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Theravāda notions: sammuti  and paramatha
December 2nd, 2013
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illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Theravāda notions: sammuti  and paramatha

It is often said that the Two Truths (gplus.wallez.name/4gaFiv79s7d) were clearly expressed by Nāgārjuna; this is true but it easily hides that Nāgārjuna did not create these teachings in a vacuum.


Sammuti  (conventional) and paramatha  (ultimately real) are a Theravāda Abhidhamma clarification of notions, already found in the Aṅguttara Nikaya, of neyyattha ("meaning to be drawn out", i.e. to be interpreted) and nitattha ("meaning drawn out", i.e. direct, explicit and definitive).

From the suttas, there was no judgement of superiority of one above the other, what mattered was merely not to confuse the two (notably, not to confused a statement 'to be interpreted' as 'definitive').


It is to be noted that subsequent schools mostly lost the "equal ranking" of the two truths, and tended to see one as 'ultimate' while the other was merely 'obscuring' or 'imperfect'.

The Theravāda Abhidhamma successfully maintained the equal ranking and this proved key in many other conversations.

For example, the Pudgalavādins and Sarvāstivādins had issues with the idea that 'individuals' or 'persons' were not ultimately existent, because these schools wanted to preserve the ethical side of the Buddhist teachings, karma, rebirth, etc.
Seeing these teachings as merely inferior was unsatisfactory, hence the schools felt the need to re-introduce one way or another some existence (for persons) 'higher' than merely 'conventional'.
But the Theravādins did not need such contortions, because if rebirth and kamma  are phrased in terms of "conventional truth" (sammuti-sacca),  its conventional nature doesn't make this truth any less true.


For the Theravāda Abhidhamma, "ultimate truth" and "conventional truth" actually are two sides of the same truth, expressed in results of analysis to the ultimate extent (i.e. expressed in terms of dhammas, in terms of the phenomenon that cannot be decomposed further without losing actuality) or expressed in conventional, common sense, language.

Like two sides of a coin, they're inseparable and there's not a side more 'true' than the other.


Not confusing the two truths is not only necessary not to slander the buddha, but it is also necessary if one is to fruitfully teach or share knowledge with anyone: clarity is the sign of the "skilful in means of expressions".

The Buddha may thus talk of 'persons' to transmit a truth, neither being confused himself nor leading his audience to confusion vis-à-vis the lack of ultimate existence of a 'person'. Which obviously doesn't mean a person doesn't exist at all (nihilism), but only that it exists in decomposable analysable terms (dhammas,  which might prove more convenient in other contexts, but not necessarily all contexts (e.g. not when what matters is to teach lay people about karma)).


Sammuti  is a projection of the mind, often in relation to some use: a 'chair' is a projection of the mind on some combination of elements, in relation to a use of this combination.
Paramatha  would only refer to the constituents, independent of the intention of the observer.
Sammuti  and paramatha  are thus not equivalent, just like paññātti  and dhamma  are not (gplus.wallez.name/TDK3TW1zNn3).

But truths (sammuti-sacca  and paramatha-sacca)  expressed in both terms are equally true. Both are paññātti.
The two truths are two ways to present what accords with actuality. There is no contradiction, one is simply expressed based on (appropriate) mental projections "on top of" dhammas,  while the other is expressed directly "in terms of" dhammas.


#Buddhism   #Dharma   #Theravada