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The Two Truths
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche
RINPOCHE FIRST URGES EVERYONE to give rise to the enlightened mind, love, and compassion, and apply ourselves to listening to the teachings, reflecting upon their meaning, and meditating on them. The purpose of these actions is to achieve the enlightened state, and that is for the purpose of benefiting all sentient beings, in numbers as vast as the sky.
In the Buddha's tradition, the concept, or the presentation, of the two truths is very important. For that reason, in this first weekend course Rinpoche will give the presentation of the two truths through the various traditions of the Dharma. The two truths are the conventional truth and the ultimate truth. The conventional truth is the mode in which things appear, and the ultimate truth is the mode of being, or the way things really are.
When we hold on to the mode of appearance of things, the conventional truth, as having some kind of true existence, then the various kinds of sufferings arise, and the various disturbing emotions. So conditioned existence or samsara arises from holding onto the way things appear as being real, as being true, as having some kind of innate existence. So then, realising the mode of the way things are, releasing the ultimate truth, pacifies or dispels all of the various disturbing emotions; from that one gains nirvana. Briefly, then, attaching to the mode of appearance as having true existence--this is the confused mind or the bewildered mind. Therefore, it is necessary to reverse that bewildered mind and to realise the nature of things as they are.
Whatever phenomenon there is to be known, that phenomenon can be known in terms of the conventional truth, or it can be known in terms of the ultimate truth, but only in terms of these two truths and not in terms of any other truths. Because of the importance of knowing that phenomena have their existence in terms of these two truths, the Buddha said that all phenomena whatsoever can be known through these two truths, ultimate and conventional, and not in any other way.
In order to understand these two truths, the ultimate and the conventional, they have to be approached through the different Buddhist traditions. It is difficult to understand them without approaching them in that way.
The traditions can be divided into the Vehicle of the Hearers, or the Shravakayana, and the Great Vehicle, or the Mahayana. In the Vehicle of the Hearers, there is the division into the way of positing the two truths in terms of the Vaibhashika school and the way of positing the two truths in terms of the Sautrantika school. And in the Great Vehicle, or Mahayana, there is first the way of positing the two truths in the terms of the Cittamatra, or Mind-Only school, and then the way of positing these truths in the Madhyamaka tradition. In the Madhyamaka tradition, further there is the Svatantrika approach to positing these two truths, and the Prasangika approach of positing them. Then there is also the empty-of-other approach. It is better to use the Tibetan word for this, which is zhen-tong. "Zhen" means "other," and "tong" means "empty." Literally it means "empty of other. " In English it is a little awkward, so we will just say zhen-tong. And finally, besides the zhen-tong approach, there is the mantra approach to positing the two truths.
Rinpoche will begin by positing the two truths according to the Vaibhashika school. The following quote is taken from the text The All-Pervasiveness of All-Encompassing Knowledge, written by the first Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Lodro Thaye. It is sometimes known as The Treasury of Knowledge.
In the tradition of the Vaibhashika, the conventional truth Is the coarse object of continuum consciousness, which can be broken down. The partless, which cannot be rejected, is the ultimate truth.
That is the root verse.
Conventional truth refers either to something that can be broken down or destroyed physically (with regard to physical objects), or (with regard to the mind) to the continuum of consciousness that through analysis can be broken down. From the point of view of physical objects, the ultimate truth is the very small, partless atoms or particles that cannot be broken down any further. And in the terms of the mind, the smallest moment of consciousness would be the ultimate truth. So, briefly then the relative or conventional truth is the coarse object or the continuum of consciousness, and the ultimate truth is the atomic unbreakable particles and the smallest moment of consciousness.
An example of the conventional truth, according to the Vaibhashikas, is the vase and the flowers. The reason they are conventional is because they can both be destroyed. The cup can be broken and the flowers can be taken apart. Once the cup is broken or the flowers are taken apart, then the idea, the concept of cup or the concept of flowers, will not arise. So that is the conventional level.
Considering the same cup and flowers from the ultimate view they have an ultimate nature because they are physically made up, according to the Vaibhashika view, of atomic particles that are partless, that cannot be divided any further, and so they are beyond being able to be destroyed.
As regards consciousness, the consciousness, for example, that arises from the moment we awaken until we sleep, that continuum of consciousness is called the conventional level. It is called the conventional level because if it is investigated and divided up, then it cannot be established as being existent any longer; since it has been divided. If one investigates that continuum of consciousness, then one sees that the past moment of consciousness has ceased to exist, the future moment of consciousness has not yet arisen, and the present moment of consciousness is fleeting. If one looks at it closer and closer at each momentary instant, the continuum cannot be established as being ultimate; ultimately speaking there is no continuum.
