memorize an accurate expression of truth, but rather to perceive reality. In Buddhist writings, truth is likened to "the finger pointing to the moon". The finger is NOT the moon. At best, when understood correctly, it is an aid in seeing the moon, but only if we're willing to turn away from the finger and look instead where it's pointing.

Of course, a finger pointing in the wrong direction wouldn't help us see the moon at all. I guess you could say that, even if "truth" doesn't exist in any absolute sense, falsehood does.

In The Snake Simile the Buddha said the teachings are like a raft. A traveler may come to a river and gather reeds to bundle together to make a raft. But once he gets to the other side, would he carry the raft on his back the rest of the way? "Truth" is to help us see reality. But it's seeing and dealing with the real world that's important, not blind faith in any doctrine.

If you were driving along and the road takes a jog to the left that wasn't on your map, would you drive straight ahead into a tree, or follow the road like the rest of us skeptics?

Or if you come to visit me for the first time, and you're driving along looking for street numbers when you suddenly recognize me in front of a house waving to you, do you ask me to move aside so you can read the number? Once you reach a perception of reality, you don't need "truth" any more.

Each language has strengths and weaknesses. Western languages don't seem to make a clear distinction between "reality" and "truth", which is a non-misleading expression of that reality. If "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" is understood to mean clear, unbiased perception instead of meaning knowing the password to Heaven or something, it starts to make sense.

Eastern languages appear to have trouble distinguishing between "difference in degree" and "difference in kind". This can also cause confusion.

For example, the Lotus Sutra points out that when you do good things, good things will happen to you. But the effects of, say, charity won't last forever. Eventually you're right back where you were before. But reaching enlightenment is the permanent end of all suffering. Any effort toward Enlightenment is, therefore, worth more that however vast amounts of charity (much less the half-vast efforts most of us make). But linguistic limitations forced them to express it as though the difference were only in the degree of merit or good karma earned. Because of this, some Buddhists believe certain small efforts used as examples in the Sutra, like reciting the name of the Sutra, will bring worldly rewards. These people appear to believe in the "literal truth" of the Sutra.

It may well be that this is not a fair representation of the official doctrines of that group. Because of this possibility, I am not mentioning their name. It IS, however, the way some of their practitioners think.

The problem I had with Jodo Shinshu was that in Buddhism no one seems to distinguish clearly between a belief and a practice.

In some cases they are clearly related. The meditation on impermanence is based on the fact (O.K., the truth ) that all compound things really ARE impermanent. In other cases, like the meditation, done in some Tibetan traditions, which includes picturing a lotus growing from the top of your head, hardly anyone would contend that these people really believe there's a plant growing up there. It's clearly a practice, not a belief.

The Buddha taught a system of analyzing the self into five parts; Form, Feeling, Perception, Impulse and Consciousness. People with strong attachments to the "self" could get over it by seeing "self" as these five groups that they did not have attachment to. (Then after they had been working on that for twenty years or so, you hand them a copy of the Heart Sutra and WHAM!)

So are these "five Skandhas" real? How many slices in a pizza? Right! It depends on how thin you cut it! For those with even more problems with intellectualizing everything, the Buddha also taught the Abhidharma system. It works the same way but divides the "self" into even more parts. It works wonders getting you loose from your attachments, but trying use it to understand the outside world is like trying to navigate the L.A. freeway system using a geological survey map. No matter how accurate it is. it's still beside the point.

Aleister Crowley spoke highly of the Abhidharma as a tool for this very purpose, though he preferred the Kabala. Go figure.

The scrolls in Jodo Shinshu members' shrines traditionally had written on the back "Accommodation Buddha". This meant it was a tool to be used in a practice, and a very powerful and effective one it is! But taking the symbol of Amida Buddha as "literally true" would be awkward. If all Buddhas reached Enlightenment by relying on Amida, what about Lokesvararaja, the Buddha under whom Amida studied? Besides, the Anjin Rondai clearly states that Amida is a "law", not a person.

After many generations the term "accommodation" came to be used in Japan as a polite term for a lie. At that time, members of a competing school of Buddhism would visit Jodo Shinshu members. They would say "That's a false Buddha! It says so right on the back of the scroll!" Our members would say "It does not! Look!.....uh........."

Jodo Shinshu lost a lot of good members that way. If everyone was just a little clearer about the nature of "truth", it wouldn't have happened.

The practices using the symbol of Amida Buddha are like using lines of latitude and longitude on a map. If you think they represent actual lines drawn around the earth, you can be lost forever searching for a black stripe in the dirt. If you say "There's no such thing!" and don't use them as a navigational aid, you're still lost. Only by understanding their provisional ("accommodation") nature can you get your bearings.

If "truth" is that which helps us see reality as it is, there is nothing truer than Buddhism.

May all beings attain Perfect Peace


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