The Pali Canon contains a puzzle on the topic of truth (sacca). On the one hand, there are passages teaching the four noble truths and asserting that these truths are categorical—i.e., universally true across the board (DN 9). There are also passages equating the attainment of awakening with the “attainment of truth” (MN 95). On the other hand, there are passages like these, from the Aṭṭhaka Vagga (Sn 4), implying that the Buddha was beyond holding to any assertions as “true” or “false”:
Of what would the brahman say ‘true’
disputing with whom:
he in whom ‘equal,’ ‘unequal’ are not. (Sn 4:9)
Those who dispute, taking hold of a view,
saying, “This, and this only, is true,”
those you can talk to.
Here there is nothing—
at the birth of disputes. (Sn 4:8)
The Canon also contains a related puzzle on the issue of views (diṭṭhi), the opinions that people adopt about the truth. On the one hand, it draws a sharp line between right and wrong views, asserting that seeing things in terms of the four noble truths is right view, and that right view is an indispensable part of the path to the end of suffering (SN 45:8). On the other, the Canon contains passages like these, also from the Aṭṭhaka Vagga, asserting that a person at peace is better off not clinging to any view or asserting any view as necessarily true.
But how—in connection with what—
would you argue
with one uninvolved?
He has nothing
embraced or rejected,
has sloughed off every view
right here—every one. (Sn 4:3)
By whom, with what,
should he be pigeonholed
here in the world?
who hasn’t adopted views. (Sn 4:5)
I don’t say, ‘That’s how it is,’
the way fools tell one another.
They each make out their views to be true
and so regard their opponents as fools. (Sn 4:12)
The brahman, evaluating,
doesn’t accept theory,
doesn’t follow views,
isn’t tied even to knowledge. (Sn 4:13)
There are two principal ways to approach these puzzles. One is to take them as signs that the Buddha’s teachings on truth and views were subtle and nuanced, and that the contradictions in the puzzles are best treated as intentional paradoxes. The question is then whether the paradoxes can be resolved, say, by checking the Canon more carefully to see if the Buddha used the words “truth” and “view” in different ways in different contexts, or if he recommended different ways of relating to truths and views at different stages of the practice.
The other approach is to assume that the Buddha’s attitude to truths and views was basically simple, and that he defined his terms consistently across the board, with no variations for different stages in the path. From this assumption it would follow that only one side of each contradiction—either the side with a firm sense of right and wrong and true and false, or the side rejecting notions of right and wrong and true and false—accurately reflects the Buddha’s views on truth and views, and that the other side is a later interpolation inconsistent with the Buddha’s true teachings on these topics.
Now, the above passages asserting the need to go beyond views and attachments to true and false all come from the Aṭṭhaka Vagga, a set of poems in the fifth nikāya, or collection of suttas, in the Pali Canon. Because the Aṭṭhaka Vagga is mentioned in other parts of the Canon, indicating that it is older than the passages that mention it, a number of scholars have proposed that it is actually older than all the rest of the Canon. Taking up this proposal, those who hold to the simpler school of interpretation have suggested that these passages reflect the Buddha’s original views on truths and views. As a result, they conclude that the passages asserting the categorical status of the four noble truths and right view found in the rest of the Canon—the Vinaya, the first four nikāyas, and other poetry in the fifth nikāya—are later interpolations.
From there, these scholars have further interpreted these passages from the Aṭṭhaka Vagga in line with traditional Western schools of thought that have also questioned the existence of objective truths, coming to a variety of conclusions such as these:
- A person on the path should hold to no fixed views of right and wrong, even views about the path.
- The Buddha refused to take a position on questions of “truth” because there is no way of knowing if assertions about truths correspond to the way things actually are. Agnosticism is thus the position closest to the Buddha’s own attitude to truth.
- The Buddha believed that each person has to find his or her own truth, and that any attempt to assert a universal truth is nothing more than an illegitimate attempt to assert power over others.
