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Two truths
April 30th, 2013 (May 2nd, 2013)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Two truths

Mahāyāna Buddhism regularly uses (directly or via extended elaborations) the notion of "Two Truths": "conventional truth" and "ultimate truth". The Middle Path is neither one nor the other, neither both nor none. 

Two truths

Most of what we 'know' (which can be transmitted verbally) is "conventional truth": just consider that verbal transmission requires words, which are themselves conventions!

"Ultimate truth" is related to our capacity to 'intuitively' know or 'experience' or 'be'… This is more easily found in silence, as advocated by Candrakīrti. By definition, it is non-'expressible' (as it immediately becomes 'conventional') but you could also 'see' it e.g. as the "root intention" behind sharing or compassion…

By definition, the teachings of Buddhism are "conventional truths" (a point that regularly frustrates those who would like to be given a guaranteed path to the Ultimate). This obviously does not mean they relate to only one truth: the teachings address the ignorance that can be found in conventional truths, ignorance that prevents us from 'seeing' the ultimate truth! So the teachings are very practical but they don't address what cannot be described from one to another; they address what prevents us to see it for ourselves.

One way to get a hint at the difference between the two truths is to consider our behaviour. Many intellectually know that compassion works to alleviate the suffering of others but also our own, or that conditioned phenomena are impermanent, or even that we're without an essential self. But to know so and act accordingly is not such a common experience: we quickly shrink back into self-centred-ness, we quickly generalise and assume more permanency or identity through time than is actually experienceable, we quickly behave as if we didn't 'know' (and thus an observer —including ourselves— is entitled to ask whether we actually understood anything or just payed lip service to it)… Ultimate truth can be seen as having so fundamentally internalised the three characteristics of existence (suffering, impermanence, selflessness) that one acts accordingly, without having to 'verbalise' them.

Both 'truths' have their own attractiveness.

Conventional truth can be communicated, shared, expanded, refined… Think 'science'! We're talking applicable knowledge, useful to deal with causality and life… Conventional truth can be a fantastically useful tool. This being said, just like science, any formalised 'law' might be worth enquiring into, refining, testing at the edges… Basically, for all its attractiveness, there is the risk with conventional truth of no longer paying attention (then dramatically hitting the wall, because circumstances change and some previous 'given' element of the context may no longer be assumed to hold). Fundamentally, conventional truth is efficient but always requires confirmation…

Ultimate truth can allow us to be at ease with the 'unknown' though, not that it necessarily gives us omniscience but it allows us to rest in the uncertainty, to peacefully observe how impermanence and selflessness play out without this automatically generating anxiety or anguish or longing for certainty / truth / knowledge / science… Ultimate truth allows us to stay 'tuned', pay attention, avoid generalising what worked in the past as 'automatically' working now (even though conditions have changed) while engaging: conventional truth somehow requires a monitoring / observation separate from the engagement, but ultimate truth, in its experiential nature, doesn't need such a reflective two-steps process. But, very importantly, the key is that ultimate truth frees us from our automatisms linked to survival (i.e. our automatisms trying to get us back "in control"), and allows us to access the potential of our consciousness, a potential much beyond mere survival! That's the major attractiveness! The ultimate truth gives us access to the spaciousness of our mind. One of the risks of ultimate truth though is in resting too much in peace, in silence, in contemplation… i.e. in killing any simultaneous progress of the conventional truth, the truth allowing us to deal with survival.

Very simply, fulfilling our potential (including what depends on the extraordinary existence of such rich consciousness streams) requires survival, without being limited to survival. To quote the character of Christopher Pike from the 2009 "Star Trek" movie: "You can settle for less than an ordinary life, or do you feel like you were meant for something better? Something special?" A life when you embody generosity, love, patience, perseverance, contemplation, wisdom?

Both conventional and ultimate truths interplay: fulfilling our potential is neither limited to one or the other, nor is it always in some evanescent never-found 'middle' nor somewhere else entirely.

A wholesome life is in the navigation between these two truths according to what's appropriate under the current conditions and circumstances.
The navigation might bring you fully on only one of the truths for a moment, based on the constraints at hand, but it doesn't stick… The next moment will not be the same circumstances, so the 'navigation' might require you to use another combination of the two truths: neither one truth, nor the other, nor some 'middle' encompassing both, nor something else.

#Buddhism   #Dharma   #buddhistcircle  
(photo: Junaid Jemal Sendi and Addisu Demissie, two Ethiopian dancers and choreographers)
Post Scriptum: an older post of mine titled "The Middle Way is not Oneness" is available at and might usefully complement this one. Also worth mentioning, a recent post by +Ben O' Hare available at which discusses various theories of 'truth' and briefly points to the "two truths".