Making Footprints Not Blueprints

S07 #22 - It’s always possible to embody truth, even when, technically, we’re not able to tell it - A thought for the day

March 02, 2024 Andrew James Brown/Caute Season 7 Episode 22
Making Footprints Not Blueprints
S07 #22 - It’s always possible to embody truth, even when, technically, we’re not able to tell it - A thought for the day
Show Notes Transcript

The full text of this podcast can be found in the transcript of this edition or at the following link:

Please feel to post any comments you have about this episode there.

The Cambridge Unitarian Church's Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation can be found at this link:
"New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass) 

Thanks for listening. Just to note that all the texts of these podcasts are available on my blog. You'll also find there a brief biography, info about my career as a musician, & some photography. Feel free to drop by & say hello. Email: caute.brown[at]

A short thought for the day” was offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation.


As we head inexorably towards the local elections in May, and then to the General Election, most probably in the autumn, we will all be increasingly subjected to interviews with many politicians of all stripes who will be very keen to tell us that they wish to be clear about x, y, or z, whilst straightforwardly lying through their teeth.

This is an exceptionally serious matter because, as lying rather than truth-telling threatens to become, not just our politicians’, but our whole culture’s basic way of operating, the limits of language are revealed ever more starkly. Instead of gripping the road of reality reasonably firmly, it seems that everybody’s words are beginning to lose traction and are starting to spin wildly like bald tyres on an icy road.

In this situation, it is no wonder that more and more people are being drawn into the world of conspiracy theories, a confusing world in which blatant lies are immediately taken by many as being clearly the truth, and where clear truths are immediately taken by many to be blatant lies.

Now, as I have pointed out a number of times over the past few years, this strategy of making the wheels of language spin ever more wildly was precisely that developed by a key advisor to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. The man in question is Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov (b. 1964) and, from 1999 until 2020, when he was put under house arrest, Surkov’s aim, at Putin’s behest, was to undermine peoples’ perceptions of the world, so that they simply could no longer know what was really happening, and they would begin to doubt everything. Here’s how the documentary filmmaker, Adam Curtis, put this:

“Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin. But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: ‘It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.’ A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is undefinable” (Source).

But, unfortunately, this strategy hasn’t remained confined within the borders of Russia, and it has now got a grip in many other countries across the globe, including the UK. So what are we, who genuinely care about truth-telling, to do about this?

Well, the first thing we must do is to wake up to the fact that a deliberate, Surkov-like strategy, is now fully underway in our public-life. When the meaning of words becomes so slippery, there really is no point continuing to pretend that the simple deployment of the English language based on stable dictionary definitions is going to be sufficient to sort this mess out.

So, if we cannot rely on the dictionary definitions of words unfailingly to communicate truth, we really do need to heed Wittgenstein’s powerful insight that, for a large class of cases, the meaning of words is to found in their USE in the language (Philosophical Investigations, §43) and in the situation where they are being uttered. 

One example of this at work, in an interesting and profoundly challenging way, is found in a story I once heard about Shakyamuni Buddha. 

One day, Shakyamuni was walking in a forest, meditating, when he became aware of a great deal of angry shouting nearby and the sound of people running through the trees towards him. Suddenly, a terrified man rushed out from the trees and across the path where Shakyamuni was walking. The man quickly disappeared into the trees on the other side of the path, anxiously glancing over his shoulders as he went. Immediately, Shakyamuni moved a few steps away from where he had just stopped and waited for those chasing the man to arrive. A few seconds later, a band of brigands burst out of the trees and asked him, “While you’ve been standing there, did you see anyone pass by?” Shakyamuni replied, without hesitation, “No.”  

Now, in the superstitious version of the story I was told, Shakyamuni is given something like divine foreknowledge. This meant that he knew beforehand that the scene was going to play out as it did, and so he was able to change his position on the path, in order, I assume, to ensure that when he gave his reply to the brigands, technically speaking, he would not be breaking the fourth Buddhist precept to abstain from false speech. Because, obviously, whilst he was standing where he now was, he didn’t see anyone pass by; he had only seen someone pass by when he was standing over there. 

But I have three problems with this superstitious reading. Firstly, if he did have divine foreknowledge, it’s a pretty poor use of that amazing gift simply to use it to allow him to employ a piece of rhetorical, clever-dickery merely to avoid a technical breach of the precept to abstain from false speech. Secondly, I take it that, in fact, Shakyamuni was a human being just like us, and so he did not have any divine foreknowledge of how things were going to play out. And, thirdly, as a great human teacher, I simply don’t think the lesson he would want us to take from this story is simply one about how to avoid a technical breach of one of the precepts whilst still clearly lying. Because, and let’s be honest about this, in a general, everyday sense, Shakyamuni clearly lied to the brigands when he said he hadn’t seen the man pass by. He had. 

But doesn’t this mean that Shakyamuni’s behaviour was really no better than so many of the politicians who, as a matter of course, make their “Yes” mean “No” and their “No” mean “Yes”? Not surprisingly, I don’t think that’s the case. 

This is because it seems to me that there’s a way of understanding this story, not so much as an illustration of an oh-so-clever way to use the correct dictionary definitions of words to make one’s lie, technically speaking, a truth but, instead, as an illustration of how, at times, all of us are required to use language skilfully, wisely, ethically and compassionately, so that we can continue to embodying truth and say “Yes” to life, “Yes” to truth and “Yes” to love, even when we are forced by circumstances, like Shakyamuni, to use the word “No” in order to tell what is clearly a species of lie. 

Interestingly, this approach aligns with Jesus’ teaching about “Yes” and “No.” Because, although it’s a common misremembrance to think that Jesus said something like, let your “Yes” mean yes, and your “No” mean no, what Matthew actually tells us Jesus said is, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” This is exactly what Shakyamuni did with his simple “No” to which he added nothing more.

Now, these examples help to remind me that we make a great and terrible mistake whenever we think that the truth about how the world is and how we are to act in it is to be found only IN the dictionary meaning of our words. No, no no! The truth about how the world is, and we are to act in it is always to be found in how we USE our words in embodied acts of living an ethical, compassionate life to serve what I want to call a more profound way of being truthful in the world — just as Shakyamuni did in the story I have told and Jesus did in his own ministry.

Consequently, in this Surkovian time of lying, may I encourage us all to learn the wisdom always to be looking first to how people are using their words, because it is only through an understanding of this truth that we will have some genuine hope that truth in a wider sense can, and will, eventually prevail in our world. 

And, along the way, never forget that it’s always possible to embody truth, even when, technically, we’re not able to tell it.