Explaining the Buddhist Two Truth doctrine

On the path to understanding Buddhism, it’s sometimes helpful to come across ideas illuminating our confusion. One of the ones that helped me was the Buddhist idea of Two Truths.

This doctrine comes from Mahahanya Buddhism and was elaborated by Nagarjuna. It talks about the tow types of understanding, relating as being in two aspects of our existence.

I learned this after pondering the Ship of Theseus, so here is a brief recap. The Ship of Theseus is the Fallacy of the Heap asks, ‘what makes a thing whatever it is?’ If its parts are changing, then where is its identity, its essence?

In the east religions, they use a chariot as an example but it’s the same question.

What I learned is there are two activates going on here.

  • There is the maps, models, concepts and ideas we invent to describe. talk about and navigate this reality. Conventional Truth (Samvriti).
  • There is the changing interdependent web such the conventional truth is talking about. Ultimate Truth (Satya).

In the case of the Ship of Theseus, there is the ship itself (Ultimate Truth), and the name we give it (Conventional Truth)

Conventional truth is habitually how we perceive and think about the world. It’s the practice of definitions of things and how they relate. It’s how we have objects, concepts, maps, and models through this mode of thinking.

We create objects by establishing a boundary, a definition that separates, ‘it is this, but not this‘. A thing that exists is what has been defined and isolated. Note that our minds do this as part of its operation.

One example is the object-subject distinction. I am a subject (Richard) manipulating an object (say a pen). The language and thinking impute an ‘I’ as a separate self, using this separate thing called a ‘pen’.

The Ultimate truth Buddhists ascribe to is seeing beyond the misleading language and thought. To perceive and understand all existence as interconnected, a Dependant Origination.

It’s the truth we fail to see most of the time, he realm of unity and completeness.

As a side note here; what’s important is none of this talking about what’s 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 reality.

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

The Conventional Truth is then useful, it’s our fabricated knowledge and ideas. We describe and build theories, create philosophies, art, science and religion.

To our everyday lives we think in terms of separate phenomena, things like tables, chairs, cats nations etc. Each phenomenon has itself made up of parts, each of itself also seemingly separate, and these parts have their parts.

The conventional truth, useful but also misleading, is an illusion. The Ultimate truth of Sunyata explains that all phenomena are empty of essence; they are not separate or have an intrinsic enduring existence.

Buckminster Fuller sees it as Pattern integrity—in a rope, make a knot and move the knot along the rope. The atoms of the knot change, but the knot remains. It’s back 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
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
Two Truths

The Art of Two Truths

The conceptual vs reality dualism in the Two-Truth reminds me of the Kanziwa illusion or an Enso; Objects encircling emptiness.

In Margarite The Treachery of Images is says, ‘This is not a Pipe’. That’s correct it not a pipe it’s an image of a pipe. Meaning its an ideas about a real object. The image then is not reality but about reality. Same with One and Three Chairs by Joseph Kosuth. There is the real chair, the image of a chair and the word ‘chair’.

In Tibetan Buddhism, it’s the image of 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.

The Ultimate Truth is big picture thinking, liking existence to an ecosystem, all its parts are interrelated, interpenetrating, a complex system.

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.

Misunderstandings and Shortcomings

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

Paul Valéry
There’s the manufactured veneer we place over reality.

It’s important to point out that one truth is not superior to the other, and neither are they separate; one is not higher than the others, purer, or on a different level; both are required in our lives.

The Two Truths are ways we see and operate in the world. We need Conventional truth to communicate and navigate reality. But we also need the Ultimate Truth to remind ourselves were not alone.

Our minds parse the cosmos into an abstracted reality of many things, the Conventional truth, because it’s useful. We clothe reality with ideas and language, but the reality devoid of such language and ideas is a naked reality, Ultimate Truth or Tathata.

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

Our misunderstanding arises when we think our Conventional Truth is the Ultimate Truth. For example, we speak of our Self as an object to be found and examined. But it’s a fabrication of the mind, a veil of illusion over the non-fabricated reality. (See the Self Looking for the Self).


All of reality is seamless; it is our mind that creates the gaps we perceive.

In understanding Buddhism, I have found the Two Truths very helpful and pulling me out of the mind-bending confusion that arises from trying to understand.

Think of how we describe birdsong. Simple chirps are easy because the word sounds like birdsong. But what of other birds? Odd buzzes, whirring? What’s the right word here? It’s impossible to convey some birdsong with words; you must hear to understand. Buddhism says this linguistic and conceptual inadequacy applies to birdsong and everything. 

It says our mental ideas and concepts can’t be used to grasp the Ultimate Truth because that Truth, Sunyata or Emptiness, says there is nothing to get. Laws and language point to reality; they help describe it, but the laws are not reality itself.

It’s a paradox that can be understood when you see the Two Truths.

The sky is blue, stars explode, things fall down- it is the way of things. We didn’t invent the way of things, but we do talk about 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