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.
- 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. ↩