To summarise again, gross objects are the conventional level, and the continuum of consciousness is the conventional level. The smallest indivisible particle is the ultimate level, and the smallest instant of consciousness is the ultimate level or ultimate truth.
What is meant by indivisible, according to Vaibhashika tradition, are the smallest, subtlest particles, which cannot be divided into, for example, a northern part, a southern part, a top part, or a bottom part. Since they cannot be divided like that, they are said to be ultimate. If they could be divided into those parts, then they would not be the smallest parts.
Since these particles are small and indivisible, they cannot be destroyed. Since they cannot be destroyed, since they can not be broken down any further, these small parts are said to possess a particular energy, or power.
The aggregation of these small indivisible particles constitutes the coarse objects. If you take the gross object and destroy it, what is left over are the smallest indivisible particles.
From the point of view of consciousness, consciousness cannot be destroyed in the same way that an object can be destroyed. With consciousness, one analyses it into the consciousness that was, the consciousness that is yet to be, and the present consciousness. And with the present consciousness, one investigates it down to the subtlest moment or instant, beyond which it cannot be divided any further, and that is the ultimate truth.
This smallest moment in the Buddhist tradition is said to be the time it takes a finger to snap, divided by 64. That is what is said to be the smallest instant in time; in the Buddhist tradition that is called the limit of time. Through one's analysis, through one's intelligence, one could say that the moment could be divided into hundreds, into thousands, into millions. Of course, that is possible. But in terms of the arising of thoughts, the thought arises in these 64 divisions of a finger snap.
If you take an arrow or a bullet and you shoot it through 100 flower petals, it seems to go through instantaneously; one cannot break down the movement through 100 flower petals. But if one analyses it, one sees that is has to go through the first flower petal before it goes through the second flower petal, and so forth.
Rinpoche says that previously the scientific position was that the ultimate truth was small atomic particles that could not be divided. He says that he thinks this is very similar, not exactly the same perhaps, but very similar to the Vaibhashika school.
What is called "Buddha," or in Tibetan "sang-gye," is the exhaustion of all confusions and bewilderment and the shining forth of the five wisdoms. What is called "samsara" is confused or bewildered appearances. The exhaustion of these confused, bewildered appearances, along with the habitual tendencies or karmic dispositions, is what is "Buddha."
In the traditions of the Vehicle of the Hearers and the Vehicle of the Self-Realizers, the goal is to attain the state of an arhat, or "foe destroyer." This is enlightenment or nirvana, but not the ultimate nirvana. It is only the exhaustion of the grosser veils, not the complete exhaustion or pacification of the very fine, subtle confusions. So it is not ultimate enlightenment. Until one achieves the ultimate state of a buddha, one has not achieved the ultimate nirvana.
When one attains the complete state of a buddha, the complete state of enlightenment, then there is a great benefit for other sentient beings. The reason for this is that when one has exhausted all of one's own confusions, one is able to really and truly work for the benefit of other beings.
For the benefit of all sentient beings, the Buddha taught the inexpressible or inconceivable Dharma, the limitless Dharma, the endless Dharma. He said that there is the way things appear--the conventional truth--and the mode of being of things--the ultimate truth. Other than these ways, there is no third truth, no other way.
The difference in the way of positing or expressing these two truths is the first main division between the Vehicle of the Hearers and the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana. In the Vehicle of the Hearers, you have the Vaibhashikas' way of positing the two truths, and the way of positing the two truths in terms of the Sautrantikas; and then, in the Great Vehicle, the way of positing these two truths in terms of the Mind-Only approach, and the way of positing these two truths in terms of the Madhyamaka approach. Then there is the Mantrayana or the Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) approach to positing these two truths.
So there are many ways of positing the two truths. Rinpoche is basing his teachings upon the teachings of the first Kongtrul Rinpoche, Lodro Thaye, who discussed this matter in the book The Treasury of Knowledge. This book is composed of the root text, which is called "The All-Pervasive Knowledge," and the commentary, which is called "The Ocean of Limitless Knowledge." If one were to ask why it is called "The All-Pervasive Knowledge," it is because it is describing or speaking about all phenomena--that is, all phenomena of both nirvana and conditioned existence. And it is describing or speaking about the way in which things are, their mode of being or the nature of all phenomena.
