Thursday, January 1, 2015

Buddhism, Language, and Notions of Truth

Over the summer, Felix suggested that I read a short Buddhist text called the Diamond Sutra. In September I finally got around to it, and I have since really enjoyed piecing it together in terms I understand.

The Sutra is written as a dialogue between the Buddha and a disciple named Subhuti. They go into more things than I’m going to discuss, so I’d encourage you to read it if you find this interesting (here’s a link; it takes about one hour).


  • I know very little about Buddhism! I intend this blog post as an expression of the thoughts that came to mind after I read certain words, not as a religious or cultural analysis or commentary.
  • This is a long post, but it’s fun in the end, I promise. Also I drew lots of silly pictures, and you don't want to miss those.  :)


The Diamond Sutra centers on the idea that the frameworks through which we interpret our experiences are just constructs--and arbitrary constructs at that. That is, the concepts we attach to our experiences–such as objects, people, minds, selves, tuna sandwiches, and everything else we have words for–are just structure we impose; they don’t really exist in the way that our experience itself does.

Most of you are probably familiar with that idea (some form of relativism) already; if not, read this. But if we’re already familiar why am I writing about this? First, I’m wowed that anyone was thinking this way so long before the Enlightenment. Second, the Diamond Sutra draws interesting connections between relativism and the way we use language. Third, it’s the point of entry for the rest of the ideas presented in the text.

All form is just arbitrary structure

From the beginning, the Buddha emphasizes to Subhuti that “All that has a form is illusive and unreal. When you see that all forms are illusive and unreal, then you will begin to perceive your true Buddha nature” (Ch. 5).

He elaborates by giving some examples: “It is the same with all arbitrary conceptions of other selves, living beings, or a universal self. These are all expressions of non-existent things” (Ch. 14).

The Buddha’s point is that these entities are nothing more than constructs we create to understand our experiences; they do not exist outside of us, and we could just as well have attached other structures to them instead.

The Buddha adds that if we’re really going to abandon all arbitrary structure, we must discard not only “first-order” ideas but also all other ideas that refer to them: “anyone who seeks total Enlightenment should discard not only all conceptions of their own selfhood, of other selves, or of a universal self, but they should also discard all notions of the non-existence of such concepts” (Ch. 6). More formally, if you had some set S in which you wanted to put all possible illusory concepts, then for each concept C in S, the concept “C in S” would also have to be in S.

The Buddha's proposed worldview

The path to enlightenment, says the Buddha, involves tossing out all such notions so that we can perceive our experiences without any anchors, context, or points of focus.

You can think of a worldview as a relation between one’s set of experiences and some mathematical (or other) structure-having object; a worldview is a specification of how your experiences conform to the structure. (If that doesn’t make sense, read this).

The Buddha advocates that we impose no structure at all, except for to acknowledge that our experiences exist (“One who gives rise to the highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind does not contend that all objects of mind are nonexistent” (Ch. 27)). This suggests that we take the minimally structured, non-empty object—mathematically, a point—as the structural object of the Buddha’s proposed worldview. In this sense, the Buddha’s proposed worldview is the simplest non-empty one. [Spoiler alert: trivial examples tend to have nice properties.] Working within this worldview, all components of my experience correspond to the only thing they can, the point itself (there is no sub-point to select); they are all equivalent as far as the worldview is concerned.

Language and expressibility

A self-reference problem?

The Buddha faces a catch-22 when he talks about enlightenment and illusory concepts: In order to make claims like “enlightenment requires abandoning all of the arbitrary constructs we use impose structure on our experience”, he has to speak in terms of the very arbitrary constructs (e.g. “enlightenment”, “constructs”, “we”, etc.) he claims we should abandon.

The text explains this apparent inconsistency with a nice analogy: “in teaching spiritual truths the Buddha always uses these concepts and ideas in the way that a raft is used to cross a river. Once the river has been crossed over, the raft is of no more use, and should be discarded. These arbitrary concepts and ideas about spiritual things need to be explained to us as we seek to attain Enlightenment. However, ultimately these arbitrary conceptions can be discarded” (Ch. 6). In pictures:

Philosophy of language

Ok, so you and I can use words and the concepts they express along most of the way to enlightenment, so long as we stop experiencing things in those terms once we get close. But then how is the Buddha – who claims to be enlightened – speaking to us using words?

After the raft analogy, the Buddha begins to qualify his usage of language in order to clarify that he’s talking about things that don’t exist: “And yet, even as I speak, Subhuti, I must take back my words as soon as they are uttered, for there are no Buddhas and there are no teachings" (Ch. 8).

