Justin Whitaker makes an important point about my Noble Truths post: “I have to laugh, thinking of the Buddha as a ‘mostly-suffering-free’ spiritual ideal instead of the traditional ‘fully awakened one.'”
Justin’s quite right that what I present in that post looks like a rather washed-out version of Buddhist tradition, “a bit dour.” I think the title “One and a half noble truths” effectively acknowledges that I don’t claim the view to be traditional Buddhism. I agree that it doesn’t provide the kind of excitement available in the Third Noble Truth’s promise of a life without suffering.
But I don’t make the claim that one and a half of the truths are right on the grounds that it will motivate people to practice; I make the claim on the grounds that it’s true. Amicus Buddha, sed magis amica veritas. If it’s not Buddhist, well, that’s a big reason I don’t call myself a Buddhist.
And if people don’t get motivated? If they don’t do the hard work the path requires, because the diminution (as opposed to elimination) of suffering is not enough of a motivator? Well, then the questions get tougher. Should we tell people that actually all four truths are true after all, so that people suffer a little less? Then it seems we’re looking at what Plato called the noble lie: saying things that aren’t so, for the good of the people you’re lying to?
Buddhist literature uses the much nicer-sounding term of “skill in means” (up?yakau?alya), but I prefer Plato’s term because it’s a bit clearer about what’s involved. The classic example of skill in means is the Lotus Sūtra’s parable of the burning house. A rich man’s house is on fire and he needs to get his kids out, quickly. The kids love playing with wagons, so he quickly figures the surest way to get them out is to tell them there are toy wagons waiting for them outside. They leave the house quickly, and ask for the wagons. Instead of wagons, the man gives them something much better: beautiful jewel-encrusted chariots.
As a way of explaining why the Buddha might have taught Theravāda if he really believed Mahāyāna, the parable is pretty and enjoyable. But if one wants to practise “skill in means” oneself, the story feels like a bit of a copout. What if a poor man’s house is on fire? What if the only way to save your kids is to tell them there are toy wagons outside – but you have no way of giving them toy wagons, let alone jewelled chariots?
Immanuel Kant’s ethics is noted for telling us not to lie, ever – not even to a murderer who asks us whether his potential victim is inside our house. Surely Kant would stand his ground on this question, if anyone would: if you can’t get the children out of the house with truth (or at least with force), you still must not lie. Better to just let them burn.
The problem is particularly thorny in the context of the previous discussion because Justin’s a big Kant fan, and tries hard to illustrate parallels between Buddhist and Kantian ethics. It is worth noting here as well that false speech (mus?v?da) is one of the things prohibited by the Five Precepts.
I don’t take as strong a stance against lying as Kant does; few would. But I’m acutely aware of the harm that lies and half-truths can do – to others and to ourselves. And I’m quite uncomfortable with the idea of telling other people lies because we think we know better than they do. The noble lie is associated today with the thought of Leo Strauss: the truth is too hard for normal people to handle; they will be better off with traditional, revealed religion. Philosophers are better off keeping the truth esoteric, a secret. At least, that’s how I understand Strauss’s position, which is difficult to figure out since, well, he was trying to keep his real view a secret. But I have some real trouble with such a position, because it gets in the way of humility. If we don’t tell people our real views, we don’t give them a chance to call us out when we’re wrong. If fully awakened people exist, maybe they can get away with skill in means. But I’m sure not that, and so for me it’s worth sticking to the truth whenever possible. And that would seem to imply publicly endorsing the view of one and a half noble truths, however dour and uninspiring it might look.
The issue of humility complicates the question further, though. I noted before that sometimes our own attitudes and behaviours are the problem, and submitting to a tradition can help us get over them; this is its own form of humility. But it seems very dangerous to submit to a tradition when we’re not confident that most of it is true. That way lie the cults.