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Barbara O'Brien

Where Did the Two Truths Come From?

By April 2, 2012

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I want to say a little more about the Two Truths. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Two Truths are enormously important. Some might say this doctrine is the key the whole shebang, so to speak.

Although the Two Truths are associated with Mahayana, in my research I learned there is support for the Two Truths in the Pali Canon. In the Kaccayanagotta Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 12.15) the Buddha said,

"By and large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by (takes as its object) a polarity, that of existence and non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'non-existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one."

That phenomena neither exist nor don't exist is the very foundation of the the Madhyamika doctrine of Nagarjuna, which is a cornerstone of Mahayana.

Now, I know this possibly sounds really, really nerdy to many of you. Well, maybe it is really, really nerdy. But it's a wonderful teaching once you begin to appreciate it. And, as I said, it's key to understanding what Mahayana, the Great Vehicle, is all about. Working with the Two Truths, you begin to see how incessantly your brain tries to turn everything into a dualism.

The Truths tell us that existence can be understood as both ultimate, or absolute; and conventional, or relative. The relative is the world of form and appearance, and the absolute is emptiness, sunyata.

Isn't that a dualism? You might ask. Maybe, but then the Heart Sutra tells us that form is no other than emptiness; emptiness no other than form. The "dualism" is no dualism.

One common mistake people make is to think of the absolute as the "true" reality and the relative or conventional as the "false" reality, but that isn't how it works. These are two truths, not one truth and one lie. Further, the absolute and relative depend on each other. In the Zen text called the Sandokai, we read,

Ordinary life fits the absolute as a box and its lid.
The absolute works together with the relative like two arrows meeting in mid-air.

Sometimes the Two Truths are taught as the Three Truths. Zhiyi (also spelled Chih-i; 538-597), a founder of the Tendai school, taught that the Three Truths are, first, emptiness or insubstantiality; second is relative or contingent; and third is the Middle Way, the inseparability of the absolute and relative. I understand that Nichiren maintained Zhiyi's view in his teaching.

However, on a very basic level I don't think the Two Truths and the Three Truths disagree; it's just a different way of explaining the same thing.

Beyond this very basic understanding of the Two Truths one does find finer points and scholars who disagree about them. But that part of the discussion really is very, very nerdy, so I believe I will stop here.

April 2, 2012 at 7:01 pm
(1) Lee says:

I can’t remember a time that i did not exist … and apparently there was a time when i did not exist and there will come a time when i will not exist as seen by the passing of all others i’ve known … i don’t remember asking to be existing here and i don’t remember asking to have to cease existing here but apparently i will/am doing both. and
“When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one.”
and where does one find this ‘right discernment’ … ?

April 2, 2012 at 8:02 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Lee — Madhyamiika philosophy says you neither exist nor don’t exist. If you think “I exist now, but I didn’t used to exist, and someday in the future I won’t exist,” you are not seeing it. This isn’t easy, I realize.

April 3, 2012 at 1:36 am
(3) faketony says:

Serving… and being served… folds in the same cloth.

You hurt my feelings yesterday… Henceforth, you will be Dharma Killjoy.

April 3, 2012 at 1:59 am
(4) Petteri Sulonen says:

@Lee – A woman lives by herself in a cabin in the woods. She gathers wood and makes a chair for herself stacking the rest as firewood outside. A cold winter comes. She gets sick. Being too ill to go out to chop wood, she takes apart the chair and throws two of its legs onto the fire. Before she has time to burn the rest, the weather changes, and she gets better. She scatters the ashes on her garden. Later she replaces the two legs of the chair and reassembles it.

Consider the chair. It entered the story as wood gathered from the forest. It became a chair when the woman made it from the wood. It then became firewood as she took it apart. A part of it became ashes and, eventually, vegetables; another part became a chair again as she replaced the legs. How did this happen?

