Two truths doctrine

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Template:Clone The doctrine of the two truths (Template:Bo) differentiates between two levels of truth/reality (Sanskrit: satya): relative or commonsensical truth, and absolute or ultimate truth. In Tibetan Buddhism ultimate truth is synonymous with emptiness.[1]

The doctrine was first expressed in complete form by Nāgārjuna.[2]

Etymology and definition

The two truths doctrine states that there is:

  • Relative or common-sense truth (Sanskrit saṃvṛti-satya, Pāli sammuti sacca, Tibetan kun-rdzob bden-pa), which describes our daily experience of a concrete world, and
  • Ultimate truth (Sanskrit, paramārtha-satya, Pāli paramattha sacca, Tibetan: don-dam bden-pa), which describes the ultimate reality as sunyata, empty of concrete and inherent characteristics.

The Sanskrit term for relative, "saṃvṛti", also implies nuanced concepts such as false, hidden, concealed, or obstructed.

The conventional truth may be interpreted as "obscurative truth" or "that which obscures the true nature" as a result. It is constituted by the appearances of mistaken awareness. Conventional truth would be the appearance that includes a duality of apprehender and apprehended, and objects perceived within that. Ultimate truths, are phenomena free from the duality of apprehender and apprehended.[3]

Origin and development

While the concept of the two truths is associated with the Madhyamaka school, its history goes back to the oldest Buddhism.

Pali Canon

In the Pali canon, the distinction is not made between a lower truth and a higher truth, but rather between two kinds of expressions of the same truth, which must be interpreted differently. Thus a phrase or passage, or a whole sutta, might be classed as neyyattha or samuti or vohāra, but it is not regarded at this stage as expressing or conveying a different level of truth.

Nītattha (Pāli; Sanskrit: nītārtha), "of plain or clear meaning"[4] and neyyattha (Pāli; Sanskrit: neyartha), "[a word or sentence] having a sense that can only be guessed".[4] These terms were used to identify texts or statements that either did or did not require additional interpretation. A nītattha text required no explanation, while a neyyattha one might mislead some people unless properly explained:[5] Template:Quote

Template:IAST or Template:IAST (Pāli; Sanskrit: Template:IAST, meaning "common consent, general opinion, convention",[6] and paramattha (Pāli; Sanskrit: paramārtha), meaning "ultimate", are used to distinguish conventional or common-sense language, as used in metaphors or for the sake of convenience, from language used to express higher truths directly. The term vohāra (Pāli; Sanskrit: vyavahāra, "common practice, convention, custom" is also used in more or less the same sense as samuti.


The Theravādin commentators expanded on these categories and began applying them not only to expressions but to the truth then expressed: Template:Quote


The Prajñaptivāda school took up the distinction between the conventional and ultimate (paramārtha/Template:IAST), and extended the concept to metaphysical-phenomenological constituents (dharmas), distinguishing those that are real (tattva) from those that are purely conceptual, i.e., ultimately nonexistent (prajnāpti).


The distinction between the two truths (satyadvayavibhāga) was fully expressed by the Madhyamaka school. In Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā it is used to defend the identification of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) with emptiness (śūnyatā): Template:Quote

In Nagarjuna's own words: Template:Quote

Nāgārjuna based his statement of the two truths on the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta. In the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta, the Buddha, speaking to the monk Kaccayana Gotta on the topic of right view, describes the middle Way between nihilsm and eternalism: Template:Quote

Understanding in Buddhist tradition


The Yogācāra-school distinguishes the three natures and the Trikaya.

Lankavatara Sutra

The Lankavatara Sutra took an idealistic turn in apprehending reality. D. T. Suzuki writes the following: Template:Quote

Hua-yen Buddhism

The Huayan school or Flower Garland is a tradition of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy that flourished in China during the Tang period. It is based on the Sanskrit Flower Garland Sutra (S. Avataṃsaka Sūtra, C. Huayan Jing) and on a lengthy Chinese interpretation of it, the Huayan Lun. The name Flower Garland is meant to suggest the crowning glory of profound understanding.

The most important philosophical contributions of the Huayan school were in the area of its metaphysics. It taught the doctrine of the mutual containment and interpenetration of all phenomena, as expressed in Indra's net. One thing contains all other existing things, and all existing things contain that one thing.

Distinctive features of this approach to Buddhist philosophy include:

  • Truth (or reality) is understood as encompassing and interpenetrating falsehood (or illusion), and vice versa
  • Good is understood as encompassing and interpenetrating evil
  • Similarly, all mind-made distinctions are understood as "collapsing" in the enlightened understanding of emptiness (a tradition traced back to the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna)

Huayan teaches the Four Dharmadhatu, four ways to view reality:

  1. All dharmas are seen as particular separate events;
  2. All events are an expression of the absolute;
  3. Events and essence interpenetrate;
  4. All events interpenetrate.Template:Sfn

Absolute and relative in Zen

The teachings of Zen are expressed by a set of polarities: Buddha-nature - sunyata,Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn absolute-relative,Template:Sfn sudden and gradual enlightenment.Template:Sfn

The Prajnaparamita Sutras and Madhyamaka emphasized the non-duality of form and emptiness: form is emptiness, emptiness is form, as the Heart Sutra says.Template:Sfn The idea that the ultimate reality is present in the daily world of relative reality fitted into the Chinese culture which emphasized the mundane world and society. But this does not tell how the absolute is present in the relative world. This question is answered in such schemata as the Five Ranks of TozanTemplate:Sfn and the Oxherding Pictures.

