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in Buddhadharma

On the Two Truths

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"Not to be realized from another, peaceful,
Not elaborated by elaborations,
Not conceptualized, and not a separate entity,
That is the characteristic of ultimate reality."
Nâgârjuna : Mûlamamadhyamakakârika, 18:9.

"The Buddha said that all things have two natures.
Those found by perceivers of reality
and those found by perceivers of falsity.
Objects of perceivers of reality are things as they are.
Objects of perceivers of falsity are conventional truths."
Candrakîrti : Madhyamakâvatâra, 6:23.

Relative to the adopted "established conclusion" ("siddhânta") or tenet, the Two Truths ("satyadvada"), the division between conventional truth ("samvriti-satya") and ultimate truth ("paramârtha-satya"), can be viewed (as in Platonism) as two levels of reality (two types of truth) or as two objects of knowledge. The former view comes close to abolishing the Two Truths, replacing the division by the One Truth of the ultimate (negating conventional truth as a whole). The latter maintains the division. This last tenet is rightly considered superior.

In the Critical Mâdhamaka of Tsongkhapa, the basis of the division is not two levels of reality, but two objects of knowledge defined as the two epistemic isolates (or "natures") of a single given phenomenon. Ultimate reality is not "higher" than conventional reality, but merely a property of every possible phenomenon. Every existing thing is an object of knowledge possessed by a subject or object-possessor. But every existing thing has two natures : a conventional one & an ultimate one. Conventional knowledge apprehends the conventional nature of an object, ultimate knowledge prehends the ultimate nature of the same object. When the conventional, deceptive nature is apprehended, the ultimate, nondeceptive nature is excluded and vice versa. Except in the mind of a Buddha, for whom the two truths are simultaneous.

Although the division between these Two Truths is born out of the yogic experience gathered during meditative equipoise, drawing the division between the world as experienced by ordinary beings versus the same world as witnessed by Superior Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, it also points to the philosophical difference between, on the one hand, a "relative" reality appearing otherwise as it is (i.e. a deceptive conventional truth), and therefore deemed "illusionary", and, on the other hand, reality-as-it-is, also called "suchness", i.e. the nondeceptive, "absolute" reality ("dharmadhâtu").

The Two Truths are implied by the Third Noble Truth, the Truth of Cessation. Ordinary reality is unsatisfactory (First Noble Truth of Suffering) and this suffering is caused by ignorant craving (Second Noble Truth of Arising). The possibility of ending this cycle of continuous suffering (sickness, old age, death, experiencing what is not wanted and not experiencing what is wanted) was realized by the Buddha when he awoke from the dream all sentient beings are still dreaming. At this point, he saw the reality of things just as they are, namely their ultimate nature or ultimate, absolute reality. Deciding to remain in this world of conventional truths, the Buddha used the conventions of "samsâra" to point out the right direction : Cessation.

The doubleness of all things part of our world, the distinction between how things appear and how they truly are is recurrent in many, if not all, spiritual systems. The basis question before us therefore is : What is truly real ? Answering this in the context of the Buddhadharma implies study, reflection & meditation. Nothing else will do. Without putting in  the necessary effort with great diligence, the question will never be answered and the truth-concealing realities will not be eliminated. If so, cessation, the end of unsatisfaction & suffering cannot be seen.

Explanations of the Two Truths are found in the assertions of each of the four tenet systems on emptiness ("śûnyatâ") exegetically developped by the Gelugpas, the religious order founded by Tsongkhapa (1357 - 1419). Ranked from the highest, most profound to the lowest, these systems are :

Great Vehicle systems :
1) Middle Way School or "Mâdhyamika", traditionally divided by the Tibetans in two subsystems : the Autonomy system ("Svâtantrika Mâdhyamika") and the Consequence system ("Prâsangika Mâdhyamika") ;
2) the Mind-Only School or "Cittamâtra" (also : Yogâcâra) ;
Lesser Vehicle systems :
3) the Sûtra School or "Sautrântika" ;
4) the Great Exposition School or "Vaibhâsika".

