By Wayne Ren-Cheng
In the first chapter of his previous book, ‘Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist’ Stephen Batchelor describes his own arising and falling away of a lie he recounted to himself and others and the effect it had on his view of Buddhist philosophy and practice. In his recent book, ‘Before Buddhism’, he offers the term truth-claim. It serves as a skillful way to describe an activity that many people resort to in religious, social and political arenas.
It is a fact of human psychology that if you tell yourself the same story over-and-over that it can become the “truth” in your mind. The same is a fact if someone like a politician, fortune teller, religious figure or parent tells you the same thing repeatedly that it can become the “truth” in your mind. This is how truth-claims arise.
In the book, ‘The Moor’s Account’ by Laila Lalami, a Moroccan slave named Estebancio experiences the words and actions of Catholic priests claiming that all the Native Americans in Florida were converted to Christianity because prayers had been said over a deserted village. He wrote in his journal that these priests were attempting to create truth by what they said . . . making truth-claims . . . rather than speaking the truth.
A current example of truth-claiming is happening in the presidential race in the United States. While all the politicians involved are engaging in this practice, one stands out from all the rest. Donald Trump making statements about Mexican and Syrian refuges labeling them as dangerous to Americans, that he will make Mexico pay for a wall, and that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the death and destruction that took place on 9/11 are efforts to create truth rather than speak the truth. Trump speaks to both create ‘truth’ and to strengthen the truth-claims of those desperate to hold on to their own created truths.
In the Udana Sutta (6:4) the Buddha found himself in the middle of dispute concerning belief in rebirth. A large group consisting of contemplatives, brahmans and other religious wanderers from various sects were offering their different views, opinions, and beliefs. The sutta describes their views “The cosmos is eternal. Only this is true; anything otherwise is worthless. Some of the contemplatives & brahmans held this doctrine, this view: “The cosmos is eternal. Only this is true; anything otherwise is worthless. The cosmos is not eternal” … “The cosmos is finite” … “The cosmos is infinite” … “The soul is the same thing as the body” … “The soul is one thing and the body another” … “After death a Tathagata exists” … “After death a Tathagata does not exist” … “After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist” … “After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist. Only this is true; anything otherwise is worthless.” The arguments continued for a time eventually degrading into each one announcing about their own view, “The dharma is like this, it’s not like that. The dharma’s not like that, it’s like this.”
The Buddha offered the parable of the blind and the elephant. The King of Savatthi, faced with a similar situation had brought together a group of people blind from birth and them “see” an elephant. Afterwards he came to them and asked if they had “seen” the elephant, to which they answered yes. The King asked them to describe it. “The blind people who had been shown the elephant’s head said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a jar.’ “Those who had been shown the elephant’s ear said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a winnowing basket.’ “Those who had been shown the elephant’s tusk said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like plowshare.’1 “Those who had been shown the elephant’s trunk said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like the pole of a plow.’ “Those who had been shown the elephant’s body said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a granary.’ “Those who had been shown the elephant’s foot said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a post.’ “Those who had been shown the elephant’s hindquarters said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a mortar.’ “Those who had been shown the elephant’s tail said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a pestle.’ “Those who had been shown the tuft at the end of the elephant’s tail said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a broom.’ “Saying, ‘The elephant is like this, it’s not like that. The elephant’s not like
that, it’s like this,’ they struck one another with their fists.
Each person who had touched the elephant was defending a truth-claim. This very thing happens between Buddhist traditions and practitioners. A moral of the Parable of the Blind and the Elephant is that the dharma must not be viewed as a set of truth-claims as this will only lead to conflict between truth-claims. Letting go of attachment to truth-claims will the knowledge arise that dharma practice isn’t about being “right or wrong”. Basing behavior and belief on metaphysical (things we can’t prove through our own experience) truth-claims is not what the Buddha envisioned. He offered tasks one could engage in, and principles and values so a practitioner could use them as guides so that each situation could be viewed as unique and be responded to appropriately. Each all instances a practitioner must ask, “What is the wisest and most compassionate thing to do?” In the language of Engaged Dharma, “What will promote human flourishing on the most encompassing scale?”
There is another important aspect to an effect of Mr. Batchelor’s Tibetan experience. It became the cause of his atheist view of Buddhism, a complete discounting of metaphysical and deific doctrine across Buddhist traditions. The Buddha set aside metaphysical as ‘I don’t know’ or ‘it hasn’t been proven to me’, so those theories were not critical to a moment-to-moment Buddhist practice. The Buddha did not deny their existence, only their value without proof through experience. For this reason I disagree with Mr. Batchelor, accepting an agnostic, ‘be open to accept proof’, over an atheistic view. That doesn’t hold for Buddhism as a ‘deific doctrine’ because the Buddha made it clear that he was no deity only a human being, and he proclaimed in the moments before his death (Maha Parinibbana Sutta), “It may be, Ananda, that to some among you the thought will come: ‘Ended is the word of the Master; we have a Master no longer.’ But it should not, Ananda, be so considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone.”
The Buddha was both pragmatic and non-dogmatic. He offered the dharma not as any ‘truth’. He offered the dharma as reality that each of us must strive to experience beyond our own perceptions, preferences, habits and dispositions – our habitual reactivity. There he knew, from his own experience that each of us would experience nirvana in our moment-to-moment living.
The EDIG sangha at the Buddha Center in Second Life is a non-denominational one; a sangha open to, and attended by Buddhists of a mix of traditions and non-Buddhists. On occasion someone will voice a truth-claim they read in a book or heard from another teacher. Some are trying to assert what they believe to be ‘truth’, while others are offering a ‘truth’ more to ask if there is truth to what they know, and a few are attempting to actively defend what they hope is ‘truth’. In all instances they hear that if their ‘truth’ works for them in their pursuit of positive personal character and human flourishing then they should hold to that reality; if not then they must look to the Dharma and their own experience so that a more appropriate reality can arise.