Although these conclusions differ in their details, they all agree in rejecting the idea of categorical, objective truths—of a clear right and wrong. Thus, if they were an accurate portrayal of the Buddha’s position on truths and views, they would further imply, at the very least, that the traditional teachings on the four noble truths and right view are nothing more than subjective opinions that carry no special authority for a person interested in trying to put an end to suffering. More seriously, they would imply that the traditional teachings are a gross distortion of the Buddha’s message, that the four noble truths are not really true, that even the idea of “right view” is wrong, and that a person on the path should hold to no truths and no views at all, even about the means and ends of the path.
It doesn’t take too much thought to see that each of the above conclusions is self-contradictory, in that no view asserting the invalidity of truths and views can avoid calling itself into question. And if we can’t have views about the true means and ends of the Buddhist path, why are we talking about Buddhism at all?
But even if we put aside the issue of whether these conclusions can stand up to close scrutiny on their own terms, a survey of the Pali Canon shows that they are based on a false assumption about the Canon. That assumption is that there is a sharp line of distinction between the contents of the Aṭṭhaka Vagga and that of the rest of the Canon, and that these two parts of the Canon stand consistently on opposite sides of the issue of truths and views.
For instance, the first four nikāyas, like the Aṭṭhaka Vagga, also contain passages asserting that the awakened ones have gone beyond clinging to views (SN 12:2), and to assertions of true and false. Here, for instance, is a passage from AN 4:24:
“Whatever is seen or heard or sensed
and fastened onto as true by others,
One who is Such—among the self-fettered—
would not further claim to be true or even false.
“Having seen well in advance that arrow
where generations are fastened & hung
—‘I know, I see, that’s just how it is!’—
there’s nothing of the Tathāgata [a fully awakened one] fastened.”
As for the Aṭṭhaka Vagga, it contains many passages asserting right views in line with the four noble truths, such as Sn 4:1, 4:2, and 4:7, which agree with the second noble truth in identifying three types of craving—for sensuality, becoming, and non-becoming—as causes for suffering; Sn 4:15, which agrees with the third noble truth in extolling unbinding (nibbāna) as the goal; and Sn 4:16, which agrees with the fourth noble truth in recommending right resolve, right speech, right action, and jhāna as right concentration. The Aṭṭhaka Vagga also contains the following dialogue, in which the Buddha asserts the existence of a consistent objective truth that human beings can know:
“What some say is true
—‘That’s how it is’—
others say is ‘falsehood, a lie.’
Thus quarreling, they dispute.
Why can’t contemplatives
say one thing & the same?”
“The truth is one.
There is no second
about which a person who knows it
would argue with one who knows.
their various idiosyncratic truths.
That’s why they don’t say
one thing & the same.”
“But why do they say
those who say they are skilled?
Have they learned many various truths
or do they follow conjecture?”
“Apart from their perception
there are no
in the world.” (Sn 4:12)
At the same time, the series of poems in the Aṭṭhaka Vagga discussing issues of truth start with the following passage, indicating that their rejection of “true” and “false” holds, not for all truths, but for idiosyncratic (pacceka) ones: i.e., truths that are not universally true.
‘Only here is there purity’
—that’s what they say—
‘No other doctrines are pure’
—so they say.
Insisting that what they depend on is good,
they are deeply entrenched
in their idiosyncratic truths. (Sn 4:8)
Taken together, these passages suggest that the Buddha in the Aṭṭhaka Vagga was denying, not the validity of all views and truths, but only the validity of universal claims made for views and truths that don’t deserve them. Given that many of the poems in the Aṭṭhaka Vagga take the form of riddles, with frequent paradoxes and plays on words, it shouldn’t be surprising that its message is complex.
These two passages also call into question the three conclusions drawn from taking the previous Aṭṭhaka Vagga passages out of context:
- Because the truth is one, it can be argued that it doesn’t change. Thus there can be fixed standards for measuring one’s own views as right or wrong. As long as one is still on the path, one should regard right view as unfixed only to the extent that one has yet to confirm through experience whether it is genuinely right in leading to the end of suffering.
- The fact that people can know this truth implies that they are in a position to judge how well statements about it actually correspond to its reality. And because they know, agnosticism is far from the Buddha’s own recommended attitude toward truth.
- The fact that people who actually know genuine truth don’t dispute with one another about it implies that the truth is the same for all who experience it, and that it is not a purely subjective or individual matter.