Essence-function in Korean Buddhism

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The polarity of absolute and relative is also expressed as "essence-function". The absolute is essence, the relative is function. They can't be seen as separate realities, but interpenetrate each other. The distinction does not "exclude any other frameworks such as neng-so or "subject-object" constructions", though the two "are completely different from each other in terms of their way of thinking".[7]

In Korean Buddhism, essence-function is also expressed as "body" and "the body's functions": Template:Quote

A metaphor for essence-function is "A lamp and its light", a phrase from the Platform Sutra, where Essence is lamp and Function is light.[8]

Tibetan Buddhism


The Nyingma tradition is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It is founded on the first translations of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Tibetan, in the eighth century. Ju Mipham (1846–1912) in his commentary to the Madhyamālaṃkāra of Śāntarakṣita (725–788) says:[9] Template:Quote

The following sentence from Mipham's exegesis of Śāntarakṣita's Madhyamālaṃkāra highlights the relationship between the absence of the four extremes (mtha'-bzhi) and the nondual or indivisible two truths (bden-pa dbyer-med): Template:Quote


Dzogchen holds that the two truths are ultimately resolved into non-duality as a lived experience and are non-different.

Understanding in non-Buddhist traditions


Three levels of reality

Advaita took over from the Madhyamika the idea of levels of reality.Template:Sfn Usually two levels are being mentioned,Template:Sfn but Shankara uses sublation as the criterion to postulate an ontological hierarchy of three levels:Template:Sfn[web 1]

  • Template:IAST (paramartha, absolute), the absolute level, "which is absolutely real and into which both other reality levels can be resolved".[web 1] This experience can't be sublated by any other experience.Template:Sfn
  • Template:IAST (vyavahara), or samvriti-sayaTemplate:Sfn (empirical or pragmatical), "our world of experience, the phenomenal world that we handle every day when we are awake".[web 1] It is the level in which both jiva (living creatures or individual souls) and Iswara are true; here, the material world is also true.
  • Template:IAST (pratibhasika, apparent reality, unreality), "reality based on imagination alone".[web 1] It is the level in which appearances are actually false, like the illusion of a snake over a rope, or a dream.

Three states of consciousness

Adi Shankara discerned three states of consciousness, namely waking (jågrat), dreaming (svapna), and deep sleep (suƒupti),[web 2][web 3] which correspond to the three bodies:Template:Sfn

  1. The first state is the waking state, in which we are aware of our daily world. "It is described as outward-knowing (bahish-prajnya), gross (sthula) and universal (vaishvanara)".[web 3] This is the gross body.
  2. The second state is the dreaming mind. "It is described as inward-knowing (antah-prajnya), subtle (pravivikta) and burning (taijasa)".[web 3] This is the subtle body.
  3. The third state is the state of deep sleep. In this state the underlying ground of concsiousness is undistracted, "the Lord of all (sarv’-eshvara), the knower of all (sarva-jnya), the inner controller (antar-yami), the source of all (yonih sarvasya), the origin and dissolution of created things (prabhav’-apyayau hi bhutanam)".[web 3] This is the causal body.

Correspondence with Greek scepticism

McEvilley (2002) notes a correspondence between Greek Pyrrhonism and Madhyamika doctrines: Template:Quote

See also



  1. Template:Cite book
  2. Nagarjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārika, Jay L. Garfield, Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995
  3. Levinson, Jules (August 2006) Lotsawa Times Volume II
  4. 4.0 4.1 Monier-Williams
  5. McCagney: 82
  6. PED
  7. Park, Sung-bae (1983). Buddhist Faith and Sudden Enlightenment. SUNY series in religious studies. SUNY Press. ISBN 0-87395-673-7, ISBN 978-0-87395-673-4. Source: [1] (accessed: Friday April 9, 2010), p.147
  8. Lai, Whalen (1979). "Ch'an Metaphors: waves, water, mirror, lamp". Philosophy East & West; Vol. 29, no.3, July, 1979, pp.245–253. Source: [2] (accessed: Saturday May 8, 2010)
  9. Commentary to the first couplet of quatrain/śloka 72 of the root text, (725–788) — Blumenthal, James (2008). "Śāntarakṣita", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Source: [3] (accessed: February 28, 2009), as rendered into English by the Padmakara Translation Group (2005: p. 304)


Published sources


  • Conze, Edward (1959). Buddhism: Its Essence and Development. New York, USA: Harper and Row.
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  • Gethin, Rupert. Foundations of Buddhism. pp. 207, 235–245
  • Jayatilleke, K.N. Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. George Allen and Unwin, 1963
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  • Keown, Damien. Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxford University Press, 2003
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  • Lopez, Donald S., "A Study of Svatantrika", Snow Lion Publications, 1987, pp. 192–217.
  • McCagney, Nancy. The Philosophy of Openness. Rowman and Littlefield, 1997
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  • Monier-Williams, Monier. Sanskrit-English Dictionary
  • Newland, Guy (1992). The Two Truths: in the Mādhyamika Philosophy of the Ge-luk-ba Order of Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, New York, USA: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 0-937938-79-3
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  • Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro, The Lankavatara Sutra, A Mahayana Text Routledge Kegan Paul, 1932
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External links


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