The Truth of Words
As we have noted, the Buddha saw that every truth expressed in words is instrumental, a means to an end. This is in line with the fact that all words are fabricated by the mind, and—as he himself observed—all fabrications are put together for the sake of something. They’re meant to serve an aim.
The Buddha chose his words so that they would serve the most beneficial aim of all: leading the listener to the reality of the end of suffering.
He was once asked if he would ever say anything displeasing to others, and in the course of his answer he explained the framework he used in deciding what was worth saying and what wasn’t (MN 58). The framework boils down to three questions:
• Are these words true?
• Are they beneficial?
• Is this the right time to say something pleasing, or is it the time to say something displeasing?
If something wasn’t true, he wouldn’t say it. If it was true but not beneficial, he wouldn’t say it. Only if it was true and beneficial would he go on to the third question: Given his audience and their state of mind, would it be more beneficial to express that truth in a pleasing or a displeasing way?
It’s easy to see how pleasing words would be beneficial. Listeners tend to be open to hearing them. As for the case of displeasing words that were beneficial, the Buddha gave an analogy: If a baby boy had put a sharp object in his mouth, then if you had compassion for the boy, you’d do everything you could to get the object out, even if it meant drawing blood. Your aim would be that he not swallow the object and do even more harm. In the same way, if the Buddha saw people behaving in ways that were harmful to themselves or to others, he would sometimes warn them sharply, both to get them to stop those harmful ways and, if there was an audience, to let the audience know that that kind of behavior definitely shouldn’t be taken as an example to follow.
The way the Buddha sets out his framework makes two important points. The first is that, as he goes through the various possible combinations of true/false, beneficial/unbeneficial, pleasing/unpleasing, there is one combination that he doesn’t even consider as a possibility: that a statement could be false but beneficial. For him, only true words could be beneficial in the long term. He had no use for the idea of useful fictions. Some fictions might be beneficial in the short term, but over the long term they would end up doing harm: either in misleading the listener or in destroying the listener’s trust.
The second point is that the Buddha also had no use for the idea that displeasing words were necessarily harmful. People are not damaged by hearing words they don’t like, especially if those words are meant to benefit them. The skill, here, of course, lies in knowing the right time and place for words of that sort so that they’ll actually have the desired beneficial result.
What this means is that the Buddha was interested in truths—as words—not for their own sake, but for how well they worked. This is why, when the Canon describes the Buddha’s style of teaching, it uses four verbs: He would not only instruct his listeners, but he would also urge, rouse, and encourage them. In other words, he wouldn’t just give them information about the path to the end of suffering. He would also try to get them to follow it. In terms of the factors of the path to the end of suffering, the information was to give them right views about how to solve the problem of suffering; the urging, rousing, and encouraging was to get them to generate the desire to follow the path—the desire that lies at the heart of right resolve and right effort.
After all, the point of his teaching was to get his listeners to the reality of suffering’s end. Simply listening to the words wouldn’t get them there. They would have to understand the words and act on them. In some cases, they did this while he was speaking. They took his lessons and used them to observe their own minds, performing the duties appropriate to the four noble truths and achieving one or another of the levels of awakening right then and there. This, for example, was what happened during his first talk. In other cases, the listeners would take his words and practice in line with them later, reaching the goal when they were off on their own.
The four verbs fall into two categories: His words of instruction were descriptive: true to the extent that they gave an accurate picture of what should be known as to what suffering is, how it’s caused, and how it can be ended. The words with which he urged, roused, and encouraged his listeners were performative: true to the extent that they inspired actions that were actually possible, based on accurate descriptions of reality, and would give the right result—the reality of the end of suffering.
The Buddha’s descriptive words and performative words both count as instrumental. They differ simply in that they function in different ways. The descriptive words give you a map to the end of suffering, including information useful for that purpose and omitting irrelevant details. An example would be the Buddha’s detailed analyses of the four noble truths. The performative words encourage you to follow the map. Examples would be his teachings that prepare your mind to accept his analysis of how to end suffering, and those that energize you to practice in line with that analysis once you’ve accepted it as a working hypothesis. When you arrive at the goal, you no longer have to follow the map and—aside from showing it to others for their benefit—you can put it aside.