All of this suggests that the simple school of interpretation doesn’t do justice to the Pali Canon’s puzzles on truths and views. This means that we have to explore how they might function as paradoxes to be resolved. To do this, we have to look more closely at what the Canon has to say on the question of truths and views to see if we can detect any nuances or distinctions that would help to resolve the paradoxes and provide practical insights into how to relate to truths and views in a way that actually leads to the end of suffering.
The first distinction worth noting is that the word “truth” in the Canon has at least two meanings that are relevant to the paradoxes.
In some instances, “truth” means a true event or experience—something that actually happens or exists. In others, “truth” means a statement about actual events or experiences. The failure to note this distinction has bedeviled many Western writers trained in schools of thought that hold to the belief that “truth” applies only to statements, and not to events described by statements. The fact that the Buddha didn’t hold to this belief is shown in the following passage, which describes unbinding itself as a truth:
“Whatever is deceptive is false; unbinding—the undeceptive—is true. Thus a monk so endowed is endowed with the highest determination for truth, for this—unbinding, the undeceptive—is the highest noble truth.” (MN 140)
Similarly, the following passage talks about experiencing a truth “with the body,” which obviously means, not touching a statement, but directly realizing the experience of the truth in and of itself:
“Exerting himself, he both realizes the ultimate meaning of the truth with his body and sees by penetrating it with discernment.” (MN 95)
The Buddha also uses “truth” in this way when he teaches the duties appropriate to the four noble truths: that the truth of suffering is to be comprehended, the truth of its cause abandoned, the truth of its cessation realized, and the truth of the path to its cessation developed (SN 56:11). Obviously, these duties don’t involve, for example, abandoning the statement about the cause of suffering, or developing the statement about the path. Instead, you abandon the actual qualities of mind that act as the cause, and develop the actual qualities of mind that function as the path.
Understanding these two meanings of “truth” helps to resolve the paradox concerning the relationship of the fully awakened person to the truth. On the one hand, such a person has reached the truth of a deathless dimension that is freed from attachments to all things and is not dependent on any conditions. This is the sense in which such a person has attained the truth. At the same time, however, because views and statements about truths are dependent on conditions, a person who fully attains the truth of awakening has to be free of all attachments to views and statements about truths, even to true statements about the truth of awakening itself.
However, this attainment doesn’t come just by telling yourself to abandon views and truths. You have to comprehend the reasons for being attached to views in the first place, and to develop genuine dispassion for those reasons. To do this, you have to depend on true views about the reasons for attachment and the means for inducing dispassion. This is why, even though awakening involves letting go of all views and statements about truth, the path there requires holding to certain views and statements about truth as consistent guidelines for the right way to let go. This means that you relate to truth in one way when you’re on the path, and another way when you’ve reached the goal. This is the second distinction worth noting.
One of the most famous paradoxes in the Aṭṭhaka Vagga points to precisely this distinction:
One doesn’t describe purity
in terms of view,
habit or practice.
Nor is it found by a person
through lack of view,
of habit or practice. (Sn 4:9)
The same distinction is conveyed by the famous simile of the raft in MN 22:
“Then the man, having gathered grass, twigs, branches, & leaves, having bound them together to make a raft, would cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with his hands & feet. Having crossed over to the further shore, he might think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having hoisted it on my head or carrying on my back, go wherever I like?’
“What do you think, monks? Would the man, in doing that, be doing what should be done with the raft?“
“And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?’ In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft.”
Even though you let go of the raft on reaching the shore, you have to keep holding firmly to the raft while making an effort with your hands and feet to reach the shore in the first place. To make a show of your lack of attachment to the raft by dancing around on the top of it is to risk being swept away by the river to the whirlpools downstream.
Putting this principle into practice when following the path means two things:
(1) adopting right—i.e., effective—views about truth;
(2) using them properly.
In judging whether a view is right or wrong, the Buddha advises assessing it in terms of the consequence of holding on to it. This means judging it by the actions it leads to and the results of those actions—and specifically how well those actions lead to the end of suffering. MN 126 illustrates this point by comparing the act of adopting wrong views to that of trying to get milk from a cow by twisting its horn, or sesame oil by grinding gravel. To adopt right views, it says, is like trying to get milk from a cow by pulling on its udder, or sesame oil by grinding sesame seeds.