But he goes further, to explain that he’s thinking about language in a different way than we might expect, a way which allows him to speak without contradicting his own teachings:
  • "Subhuti, when the Buddha speaks of particles of dust, it does not mean I am thinking of any definite or arbitrary thought, I am merely using these words as a figure of speech. They are not real, only illusion. It is just the same with the word universe; these words do not assert any definite or arbitrary idea, I am only using the words as words.” (Ch. 13)
  • “insight into the truth is essentially not insight into the truth, but is what the Buddha calls insight into the truth.” (Ch. 14)

The idea here is that when the Buddha speaks, he thinks of his words not as expressions of absolute truths but rather as expressions his internal state. Hopefully he chooses his words in such a way that the listener can acquire a similar internal state and thereby understand what he said. This philosophy of language puts speaking on the same spectrum as playing music – when I play a song on the piano, there need not be well-defined concept I seek to convey, but I can still express my internal state in such a way that others may perceive it when they hear the music.

To reiterate: when the Buddha speaks, he is just making sounds which he thinks will help the listener understand what he wants them to understand. These sounds happen to form sentences in a language where sentences usually represent true-or-false-ifiable claims, but they need not be interpreted that way.

Limits on expressibility

For now let’s adopt the Buddha’s view on language--that words need not refer to logical propositions but can instead function as mere sounds to be interpreted. Then communication is a composed map (in the mathematical sense) comprised of speaking and interpreting. Speaking takes experiences as input and gives words as output. Interpreting words as input and gives experience (by someone else) as output.

To give some intuition for what this is like, we’ll make an analogy:
The experiences we seek to convey with words are like objects embedded in 3D and words are like 2D shadows (projections) that those objects cast when we shine light from a particular direction.

Very simple shapes (like a point or a line) can be expressed fully with just a few shadows; these correspond to thoughts that our language can communicate very efficiently, like “today I went to the store”. (Note that this is very different than trying to share everything you remember about the experience of going to the store. It’s more that—within your head still—your experiences include the actual experience of the store and the compression “today I went to the store”, and the latter already exists in compressed, language form, so it’s easy to communicate.)

Other experiences/shapes, like zig-zag-ing lines, might take many words, and other still, like broken, zig-zag-ing lines with segments in infinitely many different directions might require an infinite number of different projections to fully express.

However, in this model, there are some experiences/shapes which cannot be expressed fully with any number of words/shadows. Consider, for example, a solid sphere with some cavity cut out of the interior; no matter how many shadows we see, we can’t know the shape of the cavity.

This analogy helps to explain the Buddha’s claim that certain experiences—namely understanding the truth of his teachings and attaining enlightenment—are inexpressible: “the teachings that the Buddha has realized and spoken of cannot be conceived of as separate, independent things and therefore cannot be described. The truth in them is uncontainable and inexpressible” (Ch. 7). These experiences, like spheres with complex cavities, are incompatible with our language, and also with all the languages the Buddha can imagine us speaking.


Words can have multiple meanings in the same way that one 2D shadow can come from many different 3D shapes. So there can be many thoughts/experiences which are each best described using the word “truth”. Before I read the Diamond Sutra, I could name two distinct notions which share the name “truth”--absolute truths and relative truths (more detail on those later). We’ll see that the Buddha’s use of the word “truth” clearly refers to a notion distinct from either of those; let’s call the experience he’s describing “Buddha-truth”. But if Buddha-truths aren’t absolute or relative truths, what are they?

In this section, I’m going to trust the Buddha’s judgment in using the word “truth” to describe Buddha-truths and thereby assume that the essential properties absolute truths and relative truths share are also shared by Buddha-truths. This assumption will be enough to give us an exciting suggestion as to what kind of thing Buddha-truths are and what it might be like to experience them!

To be very clear, I’m making assumptions and following my nose and waving my hands, not giving a proof that the Buddha meant precisely that at which I arrive. It wouldn’t be surprising if my interpretation totally disagrees with how most Buddhists or scholars on Buddhism interpret the text. But either way, I think the interpretation we’ll reach is an interesting way to think about truth and so we can have fun exploring it.

How the Buddha talks about "truths"

Early on in the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha uses “truth” loosely:
  • “when some people hear these words, they will have understood intuitively that these words are the truth” (Ch. 6)
  • “Subhuti, I will declare a truth to you.” (Ch. 11) 

But, after he makes the raft analogy, the Buddha repeatedly clarifies that truth is a non-existent thing just like all the other constructs:
  • “conceptions, ideas, limited truths, and spiritual truths have no more reality than have matter or phenomena” (Ch. 31)
  • ”insight into the truth is essentially not insight into the truth, but is what the Buddha calls insight into the truth." (Ch. 14)

It is consistent that the Buddha—while knowing that the idea of truth is just a construct—might still use the word “truth” if it’s the closest approximation he can give to his experience, namely the experience we’ve named Buddha-truth.

The Buddha also tells us a bit about what it’s like to experience Buddha-truth: “When I attained total Enlightenment, I did not feel, as the mind feels, any arbitrary conception of spiritual truth, not even the slightest.” (Ch. 22)

Absolute and relative truth

Absolute truth and relative truth are two concepts for which we use the word “truth”.

An absolute truth is a claim (or set of compatible claims) which is understood to be “true” everywhere in the universe, permeating all spacio-temporal boundaries—it just is. Here are some examples of things many people would think of as absolute truths: “the external world exists”, “God exists”, “light is a wave and not a particle”, “this sandwich has peanut butter on it”, etc. Claims which contradict each other cannot both be absolute truths.

