By: Mn. Dr. Brian Jin-Deng Kenna
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” These words are played out on a daily basis in courtrooms all over the country. Every time a witness takes the stand they say these words or some version of it. So what is truth? Why it is two witnesses to the same scene can have very different details in their versions? Is one of them lying or is it perhaps the filters in their own lives have influenced their version of events to suit their own realities? So again what is truth?
Is something true simply because enough people believe it to be true that it gains popular acceptance,or are there better criteria against which to gauge it? This is a problem that many grapple with, and many have difficulty working around. The way to break down this question comes not from popular acclaim, but from what can be observed repeatedly, what evidence outside the thing being claimed true says, and from our own human history. Our personal experience cannot be used as a yardstick for empirical claims of “truth”, any more than just standing o solely on the rationalist view under which reason or reflection alone is considered to be evidence for the truth or falsity of some propositions.
The problem about “truth” is that it’s subjective, not in the traditional sense, but in a cycle of circular reasoning and personal biases. It’s “subjectively subjective”, meaning that “truth” is often described as “true” according to what a person believes to be “true”. Not only are the truth claims themselves subjective, but the very criteria against which the truths are measured are also subjective. And down the rabbit hole we go.
In the news we often hear of people who claim to have seen the face of a religious icon such as Jesus or the Virgin Mary or a loved one that has passed away in an object. There a thousands upon thousands of accounts of people who can attest to the truth of their claims. But this does not mean their truths are actually true in an empirical sense. What it means is that people believe they saw a vision, and that belief translates as true. In many cases like these, the person experiencing the vision already believes that they will experience the vision before they actually experience it. People expect what they believe to be true to actually be true, so it becomes self-fulfilling.
Those who find images of Jesus in tree-stumps, toast or a freshly cut pumpkin, already believe that such a thing is possible, and are greeted with the spectacle of seeing Jesus’ face in ordinary objects, rather than thinking it looks vaguely like a human face. If you are predisposed to a belief, the likelihood that you see that belief played out in your lifetime is much stronger. The mind has a way of stitching together small pieces of information and creating an answer from what it can gather.
Not only is the human brain an excellent pattern seeking device, it is also intuitively looking for answers to the questions it creates. This is one of the bases of human nature, human cognition, human adaptability, and human ingenuity. When used correctly, without the many biases that we all hold in our minds, the brain is an excellent problem-solving machine. Used incorrectly, it is the creator of many an illusion, and the upholder of “personal truths”.
From a Buddhist perspective a strong practice is one based validating our experiences. While we may experience something once, and our senses may tell us that it is a “reality” unless it is verifiable it is nothing more than a “personal truth.” The same is true concerning things we read or hear. We must be cautious as we seek to gain knowledge, that we do not take another’s experiences for empirical truths. We often see this pitfall in the student teacher relationship. A student may blindly follow his or her teacher and not test and verify the lessons for themselves. We all come from varied backgrounds with varied belief systems, and life experiences which can color the way we view the Universe around us. As practicing Buddhists we must always match the teachings to our own experiences and make sure we are not looking through someone else’s rose tinted glasses.
Finally, we should be cautious to not grasp to tightly to realities. All things in this causal universe are subject to change, so what are truths today might very well be false tomorrow. Our challenge is to gain wisdom from knowledge and experience of the things we can know, and to let go of and accept that some things we cannot know.