Two Truths… Three Truths… Whatever it Takes

In his Tibetan Buddhist condensation of the Tripitaka, called the Gateway to Knowledge, Jamgön Mipham describes the climax of a bodhisattva’s traversal of the ten bhumis thus (as translated by Erik Hein Schmidt):

[21,14] At the end of the ten bhumis, the path of no-learning is realized by means of the vajra-like samadhi. In other words, this marks the culmination of the earlier path of learning during which one unmistakenly understood how, in the conventional sense, all phenomena comprised of ground, path, and fruition are unmixed. One realized how, in the ultimate sense, all phenomena are devoid of a self-nature; and grew accustomed to the way in which they are included within dharmadhatu, the unity of the two truths, emptiness endowed with the supreme of all aspects.

Taken out of context, this paragraph caused a fair amount of confusion in our class this past spring, when it was raised by a fellow student. This was an advanced class, so we’d all studied emptiness and were used to hearing about phenomena ultimately being devoid of self-nature, and thus inseparable. The idea that phenomena could also, in a conventional sense, be unmistakenly understood as unmixed (that is, separable) was a little surprising (despite that being our commonsensical, mundane experience). It had been our understanding that realizing the ultimate selflessness of phenomena constituted enlightenment, that is, replacing a mistaken mundane understanding with a correct transcendent understanding. In the reading for the class, for unknown reasons, we had skipped over chapter fourteen of Mipham’s Gateway, so we hadn’t read about the two truths of the Mahayana:

[14,2] “Relative truth” includes all types of perceived phenomena: the “ground”…; the “path”…; and the “fruition”… In short, defined in terms of the unfailing “perceived mode” of all knowables, relative truth refers to the extensive aspects of all existent phenomena.

[14,3] Defined in terms of the “real mode” of all these phenomena of ground, path and fruition, “ultimate truth” refers to the profound aspect of the nature as it is and to the fact that the nature [of phenomena] is emptiness which cannot be established as anything whatsoever.

[14,4] Realizing that these two truths are, in the perfect sense, an indivisible equality is the final meaning–the most eminent among all object of realization.

[14,5] The Sutra Taught by Inexhaustible Wisdom mentions three truths: relative truth, ultimate truth, and the truth of characteristics. This means that the division into the first two truths cannot be finally established by means of their individual characteristics, but rather that they are taught as a single truth, the great equal unity. This is dharmadhatu, the final and ultimate truth.

Going back and reading that brief chapter, it became clear to me that the paragraph by which we were so confused was a description of the bodhisattva’s final realization of the Truth of Chracteristics, which seems to be something like the third of the two truths (I’ll say more about the problems of counting Buddhist truths later). And the paragraph following the one that caused all of our confusion seemed to reinforce this reading:

[21,15] At this final stage, while all knowable phenomena are complete and simultaneously clear and distinct, they are also equally devoid of a difference between subject and object in the nature of one taste, free from attributes. Hence, this moment of wisdom vanquishes the two obscurations along with their seeds and habitual tendencies, brings forth attainment of the fruition of complete purity–the ultimate path of no-learning, which is the eleventh bhumi of Universal Illumination–and thus causes the buddhahood of total omniscience to be realized.

I had seen references to the two truths before, particularly in Madhyamaka texts, but I hadn’t really paid much attention to them. I had somewhat naively seen them as purely progressive: I had assumed that the conventional truth of distinct phenomena gave way to the ultimate truth of emptiness as we progress toward the attainment of wisdom. That’s why that paragraph caused so much confusion. It seemed to suggest not that one truth came to replace the other, but that they were simultaneously true in their respective modes (conventional and ultimate). After my detour back through chapter fourteen of the Gateway to Knowledge, I investigated the two (or three) truths more fully. I went first to Mipham Rinpoche’s Introduction to the Middle Way, where I found this (as translated by the Padmakara Translation Group):

