A king, disenchanted with his subjects’ dishonesty, decided to force them to tell the truth. When the city gates were opened one morning, gallows had been erected in front of them. A captain of the royal guard stood by. A herald announced, “Whoever will enter the city must first answer a question which will be put to them by the captain of the guard.”
Mullah Nasrudin, who had been waiting outside the gates of the city, stepped forward first. The captain spoke: “Where are you going? Tell the truth … the alternative is death by hanging.”
“I am going,” said Nasrudin, “to be hanged on those gallows.”
“I don’t believe you!” replied the guard.
Nasrudin calmly replied, “Very well then. If I have told a lie, hang me!”
“But that would make it the truth!” said the confused guard.
“Exactly,” said Nasrudin, “your truth.”
Lineage In Today’s World
“Why do I have to experience this?”
That’s where it all starts, isn’t it? The this may be many things: suffering, loss, confusion, an unnamable angst, etc. Right away, you have to make a choice. Do you look for a formula that explains this (i.e., look for “The Truth”) or do you look for a way to know this completely? Watch out. In going after “The Truth”, you are sailing headlong into the Straits of Messina where Scylla and Charybdis, two monsters from Greek mythology, lie waiting.
The reliance on formulaic or conceptually based “truth” is one of the diseases of modernism. It takes expression in the two great religions of today: fundamentalism and materialism. Both seek to justify themselves through reason and logic. Materialists use the belief that “Only that which can be measured is real” to define their world. They worship science, which sees “The Truth” in the construction of models that account for what is measured. Fundamentalists (religious, economic, or political) use the recorded word of God, of Buddha, of Mohammed, Adam Smith, Lenin, or whomever, to define their world. Belief in the recorded word leads to “The Truth”, but it is usually belief in just those passages that embody their inherent prejudices. Both materialism and fundamentalism are closed systems that rely on conceptual processes, restrict the scope of inquiry and reflection, and marginalize other perspectives. Like Scylla, they are multi-headed monsters that attack anything (outside or inside) that asks basic questions about their approaches to life.
Opposite the Scylla of modernism lies the Charybdis of post-modernism, the questioning of any claim to objective “Truth”. Post-modernism sees all worldviews as constructions that arise from historical processes, and, as such, as a function of power rather than truth.
Because there is no objective reality, worldviews are constructed. Constructed worldviews embody the power and interests of those who build them. Therefore, they are inherently oppressive. Because they are oppressive, they should be taken apart (deconstructed). Deconstruction shows that all worldviews are relative. Hence, there is no objective reality. Because there is no objective reality, worldviews are constructed. Constructed world views…
This circular thinking leads nowhere and people are sucked into a whirlpool of nihilism, cynicism, and despair.
Many cultures and traditions find these waters difficult to navigate. Islam today faces exactly these issues and I’ve based the above critiques on this essay.
Buddhism has never postulated a “Truth” existing apart from experience itself. The respective lineages offer tools for a more mundane aim: to know whatever arises in experience, free from the projections of thought and emotion. Whether through the Theravadan practices of bare attention (mindfulness), the Mahayana practice of awakening to experience (bodhicitta), or the Vajrayana practices of direct awareness (mahamudra, dzogchen), the aim is one and the same: natural knowing that is not separate from experience.
Many people don’t know what to make of this possibility. Unable to fit natural knowing into their usual frame of reference, they react with suspicion and fear. In looking for a reference point that is more familiar, they conceptualize the result of practice as “The Truth” or some other ideal. Modernist tendencies kick in. “The Truth” becomes an object, either of scientific investigation or of belief.
To counteract this objectifying tendency, students are often told just to trust the lineage as the guarantee of transmission from an enlightened master to a perfectly devoted disciple. Two problems now arise. First, the sanctity of transmission sends a hidden message: what was once discovered cannot now be discovered again. Second, disillusionment inevitably sets in when the teacher turns out to be something less than their idea of an enlightened master and the student fails to be the perfectly devoted disciple. Unable to trust either their own experience or the lineage, they succumb to the bitterness of post-modern cynicism and despair.
Lineage is not the passing on of “The Truth” from one generation to another. It is the passing on of the methods, the tools, with which you uncover and live this natural knowing. Then you see that things are neither true nor not true, they just are. You see that things always change, that emotional reactions to change are suffering, and that you are not an entity that exists in opposition to experience.
You see that this knowing is there for anyone who makes the same efforts. It is not the result of reasoning. It is not the result of belief. It is not the property of those in power. Nor can it be used to oppress or control. Increasingly you appreciate not only the wisdom and understanding of those who have come before you, but their courage and efforts in letting so much conditioning and projection fall away. In this way, a clear open appreciation of lineage arises in you and a door to still deeper knowing opens.
A Chinese master lay dying. A close student, fearful that his teacher would die before he had understood what is ultimately true, came to him, and asked, “Dear master, please tell me the first truth.”
The old man smiled and said, “I will.”
Days passed, and the master’s life continued to wane. Again, the student approached. “Please, master, please tell me the first truth.”
“I will,” said his teacher, “but this is not the time.”
Soon after, the signs that death would soon claim him were clearly evident. Desperate, the student approached him a third time with the same request.
With his last ounce of strength, the master looked gently at him, gazing with an extraordinary clarity deep into the student’s eyes. In a barely audible whisper, he said, “Ah, if I tell you the first truth, it will become the second,” and then he died.