The Buddha’s desire for words that work not only shaped his teaching style. It also shaped the criteria he recommended that his listeners use in determining what was true Dhamma and what wasn’t. Just because words could be found in the texts claiming to come from the Buddha didn’t mean that they were necessarily true Dhamma. After all, as he noted, people might remember his words wrongly. The only way his listeners could be sure that a teaching was true Dhamma would be if they were true enough to put the words to the test to see if they actually worked.
This is one of the most interesting features of the early Buddhist texts. The Buddha knew that the tradition had to be handed down by teachers and texts, but when those texts list various true and false criteria for determining the truth, among the false criteria are the claims that something is true either because it’s taught by your teacher or because it’s found in a text. The true criterion is that the teaching has to be tested to see what kinds of actions it leads to and what the results of those actions are.
However, this doesn’t mean that people can validly test the Dhamma any way they like. The texts prescribe a method for testing the truth of a teaching—any teaching—and this method is central to the Dhamma in the same way that the scientific method is central to science. Just as a discovery counts as scientific knowledge only if the researcher correctly follows the scientific method, Dhamma can be known as true Dhamma only if you test it in line with the Dhamma method.
Like the scientific method, the Dhamma method has very clear standards for what does and doesn’t count as a sufficient proof of a statement’s truth.
The Canon lists the following reasons as insufficient proofs (AN 3:66; MN 95): A teaching isn’t true
just because you’re convinced it has to be true,
just because you like it,
just because it’s logical,
just because it’s probable,
just because it’s consistent—either through inference or through analogies—with other views you hold,
just because it’s been passed down by an unbroken tradition,
just because it’s found in scripture, or
just because it’s said by a person you’ve taken as your teacher.
A statement meeting these criteria could be true but could also be false.
The basic standard for what does count as a sufficient proof is very simple in principle: A teaching is true if, when put into practice, you can see that it yields the promised results.
Of course, the very idea that you can test the truth of statements by putting them into practice and judging the results makes some basic assumptions about the nature of reality. This is true both with the scientific method and with the Dhamma method. Both methods make the following assumptions:
Causal relations follow a pattern that holds true over time. In other words, causal relations are not totally chaotic, and the pattern they follow doesn’t change arbitrarily from one moment to the next. If it did, a hypothesis that tested true today wouldn’t necessarily hold true tomorrow.
The causal pattern is not totally deterministic. You have at least some freedom to make choices in the present moment that will change situations in the present moment. In other words, your actions are not totally determined by the past. If they were, you couldn’t manipulate a situation to see which manipulations had an effect on other events, and which ones didn’t. You couldn’t conduct scientific experiments, and you couldn’t try out different beliefs to see what impact they had on your actions.
The mind has the power to influence events. It’s not totally determined by material causes. If it were, you wouldn’t be able to design an experiment to test a hypothesis, and the act of adopting a view as a hypothesis wouldn’t have an effect on your physical or verbal actions.
These assumptions are so basic to the Dhamma method that the Buddha, who normally wouldn’t go looking for debates, actually sought out and argued with teachers whose doctrines denied them. His purpose was to show how their views were causing harm to anyone who believed in them. In his words, doctrines that denied causality or taught deterministic causality left students helpless and bewildered in the face of pain and suffering (AN 3:62).
The Dhamma method makes one extra assumption that’s not necessary to the scientific method:
Actions leading to long-term welfare and happiness are better than those leading to long-term harm and suffering.
The Buddha saw no need to prove this assumption. He wasn’t interested in teaching people who were unwilling to accept it.
In the context of Dhamma practice, your ability to test a truth in practice is complicated by the fact that many of the teachings require dedicated effort over time before yielding their results. As the Buddha pointed out, you don’t really know the truth of his teachings until you’ve had at least your first glimpse of the deathless, and that glimpse can take a while to attain. In the case of the five monks, this wasn’t long. But for many people it takes years of practice. In cases like that, you need good reasons to believe that your efforts to test the teachings make sense, and that they’re not a waste of time. Otherwise, you’ll give up before completing the test.
