What is truth? It depends, perhaps, on who you ask. John Keats, in his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn, states that ‘truth is beauty, beauty truth.’ If we introduce the adage that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ then truth becomes a very personal subjective assessment. Two people can behold very different truths. Because I experienced it, it is therefore true? But, is that then really truth, even if another finds it not so? There are many biblical passages which suggest God is truth. If beauty is truth, and truth is God, would that mean God is beauty? Is God in the eye of the beholder?
The Greek word for “truth” is aletheia, which translates to English as “to un-hide” or “hiding nothing.” It conveys the thought that truth is always there, always open and available for all to see, with nothing being hidden or obscured. The Hebrew word for “truth” is emeth, which means “firmness,” “constancy” and “duration.” Such a definition implies an everlasting substance and something that can be relied upon.
The modern word ‘true’ as used today comes from Middle English trewthe, from Old English trēowth and translates as ‘fidelity.’ Now, there’s a word with a lot of meanings! The word fidelity comes from the Latin fidēlis which translates as ‘faithful, loyal, trustworthy” As in the adage one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, this definition of truth as fidelity is ripe for conflict. What is the relationship between truth and conflict? How many arguments, fights, and even wars, are based on opposing views of ‘truth?’
A general Internet search on the term ‘what is truth?’ brings up over 600,000,000 listings. Perhaps the most honest statement about that question is taken from the first listing‘…it’s difficult to define because as soon as you think you have it pinned down, some case or counterexample immediately shows deficiencies.’ (philosophynews.com). How is one to answer the question? It is generally the domain of philosophy and philosophers from around the world and through time have struggled with trying to both understand and convey the nature of truth.
The essential teaching of Buddhism states that truth is emptiness. Emptiness is, by definition, nondescript. You cannot describe it or define it. Perhaps that is the genius of this insight. Truth exists, out of conceptual reach. Does that mean truth does not exist? No. It simply means it cannot be contained, grasped or comprehended in traditional ways and means of understanding. It would be like a mind only capable of linear thought, comprehending simultaneity.
The concept of emptiness as truth comes from a realization that all material forms are composite, compound collections of parts. For example, a car is made up of many, many parts. If you take away all the parts, there is no car. There is no inherent car, it is only a composition of component parts put and held together for a while. A tree is no different; it is a composite of components. There is no inherent tree-ness. And, of course, the same holds for all conceptualizations of a ‘self’ which, like the car and the tree, is void of any inherent ‘self-ness.’ The self is a collection of components, which eventually disperse. Modern physics has itself come upon this realization that at the core of all things, there is nothing, no-thing. From solid objects, to molecules, to atoms, to sub-atomic particles to a quantum field, which itself is indeterminate, the material world is seen as ultimately empty of any inherent individual core. Emptiness equates to this quantum field beyond the reach of linguistic conception. Emptiness is no-thing. And, if no-thing is perfect, if no-thing is sacred, if no-thing is forever, then it may well be that no-thing is truth for we may easily agree that truth is perfect, sacred and forever.
In the science of Yoga, truth is defined as the purity of consciousness the nature of which is blissfulness. If we apply that definition of truth, how much of your experience is truthful? It’s a lot easier, and healthier, to acknowledge that individual experience, and the ways in which we codify and express that experience, is not blissful, it is not emptiness, it is not beauty, and it is not God. Our personal experience is not durable and it is not constant. Our personal experience is not truth. We can allow our individual experience to exist as it is and speak from that direct experience, as our personal reality, which may be a subset of a collective reality, and distinguish that from truth. For quite some time, truth was the earth is flat, until that changed. The Language, culture, geology, biology, time, circumstances all contribute components to that which we are convinced is truth; and yet, several generations later, that truth is cast aside as ignorance. Is truth so temporary? One of the hallmarks of the human species is learning, changing, adapting, letting go of perspectives, points of view, assumptions and conclusions which are not longer valid. Truth encompasses the evolution of consciousness from one level to another, each with their own set of perspectives, their own set of personal and collective realities. Truth is to realities as the ocean is to the waves. Truth is to the cosmos as realities are to our planet.
Truth has no specific, distinctive, definitive or descriptive form; as such, it cannot be conceptualized. And yet, out of this quantum field of no-thing, of emptiness, arise all things, past, present and future. Truth is, the transcendental essence of all existence; everything else appears as…some-thing, either subjective as in thoughts, emotions, memories and imagination, or objective as in, others, objects, actions and the world ‘out there’, what we might call ‘relative realities’. Our individual experience may well be grounded in and permeated by undefined, nondescript truth, but then, so is that of our opponent, our nemesis, our enemy, our foe. Truth encompasses the pair of opposites, without bias. We, on the other hand, do not. Our individual experience is not truth, it is a combination of personal and collective realities, loaded with biases and preferences, likes and dislikes, built largely upon the culture in which we exist at the time. Let us not debase or trivialize truth as we do with love; most all of what we say we love, we just really like; and most all of what we say is truth is really just our personal and collective perspective or point of view. That perspective and point of view may well be arrived at through objective, measured evidence, and then referred to as ‘fact.’ A fact is not truth. A fact is a consensus gained from reliable, valid information. Even then, that reliable, valid information may be found invalid and unreliable decades, or centuries, later. Truth, on the other hand, would remain intact and valid, decades, centuries, and even ages, later. Truth encompasses more than the entirety of humanity.
Many years ago a young man was a witness in a court hearing. At the witness stand, before being seated…..
Bailiff: Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
Witness: With all due respect, it is not possible for an individual to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; the best we can hope for is an accurate presentation of individual experience.
Prosecutor: I object! This is the only way we have of knowing if a witness is telling the truth.
It’s a sad day for the mind of man when the only way of knowing if one is telling the truth is by affirming a false statement.
“There are only two things. Truth and lies.
Truth is indivisible, hence it cannot recognize itself;
anyone who wants to recognize it has to be a lie.”