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By the way, who invented The Four Noble Truths? One of the early western
buddhologist I suppose. Everything becomes clear, however, when they are
seen, not as truths, but as Four Realities to ariyas, namely noble persons.
One may also add the analyses of the saccaani found in the Abhidhamma
literature like the Vibha.nga and Pa.tisambhidamagga (basically an exgesis
of the relevant Sa.myutta passage). I wonder if any buddhologist ever
reflected upon the puzzling qualification of the first "truth" as akusala.
If sacca is understood as reality this qualification makes perfect sense. In
the context of the canonical statements of the saccaani, it also becomes
understandable why the annihilation of the first sacca is seen as kusala.
Why would any one annihilate a truth? My interpretation also explains the
noun phrase dukkha.m ariyasa.m which is usually translated as "The Noble
Truth about Suffering." This is grammatically impossible, and scholars have
therefore concluded that the transmission is erroneous. On my interpretation
this problem disappears completely: ariyasacca.m is evidently apposition to
dukkha.m: suffering, which is a reality to an ariya (or ariyas). The much
discussed grammatical problems of the remaining propositions concerning the
truths are nothing but instances of gender attraction. The formulation
including the unexpected ungrammaticality of the gender attraction is neatly
reflected in Buddhist Sanskrit literature, cf. Arthavini.scaya (the editor
Santani corrected the text!) and Dharmasa.ngraha.
Take for example the phrase "noble truth"...it has become commonplace to talk about the four noble truths, and this is a prefectly acceptable translation of the compound ariya-sacca: ariya means noble and sacca means truth, so ariya-sacca means noble truth. This translation is so common and so fixed in our minds, that it seems almost like blasphemy to have to point out that not only is this not the only possible translation, but it is in fact the least likely of all the possibilities.
If we look at the commentators we find that they knew this very well. They point out that the compound can have a number of meanings. It can mean "Truth of the Noble One," "truth of the noble ones," "truth for a noble one," i.e. truth that will make one noble, as well as the translation "noble truth" so familiar to us. This last possibility, however, they put at the bottom of the list of possiblities, if they mention it at all. My own feeling is that it is very likely that "the truth of the Noble One (the Buddha)" is the correct translation, although we must never lose sight of the fact that in Indian literature multiple meanings are very often intended, so that it is not always possible to say that there is a single correct meaning.
I just want to add that the use of sacca in the Paali canon in general does
not support the idea that it denotes truth. All instances known to me
indicate that sacca primarily denotes something real, an incontrovertible
fact, reality. Cf. the canonical phrase saccato thetato. The commentators
gloss saccato as bhuutato.
In the Vinaya, however, you find saccam used in the sense of true. Every time someone commits an offence and the monks mention the offence to Buddha, he questions the "criminal" by asking "is it true as reported that ..." (sacca.m kira). In such a case the use of sacca evidently concerns the truthfulness of the accusations.
That "satya" (sacca) can also and often mean "truth" seems quite easy to demonstrate. Consider the term used as the opposite to "satya" in such compounds as "satya-vaadin" / "m.r.saa-vaadin" (sacca-vadin / musaa-vaadin) - "one who speaks the truth" / "one who speaks falsehoods". Or else the concept of "satya-vacana" - the efficacy of the utterance primarily depends upon its verity, although its reality is perhaps implicit.
But I think one will run into difficulties if one wishes to define "satya" in general as either "truth" or "reality". If one looks at the use of the word "satya" in the Indian Buddhist and the wider general Indian philosophcal context, it would seem that the semantic range of "satya" covers both "truth" and "reality". In other words, "truth" and "reality" are virtually synonymous - if a thing is real, then it is true and if a thing is true, then it is real. There are some statements in which the word can best be rendered by "truth" and at other times as "reality", but this is perhaps just a product of the semantics of those words in English. In many cases, including that of the four satyas, I find that "fact" would fit best and cover both meanings - if it were not somewhat inelegant, one might want to translate "aarya-satya" as "noble fact" (leaving aside here the question of relationship of "aarya" in this context). Thus, texts I have worked on recently speak of a disciple who recognizes the fact (= truth-reality) of suffering and so forth.
I understand what you are saying about the usage of "true" and "real" --
discussions about the relationship between these two, the epistemological and the ontological, have flourished for centuries in Western philosophy. But viewed in toto, this distinction is less clear in Indian philosophy as a whole and I suggest that our difficulties in rendering "satya" in a Western language arise from the inherent ambivalence of the term and the quasi-conflation of epistemology and ontology in Indian philosphy. For myself, the best translation practice is to translate contextually, perhaps supplying "satya" in parentheses as needed rather than superimposing a Western philosophical distinction which may not be present in Indic languages.
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