According to Madhyamaka, none of these objects have any inherent, independent existence own. From the absolute point of view, nothing got created or destroyed; there was just the universe doing its thing, transforming itself. The objects—the wood, the chair, the firewood, the ashes, the chair again, the garden, the vegetables—only exist as separate objects because the woman conceives of them as such. A chair exists as a chair and not as firewood because she wants to sit on it rather than burn it for warmth. Yet this relative manner of existence is unquestionably real, just as the fact that in absolute terms the objects only exist in people’s minds.

So here’s the real kicker: Madhyamaka theory states that you are no different from the chair. You only exist because you conceive of yourself as a distinct, separate object. Nor were you ever ‘born,’ nor will you ever ‘die’ other than as a conceptual construct.

Simply accepting this bit of philosophy intellectually doesn’t count for much. The trick is to experience these two truths—the absolute and the relative—directly. That is not easy.

Also, please check out Barbara’s previous post if you haven’t already.

April 3, 2012 at 7:18 am
(5) Yuan says:

“Madhyamiika philosophy says you neither exist nor don’t exist.”

Right, the implication of which is that you are changing all the time. So there is no definitive, ‘true’ version of you.

“Madhyamaka theory states that you are no different from the chair.”

Madhyamaka states that? I thought it states that your nature is no different than the chair’s nature, because both are sunyata; not that you are no different from the chair. Looks like I have to go read Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā again.

April 3, 2012 at 8:55 am
(6) Lee says:

The trick is to experience these two truths—the absolute and the relative—directly. That is not easy.”
and this life keeps flowing and changing … and the chair became firewood and the ashes became radishes and converted to food became the energy for the woman to live … the woman continued to live in her body, attached to her need for warmth and radishes and when she dies her body will feed the worms which will feed other beings but where will the woman be then … converted to worm power …. and is she experiencing the two truths as a worm? I can see the unity and the duality and I’ve had wonderful experiences in training and I’m still encased within this mind/body reacting, letting go, getting angry and one day soon I will change into a corpse…cold and instantly beginning its disullutionment back to the constituent elements…and then what was all this for? Do you know anyone who ‘really’ knows … ??

April 3, 2012 at 11:46 am
(7) Petteri Sulonen says:

@Yuan: Of course there are differences between you and the chair. For one thing, a chair can’t practice Buddhism. A longer way of phrasing it would be “there is no ontological difference between the manner of your existence and the chair’s.” More precise, perhaps, but I don’t know if it’s any clearer. I thought my meaning would be clear enough from context without the extra verbiage, but I guess not.

@Lee: I don’t know if I know anyone who really knows, but I think I know some people who know, at least some of the time. That’s enough for me to make a small leap of faith.

April 6, 2012 at 2:12 am
(8) bodhicitta says:

I would like to request the Western scholars to read ‘the Heart of the Buddha” by Thich Nhat Hanh to understand everything, everything about Buddhism (of course, Theravada and Mahayana)!!

February 22, 2013 at 6:28 pm
(9) Stephanie Cook says:

Duality Is embedded into brains, taught and retaught. Quiet the concept and see that suffering is also only embedded into brains. telling heart how to feel.. Hush your thoughts to control emotional reaction to such ideas and allow feelings of love for the potentials of all, as well as the experiencing of here and now. Heart is unfolding. Focus with this. You are Not an endpoint, nor were you the beginning. only the continuation of seeing-knowing, leading mind to reward for discipline in acknowledging, pursuing only what truly resonates with heart. Finding peace in the quiet of acceptance of the moment.

I will read ‘the Heart of the Buddha’.

May 13, 2013 at 10:57 pm
(10) Jim leff says:

Stephanie Cook,

After decades of meditation, I experienced a certain shift, and a phrase popped up in my mind: “I am not an endpoint”.

So I googled “You are not an endpoint”, and discovered that you’re apparently the only person who’s uttered that phrase on the internet.

The rest of your posting didn’t disappoint, either. I tried to google for more from you, but all dead-ends. Ah, well.

I’ll barter back a little helpful dab otherwise unsaid anywhere: meditating with a hangover is transformative (for reasons I’ve explained here).

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