This is the truth Barry Magid March 26th 2016

The Heart Sutra has a concluding line declaring "This is the truth, not a lie." The Buddha was said to proclaim four noble "truths." How do we understand the nature of truth in a religious practice? Does truth mean the same thing in a religious context as it does in science? Are these truths in competition? What is the truth available to us in practice?

I was thinking of an old cartoon that displayed two warring armies, sort of in a style of the middle ages, with men on horseback carrying banners and soldiers besieging a castle, and there's a flag flying over the top of the castle, and all of the invading soldiers are carrying a banner, and on each of them is a picture of the duck-rabbit illusion. And one of the invading generals says, "There can be no peace until the infidel abandons their worship of the devil duck and recognizes the true rabbit." Now the idea there is that they're blinded by perspective on one true thing, that the squiggle that they each carry on their banners could equally be a duck or a rabbit, and in that model of things, people sometimes say that there is one god, but some cultures and religions perceive him or her through one perspective and others in other perspectives, but they're all in some sense arguing over perspectives on one reality. The god of the Hebrews and the Muslims and the Christians and the Hindus, they're really all one god, but seen from different angles, like the wise men and the elephant. What that presumes is that there is an elephant, that there is some “thing” that we all have different perspectives on. It is a somewhat more radical idea to suggest that all there are are different perspectives and that there is not a thing in itself that we each have a different image of.

From that view, we might describe the difference between the polytheism of the classical Greeks and the deism of early Christianity or the Hebrews as a different perspective on life, in which the Greeks saw themselves in a world that was buffeted about by largely unpredictable, sometimes radically whimsical forces. Their gods represented physical forces and fates and chance, and human life was in some sense a boat on a very stormy ocean, and that ocean didn't really give a damn at all about you and your boat and whether you got to shore or not. But you might learn gradually how to navigate in these waters and to find your way around, so it's a perspective of man's place in the universe.

Hebrews and Christians created a different perspective where they saw themselves at the center of the world, where their existence mattered in a certain way, and there were particular rules and virtues associated with that. The Greeks, in contrast, devised a morality or value system that was more based on the heroic and being god-like in the manner of Achilles, where you are most at your god-like when you are at your most unstoppably wrathful in battle, when you're fighting like a god. It conveys a different value system than one where compassion or meekness or humility are considered more divine. See, when you frame it that way, it's not as if there is a truth of the matter that they have different perspectives on. The two perspectives really are just occupying two different kinds of worlds.

See, part of what happens when we talk about religious truth is that we can think that we're getting into an argument about what the world is and it all comes down to, "Does god exist or not?" or some such propositional question. And some have tried to bypass that kind of rather fruitless argument by saying that the truths of science are statements about what is, how the world is, and statements about religion or ethics, or statements about how we ought to be, or how things ought to be, and that statements about "is" are completely separate from statements about "ought," and one cannot be derived from the other. That was David Hume's famous formulation, that an "ought" can never be derived from an "is", and in a certain way, it attempts to preserve each in it's own separate realm without one being in conflict with the other.

I think Hume had the good sense to recognize that our ethics and our motivations were grounded in our feelings, that he was living in a time when there was a great concern, during the enlightenment, about whether we would be able to preserve ethical behavior if we gave up our belief in a revealed religion with a set of commandments. If you don't buy that story, why should you ever behave well? And it set off a big scramble among philosophers to ground ethics in something other than commandments. And really the dominant mode tended to be to try to derive ethics from reason, from logic. That was a project that goes back to the Stoics, to try to lead a life in concord with reason, and Kant built a whole system about ethics and duty that was supposed to be absolutely logically deducible. Hume went in a different direction, which was thought of as fairly mushy-minded I suppose, saying that sympathy was the word, that what we would probably say is empathy, fellow feeling, is the ground of our ethics, and we can't find a basis firmer than that for how we ought to behave to one-another. We feel one another's vulnerability and pain.

