Explaining the Buddhist Two Truth doctrine

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 Truth (Samvriti) and Ultimate Truth (Satya).

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.

Ensō (c. 2000) by Kanjuro Shibata XX.
Enso: Two Truths, the Circle of Somethingness, and the Emptiness inside

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.

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.

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
Conventional TruthUltimate Truth
The Map
Abstract objects and ideas
Simple, easier to understand Man made concepts and ideas
The Territory
Beyond concepts The subtle changing, reality
Complex, uncertain

The duality is not natural vs supernatural but a fuzzy, interconnected reality vs the man made abstract concepts we build.

The conceptual vs reality dualism in the Two-Truth reminds me of the Kanziwa illusion, or negative shape painting. It’s not the shape but around the shape.

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.

‘To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.’

Paul Valéry

What’s going on with our discriminating minds is we chop reality into pieces. When we say. ‘I am a writer’, or ‘I own a car’; we are making an implicit distinction, suggesting there is a separate I and a separate car.

We take these separate things and sort them into a taxonomy. So you have all the red things piled there, the cat things piled there, the edible stuff piled over there, and so on. Our discerning minds take reality and put things into separate piles.

Buddhists and Daoists say there are no separate piles; there are no things. That’s just our mind categorising reality.

Now we can see the difference between abstract ideas about reality and the reality they point towards.

It’s described in Tibetan Buddhism by the image of a holding up a cup with your bare hands and then with a cloth. The cloth is a metaphor for the language and concepts and between the observer and reality or object.

We don’t just see or experience reality, but we clothe reality with ideas and language.

The reality devoid of such language and ideas is a naked reality, or Tathata.

You can’t describe the ultimate truth linguistically, metaphorically. There are limits to our ideas and language and what I can do.

We misunderstand by trying to explain in language, thinking our thoughts are reality.

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.

What we don’t perhaps realise when we define things, is we create boundaries. That’s what it is to define, to create an object by placing limits. With language and concepts, definitions of words are all working with limits, boundaries and by extension essences.

Our minds parse the cosmos into an abstracted reality of many things, the Conventional truth, because it’s useful. In Hinduism, this reality is called Maya after the goddess, it also means illusion.

The Two Truths are ways we see and operate in the world. A everyday truth that useful and helps us navigate this life. It’s the reality of objects, ideas, definitions, and language, the Ultimate truth lies beyond the ideas, not squeezed by the mind.

The philosophical truth, the ultimate truth to understand the cosmos. It aims to see through the illusions and abstraction of the everyday truth and arrive at a deeper understanding.

The Sorites paradox reveals the two truths. One labels and objects, language, the other is the ever changing reality that the label points toward.

Laws and language point to reality; they help describe it, but the laws are not reality itself.

Sky is blue, stars, explode, things fall down. It is the way of things. We didn’t invent the way of things, merely try to describe it. 

O’Brien, Barbara. “The Two Truths in Mahayana Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/doctrine-of-the-two-truths-450002.

Image by Mathieu Vivier from Pixabay