The Two Truths
A Brief Philosophic Introduction
Regard all dharma as dreams….
The Two Truths is one of the most fundamental teachings in Buddhism today, and yet it is barely even mentioned in the early scriptures (the Pali Canon or the Agamas). It wasn’t until Nagarjuna’s writing in the 4th century, a thousand years after the Buddha’s death, that the idea took hold. This is, perhaps, because The Two Truths is more an understanding about reality than it is a “teaching.” Or perhaps it was just that a thousand years was needed for Buddhism to develop so that conditions allowed it this teaching to arise. Whatever the reason, the more we learn about The Two Truths, the more we practice with and them realize them experientially, the less dukkha we create and the less suffering there is in our life.
The Two Truths explain that there are two levels of reality: the conventional and the ultimate. The conventional is the everyday world, full of objects and beings and ideas that all seem “true,” autonomous, and separate from us. This is the way our senses feed us information: I see the plant, I am here, it is there, I am independent and existent and substantial, it is independent and existent and substantial, we are each separate and autonomous and, at least at this moment, permanent. What I believe about the plant is true: if I think it is a good plant, it is a good plant. If I think it is too big for where it is placed in the hall, it is too big; if I then move it to the corner of the living room, it becomes too small. I don’t see that it can’t be too big and a moment later too small unless it is not really permanent and substantial.
The ultimate truth is the more profound (deeper philosophic) understanding that all things are things are impermanent, interconnected (dependently originated), non-self (empty of any inherent nature). The ultimate nature of things, in a word, is emptiness. It is things as they are, before we reify them, before we impute them with a concrete, independent, material existence; before we assign them meaning and value–good/bad, too big/too small.
You can’t have one without the other, ultimate without conventional, though it often seems that way when we begin to learn about these two truths. In fact, the learning process takes us from thinking each of these two truths is independent to understanding the two operate together, to finally realizing that they are one.
Philosophically, by positing that there are two levels of reality, we are suggesting that there is something which is sub-dividable, something that can be categorized in two ways.
So you can ask yourself, "What are we sub-dividing?" and the answer is “a knowable object.” Here, a knowable is simply something that is existing. To exist means to be knowable, and to be knowable means to exist. But not everything that “is known” exists.
In fact, just because it is “known” doesn’t mean it exists. I could fabricate the idea a rabbit with antlers, a jackalope. Taxidermists in the West often create these trophy animals for the amusement of their customers and to poke fun at “city folk.” I could fabricate this awareness, and in that sense rabbit's antlers are something known, but they certainly don't exist. And to someone caught in the joke, jackalopes are just as real as if they did in fact exist in the prairie.
When we equate things that exist with things that are known, we mean that they are known by a valid awareness, a valid conventional consciousness. Obviously, this can be tricky. Our obligation, therefore, is to see as clearly as we can so that our awareness is as valid an awareness and as correct a conventional consciousness as possible. We should also note that validity is not determined by the number of individuals who might believe something or claim an awareness of it: even though the Greeks and later the Alexandrians has accurately measured the circumference of the earth, from the time of Christ until Columbus, Europeans chose to believe the world was flat.
So if a person makes a statement that mirrors reality, then that statement is true. If it does not mirror reality, it is a lie. “Lie” is a very strong word. One could instead say it is a “fiction.” But “lie” is important to use because lying to ourselves about the nature of reality is the source of all our suffering.
Our biggest baddest lie is that we and other things are permanent, autonomous, and exist inherently; that we are independent and separate from everything else, which is independent and separate from us. When I look at a tree, I say to myself: “I see the tree.” The way the mind processes that sense contact, it presents the information to me as if there is a me that is separate and autonomous and a tree that is separate and autonomous. Believing that, believing that we are separate and autonomous, believing that there is Someone or Something, is the big lie, and the source of all our suffering.
In fact nobody or nothing, anywhere, has anything that inherently makes it what it is. Nothing has its own personal mark. Everything exists simply through language, through ideas. The absence of something, the total absence, the total not-being, non-existence of anything that is not there through the power of language and thought is, emptiness, the ultimate truth.
So far this has been a serious, if partial and introductory look at the meaning of The Two Truths. So why is this concept so important? What does it mean on an everyday level?
1. Not understanding The Two Truths means we believe the information that is coming at us is complete and true. We believe that our perception of the world is correct; we believe our stories about these experiences are true. So we act from that place with confidence causing ourselves more and more suffering.
2. When we act from a wrong perception, and invalid conventional consciousness, or a limited perception; when we don’t see clearly that there is a conventional world and an ultimate reality, we cause a vast network of interrelated problems to arise, we cause ourselves to suffer.
Practicing with The Two Truths
Not Believing What Our Mind Tells Us
The simplest and easiest tool to apply The Two Truths to our everyday life is to simply remember not to believe anything our minds tell us. If my mind tells me I should be upset because there is a ding in the door of “my car,” I need to recognize that there is simply a chip in the paint on a piece of plastic and that it might need to be repaired, but not believe stories I have created about it: “This always happens to me,” as though some force of the universe conspires against me and my car to make me upset, or “I hate it when people are so dishonest that they don’t even leave a note when they ding your car door,” which assumes they even knew they had dinged the door, which might not be true, and assumes that they planned to do it to me, which is nonsense, they don’t even know me; or “The door is ruined; I’ll never be able to afford to get it fixed,” etc.
These stories appear to be known, but in fact are lies because they do not mirror reality.
Yes, there’s a chip in the paint; yes, it might need to be repaired at some point. But we don’t need to define it as a personal problem or as an assault against us personally.
Simpler said than done? Not really; not once you have practiced it for a while. In fact; it is easier done than said.
Laughing At Our Stories
Another perspective on this practice is simply to notice when you are getting irritated or annoyed or upset or angry or depressed and to ask yourself, what story is causing me this dukkha now? In the example of the ding in the car door, the story is: my car door should never get a ding, it should always be as pristine as it was the moment I bought it. Other people can get dings and scratches, that’s ok, but not me. All our stories, if we are seeing what is really happening in our minds, as silly and self-centered. Seeing this, we can laugh at the story, and that laugh takes all the sting out of it.