In this way, the Buddha recommends looking at truths as instrumental, i.e., as means to an end. His position on this point is similar to that of Western Pragmatism, which also recommends judging truths in terms of the acts they inspire, and how well those acts lead to your desired goals. However, the Buddha’s teaching here differs from that of Pragmatism on two important points.
- The first is that, in some forms of Western Pragmatism, a statement can be judged to be true simply on grounds of utility: If adopting it as a view is beneficial as means to a particular end, such as making money or soothing your feelings, then it’s true. This, however, leaves room for declaring some useful fictions—views of the world that don’t really accord with the way it is—as true as long as they give the desired benefits when put into action. An example would be a false view of the world—say, one in which your actions can have no negative consequences—that you find useful because it’s comforting, or that allows you to pursue your aims without qualms about unintended consequences.
In MN 58, however, the Buddha indicates that some truths are beneficial and some are not, but that all beneficial statements must first be true. In other words, utility alone is not enough to qualify an idea as true. Truth and utility are two separate things. Some statements may be true in the sense of corresponding to reality, but adopting them may not be beneficial for the ending of suffering. At the same time, no statement that doesn’t correspond to reality can be regarded as either beneficial or true.
What the Pali Canon means by “corresponds” here can be inferred from the way it deals with offenses in the Vinaya, or disciplinary rules. There we find three ways in which correspondence to reality plays a role in analyzing what is and is not an offense. All three types of correspondence are fairly straightforward and commonsensical, but they prove to have deeper implications for the practice.
First, for a perception to be true, it must match the facts: To perceive a human being as a human being, for instance, is a true perception. To perceive that human being as a common animal or a mannequin would be a false perception. For ease of reference, this can be called correspondence of perception.
Second, when one makes a statement to others—especially when accusing another monk of an offense—one must accurately cite one’s evidence for making the statement. If the statement is based on what one heard someone else report, and one says so, that would count as corresponding to the truth. If one says that it was based on what one saw, that would not. This can be called correspondence of citation.
Third, when one is accused of an offense, one must give a truthful account of what one actually did. This means being honest not only about one’s physical or verbal actions, but also about one’s motivation and intentions associated with those actions. This can be called correspondence of narrative.
These three types of correspondence also function in the practice of the Dhamma.
First, in the practice of mindfulness, one must accurately discern what is happening in the mind: discerning, for example, a passionate mind state as a passionate mind state, or a pleasant feeling as a pleasant feeling.
Second, when making a statement, one “safeguards the truth” by accurately reporting the evidence or line of thought on which the statement is based (MN 95). For example, if one’s statement is based on reasoning rather than direct experience, one safeguards the truth by saying so. Even though this second type of correspondence focuses primarily on statements to others, it carries over into matters within the mind. If you are careful about citing the sources of the opinions you express to others, you will also become more sensitive to the sources of your own internal assumptions about the world and the self. This helps you to see how arbitrary many of those assumptions are, which makes it easier to abandon them if they get in the way of the practice.
Finally, as the Buddha taught his son, Rāhula (MN 61), anyone who hopes to make progress in the path must be truthful in assessing his or her motives when contemplating an action in thought, word, or deed, and in assessing the actual results of one’s actions, both while doing them and after they’re done. You can’t learn to advance your aims—i.e., you can’t be a truly effective pragmatist—if you don’t accurately know what you’re doing and the results of what you’ve done.
The second and third types of truth-as-correspondence—accurately citing the source of your opinions and giving an honest account of your actions—are directly related to each other, in that they focus your attention on your actions: what you did to shape the opinions that you bring to experience, and how you shape your experience in general through your intentions. The ability to be sensitive to these processes as they happen is central to the development of liberating discernment.
The importance of all three types of truth-as-correspondence in the practice is reflected in the Buddha’s admonition to Rāhula: His very first lesson to Rāhula was that anyone who feels no shame at telling a deliberate lie is devoid of the goodness of a contemplative (MN 61). Elsewhere, the Buddha stated that if you feel no shame at telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil that you will not do (Iti 25).
