[Buddha-l] Laughing at enlightenment

Richard P. Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Thu May 5 15:51:25 MDT 2005

Mike Austin, whose sincerity and earnest commitment have always
impressed me, deserves a better explanation than the one I gave earlier
about why the very idea of enlightenment makes me giggle.

Let me begin with the familiar turf of the notion that there are two
truths. In some kinds of Buddhism that I know about, the notion that
there is a person is considered a conventional truth, while the notion
that in fact what we call a person is a mental construction superimposed
upon several chains of causally related events is a truth that leads to
the highest good (parama-artha). Implicit in this view is that the truth
for the highest good (paramaartha-satya) overturns, trumps, sublates or
perhaps even falsifies the conventionally true (sa.mv.rti/sammuti-sat)
that serves us rather well in the world of everyday transactions
(vyavahaara). Even such wise people as Shantideva fall prey to saying,
falsely I would say, that one cannot see emptiness and the things of
ordinary life at the same time.

If truth for the highest good DID falsify conventional truth, then
conventional truth would not be truth, would it? It would be delusion.
And yet there is no good reason for anyone to believe that it is
delusion. At best, there may be reason to think that the goodness we get
from daily transactions is of a lesser value than the goodness we get
from attaining non-attachment, but it in no way follows that what is
worth less is altogether worthless.

Anyone who has ever given the two-truth dogma any thought at all has
surely wondered whether the doctrine of two truths is a conventional
truth or a truth for the highest good. It could, of course be both,
provided that we don't believe that the latter sort of truth falsifies
the former. If we believed that parama-artha falsified sa.mv.rti, on the
other hand, then we would have to take a stand. We would either have to
say that the two-truth theory is a conventional truth that is falsified
by the truth for the highest good, in which case the truth would be that
there is only one truth after all, or we would have to say that the two-
truth theory is a truth for the highest good. But if we also hold that
truth for the higher good is obscured by everyday truth, we should also
have to admit that the two-truth doctrine is unknowable to anyone who is
still operating at the level of everyday truth. In other words, only the
enlightened would know about the two-truth view, and the rest of us
would not be able to have it in sight.

Now what would it entail to hold the view that the doctrine of two
truths is BOTH a conventional truth and a truth for the highest good? I
think it amounts to saying that this doctrine, in contrast to most other
doctrines, just happens to be good currency in both the realm of
everyday transactions and the realm of enlightenment. To hold this would
require some explanation for what makes this one doctrine an exception
to the general rule that what is true at one level is not true at the

Now it could well be that the doctrine of two truths is really a false
doctrine. If this were so, then there would be only one level of truth,
in which case everyday transactions would not be in any way different
from enlightenment. It's only a matter of personal taste, I admit, but
this way of looking at things appeals to me very much. Let me try to
explain why.

Nietzsche, in the Gay Science, made this interesting observation: "All
preachers of morality, as also all theologians, have a bad habit in
common: all of them try to persuade man that he is very ill, and that a
severe, final, radical cure is necessary." 

But what if one were to say to the preachers (and buddhas) "I choose not
to see my condition as an illness. I choose not to see the human
condition as a disease requiring your, or anyone else's, cure. I choose
not to see what I believe as a delusion." If one were to say all that,
then one would be free of attachment to the fantasy that things can be
other than they are. And being free of such a fantasy, one would also be
free of the suffering that would naturally arise from seeing one's
present condition as somehow inferior to the condition imagined in one's

Now the interesting thing is that this condition of being free from the
suffering that results from imagining that things could be other than
they are can also be described as seeing things just as they are. And
that, as I recall, comes pretty close to how Buddhist texts describe
enlightenment. Enlightenment, in other words, consists in not thinking
that enlightenment is something other than everyday consciousness.

So when people like Curt say "One is not qualified to write liturgy
unless one is enlightened," then I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
I'm not sure there is much difference between laughing and crying; they
are both responses to tragedy. It is tragic to think that ordinary
people like Curt and me are incapable of doing something so worthwhile
as to help ourselves get beyond the delusion that the way we now think
is delusional.

But then what do I know? I'm just an ordinary guy with no aspirations to
be much of anything else.

Richard Hayes
Department of Philosophy
University of New Mexico

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