Darrell Arnold Darrell Arnold

An Excursion into Truth and Freedom in Buddhism

Now, various religions and philosophical schools have freedom narratives. And in many of them, truth sets us free. However, Plato’s account differs from many of these freedom narratives in details about how we achieve the truth. In short, not all emancipation narratives focussing on knowledge setting us free are the same.

A contrasting emancipation narrative in Buddhism

One radically different variation from Plato’s narrative is found in Buddhism. While Buddhists tend to share the view with Plato that truth will set us free, they differ radically from Plato on the view of how we achieve this truth. For Buddhists, freedom is not achieved by gaining abstract truth, as the Platonic story at least initially appears to suggest. For Buddhists, rather, it is important that we grasp certain pragmatic truths and that we live our lives “truly” in some way. We must recognize right views — the four noble truths as foundational among these. But that is only part of what is involved in recognizing the truth. The emphasis for the Buddhists in on cultivating a rigorously disciplined life in accordance with the eightfold path. All of that does lead to a deeper theoretical understanding of the three marks of existence — impermanence, the reality of suffering, and an understanding of no-self (including the view of codependent arising that helps us to understand that concept). But it is the entire regimen together that allows us to escape our ignorance and achieve enlightenment. Abstract and formal knowledge plays a role. But in this, generally speaking the analysis of concepts is hardly important.

In some versions of Zen the analysis of concepts (as in reflection on Zen koans) could play a role indeed mostly by helping individuals to see the futility of analyzing concepts in order to achieve the truth. What is needed instead is a spiritual intuition of sorts. This intuition is only one that comes accompanied at the same time by an ethical stance toward the world. We might speak of a Buddhist virtue ethics in this context. Yet the main point here is that although Buddhists might also speak of freedom in terms of overcoming ignorance and achieving enlightenment, they do not, like Plato, accept that ultimate reality is rationally ordered and that through the use of our own rationality, we achieve an understanding of the rational order of things.


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