Not Necessarily Real: Absolute Truth vs Samsaric Truth

July 20th, 2011

Possibilities: Truth

I have recently been working on a different way of looking at the classical Buddhist division of “truth” into higher and lower realities, or “absolute truth” and “delusion”. The Buddha didn’t make these divisions in his discourses, and I find those ways of looking at things unhelpful, if not downright harmful since they lead people to be dismissive of others’ suffering as “delusion”. This is why I’ve been looking for a different way of explaining what the Buddha may have seen, and the phrase I have come up with is that some things are “necessarily real” and some things are not.

Those phenomena which are “necessarily real” — solid objects are the easiest example of these things — are things that have an existence apart from the momentary whims of humans, things that are generally measurable by science (though there are undoubtedly things that are “necessarily real” but that we have yet to figure out how to measure); and there are things that are “unnecessarily real” — things which *may* be measurable by science, but that are optional; for example, a smile. That last category is of things we create on the fly, whether consciously or not (like the smile), things that are *ours* because no one else can take them away from us without our cooperation. Someone can have an effect on us that plays a part in us ceasing to smile, but it is still our choice to smile or not — no one can actually lift the smile off our faces because it’s not just *in* our faces.

This is not meant to be some hard-and-fast way to parse the universe so that we can put things into one category or another and make rules about how things should work; instead it is meant to be a soft and flexible general principal that — I find — is a more useful division than “real” and “illusory” with its implications of “We are all living in a delusion of our own making” — that traditional duality in Buddhism that I feel does more harm than good.  And after all, most critical thinkers will agree that there are no “Absolute Truths” — everything rests on context — and we know that the Buddha pointed out that everything is empty of inherent essence, so there can be no absolutes.1


Pain is something we can examine that might have aspects in both categories. There is physical pain when one is cut by a knife and this might be measurable by science in terms of nerve-response, or brain waves (or whatever), and it is something someone else could take away from us by sticking a needle with an anesthetic into us. Then there is another variety of pain that might go along with it that could include the “Why me”s that go along with the knife cut: “Why did my friend stab me? What did I do to deserve this? Am I an awful person? Am I stupid to have a friend who would do that to me?” Those sorts of pains don’t vanish with the use of an anesthetic (well, maybe temporarily if we are knocked out, but you know what I mean, I hope: the sort of pain that anesthetic only numbs temporarily but that doesn’t heal in the meantime, as the causes of physical pain might).

Much of what humans experience — joy and sorrow, hate and love, anger and peace — are things that are difficult if not impossible to measure, and are all created “within us” — in many cases they are mind-made overlays to bodily sensations — they are experiences that are given *more* reality by our focus on them as they arise, by our defining them with words (“I felt so *angry*!”) and backing them up with stories (“There is *no way* I deserved that!”). Calling the way we (just naturally) do this “delusion” comes with an implication that the pain we feel is not real — and if it is not real, then does it matter when we do things that cause others to react in such ways? their pain is just a delusion too, isn’t it?

But of course their pain is real — it is what matters — it’s the very thing the Buddha set out to find a cure for, that pain, that dukkha. So seeing it as “delusion” is not helpful; seeing it as “unnecessary” seems like a better fit, to me.

The Buddha tells us we can be liberated from dukkha if we see how it comes into being and train to break the cycles that bring it about — remove its foremost causes — and so dukkha, I say, is unnecessarily real: it is something we create ourselves, and we can learn to live without it.



  1. It is tempting, though, to cling to the idea that there is something of an absolute fixed nature out there — and that it is nibbana, which, being unconditioned, would be that absolute truth. But the Buddha doesn’t say that nibbana is absolute truth and it clearly is not — it is simply the way we are when we are no longer acting from the conditions of Dependent Arising — it is in that sense that it is unconditioned.

4 Responses to “Not Necessarily Real: Absolute Truth vs Samsaric Truth”

  1. Hi Linda,

    As one who’s more familiar with Western philosophy and ontological concepts, I was extremely interested in seeing your posts here on Buddhist ideas regarding “causation” and “absolute truth.” I’m not as familiar with these concepts as they’re handled in Buddhist thought, so it was good to see your discussion of them and think about these issues from a slightly different perspective from the way I usually do. Thanks for sharing them. Regarding your discussion of AT, I do like your reading of the matter, thus rendering Gautama’s principle as being about something being “necessarily real” and “not necessarily real.”… Good way of framing the idea.

