Truth can be defined as:
- “best practice” or “very best practice”
- “eliminative” in that we eliminate from consideration things that are not true
- “relative” to something else
- “pragmatic” or what works
- “socially acceptable”
- “best explanation/description”
- “does not offend the conscience”
Mahayana Buddhism distinguishes “ultimate” from “relative” truth. I am honestly not sure if the Buddha spoke about ultimate truth in the Pali canon, but I don’t remember it being such a big deal in Pali as in Mahayana texts. If someone knows differently, please let me know. Anyway, in the Mahayana tradition ultimate truth is mostly sort of a positive description of nirvana, which in that tradition encompasses a full knowing of “ultimate reality”, or words to that effect. Nirvana, the term, literally means “blown out” or “gone out” and is used most basically in Buddhism to mean the extinguishment of “delusion”. Again, I just don’t remember how this word is used in the Pali canon, but I suspect the Buddha probably meant just that–that his teachings would lead to the extinguishment of delusion. What that state actually is in positive terms, he basically never said.
Modern science somewhat resembles Buddhism in this respect in that science, properly understood, never claims to have proved anything or to know anything with absolute and perfect certainty. A common metaphor used to explain this is the black swan. We used to say (Euro-centrically) that all swans are white because no one had ever seen a black one, though we now know they do exist in Australia. The point is that most anything could be true, but science reduces the probability of some occurrences to very near zero.
As human beings how are we to think of truth? I have always wanted to be a truth-seeker though I am aware that that expression sounds either pretentious or trite or both. But I don’t know of a better way to put it. Most American Buddhists would probably not object if you called them truth-seekers. As Buddhist truth-seekers, we seek nirvana or the blowing out of non-truths in our mind streams. We want to eliminate scientific non-truths as well as moral ones. We want to offend neither our reason nor our consciences.
Buddhists recognize that some of the most dangerous and egregious non-truths are immoral thoughts and behaviors; this means thoughts and behaviors that harm other sentient beings–killing them, stealing from them, sexually abusing them, lying to them, or getting drunk so much you can’t even remember where the lines between right and wrong are.
In modern psychology, a mental illness is pretty much defined as something that interferes so much with your thoughts and behaviors that you can’t take care of yourself. It doesn’t say much about morality or ethics. The problem with this sort of definition, for truth-seekers, is you can be a real shit and still be considered “normal” by most psychologists. As long as you don’t break too many laws and/or are part of a big group of powerful people, you can literally steal vast sums of money from the public and not only not get caught but actually be respected in many circles for your actions.
Psychologists themselves–our modern doctors of the mind–have been caught up in serious scandals in recent years. Isn’t this due, at least in part, to their definition of “normal” not including the basic ethical principles outlined by the Buddha? (The article linked here was just a quick find; readers who want more info can use Google to find many stories on this subject.)
Medical researchers and many scientists have the same problem. See Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science for more on this subject.
Any real truth-seeker knows you have to include your conscience in your pursuits. What good is my status as a scientist if it is based on bullshit? Or worse if it harms other beings?
The real scientific method, the true one that really works, absolutely demands that scientists be honest about their research. But in the modern world, honesty, in too many cases, won’t do the job because you also have to know how to kiss ass, get grants, play the game, form self-referential clubs that approve each others’ research. If you think I am being too cynical, please be sure to read Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science. The way science–our most powerful and profound modern truth-seeking enterprise–is actually conducted is pretty bad compared to what it could be if people consulted their consciences more than their greed, pride, status, fear, and other moral failings.
I hate sounding like a moralist, and fully admit to being a massively flawed human being, but it’s still true that nearly everything in the modern world is rotten with corruption and sleaze, and this includes science, medical research, academia, and of course, religion.
So how can we be honest? What does it even mean to speak the truth? How can anyone even do that?
You can do it with FIML. If you do FIML you will learn how to be honest with at least one other person. And I am not talking about just making some grandiose declaration but about how to do it. If you do FIML practice with the person you hold most dear in this world, you will be convinced through experience of the value and efficacy of honesty, of treating them right based on mutually agreed ethical standards. FIML will show you that anything less robs both of you of everything worth having. I do not see any other way to accomplish this except through FIML.
In the Buddha’s day, monks generally traveled in pairs for most of the year teaching the Dharma. I wonder if they did something like FIML. Did the long days with one other person for months on end produce similar results to FIML in that the monks were always able to say everything they wanted and always able to achieve a wise and calm resolution for any misunderstanding? Did their consciences always guide them toward the truth? Does yours?