Truth? Pshaw!

by Stephen Doyle

While vacationing in Italy, I had the opportunity to flex a couple of neurons. My family is full of devout Catholics, and my youngest aunt Costanza (Costu) has the “gift” of speaking in tongues. That means the hardcore Catholics pray with her, and sometimes that sets her off in a indecipherable tongue-speaking frenzy. My uncle Michael can interpret her, so the message isn’t lost.

Moreover, Costu is also intelligent, having graduated from MST in Rolla. So she wanted to discuss philosophy with me, and she wanted to know what was my “truth.” It was early in the week, and I thought it would be a good idea to get this over with so we all can enjoy our fantastic resort.

As somebody well read in post-modernism, asking the very question “truth” sets off alarms. Such questions like “what is X” are classic questions of philosophy, but after Nietzsche, they no longer have any place in our society – all and any answer has no credibility – but I couldn’t answer like this to my Aunt. So I had to speak in the right language, and speak about the game of philosophy.

I replied that “Truth is one of the many games philosophers have been playing for 2,500 years. The minute I offer a truth I have made a claim, which stakes a position, and in doing so, I’m already playing by their rules, and I’m stuck in that game.”

Of course, this didn’t satisfy my dear Aunt. She insisted that at the end of my life, I will have to have a truth. I replied that my truth today will not be the same as the truth I think I have 10, 20, or 30 years from now. I wasn’t the same person I was 10 years ago. What makes anyone think they will be identical in the future? Even if I had a truth that didn’t change, the minute I write it down on a piece of paper, and make it public, it’s no longer my truth, but something everyone else will interpret into their own versions.

Aunt Costu went on to say that I knew what her truth was: Jesus Christ. Naturally I was ready for this, and said that Jesus was smart enough not to answer her question. Auntie insisted that he did, and said that “those on the side of truth, are on my side.” I replied: Yes, he sure said that, but not to Pilate. Pilate was the one who asked him “What is truth?”

Auntie said I was wrong, that she remembers Jesus answered him. I told her that she need to re-read the gospels again, and stop listening to the priest who switches lines around. She ordered Uncle Mike to pull out his iphone and pull up the Gospel of John. I said that the Gospel of Mark is better because it’s the older one. John’s the most recent one. She disagreed, naturally, saying that John was one of the disciples. I told her that there were too many elements in that gospel to be eyewitness account (prior to his birth and events that took place elsewhere).

I promised Aunt Costu that I would finish the half-full table wine if I was wrong. Then I asked her if I’m right, what would she do? No answer 😀 While she looked it up, I also told them that Buddha had the same policy with that question and told them the Zen koan of Buddha and the philosopher. That stunned poor Auntie for a bit. A penalty for being way too parochial and insular, methinks!

After my uncle and my aunt were shocked to learn that I was right: Jesus stood silent after Pilate asked him “what is truth,” my uncle took the initiative to ask me what was my interpretation of philosophy. So I took him on a lightning tour of philosophy, starting with Plato’s allegory, and went through the medieval philosophers (extra emphasis on catholic thinkers like Anselm and Aquinas) then stopped at Descartes. Uncle Mike was utterly absorbed, and discombobulated when I pulled out the stops for Descartes’ omnipotent deceiver!

My aunt moved on to the next incorrigible unbeliever, cousin Igor. He was shrewd enough to say that he believed in Jesus just like he believed in Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, and Lao-Tsu. I would have gone on to the story of “Book of Truth” had my aunt pressed matters further, but she knew the game was over and I enjoyed the rest of the week religious-free!

Next story: the great white shepherd dog.

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.

6 thoughts on “Truth? Pshaw!”

  1. I’ll see your Gospel correction and raise you a Sutta Pitaka correction: the Buddha did not always remain silent when asked about the truth. He often spoke at length on the subject, perhaps most usefully in the Canki Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 95.

    Furthermore the final line of that koan shows that apprehension of the truth is conditional on personal cultivation – that’s what “a good horse” means.

  2. Thank you, Trandafir, for the link. That was very informative!

    However, my offhanded remark was about the question “What is truth?” Not that the Buddha never spoke about the truth. They are entirely two different things. That the Buddha and Jesus answered the same way, with silence, is very telling. Silence is the very method, the secret, the key to experiencing the truth. When we read stories or anecdotes about the Buddha, we find a serene, sober and a quiet sage. No wonder why the early disciples thought these qualities were necessary traits of an enlightened person.

    I first heard the zen koan about the philosopher and the Buddha from a Taoist, and my initial reaction was to rationalize what the Buddha meant with “shadow of the whip,” and I pushed the interpretation way too literally.

    But over time, as I learned a little about Buddhism, I realized that silence was the answer – not the horse and the shadow of the whip. Silence is the means towards an interior experience of the truth. No matter the differences between the schools of Buddhism, you will find that they all agree on the indispensability of silence as a catalyst for meditation.

    During the 6th century BC, there were two competing approaches to the path of the Truth. One was the active, argumentative, philosophical discourse, where debates and discussion privileged rationality. The other was seclusion, solitude, and personal silence. You renounced the world, lived detachedly, like an ascetic. The Buddha obviously picked the 2nd approach.

    Now, the philosopher chose the 1st approach, and in the anecdote, by approaching Buddha, and asking him for the experience of the Truth, he seems to have recognized the limits and the failures of reason and logic. The philosopher was ready for the next step of a private experience. The Buddha didn’t bother with anything external, like offer a technique or exercise or a lesson on meditation.

    I believe that there are other stories that show the Buddha remaining silent whenever somebody asked him to explain the Truth. This silence wasn’t just the absence of words or speech. It was a profound and eloquent silence.

  3. There’s no question that the Buddha remained silent when asked certain questions – I can think of several examples right away. I fully agree that the philosopher was ready for the next step, beyond methods and techniques. And that the experience of truth occurs in silence, of this there can be no doubt. B. implies as much in the Canki Sutta when he says that the seeker “realizes the truth with the body”.

    It is not the case however that the Buddha always remained silent when asked about the truth. The Canki Sutta is a clear example of this, and the famous Kalama Sutta is another. In that short discourse, a group of common people whom he has never met before pose the question “How can we tell if a teacher or thinker is telling the truth?” He doesn’t sit in silence, neither he does he tell them that “truth is a language game”. He gives a thorough and satisfying reply to their question. He gives them the help they need. Text here:

    In another discourse he classified his answers into four types, only one of which is silence:

    It is quite clear that he had no hesitation in speaking about truth if and when the context called for it.

    I emphasize this point for a reason. The hunger for truth is a genuine hunger. The contentious morass of modern Western philosophy, in which, as you say, “asking the very question ‘truth’ sets off alarms” and “all and any answer [to this question] has no credibility”, has become for the general population not a grove of wisdom but a swamp of negation. When those who seek truth from the wise men of the age are given answers like “truth is a game” they despair or, like your aunt, choose to subscribe to a traditional or fashionable irrationality, deciding – understandably – that arbitrary emotion-based conviction is better than the anguish of incessant doubt.

    One final, minor comment: koans are not historical texts. The ones in which the Buddha appears are not depictions of incidents from his actual life as recorded in the Canon. The koan you cite is probably far less historically accurate than the Gospel of John. This has no bearing on the meaning of the particular koan you selected but is worth knowing.

    The horse image is from the Canon, probably this text:

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