The two truths are two distinct isolates of a single reality. Their one shared nature resides in the inseparability of appearance and emptiness… What appears is empty. If emptiness were different from appearance, phenomena would not be empty. Consequently the two are not separate… the extreme position that phenomena are inherently existent must be refuted by revealing their lack of true existence. Conversely, the extreme position that phenomena are nonexistent is disproved by demonstrating their existence on a relative level. Therefore, the four extremes cannot be refuted by an exclusive appeal to the ultimate nature of phenomena. Ultimate reality, qualified as a non-affirming negative, is able to refute the extreme of existence. But given that the refutation of the extreme of nonexistence involves an appeal to relative truth, ultimate reality, from its own side, constitutes an ontological extreme (nonexistence). And such an extreme kind of emptiness cannot be regarded as dharmata, the ultimate nature of things.

Save for the reference to dharmata in chapter fourteen of the Gateway to Knowledge and the reference to dharmadhatu in the Introduction to the Middle Way, the two excerpts seem to be saying pretty much the same thing, which is that ultimate truth and relative truth are both true in their respective modes or senses, and the ultimate fruition of those truths occurs when they are understood or experienced as indivisible or as a unity. The ultimate truth isn’t “more true” than the relative truth–it’s just true in the ultimate sense, but the relative truth is still true in the conventional sense. Similarly, I don’t think that it can be said that conventional truth is ultimately false or that ultimate truth is conventionally false. It seems that, as with emptiness and appearance or wisdom and compassion, though they cannot be separated, they are both necessary.

This problem of counting Buddhist truths–positing two truths, then positing a third truth that says those two truths are really one truth (none of which should be confused with Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, by the way)–illustrates the problems inherent in attempting to convey non-dual experience in conventional (that is, spoken, written, conceptual, etc.) terms. The two truths can only be experienced or understood as one from a non-dual perspective, so it would be impossible to speak or write, or conceptualize in any way, about the two truths as a unity. Yet at the same time, the formulation of the two truths as two can be misunderstood as suggesting a dualism inherent in reality, pointing to an ultimate reality inherently distinct from conventional reality (just as people misunderstand nirvana as being inherently distinct from samsara). The Truth of Characteristics is an attempt to correct that misunderstanding by suggesting a truth wherein those two truths are two and one. Mipham makes a similar point in the Introduction to the Middle Way:

The correct formulation of the relative truth is the means of realizing the ultimate truth, and conversely, the ultimate truth depends on the understanding of the relative. The ultimate is in fact the true nature of the relative. If there were no relative, the ultimate would be entirely impossible, for the ultimate cannot be reached if the relative is removed. Thus the two are interdependent and can never be disassociated… For appearance and emptiness are inseparable. If you remove appearance, you will not have emptiness remaining on one side, for emptiness is the very nature of dependent arising. And if you remove emptiness, appearance becomes impossible; it would be like fire without its heat. What we call the ultimate truth is but the absence of inherent existence in phenomenal appearance; what we call the relative is appearance itself, arising through interdependence…

The formulation of the two truths is verbal and conceptual, and therefore conventional. Even the formulation of the ultimate truth is dual in nature, and thus conventional, even though it’s attempting to describe ultimate reality. The Truth of Characteristics emphasizes that even the two truths themselves are just interdependent manifestations of appearance-emptiness, and their use is not in their being understood (they aren’t the destination) but in their pointing beyond even themselves to the non-conceptual and non-dual (they’re the final, most subtle indication on the map that there’s no destination on the map). I suppose the Truth of Characteristics is meant to indicate that destination, but to describe it that way is to risk suggesting that it can be found on the map.