This is why the Buddha, to encourage his listeners, would use methods of persuasion that, strictly speaking, fall in the list of insufficient proofs. For example, he would frequently use logic and analogy to show how his teachings were reasonable. Still, he was careful to note that he didn’t mean these statements as out-and-out proofs. And he advised his listeners to “safeguard the truth,” in his terms, by being very clear about why they were convinced that a particular teaching was worth testing in practice. In other words, if you believed the value of a teaching because it seemed reasonable, you should acknowledge that fact, admitting that you still didn’t know that it was true. You simply have valid reasons for taking it on as a working hypothesis.
As for the standards to use in measuring what counts as genuine Dhamma, the Buddha set out two lists. The first list gives a series of mental qualities that are synonymous with the goal: You know that a teaching is genuine Dhamma if, when put into practice, it leads to utter disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding (AN 7:80). This list underlines the fact that you don’t really know the truth of the Dhamma until your first taste of awakening. At the same time, though, the list gives an idea of some of the mental qualities that accompany awakening. Disenchantment, for example, means that you’re no longer enchanted with the causes of suffering, and so you no longer want to feed on them. Dispassion means that you no longer feel any thirst to continue creating the causes of suffering.
The second list starts with two qualities that are synonymous with the goal—dispassion and being unfettered—but then goes on to include other qualities that are useful in taking you there: You know that a practice is in line with the Dhamma if, when you follow it, it leads to shedding conceit, to modesty, to contentment with the material requisites of life, to non-entanglement with other people, to aroused persistence (as opposed to laziness), and to being unburdensome to others in your material needs (AN 8:53). These last six qualities provide you with some realities against which to measure your practice along the way: not only in terms of the qualities you develop within yourself, but also in terms of the impact that your practice has on others.
Some people have argued that there are many Dhamma teachings that can’t be tested in this way. Examples would include the teachings on the fact of rebirth and the role of kamma in influencing rebirth, in that they don’t involve actions or develop mental qualities that can be gauged in the present moment. But that argument is simply not true. Views on issues of this sort involve actions in the act of choosing to adopt them, and the results of that choice can be measured by the behavior they inspire within you here and now when you do. As the Buddha pointed out, if you adopt the view that rebirth happens and is influenced by the quality of your actions, you’ll be more inclined to be consistently skillful and harmless in your actions than you would if you didn’t (MN 60).
Because the test for the truth of the Dhamma involves qualities you develop within yourself, it’s also a test of your own truth. To be a valid judge of the Dhamma requires that you train yourself in the qualities of a reliable and truthful observer. This is why the Buddha looked for students who were honest and observant to begin with. It’s also why the path of practice involves developing qualities that train your honesty and powers of observation even further. This is clear in a list of three qualities that are central to the practice of right mindfulness and right concentration (MN 10):
• Be mindful (a) to keep in mind what you’ve done, so that you can measure the results of your actions over time, and (b) to remember how to recognize skillful and unskillful qualities arising in the mind so that you know what to do with them.
• Be alert to know clearly what you’re doing and the results you’re getting from your actions.
• And be ardent in putting in the effort to do the practice as best you can.
The Buddha notes that if you really do the practice, you’ll get results whether you wish for them or not, but he also notes that right effort has to involve desire: You have to want to do it, often in the face of desires that pull in other directions.
What this means in practice—as you prepare to put the Dhamma and yourself to the test—is that you need to be so sincere in your desire to put an end to suffering that you’re willing to give the Dhamma a fair test. If it doesn’t work, you really want to know, so that—like the Buddha in his quest for the deathless—you can then look elsewhere for a better, more efficacious path. If the Dhamma does work, you also really want to know, so that you can enjoy the results that come from putting it into practice.
If you focus your desire for genuine happiness in this way, you’ll be in the ideal position to test how far the words of the Dhamma are actually true.