Truth Without Air Quotes
May 08, 2024

Once, when I was back in college, on the day of my honors oral exam, I was sitting in the room with the professors, and one of the professors was late. So as we were waiting for him, the other professors were talking among themselves. One of them, the one who taught modern European intellectual history, was telling about a student who had just come into his office. She wanted to discuss Goethe. So he talked about the Marxist interpretation of Goethe and the Freudian interpretation of Goethe. But she told him, “I don’t want those interpretations. I want the truth.” All the professors in the room laughed. And I said to myself, “I’ve got to get out of here.” The idea that the search for truth would be something you would laugh at—and this was even before postmodernism had taken over the college.

A lot of us come with an education that calls the whole concept of objective truth into question. It teaches us to view truths simply as efforts by people to influence other people, to get them under their power, either politically or intellectually. That way, everything gets called into question. This is not only in modern academia. You see it in academia all over the world, through many different periods, as people get more and more dubious about the idea that they’re actually learning anything of objective value.

But when we come to the Buddhist teachings, he talks about the four noble truth as being undeceptive and not otherwise than what they are. He’s basically saying that they’re objective truths. He didn’t have much use for the idea of truth with air quotes.

You might ask, “How does he know they’re objective?” Look at his analysis in dependent co-arising. He’s showing you why we have that question about objective truth. We think that the information we get through our senses is our most reliable information, but prior to sensory contact, there are all kinds of things going on in the mind. There are intentions, acts of attention—choosing what to focus on, what not to focus on—perceptions; all kinds of things shaping the things we’re going to see and hear and taste and touch and smell, even before they happen. So no wonder we’re dubious as we get conscious of these different factors and see how they shape even basic things like how we see an object, how we listen to a sound. We begin to wonder, “Is there any objective truth at all?”

The Buddha, though, said that there is one noble truth that’s the noblest of the bunch. That’s the truth of nibbana. It’s outside of dependent co-arising. It’s something totally unfabricated. The processes of dependent co-arising are fabricated. They’re put together. They’re put together with a purpose, often with ignorant purposes, but there’s this other possibility of something where you actually step out of the processes of your mind into something that is outside of space, outside of time, outside of purposes.

That gives you a different perspective, something that’s not conditioned in any way at all. To say nothing of social conditioning or linguistic conditions, there’s no conditioning, period. No perceptions, no thought constructs, no feelings, no sensory consciousness, no awareness of the body. As the Buddha said, it’s the ultimate happiness. And it is a state of knowing, even though you’re not engaged in the six senses. As he said, this consciousness is not experienced through the six senses. It’s something outside.

The image he gives is of a beam of light. Ordinarily, say, when the sun rises in the morning and a light beam goes through a window in the eastern wall of a house, it’ll land on the western wall. If you take away the western wall, it’ll land on the ground. And as he asked the monks, “If there’s no ground, what happens?” Back in those days they believed there was water under the ground, supporting the earth. So it would land on the water. What if there’s no water? The beam doesn’t land.

Think about that for a minute: a beam of light that doesn’t land. Because it doesn’t reflect off anything, you don’t see it. Think about outer space. It looks black to us, but there’s light streaming in all directions. We see it only when it’s reflected off of things. In the same way, there is this consciousness that doesn’t engage the senses, and it’s totally unfabricated.

The question is, how do you know? This is where the path comes in. All four of the noble truths, the Buddha said, are true and not otherwise than what they seem. The third truth tells us that there is this possibility of the cessation of suffering. But to get there, we need to fabricate a path. And it’s in the fabrication of the path that you get more and more sensitive to how the mind fabricates things—even with something as simple as the practice of virtue.

Some people treat virtue as an optional part of the practice, while the real practice, of course, lies in the techniques of meditation. But the Buddha never taught it that way. He taught virtue as an integral part of the path, because it’s through the practice of virtue—when you take on certain precepts and you try to follow them—that you start learning about the mind. The rule of the precepts is that you can break them only if you do it intentionally. So they call attention to your intentions, which are one of the ways in which we fabricate our experience.

You also learn which kind of intentions are skillful, which ones are not. And you can see how they have an impact on your life. You start holding to the precepts, and your life is going to change. The world around you is going to change. That sensitizes you to one of those factors that comes before sensory contact: intention.

Even more so when you get the mind into concentration. As we were saying today, the techniques that seem to get the best results are the ones that make you very sensitive to the process of fabrication, like focusing on the breath. The Buddha’s instructions deal with what he calls bodily fabrication, the in-and-out breath, and then mental fabrications, which are the perceptions you use as you try to get the mind to settle down, the mental images, the words you use—individual words—to direct yourself.

For example, you can have an image of where the breath could flow into the body. Say there’s a pain in the back. Do you want the breath to flow through the pain from above? Through it from below? Or do you want it to go straight into the pain itself without having any other part of the body involved? That’s an issue of perception.

