Does the truth always conform to reality?

- through Francois Leclercq

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If the link between reality and truth belongs to the tradition of Western thought, what are the answers provided by Buddhism? Between the search for truth and the profound transformation of those who walk there, here are the stages of the virtuous path.

The question of the relationship between the real and the true is undoubtedly one of the most classic in Western philosophy, so classic moreover that it is often asked during the baccalaureate exams. It is, in a way, part of the very history of philosophy and one could put forward without too much risk the idea that each philosopher has responded to it in his own way. But if this problem of the relationship between reality and truth belongs so much to the tradition of Western thought, to the point of being entirely one with it, is it relevant to approach it within the framework of Buddhism? Because a question only arises from a predetermined field of often implicit reflections.

Magicians know this better than anyone: if we want the conjuring trick to work, everything has to be believable, that is, put us on the path to reality.

Seek thus to know if the truth may not be in conformity with the real implies a certain definition of truth, of reality, of conformity. It also implies a particular intention or expectation; we don't ask ourselves this kind of question at random, but because of a concern, a kind of anxiety stemming from the relational misadventures of our categories of thought. However, Buddhism also offers a most relevant and original reflection on the relationship between truth and reality. Indeed, the path opened by the Buddha claims to be a path of knowledge. In this, she maintains a privileged link to the true and the real, of which she seeks precisely to tell the truth. But it is also a practical approach which aims at a deep transformation of the one who walks there. It is this double perspective, both practical and theoretical, we might say, which makes his approach to the problem particularly relevant for us – all the more so since Buddhism, being originally Indian, is rooted in a linguistic and therefore conceptual space cousin to ours.

The Game of Truth and Illusion in Buddhism

In the famous Lotus Sutra, a parable tells the story of a group of children trapped in a house on fire, but who do not notice the danger as they are absorbed in their games. The father of these children, who watches the scene worried from the garden, challenges them by warning them of the situation and therefore of the danger that threatens them. He tells them the truth in the ordinary sense, that is, he describes what is. But this does not make the children react for whom only their game exists. The father therefore adopts another strategy and tells them of three magnificent, fantastic tanks waiting for them outside. Its description is so precise and coherent that the children are convinced of it and come out to see it. Obviously, these floats are only the fruit of the father's imagination, which here symbolizes the Buddha. Does this mean that the Awakened lie, that is to say mislead beings, even if this is undertaken in order to save them from certain death? Rather than answering naively in the affirmative, and even in the negative, arguing that the Buddha could not commit any fault (lies contravene the monastic code), the Buddhist commentaries propose rather to reflect on the problematic link that can exist between the real and the truth.

If the magician Bhadra does not allow himself to be taken in by the illusions he prepares for his spectators, he is on the other hand deceived by the greatest of illusionists: the mind.

If reality is obviously opposed to illusion, this is less the case for truth, which can take on a dimension of usage or convention. To put it somewhat caricaturally, there can be a true illusion and a false illusion or, more precisely, it is possible within an illusion itself, in an entirely illusory dimension, to deal or to say coherent things and wrong things. Meaning, having meaning, doesn't go away when you get caught up in the illusion. On the contrary, and magicians know this better than anyone, if the conjuring trick is to work, everything must be believable, that is to say, everything must give the impression of being true, that puts us on the path to reality.

The magician Bhadra facing Sakyamuni

This example of the magician is not taken at random. We find it analyzed and enacted in a little-known but important Buddhist text entitled the Bhadramayakaravyakarana : the “Sutra of the magician Bhadra”. The so-called Bhadra, who attracts crowds because of his ability to create larger-than-life illusions, meets the Buddha who presents himself to him as also a magician and even a better magician than him. Incredulous, Bhadra asks him to explain himself. What makes the quality of a good illusionist, replies the Awakened, is certainly the ability to create illusions, but this ability is based on the ability to clearly discern what is of the order of reality and what belongs to that of illusion. It is thus because he knows perfectly how to distinguish between reality and mirage that the magician deceives others without being deceived himself. And it is because he is not deceived by his own tricks that he can be the author and not the “victim”. However, if Bhadra does not allow himself to be taken in by the illusions he prepares for his spectators, he is on the other hand deceived by the greatest of illusionists: the mind. Indeed, the Buddha shows him that his recognition of the illusory character of the experience relates only to the magic that he produces and that it is therefore based on the belief that his daily experience is, on the other hand, completely authentic and quite real. Bhadra does not see that what he calls reality is also a fabrication of the mind, and that he is thus duped, like his spectators, by a magic much more fundamental than that which he deploys during his tricks.