Hume's is-ought distinction, however, is not really a good picture of human relations. It's a good picture of a kind of material Newtonian universe made of billiard balls. If you think of the world as a kind of big table with billiard balls on it, Hume's view of science can tell you the location of all the billiard balls, but can't tell you anything about whether you ought to knock one billiard ball into another, and those are two different kinds of question.

However, when we talk about people, we discover that not all relations are causal relations, that the description of some relationships, like mother to a baby, like friendship, like citizen, or neighbor -- to describe the relationship at all, to give any kind of meaningful account of what it is -- includes a description of how one ought to behave. You can't really talk about being the mother to a baby without talking about a sense of love and responsibility. It's not just a causal relationship that the mother gave birth to the baby. To be a mother is to be in a certain kind of relation of obligation to an infant. We could say the same thing about friendship and citizen and neighbor and so forth.

This will get around to Buddhism eventually, don't worry. [laughter]

One of the ways of talking about that indissolvable mix of "is" and "ought" in relation, is to say that things intrinsically matter to us when we're in a relationship, that the relationship is about what matters, and that a lot of what we try to clarify to ourselves in practice is, "What matters, and why?" Buddhism does make a statement about the way things are that has big implications for mattering. The assertion is that we are not separate billiard ball-like objects that occasionally may or may not bump into one another, but that in fact who we are is constituted by our relations and interactions, that we do not have a separate existence apart from those relations, and since those relations are essentially infinite and constantly changing, who we are is a constantly shifting nexus of relational pattern and obligation. And there's a sense in which the claim is made that if we "See accurately that this is our nature," it will clarify everything we need to know about how to conduct ourselves and how to solve the problems of suffering that we bring to practice.

Now, one of the ways in which we talk about this as a religious practice is in terms of how things matter to us, and as you know I go on and on about practice not being instrumental, practice being about no gain, that the mattering of practice is not utilitarian or about outcome, but the mattering also has to do relationally and how we matter to each other, and what connection or relationship we discern to each other. One description of kensho is that we have a direct experience of not just our connection, but our identity. That's what oneness can mean. Bernie Glassman and I used to talk all the time about the experience of being one body. I think that was very much his personal experience in awakening, in which our relation to one another is like the relationship of the right hand to the left hand. They can't have separate interests. They are part of one body, and what is good for one is necessarily good for the other. And one can't imagine one thriving at the expense of the other.

So we can say that something about the religious nature of this practice is that it opens up a different perspective on mattering and connection. When we study the precepts and talk about not killing, one of the things that means is that we don't reduce other people to things that don't matter, that we try to cultivate the perspective that everyone and everything matters. We don't kill them by turning them into lifeless objects, or statistics, or unimportant people. It all matters.

See, as we sit together, I think that over time we develop a very different, enriched and deepened perspective on what sitting together means. I think inevitably, when we start out, meditation is something that is personal, private and interior. It's about what it feels like inside my head as I sit on a cushion. What thoughts buzz around, how much calmness do I generate, what feelings are going on inside, or how is my body feeling? How much do my knees hurt? And if we are aware of the other people, they tend to be the embodiments of the peer pressure to sit still. I think as we practice over the years, something in that can radically change, and a perspective opens up where we have a much greater sense of meditation as something that is enacted together, and that the togetherness of it is not incidental and it's not instrumental. It's not just a form designed to facilitate our own personal efforts or discipline, but the togetherness of it increasingly becomes the point. We see that in this chant there's something that we hold and maintain together in this, and that the together expands, not just to include the dozen people in the room, but our sense of identity and participation in a long, cultural history of which we are just one little wave on a big ocean, that we are part of maintaining something, by doing this, by enacting this, together.

The truth of this practice, then, is what? I think it is a very narrow version of truth to imagine that Buddhism is truer than theistic religions because we don't have false beliefs in deities or things like that. Or that it's truer because it's psychologically more effective, and that it's like truth in labeling, "If you do this practice you will get this result." The truth has to be, I think, rather that a certain kind of perspective is in fact available to us. It is the truth that we can come to recognize and cultivate a certain relation to one another if we see things in a certain way. If we cultivate a way of practicing and being and working together, it is true that our life will take on a completely different shape and aspect.

And that is the truth.

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