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unpacking truth


Assuming that aspiring Buddhists are searching for truth, how do they find it? What is truth?

Truth is seeing things the way they are. But truth is always relative to the observer, because each observer has a different point of view, and because each observer has different capabilities for acquiring and processing information.

Truth can be as simple as, "the paint on my office wall is an off-white color." But this truth depends on my ability to see and classify color. Some people are blind and can not see. Some people are color-blind and can not see certain colors. Some people have studied color theory and can classify off-white into more finely differentiated categories, such as ivory, linen, cornsilk, seashell, snow, and wheat. Just visit a paint store to see what I mean! Some people have studied the physics of color and understand how color is created by varying wavelengths of light. Some people have studied the physiology of color perception and understand how the human retina captures and processes color information.

I don't need to know all this stuff about color to know that my office wall is painted off-white. But there is always more I could learn about color, if I made the effort.

Understanding that truth is always relative to the observer is important to seeing things the way they are. To see things the way they are, we must acknowledge that our perceptions are relative to our position and capabilities. We must acknowledge that our descriptions of reality are always short-cut approximations of reality and that others will take different short-cuts.

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Humans aren't omniscient, but we don't need to be. Each of us only needs to know enough to survive, at least temporarily. We need to know how to find food and shelter, which usually means knowing how to hold down a job (or receive welfare) and purchase stuff. We need to know how to find (and maybe pay for) a doctor when we are sick. Sometimes we provide for our needs via our relationships with others, such as family or friends or coworkers, so we need to know how to make and maintain social relationships. And none of this would matter if we didn't know how to enjoy ourselves occasionally, so we need to know how to have fun.

Few of us need to know about color theory to survive. Few of us need to know about what is happening in Singapore, or how the sun creates heat, or whether the President is a Republican, to survive.

Understanding that we don't need to know everything is important to seeing things the way they are. To see things the way they are, we must acknowledge not only that our perceptions are relative to our position and capabilities, but that we don't need to know everything there is to know about a situation to survive. Limited knowledge is OK, so long as it gets us what we need.

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Understanding the relative and limited nature of truth is important, but there are two additional problems to understand if you want to see things the way they are. These two problems relate to the sources of illusion.

Illusions are willful distortions of the truth.

Illusions come from two types of sources: those outside ourselves, and those inside ourselves.

Other people are constantly bombarding us with illusions. They want us to think or believe something that is not true, in order to affect our beliefs and behaviors. Authority figures do this all the time; it is practically impossible to exercise authority over somebody without maintaining a set of illusions. Advertisements do this a lot also. But everybody we spend time with will occasionally tell us what they want us to believe instead of the unvarnished truth.

Seeing things the way they are requires us to be skeptical of others, to investigate whether they are telling us the truth, to test their statements against reality.

But don't forget the illusions that you tell to yourself. Those can be the most insidious of all.

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When Buddhists focus upon their search for truth, they typically embark upon an internal journey. When they meditate, they are learning to be mindful of their own bodies and minds, to pay attention to what they are doing and thinking, and to critically examine their assumptions about life, the universe, and everything ;-)

If you pay close attention to yourself, you'll discover that your mind is constantly buzzing with beliefs, attitudes, and judgments for which you have insufficient factual support. This is easiest to see with depressed people, because they make a lot of irrational statements about how everybody hates them, how they can't do anything right, how nothing ever turns out right for them, etc. Depressed people, by definition, are consistently and irrationally negative about the circumstances of their lives. Instead of seeing things the way they are, depressed people see only an illusion of negativity.

Seeing things the way they are requires paying attention to your self-talk, to see whether you are making unfounded assumptions about yourself, other people, or your surroundings.

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The trickiest thing about the illusions we tell ourselves is that we want the universe and its inhabitants to follow a set of moral laws, under which we'd all be happier and healthier. If only everybody would behave morally and do the right thing!!!

These moral laws are illusions, and they obviously differ depending on the observer. The universe does have rules, but those rules are completely unrelated to our wishes and complaints about the universe.

It is easy to confuse [the way we want the universe to behave] with [the way the universe actually behaves].

Learned Buddhists say that this type of illusion is the greatest source of human suffering, because people get so caught up in trying to make the universe behave instead of appreciating how the universe does behave.

Seeing things the way they are requires setting aside your personal belief system, and paying attention to the way things are.


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