The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Mindful Monday Morsel: Relative Truth, Absolute Truth

by Lydia Anderson
November 4, 2013
Mon, 11/04/2013 - 09:30 -- landerson

This week’s morsel comes from Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth by Geshe Tashi Tsering from the series The Foundation of Buddhist Thought.  The Buddhist teaching of the "two truths" is the gateway to understanding the often-misunderstood philosophy of emptiness. This volume is an excellent source of support for anyone interested in cultivating a more holistic and transformative understanding of the world around them and ultimately of their own conciousness. This selection comes from the chapter “Illusion and Reality.”

The Sequence of Realizing the Two Truths

In chapter 6 of his Supplement to the Middle Way, Chandrakirti says:

Except for the path explained by the great master Nagarjuna,
There is no [other] way to reach transcendent peace.
All others fail to grasp the truths of the ultimate and of the conventional,
And therefore liberation lies beyond their reach.

Conventional truths are the methods,
And ultimate truths arise from that method.
Those who fail to see how these two differ
Are mistaken in thought and therefore take mistaken paths.

Chandrakirti wrote his Supplement as a commentary on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way. These two verses clearly show that for people who do not understand Nagarjuna’s view it is extremely difficult to experience peace. Here peace can be seen on two levels. First, it is the complete cessation of suffering, which from the two lower schools’ perspective refers to those who achieve arhatship, or freedom from samsara, and from the Mahayana perspective refers to those followers of the bodhisattva path who have achieved the eighth bhumi and beyond.

The second verse shows that there is some kind of sequence. The realization or understanding of conventional truth is the method to understand and cultivate ultimate truth. Unless we know this fully and completely, we will experience difficulties on the spiritual path.

Therefore, it is extremely important to know the two truths fully, but particularly the two truths as explained by Nagarjuna, because, as I hope has been made clear by now, the various Buddhist (and many non-Buddhist) philosophical schools all have explanations of the two truths. To experience the peace of liberation takes great subtlety of understanding, and that, says Chandrakirti, requires a thorough understanding of Nagarjuna’s profound exposition.

Which realization will come first, conventional truth or ultimate truth? The second verse states very clearly that conventional truths are the method and ultimate truths arise from that method. Here, it is important to know that it is not saying that emptiness arises from conventional truth, but that an understanding of conventional truth will help in developing an understanding of ultimate truth. Thus, the former is the method to achieve the latter. On an objective level, conventional truth is the base and ultimate truth is a feature of that base. The main focus here, however, is not the objective aspect but the subjective. Understanding conventional truth will help us achieve the understanding of ultimate truth.

Here, we need some clarification. It is correct, and we can certainly assert, that understanding ultimate truth arises from understanding conventional truth. There are, however, different levels of understanding of conventional truth. Knowing an object is different from knowing the conventional truth of that object. Take my mala rosary as an example. It is a conventional truth because there is a disparity between its appearance and its real existence. I have had it for many years and I know it intimately; it has 108 beads, it has this particular color, there are four beads that are slightly chipped. There is a very valid understanding in my head that this is my mala, and nobody can prove otherwise. But is knowing an object this thoroughly sufficient to have an understanding of the object’s conventional truth? Or do we need something more?

The conventional truth of the mala is not the collection of facts above. It is that themala appears tomy consciousness as having inherent existence and that this is howmy consciousness apprehends it. For this reason, in order to understand a conventional truth, we first need to understand an object’s ultimate truth, that is, we need first to determine its lack of inherent existence.

This may sound contradictory, but we are not dealing here with conventional knowledge of a conventional object, but an understanding of the conventional truth of that object. That is the difference. Lama Tsongkhapa, in Illumination of the Thought, says that finding concealer truths will not happen until we have found the middle way—that is, emptiness—because to establish something as a concealer truth we are actually establishing its false nature, the sense that it is inherently existent. This can only be done through refutation when we have found its true mode of existence, its lack of inherent existence. To say that an object exists inherently only according to ignorance implies that the object does not exist inherently in actuality.

We now have to reconcile two statements that appear to be contradictory: first, that we need to understand ultimate truths before conventional truths, and second, that conventional truths are methods to help us realize ultimate truths. The crucial word here is “realize.” It is very true that we can’t understand the conventional nature of an object—that it appears to exist inherently when it does not—before we have an understanding of its lack of inherent nature, but that does not mean we must first directly realize emptiness. The two truths, in fact, help each other. When we walk we use both legs, first one and then the other. In the same way, a fairly gross understanding of ultimate truth takes our understanding of conventional truth to a deeper level, then that level of understanding of conventional truth takes our understanding of ultimate truth to a deeper level, and so on.

In this way, our understanding of conventional truths will lead us finally to a deep direct realization of the ultimate truth of emptiness. Before that, however, we must use our conceptual, logical understanding of emptiness to realize that the object we are exploring is a conventional truth because it appears to have inherent existence whereas it does not.

This subtle level of conventional truth, wherein the object appears to have an inherent existence that it in fact does not have, will only be realized after we have a fairly good understanding of ultimate truth. So, even though Chandrakirti is quite correct in asserting that conventional truths are the method and ultimate truths arise from that method, in the actual mechanics of realizing both conventional and ultimate truth, the order is reversed.

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