By Ama Samy, SJ

The Bible says, “Know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8: 32)

But our question will be what Pontius Pilate asked Jesus. “Truth? What is it?”  How will we ever come to know what is truth and what it is not?

Truth has been understood in many kinds and forms. Some even go so far as to deny that we can know the truth. They assert that we can never know the truth. So they say the truth is we can never know the truth.

Two vital questions are: First, how do we know what we know? Second, how do we know what we know is true? The first question is about knowledge. The second is about reality

But we humans have an inborn drive to know the truth. So two vital questions are: First, how do we know what we know? Second, how do we know what we know is true? The first question is about knowledge. The second is about reality.

I would like to quote from a chapter on Truth in John Haught’s perceptive book What is God. (see box)

Let me briefly explain how we come to know the truth and reality.

Be attentive

The first level is experience. It is the data which comes to us through our five senses. It concerns the question of ‘What?’. This sense experience has to be grasped through the internal faculties of memory, intellect, consciousness and so on. The sense experiences are material. The action of the internal faculties is not material. The data of senses are not the same as the data of consciousness. 

Emotions can be generated by the sense experiences or even internally. Emotions are what move us. Without emotions we will not be moved to act. But if we let emotions flood us, then we will lose our reasoning capacity and end up acting irrationally or erratically. The emotions of sadness, desire, lust, fear, hunger can appear to be spontaneous – without a cause, but it is not always so.

Emotions can be distinguished from feelings. Feelings are finer and come close to the spiritual movements. Feelings are responses to the worth of things. In the Christian tradition practice of discernment helps us identify feelings.

Some take sense experiences as the truth. Sense experiences are not yet the truth, but experiences are the basic building blocks of our lives. What comes through our senses are neither true nor false. Zen takes all experiences as ‘makyos’ – illusions. The Christian apophatic spirituality also will give them no importance.

The ultimate truth is…

By John Haught

It seems that in the case of truth we are dealing once again with a ‘horizon’ that evades our efforts at intellectual control and adequate definition. If anything, truth would define us more than we would define it. The encounter with truth is more a case of our being grasped by it then of our er grasping it.The propensity for self deception is one of the most interesting and most philosophically troubling characteristics of our human nature. Why should conscious bein‌gs whose questions constantly reveal the fact of an underlying desire to know as an ineradicable aspect of their consciousness also have such a tendency to repress this desire to know when it seeks self knowledge?

At least part of the reason lies in the fact that in addition to  having an ineradicable desire to know, we also need acceptance and approval. And it appears at times that we will pay almost any price to be held in high positive regard by significant others. We will go to the point of denying even to ourselves those aspects of our lives and characters that we suspect might not be approved by others. 

When we seek knowledge of ourselves, our desire to know comes into conflict with our desire for acceptance. This divided condition makes us wonder then whether we can find truth at all without giving up our desire for approval by others. Are these two desires – the desire for acceptance and the desire for truth -condemned to perpetual mutual combat? Or is there some way in which they can be reconciled? Can our need to be loved coexist with our need to know the truth?

In the deepest depths of reality, at the ultimate horizon of our quest for freedom, beauty, and truth, there lies an acceptance, an approval, a love that is unconditional – one that places no conditions of worth upon us but offers complete acceptance regardless of whether or not we have fulfilled any criteria. 

Suppose that the ultimate environment of our lives, as distinct from our immediate social and natural habitats, is unconditional love. If there is such an ultimately loving dimension to reality, would it not make possible a resolution of our dilemma?

Direct verification of the hypothesis is not possible…We simply cannot get our limited minds around the totality whose ultimate nature we are attempting to understand and of which our minds are themselves after all only a part. So in striving to know whether the hypothesis of unconditional love corresponds with reality we have to seek an avenue other than direct verification. 

I think we have an indirect way of testing the truth status of the religious trust in unconditional acceptance…The deepest criterion of truth is fidelity to a desire to know. Thus we may each simply ask whether our trusting that the depth of reality is unconditional love  fosters a desire to know or impedes it. If this trust encourages our desire to cut through our illusions about ourselves, others and the universe then it is faithful to the desire to know. Therefore it fulfills our essential criterion of truth – which is fidelity to the desire to know.

Therefore the hypothesis of a universe grounded in unconditional love need not be viewed as a projection. Instead the ‘tragic’ view that the universe is really hostile toward us may itself be interpreted as a projection, rooted in a distorted and unrealistic perception of ourselves as ultimately unloved.

The conviction of being unconditionally loved can be called truthful, because it nurtures the one desire in us that seeks the truth. It fosters and encourages our desire to know. In the spirit of the religious conviction that perfect love casts out fear, it allows this desire to penetrate and retrieve areas of the self that had been hidden in fear. The sense of being unconditionally loved dissolves the usual terror that accompanies our desires, and it releases the human passion to seek the truth which alone brings true freedom.

This truth which is the objective of all our questioning is ultimately a ‘mysterium tremendum  et fascinans.’ As in the case of the ‘sacred’ we both hide from it and and seek it at the same time. We know that the truth hurts, but we also see that it alone can provide a firm foundation to our lives. The ultimate truth, depth, future, freedom and beauty, into whose embrace we are constantly invited, consists of an unconditional love. The ultimate truth is unconditional love. And it is perhaps this love that is the tremendum from which we flee as well as the fascinans that promises us ultimate fulfillment. Is it possible that our flight from depth, futurity, freedom, beauty, and truth is, in the final analysis, a flight from love?

edited excerpts from his book, ‘What Is God?’

Be intelligent

Once we have the experiences, we have to understand them. We have to classify and differentiate them, find the sources, causes and relationships between the experiences. It concerns the questions of ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ It is understanding that gives us insights or ideas. But insights and ideas are not yet truth. 

One can have any number of insights. Very many people just take the insights as the truth. The philosopher, Lonergan, points out that people,  even philosophers, take truth to be what is seen or looked at. This is a great mistake of the pictorial or representational  fallacy. Ordinarily we take what we see or sense as the truth but this is a common sense reality and not truth as such. These are still sense experiences or at the most ideas and insights. We say that these are facts. But facts are not merely what is seen or heard or touched. Facts have to be verified and judged to be true or not.

Be reasonable or be realistic

It is in judgement that an experience or insight can be judged to be true or not. It is a question of ‘Whether’. Judgement needs verification and evidence. Judgement is not a physical or material reality. It is a matter of intellect and spirit. Judgements and reasoning pertain to many levels – biological, aesthetic, emotional, practical, dramatic, intellectual and so on.

In each area the requirements for judgement will vary. When all relevant questions are exhausted, then the judgement will be final. The relevant questions are framed thus: ‘If…. then…’

Only in judgement we acquire certitude.


Ama Samy, SJ, is the Founder-Director of Bodhi Zendo, the Zen Meditation Centre in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu. He founded the Bodhi Sangha, the international community of his disciples in 1986. Since 1985 he has spent several months every year leading Zen retreats in Europe, Australia and the US. He can be contacted at This article is excerpted from his book, ‘Zen – A Way to Nirvana.’