Relative truths, on the other hand, are understood as being true only within certain worldviews, i.e. granted particular assumptions or ways of thinking about the world. The idea is that many possibly-contradictory relative truths can be “true” for many different people at once, since none permeate beyond the mind in which they exist.

We know that Buddha-truth and absolute truth are different notions, because the Buddha doesn’t believe in absolute truths; he has been preaching that all concepts are just construct and therefore cannot exist independently the way absolute truths are supposed to. We also know that Buddha-truth and relative truth are different notions, because the Buddha said that experiencing Buddha-truth feels different from experiencing “arbitrary conception[s]”, which relative truths admit to being. So Buddha-truth must indeed be distinct from those.

But we would like to understand the relationship between absolute and relative truths, so we can assume some of their similarities must apply to Buddha-truth (why else would the Buddha refer to it as “truth”?) and see where this leads us.

The overlap between absolute and relative truths is simple enough; they are both ways of pointing at certain regions of our model of the world and saying, “here is where this thing is ‘true’, here is where that this is ‘true’”. They also both assume a certain kind of model of the world, i.e. a certain worldview; they talk about worlds that have time, objects, people, minds, and all the other really basic stuff that we tend to assume as a baseline structure. In pictures:

Applying this characterization to Buddha-truth

Now it’s time to propose an interpretation of Buddha-truth by seeing how the shared properties of absolute truth and relative truth apply to this third context. The basic truth-diagram concept carries over easily—our goal here should be to figure out what the picture will look like for Buddha-truth. However, whereas in the prior cases, we were mapping into a “normal” worldview that includes time, objects, people, minds, etc., we now need to map into the Buddha’s proposed model of the world. And recall that his proposed worldview is a trivial one, which tosses out all possible concepts and imposes the minimal non-empty structure! Earlier we just drew it as a point!

The reason I’m getting excited is that this tells us exactly how our diagram has to look. Our truth diagram is supposed to say “this thing is ‘true’ here, that this is ‘true’ there”, but since we’re working within a worldview with no structure, “here” is “there”; there is only one place for a truth to apply, namely everywhere and nowhere. The Beatles might say, “I am he as you are he and you are me and we are all together”. This only worked out because the Buddha’s proposed worldview is a trivial example of a worldview and has nice properties because it’s so simple. The Buddha-truth diagram then looks like:  

Note that in my diagram, I’ve included multiple colored dots representing mutually inconsistent worldviews. Even though they’re mapping to the same place, it’s ok that they aren’t logically consistent with each other, because (sigh) logic is also an arbitrary construct.

How it feel to experience Buddha-truth?

Let’s translate the Buddha-truth diagram back into words. How does one do that? Well, our diagram about absolute truths said that to experience X as an absolute truth is to feel that X holds everywhere in the world, permeating all boundaries of people and space and time. Similarly, our diagram about relative truths said that to experience X as a relative truth is to feel that X holds only within the mind of some individual.

So then our diagram about Buddha-truths says that to experience X as a Buddha-truth is to feel--for the specific reason that there is no distinction between place or time or people--that X holds universally, i.e. everywhere, always, for everyone. Experiencing Buddha-truth would be like experiencing absolute truth in that it would feel universal. It would be like experiencing relative truth in that one needn’t feel one is making assumptions about which boundaries the truth can cross; if X is true within my experience right now, then--since there is no structural distinction between my experience right now and anything else at any other time--it is also true for all of spacetime, justifying the feeling of universality. And experiencing Buddha-truth would be different from both experiencing absolute truth and experiencing relative truths in that part of the experience is a recognition of the worldview it requires, i.e. a feeling of the unity of everything.

This is consistent with the Buddha’s usage of “truth”: First, it is similar enough to the kinds of truth we know to justify using the same word. And second, experiencing Buddha-truth involves a feeling that it’s claim to universality is well-justified, explaining the Buddha’s not experiencing “any arbitrary conception of spiritual truth” when he attained Enlightenment.


  • The Buddha was totally on board with that all structure is just human constructs
    • The Buddha has a very simple worldview, which imposes almost no structure at all
  • We can think of language as expressing internal states rather than stating factual claims
    • Words are kind of like shadows cast from 3D objects
    • Some experiences cannot be conveyed in words—this is supposedly the case for enlightenment
  • We use “truth” to instances where we map claims onto particular parts of our model of the world
    • When our model is the Buddha’s model, there is only one way to do this, giving a tautological notion of truth
    • Buddha-truths would be perceived both as universal and necessarily universal.

Finally, a quote from the very end of the Sutra which I found particularly moving:
"So I say to you -
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:
          'Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
     Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, 
          Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.
          So is all conditioned existence to be seen.'
Thus spoke Buddha"

Thank you

To Felix, for suggesting I read the Diamond Sutra.
To Margaret, for talking about this with me, generating ideas about truth, and editing.

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