July 16, 2012

The Truth about Truth

The dangers of literalism

One of the most urgent tasks for contemporary practitioners of any spiritual tradition, including Buddhism, is to learn how to take traditional stories seriously without taking them literally. Religious texts employ symbol, metaphor, and allegory to weave narratives that reveal truths about meaning, value, and purpose in human affairs. Although traditions tend to see their stories as historically accurate, the value of these stories does not depend on whether or not they are literally true. But in the modern period, we have come to take science and instrumental reason as the only reliable means and the model for ascertaining truth. For many, this means that they must choose between rejecting the narratives of religious tradition (atheism) or embracing one narrative literally (fundamentalism). In her essay "The Truth about Truth," from the Summer issue of Tricycle, professor of comparative religion and Buddhist teacher Rita Gross explores this modern dilemma and points the way toward a meaningful resolution.

Andrew Cooper

Read "The Truth about Truth."


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josephtenzin's picture

A stimulating article. Worthy of more conversation.
"I am not claiming that the paradigm established by the European Enlightenment is an ultimate truth...But we can't help standing within it..." I believe we can choose to stand outside of it. That is what mystical experience is.
Ken WIlber in his book "Eye to Eye" cited St Bonaventure's understanding of the 3 Eyes of human experience. The eye of the body, the eye of the mind and the eye of the spirit. Each eye has different rules for arriving at the methods for testing truth and applying that truth to human experience.
The European "enlightenment" only addressed the eye of the body and unfortunately the rules and methods of that eye (Wilber called it Scientism) are now viewed as the only valid way for testing the truths of the two other eyes. This mistake often leads to the truths of the other two eyes being evaluated as false or no longer relevant.
Miracles do not violate the "laws" of the universe. They work out of the range of the rules and methods of the physical eye. To say that they cannot be actual events is like Galileo being told that his proposals must be false when tested by the then current rules and methods. We view his trial as ludicrous, yet the same errors are commited today in the name of truth.
To be able to use the rules and methods of the other two eyes requires preparation and practice. The Buddha Dharma is very clear about this. Reading books and having philosphical discussions are not enough. One must do the practices to directly experience the truths of the other two eyes and to evaluate them using the correct rules and methods.
To not do so is like not believing in microbes but being unwilling to learn how to use a microscope.
We have the option right now to not be limited by the rules and methods of the physical eye. And we have that free choice. And when using the other rules and methods, the miracle stories regain their deep and direct (not symbolic only) value.

zhaozhouzhi's picture

Yes. We need to look into such things. But there will always be disagreement over the symbolic and the literal.

xsmith669's picture

I don't understand the pedestal that religion is put up on in this article. I thought understanding cause and effect is the basis of knowledge. This is the presumption that the Buddhist teachers love to promote Buddhism being based upon, you can test it out for yourself. A real relationship to the world. Yet in this writing science becomes stigmatized into being "materialistic" for doing this and yet somehow the myths of religion escape criticism by being "symbolic". This seems like a bias that is unwarranted.

Buddhism makes claims not just of a psychological universe but of a literal one whether you disregard this or not. Denial of this may make it more adaptable to suit oneself but the original intentions cannot be ignored. The Mahayana made claims of the Nagas in order to be able to lay claim to authenticity, which followers of Buddhism desired, they had to be the very word of the Buddha. So a lie was told which said he spoke to the "serpent spirits" these teachings. This story does not contain any symbolic importance. It serves no other purpose than to appease the followers' desire for the authentic words of the Buddha. It validates itself. I don't see any redeeming effects of such lies told in the name of "higher truths" covered over by mysticism, especially given the effects of how these falsities carry on for thousands of years and the confusion and ignorance they promote.

It would be much to everyone's benefit if this notion of original teachings was discarded, and what teachers primarily taught came from their own experience with their own words, while using traditional Buddhist stories to illustrate the origins of one's practice. Science and religion need not be thought of as separate warring factions. Religion serves a human need for emotional, mental, and physical well being, and science is focused on the world we live in and how it is. But let's not blame science for the very real delusions that have been passed off as truths within Buddhism.