My teacher also asked if I had any thoughts as to why this “third” truth would be called the Truth of Characteristics. The ultimate truth is reality as understood in the ultimate sense and the conventional truth is reality as understood in the conventional sense, so is the Truth of Characteristics reality as understood in the sense of characteristics? Maybe. Characteristics are simultaneously appearance and emptiness. If you remove their ultimate reality, you won’t find their conventional reality, and if you remove their conventional reality you won’t find their ultimate reality. Or to turn that around as Mipham does in the second paragraph from the Introduction to the Middle Way above, if you remove emptiness, you won’t find any characteristics of appearance, and if you remove appearance, you won’t find any characteristics of emptiness (“the division into the first two truths cannot be finally established by means of their individual characteristics,” as Mipham puts it in the Gateway to Knowledge). And that points back to our class. According to the Tripitaka, enlightenment is the achievement of two-fold egolessness, the egolessness of self (or selflessness of person) and the egolessness of other (or selflessness of phenomena). The stages of that attainment are first the experience of egolessness of self and then, in two stages, the experience of egolessness of other. But having achieved one-and-a-half-fold egolessness (the egolessness of self and half of the egolessness of other), a practitioner still clings, however subtly, to the self of characteristics. So it would make sense that the Truth of Characteristics would be the means to end that clinging to the self of characteristics, to experience their simultaneous appearance and emptiness, and to realize the last half-fold of egolessness. And fittingly, that’s where Mipham places the attainment of the Truth of Characteristics in verse [21,14]. At least in the context of Mipham’s writings, it all seems to fit together.

But the two truths are referred to far beyond the writings of Mipham Rinpoche. As I mentioned above, most references to the two truths appear in discussions of Madhyamaka, a school of Buddhism that grew primarily out of the writings of the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna. Mipham’s Introduction to the Middle Way is itself a commentary on Chandrakirti‘s commentary on Nagaruna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. In his own commentary on the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Jay Garfield, studying in the Gelukpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, writes of the two truths as follows:

Suppose that we take a conventional entity, such as a table. We analyze it to demonstrate its emptiness, finding that there is no table apart from its parts, that it cannot be distinguished in a principled way from its antecedent and subsequent histories, and so forth. So we conclude that it is empty. But now let us analyze that emptiness–the emptiness of the table–to see what we find. What do we find? Nothing at all but the table’s lack of inherent existence. No conventional table, no emptiness of the table. The emptiness is dependent on the table and is, therefore, itself empty of inherent existence, as is the emptiness of that emptiness, and so on, ad infinitum. To see the table as empty, for Nagarjuna, is not to somehow see “beyond” the illusion of the table to some other, more real entity. It is to see the table as conventional; as dependent. But the table that we see when we see its emptiness is the very same table, seen not as the substantial thing we instinctively posit, but rather as it is. Emptiness is hence not different from conventional reality–it is the fact that conventional reality is conventional. Hence it must be dependently arisen since it depends upon the existence of empty phenomena. Hence emptiness is itself empty. This is perhaps the most radical and deep step in the Madhyamika dialectic, but it is also… the step that saves it from falling into metaphysical extravagance and brings it back to sober pragmatic scepticism.

In his Platform Sutra, Hui-Neng connects the two truths to the Zen Buddhist tradition, and in his new translation of and commentary on the Platform Sutra, Red Pine connects them, through Zen, to modern physics:

Hui-Neng: Good friends, this Dharma teaching of mine is based on meditation and wisdom. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that meditation and wisdom are separate. Meditation and wisdom are of one essence and not two. Meditation is the body of wisdom, and wisdom is the function of meditation. Wherever you find wisdom, you find meditation. And wherever you find meditation, you find wisdom. Good friends, what this means is that meditation and wisdom are the same.

Red Pine’s Commentary: These categories were used in China by a number of philosophical schools to analyze reality in much the same way scientists nowadays analyze ‘matter’ as particles (body) or waves (function). These have nothing to do with reality. They simply represent convenient points of view for what cannot be viewed.

Hui-Neng: Know your mind and see your nature.

Red Pine’s Commentary: This is Hui-Neng’s motto, his teaching in a single breath. When Hui-Neng uses the word “mind,” he uses it with two senses. Sometimes, it refers to the mind of discrimination, the eight kinds of consciousness. But he also uses it to refer to the true mind, the mind of awareness. When he uses it with the latter sense, he often pairs it with “nature.” Again, this is similar to the particle/wave approach noted earlier. Our mind is the body, our nature is its function. The Chinese character for “nature” shows the mind giving birth. Thus, our mind is the source of all things, all dharmas, all thoughts. Our nature is the mind in action. Meanwhile, our mind is who we really are, our real body.