In what does this primary illusion consist? It is the fact of the mind, we have said, but to say that is still not to say enough. We find in the Prajnaparamita-sutra, the following proposition: "All objects are imaginary fabrications". How to understand this? According to Buddhist thought, reality is not made up of “objects”. For what ? Because, what the Buddha discovers at the moment of his awakening is the absence of "subject" or ego. Now, an object is essentially what presents itself to a subject as being in front of him and therefore outside of him. There is thus only an object for a subject. This subject-object duality constitutes the basis of what is called experience. conscious. Very early on, Buddhist thinkers, such as Asanga or Vasubandhu, understood that consciousness (vijnana ou City) was not like a simple window open to reality or even a pure mirror. Quite the contrary, “being aware of…” supposes first of all posing as an “ego” in front of what is not me: an object. But the idea of ​​the self and by extension that of a “face to me” does not belong to the real which is all one and not dual. It is a fabrication of the mind, in the sense of the conscious mind. This phenomenon has been very well seen and explained by the French philosopher Henri Bergson. The latter, rather than speaking of conscience, prefers to use the expression of “manufacturing intelligence”. As he explains in Matter and Memory, the human mind is not primarily intended to contemplate, that is to say to open up purely to reality, to see things as they are. The primary vocation of intelligence is toact on the surrounding world. However, in order to be able to act, that is to say to modify one's environment at will, one must in some way be able to grasp things and, in order to do so, make them graspable! The first hold on the world, man does not do with his hands, but with his mind – the latter seeking above all to delimit experience into graspable entities, that is to say into determined objects, endowed with an identity, a role, advantages, disadvantages... Its qualities as an object thus do not come from the thing itself, but from the relationship that the "I" maintains with it, from its expectations, its fears… An object only exists in relation to a subject who “selects” it, if you will. The modes of selection are three in number in Buddhism and the canonical texts have given them the name of "Three Poisons", namely: greed, hatred and indifference. It is thus according to this triple intentionality issuing from the conscious self that the world of objects is composed or fabricated.

The illusion that liberates and the illusion that encloses

Bhadra only partially knows the tricks of the mind since he is able to fool the audience, but he does not see the real magician acting in him and thus finds himself among the dupes when it comes to the world. ordinary in which he believes as his spectators believe they see a flock of birds straight out of his sleeves. He therefore does not fully understand the mainspring of his own magic, which lies entirely in this capacity of consciousness to reify, to solidify and to cut up into fixed identities the continuous and unitary flow of reality. Now it is to this that the Buddha awakens, of whom it is said, in the tradition, that he is the one who “sees the spirit”; and it is for this reason that Sakyamuni declares himself a greater magician than him. But how would his deeper knowledge make him a better magician? And what marvelous "tricks" would he be the author of? It has come to this point that we rediscover the parable of the burning house that we mentioned above and, through this too, the heart of Buddhist reflection on the status of truth and its subtle relation to reality. .

As we said, the father of the family represents the Buddha. As for his three children, they represent different types of beings distinguished according to their aspirations. Just as children are so captivated by their games that they ignore the reality of their perilous situation, so beings absorbed in the tricks of the mind do not see that they are caught up in the samsara. However, and on this point the Lotus Sutra testifies to great practical wisdom, the naked truth, the one that speaks from reality, is powerless to dispel the illusion that literally captures children as beings. You have to fight fire with fire in a way. This is how the father of the family/Sakyamuni proposes another illusion, that of the three chariots which represent the three vehicles, otherwise the Buddhist path itself. Does this mean that this way would also be an illusion? In a radical sense, yes. But unlike illusions that capture you, this one sets you free! Moreover, this "illusion" is not just a pure and simple mirage since the father of the family will build the tanks he had painted in the imagination of his sons so that they are not disappointed once went out. Likewise, if the path is full of promise, depicting countless stages and accomplishments, it can also be concretely taken. In other words, this dharmic recourse to illusion is a path towards the real and it is in this sense that we can say that it realizes you – it is in this sense that we can also speak of truth born illusion, but on the way to reality.

The Two Truths of Buddhism and Finding the Way

There are thus two regimes of truths in Buddhism. The first is radical, it is the barest testimony to reality as it is. But this truth has no name. It cannot be the object of a discourse since it is well beyond the play of meanings. It is sometimes called, for want of a better term, sunyata (" holiday "), tathata (“there is” or “presence”), but its essential space of appearance is not in the circle of words and images, but in that of meditation. The second truth belongs to the illusory play of phenomena. It is she who is said. It is she who is painted and sung. But why call it "truth" when it is part of the illusion? Because, if this truth is not absolutely in conformity with reality, it leads there. This is the truth of the path. The other truth being that of enlightenment which is free from the ideas of ends and means, of success and failure...

It is this second truth of "transition", in a way, which constitutes the heart of any spiritual process. What indeed distinguishes spiritual knowledge from pure knowledge? The last supposes that we have full direct access to the real. In this regime, the truth can only be radical, that is to say absolutely consistent with reality. But are we available to such truth? This is where the spiritual dimension comes in, which suggests and is based on the idea that we are not immediately ready to access reality, but that this requires preparation and transformation, in short, a journey. Buddhism undoubtedly represents, in human history, one of the most complete spiritual paths, because it is astonishingly aware of this double regime of truth which it never confuses. By entitling the truth as the path, the Dharma very strongly indicates that there can be no true knowledge without a radical transformation of the one who seeks to know.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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