The reason why the commentary is called "The Ocean of Limitless Knowledge" is that the knowledge of the Dharma that is being expressed is said to be without limit and without end. It is said to be like an ocean because the oceans of the world are very, very vast and very, very deep. The reason for studying "The Ocean of Limitless Knowledge" is that if in the path stage on the way to Buddhahood, one does not study "The Ocean of Limitless Knowledge," then at the fruition stage one won't obtain a Buddha's pristine awareness of omniscience or all-knowing.
This text by Kongtrul Rinpoche, composed of the root text, "The All-Pervasive Knowledge," and the commentary, "The Ocean of Limitless Knowledge," is divided into 40 chapters. This presentation of the two truths is one of those 40 chapters. This particular chapter deals with the Buddha's three turnings of the wheel of Dharma, and with the two truths. It also deals with the links of interdependent origination, but in this particular section that Rinpoche is teaching, it is only dealing with the two truths, not the three turnings of the wheel or interdependent origination.
Yesterday Rinpoche briefly explained the way of positing the two truths in the Vaibhashika tradition and in the Sautrantika tradition. Today he will begin by briefly explaining how the two truths are posited in the Cittamatra or Mind-Only tradition.
First there is the root text from the "All-Pervasive Knowledge," and it goes like this: "The tradition of the Mind Only school posits a dualistic appearance depending on objects and object perceivers. The ultimate truth is the nature of the consciousness of there not being two." In the commentary to this, "The Ocean of Limitless Knowledge," there is an explanation concerning this root verse, and Rinpoche is going to extract the essence of that and give a brief presentation or explanation.
In this tradition, what is said to be conventional truth is the dualistic appearance of the outer, "held" object and the inner, "holding" entity, or the perceiving mind. So these two, holder and held, grasper and grasped, apprehender and apprehended, constitute the conventional level or the conventional truth. The mind that is beyond that, that is free from that, that sees both as being simply mind, that is the ultimate truth or the ultimate level.
In this tradition, the dualistic appearance of holder and held, the consciousness that makes this division or separation, the thoughts or conceptualisations that make this distinction, need to be exhausted. For the purpose of exhausting this dualistic clinging, one needs to realise that the essence or nature is empty of these two.
So the dualistic appearance, the seeming appearing of grasper and grasped, has no true existence, no reality, no truth. It is simply confusion, bewilderment, artificiality. One needs to understand that it is all of these things, that this seeming dualism does not exist, has no true reality.
This dualistic appearance is like a dream. For the purpose of resolving this seeming duality, this appearing as two (grasper and grasped), it is necessary to realise the nature of the ultimate truth. If one does not understand that this dualism is bewilderment and confusion, one will not be able to realise its nature as being that of the ultimate truth.
The best example to illustrate how these two truths function is the example of the dream. When we are dreaming, there appears to be a duality between the appearances in the dream and the perception of these appearances. However, this seeming duality is only conventional, only artificial; it has no true existence or true reality. This appearance of two, perceiver and perceived, is simply the bewilderment or the confusion of the mind. Both of these, holder and held, are simply the mind itself, simply the clear cognition of the mind itself, the luminous knowing of the mind itself.
Rinpoche says that this is the brief explanation of this particular view, of the Cittamatra, in terms of the two truths.
Then, we move on to the Madhyamaka approach and the two truths in relation to the Madhyamaka approach. First, the Madhyamaka is divided into what is called empty-of-self and empty-of-other. The Tibetan for "empty of self" is "rang-tong." "Rang" means "self," and "tong" means "empty," so literally it means "self-empty." "Zhen" means "other," and "tong" means "empty," so the meaning is "other-empty." The rang tong approach says that all phenomena of conditioned existence and nirvana are empty of having any self-essence or self-nature. The zhen-tong or empty-of-other approach says that the nature of the mind, the Buddhanature, is endowed with spontaneous qualities, but is empty of any adventitious, fleeting, passing stains on that nature.
In the rang tong or empty-of-self approach, you have the two schools of the Svatantrika and Prasangika. The Svatantrikas make assertions about the nature of reality or the true nature; the Prasangikas do not make any ultimate assertions themselves.
The Svatantrikas refute the idea of there being existence, true existence, and they assert non-true existence. They refute the idea that things have their own nature, and they assert emptiness. The Prasangikas refute the idea that things have true existence, that things have any nature of their own. They do not, however, assert emptiness. They do not assert non-existence. The do not assert even freedom from elaboration, because in their tradition the ultimate level is completely beyond being something that can be asserted.