As the instructions to breath meditation say, you try to sensitize yourself to these kinds of mental fabrications: perceptions and feelings. Then, of course, the instructions for how to talk to yourself as you guide the breath meditation are verbal fabrication. You pick a topic and you comment on it.

The Buddha’s trying to get us to see these things simply as processes, rather than in terms of what their content might be, because these are the same processes by which we create an emotion, we create a state of becoming. The emotion has a meaning, it has a content, but here we’re trying to stay away from the content and to focus on the processes just in and of themselves, so that you can get more sensitive to how you do things. And also more sensitive to how you can pull yourself out of something that you’ve fabricated and realize, “I don’t have to fabricate it that way.”

We have moods where we talk to ourselves and it’s the same thing over and over and over again. But you don’t have to talk to yourself in those ways. Can’t you imagine something else? So you look at these inner conversations simply as directed thoughts and acts of evaluation. That pulls you out of the content of your thinking, the content of your internal dialogue or monologue or whatever, to see the processes just as processes.

Breath meditation is really good for that. Contemplation of the body is really good for that, too, because it requires that you hold a mental image of the body in mind. That’s a perception. You start asking questions about it. That’s verbal fabrication. Some ajaans recommend that when you’re focusing on a particular organ of the body—say you’re trying to think about your liver—well, notice: What does it feel like in the area of the body where the liver probably is located?

Again, you’re getting involved in the different kinds of fabrication, but in particular, you’re going to be interested in the acts of perception, because it’s through perception that we decide that the body is attractive or unattractive. You start seeing how quickly you can switch from one to another. That raises the question: Why do you do that?

This makes you pay more attention to your intentions. What do you want? All too often we think that, say, lust arises because somebody attractive walks by. But often there’s lust without anybody else around at all. The mind is looking for something to lust for, and if it has nothing outside, it’ll imagine all kinds of things inside. But you begin to realize a lot of those imaginations are lying to you. They focus only on the details that you find attractive, and as for the other details, they’re just blotted out. Why is that? Again, it’s your intention. It’s what you’re looking for.

So these are concentration practices that are also very useful for insight because they get you more sensitive to the processes of fabrication as processes with a purpose. And that’s what discernment is all about: seeing these things as processes and then passing judgment on them. Are they really worth it? Are their purposes good? How do they come about? How do they pass away? What’s their allure? What are their drawbacks? Again, you’re looking at them as processes—stepping out.

Ideally you get to the point where you have some dispassion for them, because it’s our passion that drives the processes of fabrication. This is why Ven. Sāriputta—when he was asked how he would explain the Buddhist teachings to people who had never encountered them before—started with the sentence, “Our teacher teaches the end of desire and passion.” He doesn’t discuss a worldview, which was very typical of the teachings of those times. He talks about an action and a value of judgment, which comes from looking at these things as processes.

When you get really familiar with the processes, then—when there’s an opening that comes from developing a strong sense of dispassion for them, not wanting to stick with your old processes and not wanting to create any new ones, and you’re really at your wit’s end—something opens up, which is unfabricated, and you recognize it as unfabricated because it’s not in space, and it’s not in time. It’s not for the sake of anything, which is what all fabrication is all about. It’s not for the sake of anything at all.

There was someone one time who asked the Buddha, “What’s the purpose of virtue?” Virtue is for the sake of concentration. “What’s concentration for?” Concentration is for the sake of discernment. “What’s discernment for?” Discernment is for the sake of developing dispassion. Dispassion is for the sake of unbinding. “What is unbinding for?” The Buddha stopped there an said, “No, you can’t go any further. This is not for anything else.” That’s how you recognize it as unfabricated.

And it’s the same for everybody. As the Buddha said, those who have attained awakening have no disagreement with anyone else who has attained awakening. It’s all the same thing for everybody. That’s what’s objective about it.

So even though the Buddha’s teachings are, you would say, more pragmatic than empirical, they’re still objective: This is the way consciousness is built. This is the way the mind works. These are the processes that lead to suffering. If you want an end to suffering, this is what you’ve got to do.

It’s interesting that with dependent co-arising, in later centuries, the question arose: Is dependent co-arising happening in the context of the world at large or inside the mind? Yet there was a good reason why that question was left uncertain in the early texts—because the Buddha basically would have said, well, neither. Dependent co-arising is how we create a sense of the world, how we create a sense of ourselves. Instead of being inside you or inside the world, dependent co-arising contains you and the world. Seeing things in these terms requires stepping back from our usual worldview, stepping back from our usual views of the self, seeing how they’re formed, to induce that dispassion that can lead to what’s unformed, unfabricated.

The steps leading there have to be the same, in principle, for everybody. That’s why the path is also objective. All four noble truths are objective in that way, because they lead to something that’s not conditioned by anything at all. And when you arrive there, you recognize it as the highest possible happiness. It’s not only objective, it’s also objectively excellent. That’s the truth that the Buddha is teaching us, the truth he’s aiming at us at. It’s truth without air quotes. It’s the real thing.