In this way, the Buddha’s standard of truth was not purely pragmatic. Right view, to be genuinely right, has to be pragmatic and correspond to the way things are.
- The second point of difference between the Buddha’s attitude toward truth and that of Western Pragmatism is that many forms of Pragmatism lack any objective standards for judging “what works,” when put into practice, in attaining a desired goal. All too often a pragmatic argument for a particular truth is, “It’s good enough for me,” and that ends the discussion. There are no objective standards for judging what’s a worthwhile goal, or how well a truth has to work in order to be “good enough.”
The Buddha, however, offered an objective standard for judging appropriate goals and the extent to which views work as means toward those goals. He began by noting that all action aims at happiness and wellbeing. The best goal would thus be a happiness that cannot change into suffering. The fact that such a happiness exists is the teaching of the third noble truth: the cessation of suffering. This is the Buddha’s absolute standard for judging goals. Any lesser happiness in accordance with the attainment of this fact—i.e., a happiness that doesn’t require actions that would get in the way of realizing this goal—might qualify as a worthwhile proximate goal, but it should be recognized as just that—proximate, and not ultimate. Any happiness whose attainment would stand in the way of attaining the fact of the third noble truth would not be a worthwhile goal at all.
This may be one of the reasons why the Buddha declared unbinding, the cessation of suffering, as the highest noble truth, not only because it is undeceptive, but also because it provides the objective standard for judging the efficacy of all other truths.
With regard to the right use of truths, the Buddha first points out three misuses of right view. The first is to draw improper inferences, or to fail to draw the proper inferences, from it (AN 2:24). Unfortunately, the Buddha doesn’t give detailed criteria for what he means here, and we have to read widely in the Canon to observe which sorts of inferences he and his noble disciples actually draw from the basic teachings, and which sorts they reject.
The second misuse of right view is to develop pride around the fact of adopting it, as if that in and of itself made you a better person than others (Sn 4:5).
The third misuse of right view is to employ it simply for the purpose of winning debates. This is a point, however, that carries several nuances. The Canon is filled with warnings against debating for the sake of debate—this is the context for the Aṭṭhaka Vagga’s criticism of those who argue for their idiosyncratic truths (Sn 4:5, 4:8)—but the Canon also lists legitimate purposes for debate, such as establishing what is actually Dhamma and what is not (AN 1:140–141), defending the Dhamma against false accusations and misrepresentations (AN 10:93–94), and helping well-meaning but confused people to clarify their views (MN 56). This means that debates are not necessarily a bad thing, and that the purpose of engaging in debate is what determines whether doing so is a valid use of right view.
The primary intended purpose of right view is to be used as a guide in developing all the right factors of the path, from right view itself through right concentration (MN 117). As SN 22:39 shows, doing this in accordance with the Dhamma leads to dispassion for all things. In practice, this means that the factors of the path are used to develop dispassion first for anything that deviates from the path, and then for themselves, so that the mind can attain total release.
The way they do this can be seen in a number of passages treating the issue of how right view is used in developing dispassion specifically for views.
In AN 10:93, Anāthapiṇḍika visits a gathering of sectarians who ask him the views of the Buddha and his arahant disciples. Anāthapiṇḍika, who had already reached the first level of awakening, makes an interesting reply: He doesn’t know the full extent of the Buddha’s views. This, of course, relates to the fact that a fully awakened person has gone beyond views.
The sectarians then ask Anāthapiṇḍika about his own views, and in response he first asks to hear theirs. It turns out that they all hold positions on the hot debate topics of the day, such as the extent of the cosmos or the existence or non-existence of the soul. Anāthapiṇḍika criticizes their views, but instead of challenging the content of their positions, he focuses on the act of creating and holding to a position. In each case, he says, regardless of the content of the position, it comes from conditions that are inconstant and stressful. By holding to such views, the sectarians are all holding on to stress.
The sectarians then ask Anāthapiṇḍika his view, and he replies:
“‘Whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently co-arisen: That is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. Whatever is stress is not me, is not what I am, is not my self.’ This is the sort of view I have.”
