I’ve heard people say it of blues, country and rock n roll. To make great music, all it takes is three chords and the truth.
I can play three chords. I’m halfway there.
But what on earth is the truth?
In a musical context, I think we know. You can tell that Justin Bieber and Bob Dylan aren’t doing the same thing. When the truth hits you in a song, you know it.
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
And yet somehow that’s not enough. We go on spiritual journeys looking for ‘the truth’. For many spiritual seekers, it’s a central question.
Two truths in Buddhism
In Buddhism, there’s the concept of two truths: conventional truth and absolute truth.
Conventional truth is the kind of truth we use to get by. If you throw an apple into the air, it will come down again. Time goes from past to present to future. If you get hit around the head with a baseball bat, it’ll hurt.
When Zen students start acting clever about these kinds of truths, traditionally they tend to feel the master’s baseball bat pretty quickly. Because conventional truth is conventional truth. You don’t need to worry about it. It works fine, as far as it goes.
But what about absolute truth?
Absolute truth (at least from the Buddhist perspective) is beyond language, beyond concepts, beyond rational thought – and certainly beyond that which can be measured using scientific instruments. You can’t appropriate it and say “Yes, I know that”. You can’t know it, but maybe you can be it.
In fact, in one sense, you ARE it. Things are as they are. You are as you are. How could you be anything other than that? And what that is, is the truth.
But in another sense, there is a journey to go on in order to fully realise that you’ve already arrived.
When we start getting into this area, I think of it as ‘mystic’ wisdom.
There’s a Buddhism for daily life, there’s a Buddhism for keeping society running harmoniously, and there’s also a ‘mystic’ Buddhism.
Mystic Buddhism is borne out of the depths of meditation. It has little to do with morality, society, or even usefulness. It is the path of the hermit, not the path of the monk or the layperson. Personally, I started off fascinated by this form of Buddhist practice. I wanted to walk that path.
But over time, I mellowed. I realised that although there are such things as ‘monk’, ‘hermit’ and ‘layperson’, actually, these are archetypes. We don’t have to go the whole hog in order to bring these influences into our lives. And when you get down to it, even the whole hog isn’t the whole hog.
You might meet a guy in a loin cloth with a bone in his beard. If he’s not mentally ill, you’ll find out he’s probably not so different from the guy wearing the suit. We’re all human, with human concerns and human minds. And the truth is available wherever you are.