Absolute truth is the true nature of the relative. Relative truth is the manifestation of the absolute’Lions Roar
The Two Truth Doctrine is another idea that is central to understanding Buddhism. Whilst western thinkers look for a single unifying truth, Buddhists accept that there are two truths to understanding existence.
This doctrine comes from Mahahanya Buddhism and was elaborated by Nagarjuna. It talks about the states of relating as being in two aspects. Conventional (Samvriti) and Ultimate (Satya) truth.
Conventional truth is habitually how we perceive and think about the world. A world of objects, parts, ideas, words. Objects or parts are how we typically see the world because we are using our minds, which are about definitions.
Definitions happen because we are setting up boundaries. Objects are not universal so a boundary is something that defines, separates, ‘it is this, but not this‘. Dividing things up into parts. An object then is what has been defined, separated, picked out. It’s our minds that do this.
Note I say a habit, it’s not often we notice ourselves doing this, and our language implies this by focusing on the object-subject distinction. That is I am a subject (Richard) manipulating an object (say a pen), that I am separate from the object.
The Ultimate view is one that doesn’t have separate things or objects. It’s the truth we fail to see most of the time. It’s the realm of unity and completeness.
As a side note here. What’s important in the above is none of it is talking about whats exists or what is real. It’s saying we have two views upon this reality, one of distinctions definitions, and separation, the other of the unity of the absolute reality, a cosmos that has no obligation to conform to what our minds are doing.
The conventional truth is then useful, our knowledge and ideas are based upon them. We describe and build theories, create philosophies and religions which are part of the Conventional Truth.
Going back to our everyday lives we can see around us distinct separate phenomena, things like table, chair, cat, the conventional view. Each phenomenon has itself made up of parts, each of itself also seemingly separate, all the way down to the smallest parts. Parts have their parts.
That’s were atoms came in, Atom means ‘Uncutable’. It was believed they were the smallest things our reductionist minds could discover, and the basis of the scientific view of the world. Find the smallest things, understand the forces that govern them and you have a complete understanding of the whole cosmos. That was the Newtonain dream.
In the far eastern thought, however, they recognise conventional truth, this quest towards essence is useful but also misleading. Sunyata explains that all the phenomena are empty of essence, they are without a feature/a part that remains unchanged. No part makes a cat, a cat. No intrinsic separate substrate sequestered away unconnected to the rest of reality that makes a cat a cat.
Think of a wave, water going in the front and out the back. It changes, yet the waves move on. Another example of two truths comes from Buckminster Fuller and Pattern integrity. A rope made of nylon, cotton, manila. Make a knot, you can move the knot along the rope. The atoms of the knot change, but the knot remains. This is the Ship of Theseus, and the Sorites Paradox again.
Two truths for example can be see as:
- The study vs the practice
- The theory vs execution
- The signpost vs the path
- The Map vs Territory
In the East, they use a chariot as an example. If you disassemble the chariot part by part, at exactly what point does it cease to be a chariot? The point is that “chariot” is a verbal label we give to a phenomenon. There is no inherent ‘chariot nature or essence’ dwelling in the chariot.
Our mistake is in thinking reality has fixed essences like the maps we create. Thinking the map is the territory is to twist reality to fit the map, to twist evidence to fit the theory. This is the Reification fallacy.
Think of the Ultimate as big picture thinking, liking the cosmos to an ecosystem. All things are interrelated, interpenetrating. As a web, all things are dependant on all other things. What Buddhists called Interdependent Origination or Interdependent co -arising.
It’s also important to point out that one truth is not superior to the other, neither are they separate, one is not higher than the others, purer, or on a different level.
The separation into things is formed due to our senses, created by our thinking and inferred by our language. Identities like, cat, chair are creations of the mind, along with our cultural heritage to like and use labels.
What Shunyata and the Two Truths shows is that keeping towards singular ultimate truth isn’t justifiable even misleading. Buddhism strikes a middle way between a naive notion we can know everything and excessive scepticism. It’s in line with ideas like Fallibilism, that there are no certain beliefs.
Truth then is dualistic, but it’s exported, sold by some as singular. When a single truth bifurcates into two it all became clearer and paradoxically simpler.
Now we can see the difference between abstract ideas about reality and the reality they point towards. We forget that language is an attempt to describe reality. Some people have got it into their heads that’s it there to prescribe reality.
The concepts are always imperfect abstractions of reality. They help explain, but they have their limitations. Or as I like to put it ‘Within every conception there is a misconception.’ that is reality doesn’t bend itself to our ideas, we bend them to fit it.
There is only one unity, one reality, but our minds parse the cosmos into an abstracted reality of things, our Conventional truth, because it’s useful. In Hinduism, this reality is called Maya after the goddess, it also means illusion.
The Two Truth Doctrine is a way to explain existence by accepting that we only have conventional truth to work with and we can’t find ultimate truth.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Two Truths in Mahayana Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/doctrine-of-the-two-truths-450002.