The root text says that in the tradition of the Svatantrikas, appearances exist as the conventional truth like a magical illusion. The ultimate truth is non-existent like the sky. So in the Svatantrika tradition the conventional truth is said to be the appearances that arise owing to the coming together of causes and conditions. They are said to exist in the same way that appearances in a dream or appearances of a magical illusion exist. On the ultimate level, things are said not to have any nature of their own, to be nothing whatsoever, nothing at all, to be empty in the same way that the sky is empty.
All of the sensory experiences, such as the experiences of form, sound, smell, taste, and touch are caused by the coming together of causes and conditions. These conventional appearances are like the sensations or experiences in dreams. Form, sound, smell, taste, and touch then have no real essence of their own. They are the results of causes and conditions, like a dream, having no essence of their own, empty of having self-essence. This is the ultimate truth, the unmistaken truth. This is the reality or the real truth, that they are empty of any self nature, of any self-mode of being.
In the same way, then, all feelings of happiness and all feelings of suffering simply exist in a conventional way, like these same feelings of happiness and suffering in a dream. They are existing merely conventionally. They have no self-essence or nature of their own. They simply come together as a result of causes and conditions.
If one investigates and examines these feelings of happiness and suffering with one's eye of wisdom, one will come to see that ultimately they have no existence, no nature of their own. They are completely empty, nothing whatsoever, in the same way that the sky is completely empty. Like the experiences of suffering and happiness that arise in a dream, except for being simply the coming together of causes and conditions, except for being artificiality, except for being confusion, they themselves have no nature, have no essence, are empty.
In the tradition of the Svatantrikas, it is necessary to understand and realise that things have no self-essence, no nature of their own, for the purpose of exhausting the clinging to things as being real.
Moving on then to the explanation of the two truths in terms of the tradition of the Prasangikas, the root text says that the conventional truth is what is imputed by thought, the expressions of the world. The ultimate truth is free from elaboration, beyond thought and expression. The commentary briefly says that basically, in this tradition of the Prasangikas, what is conventional truth is anything that is imputed by thought, by the mind. What is ultimate truth, then, is that which is completely beyond any elaborations or fabrications, any thought, any expression.
In this tradition there are basically three different kinds of processes: the process of no analysis, the process of a little analysis, and the process of fine analysis. If one does not apply one's reasoning, one's analytical wisdom, to trying to ascertain what the ultimate truth is, then this is called the process of no analysis. If one uses one's analytical abilities to do this, then this is the process of a little analysis: and if one does this in a very, very complete manner, then this is the process of fine analysis.
What is the process of no analysis? In it, samsara is said to be of the nature of suffering, and karma (cause and effect) is said to function in such a way that when virtuous actions are committed, then virtuous fruits are reaped, and when nonvirtuous actions are committed, then nonvirtuous fruits are reaped.
In the process of a little analysis, one is able to say that on one hand is the conventional truth and on the other hand is the ultimate truth. When one is able to make this differentiation, this is the process of a little analysis.
In what is called the process of fine analysis, there is no longer a differentiation between conventional truth and absolute or ultimate truth. One is beyond making this differentiation, one is completely beyond all expressions, beyond all speech in terms of describing this. When one is free from all fabrications or elaborations of thought, free from all fabrications of the mind, this is the process of fine analysis.
Briefly, in the Prasangika approach, all of the fabrications of the mind and all of the objects that result from these fabrications of the mind are relative, the conventional truth. For the purpose of exhausting or pacifying this relative perception of truth, it is necessary to realise and to understand the meaning of the state of the ultimate truth, the state that is free from conceptualisation, fabrication, elaboration.
What is this fabrication or elaboration of the mind? It is to say, for example, that this is existence or this is non-existence; or to say that this is both existence and non-existence; or to say that this is neither existence nor non-existence. All of those are fabrications, elaborations. Where one has the thought of a perceiver and of a perceived, this is a fabrication. All of this is the conceptual level. For the purpose of pacifying or exhausting these elaborations, it is necessary to realise this, free from elaborations or fabrications.
One can reflect again and again and take to heart these brief explanations of the meaning of these different approaches to the two truths.
To summarise, the tradition of the Mind-Only posits apprehender and apprehended, dualistic appearance, object and object perceiver. The ultimate truth is the nature of consciousness of not being two. In the tradition of the Svatantrikas, appearances exist as the conventional truth, like a magic illusion. The ultimate truth is non-existent like the sky. In the tradition of the Prasangikas, the conventional truth is what is imputed by thought, the expressions of the world. The ultimate truth is free from elaborations, beyond thought and expression.