Hui-Neng: Reality is the body of thought, and thought is the function of reality. When your nature gives rise to thought, even though you sense something, remain free and unaffected by the world of objects. The Vimalakirti Sutra says, “Externally, be skilled at distinguishing the attributes of dharmas, and internally, remain unshaken by the ultimate truth.”

This could be called the Truth of Particles and Waves, and from the perspective of the scientists who speak of particles and waves, those are the fundamental characteristics of reality, suggesting that The Truth of Particles and Waves and the Truth of Characteristics would be synonymous. I’m not certain how the pairings would line up, but I think it would be something like: Mind (the particle or ultimate reality) is the body of nature (the wave or conventional reality), and nature is the function of mind.

I even saw this from Jean-Luc Godard, in Mark Amerika‘s otherwise fairly silly META/DATA, which seems to connect the two truths to aesthetics:

To me style is just the outside of content, and content is the inside of style, like the outside and inside of the human body. Both go together, they can’t be separated.

This is about as thoroughly as I’ve explored or explicated anything here, or anywhere else for that matter, in quite some time, and I do this not to just keep making the same point from different perspectives, backed up by different citations. This isn’t just a logical or sophistic exercise. It’s pragmatically useful. I’ve found that contemplating this so that it becomes intuitive, even experiential, can actually change how I approach my life, and thus what my life is like as a result. Though I have often been instinctively uncomfortable with clear distinctions like liberal and conservative, right and wrong, thought and emotion, mind and body, and even male and female, I still find myself equally instinctively reaching for such distinctions when I find them handy. If nothing else, I’m now much more likely to notice (and therefore reflect on) those occasions. But more than that, when I understand my experience this way, I’m more often able to see the mistake I’m about to make or the possibility that I would otherwise have missed. And having done that, slowly but surely, I (and perhaps even those around me) suffer less and less.

As a concrete (and admittedly Buddhist) example of this, I was recently encouraged to consider the relationships, if there are any, among dharma, renunciation, and joy. A linear relationship that’s immediately apparent is that of ground, path, and fruition, with dharma being the ground, renunciation being the path, and joy being the fruition. And that certainly makes sense, as far as it goes. But those three items could just as accurately be seen as an analogy or example of the Truth of Characteristics. Joy would be the ultimate truth of practice, renunciation would be the conventional truth of practice, and dharma would be the third truth that reveals their unity. Or in Hui-Neng’s terms, joy is the body of renunciation, and renunciation is the function of joy, the important point here being that conventional renunciation and ultimate joy are a unity. This occurred to me during a series of talks by Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche that I attended. A student asked how a practitioner can distinguish for themselves between the experiences of depression and renunciation, and Rinpoche responded that depression is painful, but renunciation is joyous. That makes sense. If you feel pain when you believe you have renounced something, you haven’t renounced it; you’ve surrendered it, but maintained your attachment to it. Renouncing conventional attachments, where that renunciation is genuine, is, if only for a moment, to experience the compassion, emptiness, and joy that is ultimate reality. Cultivating conventional joys will ultimately fail, and having achieved ultimate joy, there’s nothing to renounce.

Renunciation is simply the release of attachment; it’s a letting go rather than a pushing away. To engage in renunciation as a sort of debarment is merely to exchange the attachment to having something around for the attachment to having it not around, either of which leads to an endless program of reconfiguring reality to suit our preferences. To renounce is to achieve equanimity, and to achieve equanimity is to see all of the conventional distinctions of reality, while at the same time recognizing its ultimate emptiness. Equanimity is not a detachment from the conventional sense of reality in favor of the ultimate sense of reality–the Truth of Characteristics shows that to be senseless–it’s a lack of attachment to any and all distinctions (even those between conventional and ultimate) because those distinctions are merely conventional (but not false).

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