As various authors (Hopkins, 1983, Newland, 1999) have extensively & clearly explained the differences between these tenets, nothing of the sort will be repeated here.  Although often considered as a single homogeneous system, radically different Mâdhyamika views emerged, like those between idealist Sakya authors as Gorampa Sönam Sengé (1429 - 1489) -so-called Yogâcâra Mâdhyamaka- and critical interpretations, like those of Tsongkhapa (Thakchoe, 2007). And according to the Jonang school, the Middle Way is crowned by other-emptiness (not self-emptiness), affirming the inherently existing enlightened qualities of our Buddha-nature. As will be shown, this last tenet is experiential, not philosophical or logical (and so not a "tenet" at all).

In Prâsangika-Mâdhyamaka, the highest tenet system, the difference between the Two Truths is established on the basis of a single ontological identity with distinct conceptual isolates. All things have two natures or properties, those based on reality and those based on falsities (cf. Chandrakîrti in his Mâdhyamakâvatâra). A sprout, insofar as it conceals its lack of inherent existence, is a falsity. The same sprout, insofar as its ultimate nature is known as lacking own-form, is true. Both truths share the same ontological status, but their difference is based on the object of knowledge. Conventional truth has the false nature of things as object. Ultimate truth has the true nature of things as object. Although they share the same ontological identity (the same sprout), their mode of appearance differs : the conventional nature of the sprout is deceptive (appears inconsistent with its true mode of existence), while its ultimate nature is nondeceptive and appears as it is. The first is an illusion, the second not.

The Two Truths point to these two natures, these different conceptual objects designated on the basis of a single phenomenon. The same sprout can be known as a conventional nature (deceptive) and as an ultimate nature (nondeceptive). Although the Two Truths presuppose a common, single phenomenon or entity as their common referent, they are not merely epistemological or linguistic distinctions, for ultimate truth has the ultimate nature of the sprout as object (namely emptiness), while conventional truth has the conventional nature of the same entity as object (namely illusionary own-form). Emptiness does not negate conventionality, but substantial instantiation. The dual natures are locked together within each phenomenon, and so constitute the same phenomenon. Both truths possess the same ontological status, and are thus grounded in the dual nature of every single phenomenon. The nondeceptive nature of the empty phenomenon constitutes its ultimate truth.

For Chandrakîrti, Śântideva & Tsongkhapa, the Two Truths have the two natures of each and every phenomenon as their ontological reference, and so their distinction is not purely epistemological, but rooted in their identical ontological status, and so ultimate truth is not higher than conventional truth (as the idealists claim). Although verified along different epistemic pathways, they have an equal ontological status and soteriological value.

For Tsongkhapa, conventional truth is an object found by an empirically valid cognition perceiving mistaken objects of knowledge and ultimate truth is an object found by a reasoning consciousness perceiving reality as it is, unmistaken. Although conventional truth is valid insofar as conventionality is concerned, it represents its object in a deceptive way and is therefore false. While this object is in reality not substantially instantiated, conventional truth represents it as such. So in this view, invalid conventional knowledge remains possible, while for the idealists all conventional realities are deceptive and so false or invalid, blurring the possibility of establishing conventional distinctions between valid & invalid conventional knowledge. If per definition conventionality is invalid, then compassionate action can never be valid. This is unacceptable.

Ultimate truth does not misrepresent its object, does not conceal the truth of its object, but sees it as it is (suchness). For Tsongkhapa, empirical truths are not posited by ignorance. His object of negation is not conventionality as such, but the substantial instantiation of phenonema, or, which is the same, not knowing phenomena as dependently arisen, but as independent, self-powered, independent phenomena with own-power ("svabhâva").


© Wim van den Dungen
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.



initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 30 XI 2011 - version n°1