The Two Truths Doctrine is a cornerstone concept in Buddhism that delves into the very nature of existence. This doctrine elucidates two dharmas, namely the Conventional Truth and the Ultimate Truth, which together completely encompass all dharmas in the world. As a result, the Two Truths Doctrine has a profound impact on Buddhist practice, particularly in the realms of samatha and vipassana meditation.
In vipassana meditation, the focus lies on the Dharma of Ultimate Truth, whereas in samatha meditation, the object of concentration is the Dharma of Conventional Truth. It is imperative for Buddhist practitioners to discern between what is conventional and what is authentic, in order to avoid mistaking the finger for the moon.
This concept holds great significance for vipassana meditation, as this form of meditation involves contemplation aimed at comprehending the true essence of things, which is necessary for proper satipahāna practice. The Two Truths Doctrine is a captivating subject that invites in-depth exploration into the nature of reality and Buddhist practice.
What are Two Truths Doctrine?
The Two Truths Doctrine is a central concept in Buddhist philosophy initiated by Nagarjuna, articulating the difference between two levels of truth or reality: conventional (samvrti) and ultimate (paramārtha).
- Conventional Truth (Samvrti-Satya): This is the level of truth perceived by ordinary beings in their daily experiences. It pertains to the world as we typically understand it, where objects and entities appear to have distinct, independent existences. Conventional truth operates within the realm of normal human conventions and linguistic designations. It is the level of truth that enables us to navigate the world, engage in ordinary discourse, and interact with phenomena.
- Ultimate Truth (Paramārtha-Satya): This level of truth refers to the ultimate reality or the actual nature of phenomena, as perceived by enlightened beings. In the ultimate truth, all phenomena are seen as lacking inherent existence, or “self-nature” (svabhāva). This truth transcends conventional, worldly designations and is often equated with the realization of śūnyatā, or “emptiness.”
The Two Truths Doctrine plays a critical role in Buddhist philosophy, serving as a tool to avoid extreme views and understand the teachings more subtly. It provides a framework for understanding how phenomena can be empty of inherent existence (ultimate truth) while still functioning in a conventional sense (conventional truth).
This doctrine is especially prominent in the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, where it is extensively elaborated. Nagarjuna, the primary philosopher of this school, used the Two Truths Doctrine to refute metaphysical essentialism and nihilism. He argued that the two truths are not contradictory but interdependent: understanding the conventional truth is a necessary step toward realizing the ultimate truth.
Meaning of Ultimate Truth in Buddhism
The Ultimate Truth, known as Paramattha Sacca, is considered to be an absolute truth that never changes (Parama aviparito). However, the term “unchanging” does not refer to eternal or immutable; rather, it indicates that there is no difference between the past, present, and future.
Therefore, it is called the Ultimate Truth. For instance, the statement “Dharmas are dependently arisen, those dharmas are subject to cessation; whatever arises, that must cease” exemplifies this concept. Moreover, the Ultimate Truth can be understood as the truth of truth and an entity of Conventional Truth.
According to the Abhidhamma, there are four entities of dharmas: Mind (Citta), which is the perceptual component of sentient beings; Consciousness of mind (Cetasika), which is the dependent component of the mind; Rupa, which is the material component and inanimate; and Nirvana, which is the cessation of the arising and passing away of nama-rupa.
Among them, Mind (Citta), Mind possession (Cetasika), and Form (Rūpa) are known as compounded dharmas (Saṅkhāra), whereas Nirvana (Nibāna) is referred to as the uncompounded dharma (Asaṅkhāra).
Meaning of Conventional Truth in Buddhism
Conventional Truth (Sammuti Sacca) refers to the commonly accepted truth established by people, which may change over time, environment or among certain groups, making it sometimes true and sometimes false. For instance, it is considered legal for drivers to drive on the right in Vietnam, while in Australia, it is legal to drive on the left. Therefore, the truth is only applicable to a specific place or time.
The term Sammuti Sacca is also translated by different translators using various nouns such as conventions, concepts of things, and words to express things. Despite the different translations, Conventional Truth (Sammuti Sacca) generally refers to words used to describe things. Conventional Truth is divided into two types: Name (Nāmapaññatti) and Meaning (Atthapaññatti).
In society, people create regulations for different things and people to facilitate differentiation, such as buildings, cars, Mr. A, Mrs. B, etc. This is called Name. When referring to a name, it immediately triggers the association with the described thing, which is called Meaning.
For example, talking about a lemon is referring to an object that has being (Paramattha), the name of the lemon is “name” and the image of the lemon that comes to mind is “meaning” (Atthapaññatti).
Another example, the word “angry” is language, it is “name”. When it comes to “anger” is to imagine an anger that happened in the past, it is called a concept. And even in the reality that we are angry, the anger that is present is the Ultimate Truth (Paramattha).
While meditating in the present, one experiences no anger. However, when one thinks about a past instance of anger towards someone, the image of anger that arises is merely a concept. Therefore, it can be asserted that the Ultimate Truth is the essence of Conventional Truth.
Monk Nguyen Tue explains the Two Truths Doctrine
The concepts of Ultimate Truth and Conventional Truth were not mentioned in the Nikayas and were introduced later. The Sutras talk about the universal Truth that the Saints have awakened to, which is the Four Noble Truths.
Therefore, the Buddha only referred to the Four Noble Truths, not the Two Truths Doctrine. The latter is a later view that has nothing to do with the Four Noble Truths.
Conventional Truth is often understood as “relative truth,” and Ultimate Truth as “absolute truth.” However, this interpretation creates a contradiction, as there can only be one truth. If something is close to the truth, it is not the truth. Such an understanding comes from humanity’s dualistic consciousness, which contains the Self and the World.