    In that vein, Western Scholastic Philosophy offers another set of distinctions I think that are helpful when navigating these epistemological problems. Things which are the manufacture of the mind fall under the umbrella of “conceptual truth”, while the grasp of first principles and the consideration of realities in themselves are covered under the notion of “ontological truth.”

    I admit these ideas are a bit legalistic and brainy for people; perhaps too philosophical and/or technical for most people’s tastes. Generally people don’t like questions of value being handled in such a critical, rationalist way. But I find them extremely useful in helping me to analyze these matters and convey the philosophical nuances of such ideas to others when I deal with Causality, the study of Ontology, and so forth in my writings. They’re intellectually solid as ideas, logically reliable, and are usually very good at capturing the fine layers of distinction necessary in conveying these principles.

    Therefore, if you’d think it would help in your consideration of these issues (vis-a-vis future posts), I invite you to take some time and look at this material. I’ve included some links for your reference here whereby the core Thomistic-Scholastic ideas are summarized. They go into more detail than I outlined above, and offer somewhat of a different take than mine on the subject, but are good for further study of the topic overall.

    I hope they’re helpful.

  2. star says:

    Thanks for the links, Luke, I will have a look at them, though I fall into that category of people who find things framed as “conceptual vs ontological” in the “too brainy” realm. My focus is almost always on trying to put things into everyday language, though in its way I suppose that’s just as much of a challenge in trying to express, as you say, “the fine layers of distinction” needed to talk about these things — whether we use big words or small, the concepts are difficult.

  3. Mark Knickelbine says:

    “The Buddha tells us we can be liberated from dukkha if we see how it comes into being and train to break the cycles that bring it about — remove its foremost causes . . .”

    This sentence makes sense if you accept the usual Western translation of “dukkha” as “suffering.” But when Gotama defines the term in the First Discourse, he says that birth, aging and death are dukkha, and that the aggregates are dukkha as well — all of which, I think you’ll agree, are necessarily real. If we accept that definition, it’s hard to understand how dharma practice could liberate us from these things (except in the traditionalist sense, by liberating us from rebirth). What Gotama says ceases, in the Third Truth, is not dukkha but craving — that’s the unneccessary reality. The freedom dharma practice offers us is not from the existential realities of our lives, but from our habitual reactions to those realities, conditioned as they are by grasping, aversion and ignorance. When we get some space from craving, we can see that we share our “shit happens” existance with all other beings, which can be the basis for compassion.

  4. star says:

    Except that I don’t agree that, when Gotama defined dukkha in terms of birth, aging and death, he was speaking of their necessarily real aspects, so I don’t accept that definition. This is why it is *not* hard to understand how dharma practice can liberate us from dukkha: because it is the things that are of our own making that we are liberated from — from the “not necessarily real” — not from the “necessarily real” aspects of life.

    There is support in the suttas for seeing this. Take a look at SN 12.51 (page 586 in my Wisdom Pubs edition). The Buddha is talking about how when a living monk’s taints are destroyed, “meritorious volitional formations” (along with “demeritorious” and “imperturbable” — in other words *all* sankhara) are no longer generated. This leads to the cessation of consciousness — immediately, not someday in the future, because it can no longer be discerned (right then, right there). Followed by no name-and-form (does he vanish?), no six-sense-bases (become insensible?), no existence (??) no birth, and finally, no aging-and-death. But *literal* aging and death continues for a living monk. Unless the destruction of the taints in a follower makes one die instantly. It *cannot be* literal aging and death the Buddha is talking about.

    And *of course* the third truth talks about the ending of craving, because that must end for dukkha to end. That doesn’t mean when we end craving, that we don’t end dukkha. Dukkha has craving as its source; end craving, end dukkha.

    You said, “The freedom dharma practice offers us is not from the existential realities of our lives, but from our habitual reactions to those realities,” and I agree with that. The only reason you and I *seem* like we disagree is because you’re defining “dukkha” as “the existential realities of our lives”. Which is not what the Buddha was defining as “dukkha“. The only reason *to* say that he defines “dukkha” as “the existential realities” is if you believe he taught literal rebirth — then what he taught was *all* about the literal ending of the literal existential realities. But it’s quite clear to me from passages like the one quoted above (and many more) that he wasn’t being literal.

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