The Perfection of Truth

by Gil Fronsdal

Without a commitment to truth there is no Buddhist path. Dharma is a synonym for truth and Dharma practice is synonymous with living a life of truth. In Buddhist mythology, it is said that, in his many lifetimes of training, the Buddha-to-be never lied. While there are stories in which he transgressed other ethical precepts, his dedication to truthfulness was unwavering.

One of the primary characteristics of psychologically or spiritually mature people is that they never lie to themselves. Being honest with oneself is a prerequisite to personal growth and a genuine liberation of the heart. This is so important that we can safely say, as an absolute truth in Buddhist practice, that deceiving oneself is never acceptable. Serious practitioners strive to be impeccably honest with themselves.

Truth brings inner peace by overcoming the conflicts and turmoil we carry within our own minds. Truth can bring an inner security that frees us from neurotically defending, apologizing for, hating, or hiding ourselves from ourselves. Truth can also help overcome conflict between people, as we have seen with the profound work done by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Truth is not the same as facts. Facts alone carry no power whereas truth does. Mahatma Gandhi expressed this in coining the term “satyagraha” or “the power of truth.” (Inspired by Gandhi, Martin Luther King translated truth as “soul,” and satyagraha became “Soul Power” in the American civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s.)

A variety of forces come together to give truth its power. One is the force of inner purity and calm that can only be found in truth and honesty. Another is the confidence that comes with knowing what is true. Yet another is the strength of the good intentions that stand behind speaking the truth. Still another is the way that truth makes reconciliation and forgiveness possible. And finally there is the impact of the many beautiful qualities of heart released when truth helps liberate us from fear, hatred, or greed.

One place we see the power of truth is in AA and other twelve-step meetings. AA may have saved more lives than any other spiritual tradition in our modern times. It insists that alcoholics tell the truth. By admitting their powerlessness over the addiction and making a careful moral inventory, alcoholics learn how to use the truth to release themselves from their compulsions.

Buddhism also uses truth as a way to find release from clinging and the suffering that ensues. The Four Noble Truths are not meant to be truths in the sense of a creed that a Buddhist must believe. They are pragmatic truths, much like how it is true that if you cut yourself deeply with a knife, you will hurt and if you keep the wound clean, you promote its healing. The Four Noble Truths is the Buddha’s way of saying that, if you cling or grasp to anything, you will suffer; if you let go of that clinging, that suffering will end. The Four Noble Truths have no value in the abstract. They are verified through direct experience, by discovering how to be directly honest about our suffering and its causes.

The need for personal honesty is the reason that Buddhist practice depends on mindfulness. Mindfulness is sometimes defined as the practice of being honest about what is happening in the present moment. The awesome freedom and profound peace toward which the Buddhist path moves has nothing to do with how much we know, whom we know, how rich, smart, or beautiful we are, or who admires or even loves us. Rather, this path has everything to do with telling ourselves the truth and, in doing so, becoming a true person.

Through mindfulness we discover a truth that is deeper than beliefs. These truths will transform our character, our deepest sense of being. What we say and do comes to be in harmony with who we are. If we donít become someone who is true, we have no peace nor freedom. When our life is firmly based on truth, peace is not something we have-it is who we are.