True Beyond True
The Buddha concluded his first talk by detailing the knowledge that led to his full awakening. This knowledge revolved around the four noble truths. In the case of each truth, he had direct knowledge of the truth itself, knowledge of the duty appropriate to the truth, and knowledge that he had completed the duty: four truths, three levels of knowledge for each truth, twelve permutations of knowledge in all. He set out all twelve permutations in what we would call a table, but what the legal and philosophical traditions of his time called a “wheel.” The heavenly beings overhearing the first talk called this table the Dhamma wheel. This is why the wheel has been the symbol of the Buddha’s teachings ever since.
But the Buddha’s knowledge on the night of his awakening didn’t stop with this twelve-fold knowledge. It was followed by release—the total freedom of the deathless, outside of the confines of space and time—and then the knowledge that this release was unprovoked.
The Buddha’s use of the word “unprovoked” here relates to another tradition from his time: the theory of dhātu, or elemental properties. Physical and mental events were seen as resulting from basic, elemental properties that existed in a latent, potential form, either in physical nature or in the mind. When a property was provoked, it would react and display itself, in line with the force of the provocation, until that force ran out. Individual fires, for instance, were understood as the provocation of the fire property; floods, the provocation of the water property; sensual desires, the provocation of the property of sensuality. One of the implications of this theory was that anything provoked was inherently unstable. Events depending on provocations that would come and go would themselves have to come and go. Nothing provoked could last forever.
Even unbinding was described as a property, but as one with a difference: It’s a property that’s never provoked. It’s simply attained. Because true release is not caused by the provocation of anything, the implication is that it’s not subject to change.
Following on this knowledge, the Buddha said, he knew two things more: This was his last birth, and there was now, for him, no further becoming. That, of course, was because the craving leading to further becoming was now fully abandoned.
The Canon calls this attainment the full attainment of the truth. And as we noted in Chapter 7, “true” is one of the epithets of unbinding. It’s also called the highest noble truth.
However, the Canon contains a paradox around the relationship between fully awakened people on the one hand, and truth on the other. Even though they have attained the truth, those who are awakened are said to be beyond being swayed by claims of “true” and “false,” having sloughed off all views (AM 4:24; Sn 4:3; Sn 4:8; Sn 4:9).
We can begin to resolve this paradox when we remember that “truth,” in the Canon, has two meanings: the truth of realities in and of themselves, and the social truth of words about those realities. Awakened people have attained the reality of unbinding once and for all. That’s the sense in which they’ve attained the truth. Because the reality of their release is total, they have no more need to cling to the truths of words or claims, which—as we’ve noted many times—are true instrumentally. Like hammers and saws that have served their purpose, these truths can be put aside.
Also, the Canon notes that awakened people have directly seen the limits of description, along with what lies beyond description (DN 15). So there’s no reason for them to cling to any of the social truths of words or descriptions at all.
What does this mean in practice? Two things:
1) Issues framed in the terms of becoming hold no interest for awakened people because they’ve developed dispassion for the events that would lead to becoming, and as a result they’ve gone beyond becoming. So they see no reason to take sides on those issues.
2) As for issues of right view, awakened people continue to appreciate right views about skillful and unskillful actions in general, and the four noble truths in particular, but with no sense of being attached to those views.
In the first case, the Canon states as an example that the following questions hold no interest even for a person who has had a first glimpse of the deathless (SN 12:20): “Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future? Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?”
In short, questions of what the self is and whether it existed in the past, will exist in the future, or exists right now, no longer hold any interest for those who are awakened. They detect how these questions come from unskillful mind states, immersed in the terms of becoming, so they see no reason to ask them or to be attached to any answers offered in response (SN 44:5).
As for the relationship of fully awakened people to right view, two similes from the Canon give an idea of what that might be like.
The first simile is the image of a skinned cow—not a pretty image, but one that makes an important point in a graphic way. A butcher, having killed a cow, carves it up with a sharp carving knife so that—without damaging the substance of the inner flesh, without damaging the substance of the outer hide—he would cut, sever, and detach only the skin muscles, connective tissues, and attachments in between. Then he covers the cow again with the skin. Even though the skin is touching the inner flesh again, it’s not connected in the way it was before.
In this simile, the inner flesh stands for the six senses, the outer hide stands for the objects of the senses, and the attachments in between stand for passion and delight. In the same way, awakened people—after going beyond the six senses in their experience of release—then return to experience the six senses again, but they’re no longer joined to the senses as they were before. Because their minds have no passion or delight for the senses, they feel no need to cling—in other words, no need to take the senses as nutriment. So they relate to the senses in the same way that a person totally free of hunger would relate to food (MN 146).
The Canon states repeatedly that fully awakened people can fully function in the world, but, as we’ve noted, they do so with a sense of being disjoined from it. They’re disjoined from feelings of pleasure, pain, and neither pleasure nor pain, and even from the objects of right mindfulness and right concentration as they continue using their meditative powers to help others (MN 140; SN 47:4). This sense of being disjoined is not the painful dissociation of alienation. It’s simply the result of the fact that their happiness is now so complete that they have no hunger for anything—views of true and false included. The fact that they no longer delight in the senses doesn’t mean that their minds are dulled. They simply see no need to amplify the pleasures of the senses by exclaiming about them to themselves. They’ve found, in the deathless, a pleasure that needs no amplification at all.
As they relate to the world, they can still make use of ideas of true and false, right and wrong, in the desire that their actions based on those views will lead to good results for beings of the world. But because they no longer cling to their desires, none of these activities make inroads on the mind.
The fact that they still act for the good of the world relates to the second simile, the image of the raft we’ve cited several times in the course of this book. You find yourself on the unsafe shore of a river, so you construct a raft of twigs and branches. Then—holding tight to the raft and making an effort with your hands and feet—you swim to the safety of the far shore. Once you’ve arrived, though, you don’t continue to carry the raft on your head. Instead, you leave it there on the shore and continue on your way.
Before you leave it, though, you reflect on it with appreciation: “How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands and feet, I’ve crossed over to safety on the far shore.” (MN 22) In other words, even in letting go of the truths of right view, you don’t treat them with indifference. You realize that, to gain freedom from clinging, you needed to have right view about how clinging constituted suffering, how clinging came about, and how it could be put to an end. You can’t simply let go of views of true and false without this understanding. If you had tried letting go of views by claiming to be agnostic, that would simply have been another view to cling to (SN 22:81). If you had tried claiming to have no fixed views, you would have become a serial clinger, letting go of one view to hold on to another.
So you appreciate the usefulness of the truths of right view: Without its special perspective, focusing on the benefits and drawbacks of the act of forming and holding to views, you wouldn’t have gained total freedom from views. For this reason, when you have a chance to teach others, you’ll recommend that they adopt right view as well.
After all, this is what the Buddha did. After gaining awakening to the Dhamma, he honored and revered the Dhamma for the rest of his life (SN 6:2). Having developed full knowledge of the truths of the Dhamma wheel, he then set that wheel rolling in his first talk, making these truths available to others throughout the world so that they, too, could use them to arrive at the reality of total release.
Because of his compassionate efforts, people can still take the question that animated their search for an end to pain, and put it truly to rest.