On hearing this, the sectarians try to turn Anāthapiṇḍika’s argument against him, saying that in holding to his view, he too is holding on to stress. He counters, however, by saying that in looking at views in this way, he is also able to discern the escape from that stress. His argument leaves the sectarians at a loss for words, and so he returns to the Buddha, who commends him for refuting the sectarians in this way.
This passage shows that right view contains the seeds for its own transcendence because it focuses not so much on the world outside but on the processes with which the mind creates its sense of the world. In doing so, it also draws attention to the processes of clinging in the mind, and judges them to be not-self: i.e., not worth holding on to. This is how right view develops dispassion for all processes—including, ultimately, any clinging to itself or to any of the other factors of the path.
This point is further explained in many other discourses, but three in particular stand out. In DN 1, the Buddha traces a variety of views—including four types of agnosticism—to sensory contact, and from there he follows the process of holding to views on to its consequences: through feeling, craving, clinging, becoming, and ultimately stress. In SN 22:81, he analyzes the processes by which the mind creates and holds to another variety of views—again including agnosticism—tracing them in the other direction, back to their causes, from fabrication through craving, feeling, and ultimately to contact with ignorance. In a sutta in the Aṭṭhaka Vagga—Sn 4:11—he treats quarrels over views as part of a cluster of such qualities as selfishness, conceit, and pride, and again traces the entire cluster back to its causes: through things that are loved, desire, the distinction between “appealing” and “unappealing,” contact, and ultimately to perceptions.
Despite the different details in how these suttas trace the processes surrounding the act of holding to views, in all of them the strategy is the same: to see that views come from processes that include intentional actions, or kamma, such as fabrication, craving, and desire. This is why the teaching on kamma is such an important tool in the strategy of right views, for without seeing the choices involved in intentional acts, one might assume that there was no choice but to follow in one’s old ways. These intentional acts, in turn, are shown to exist in a web of dependencies that are fragile, unreliable, and unsafe, in that holding to them one opens oneself to suffering.
This strategy of looking at the processes surrounding the act of creating and holding to views is where adherence to the second and third types of truth-as-correspondence—sensitivity to the source of one’s views, and sensitivity to one’s actions and their results—bears full fruit. Without having developed sensitivity to these types of truth on the blatant level, it would be impossible to undertake this subtler stage in dismantling attachment to views.
The ultimate result, as Sn 4:11 concludes, is to see that genuine safety can be found only in going beyond dependencies of every sort. And only when the mind realizes this can it be in a position to abandon all passion for fabricating those actions and dependencies any further. When the mind stops fabricating them, they cease. As MN 118 and DN 1 add, when this cessation is followed by full relinquishment—of even the discernment that led to cessation—the mind is fully released. In the words of DN 1:
“This, monks, the Tathāgata discerns. And he discerns that these standpoints, thus seized, thus grasped at, lead to such & such a destination, to such & such a state in the world beyond. And he discerns what is higher than this. And yet discerning that, he does not grasp at that act of discerning. And as he is not grasping at it, unbinding [nibbuti] is experienced right within. Knowing, as they have come to be, the origination, ending, allure, & drawbacks of feelings, along with the emancipation from feelings, the Tathāgata, monks—through lack of clinging/sustenance—is released.”
However, without that discernment and the strategies needed to give rise to it, even the Buddha’s release wouldn’t have happened. This is why, even though a fully-awakened person has gone beyond attachment to views, he or she recognizes that the truths of right view are essential guides to those strategies. As a result, when teaching others, such people continue to teach the truths of right view so that their listeners, in holding to them, can master those strategies. And it’s important that they hold to these truths consistently, for only then will those strategies be able to do their work in an all-around way.
But because those strategies are means to an end, the Buddha was careful to leave behind a number of paradoxical teachings about truths and views as a warning not to fall into the simple-minded trap of taking views as ends in themselves—thinking, for instance, that the purpose of the path is to arrive at right view—and to realize instead that there will come a point in the practice where even ideas of “true” and “false” must be put aside.
So the more fully we appreciate the Buddha’s paradoxes on truths and views, the more fully we’ll be able to benefit from the consequences of adopting right view and putting into practice the truths that he taught.