The Two Truths or Realities in Buddhism

Category: Buddhist Path | Recent Meditation Posts

An image of an incense burning wafting smoke - the two truths of Buddhism

Understanding the Buddhist Two Truth Doctrine

Is there a difference between how awakened beings and ordinary beings perceive the world? According to the Buddha’s teachings there is indeed, and the teachings on the two truths or two realities can help us understand what the difference is.

What we call relative truth is the supposed “reality” that we experience—you sit there, I sit here, and everyone else is sitting wherever they are right now. What we experience seems so real that we naturally assume that what we perceive, believe, and feel is the truth. It often surprises us that others don’t share our reality. In a relationship, for instance, we’re convinced that our perception of events is true and real, and our partner might insist that theirs is. It works this way with everybody and everything!

We also call this conventional or provisional truth. But our “truth” is so personal that it isn’t shared by anyone else in the world. And it isn’t reliable or stable because it is constantly changing according to our circumstances. We may perceive the same person differently depending on our mood and outer circumstances: an enemy can become a friend and a friend can become an enemy.

What we call “relative” is this world of conditioned perception—conditioned not only by inner factors, such as our emotions, but also by factors like the weather, political situations, other people’s feelings, and so on. This conditioned world perceived by my conditioned mindstream leads to my personal conviction that this is how things actually are.

If I look more closely, however, I realize that what I am perceiving is a “self-made” reality; “self-made” is a translation of a Tibetan term which means contrived or artificial. Yet self-made reality is the only reality I can rely on right now. For the most part, my understanding of how causes, conditions, and results function makes it possible for me to be able to adapt to and operate in this world adequately.

But according to the doctrine of the two truths, there’s another dimension of reality as taught by the Buddha and described by countless kindhearted teachers since the Buddha’s time. This is the dimension that accords with the experiences of those who are fully awakened. A striking difference between their perception of the world and events and ours is that in theirs, the sense of self has disappeared. We describe this awareness that is free from dualistic, subjective perception as ultimate reality or truth.

When the mind is free of self-concern and the subject, the “I,” is no longer the center of an individual’s experience, there is an acute sensitivity to everything that arises. This expresses itself as a panoramic ability to perceive things and events through a spectrum of different lenses and levels, because the positioning of self-centeredness and the seeming separation from others in a seemingly outer world are gone.

In the mind of an awakened person, all the usual labeling—this is a camera, that is a computer, this is a man, that is a woman, this is me, that is you—is understood to be subjective and provisional. I see this as a tree, but how does an ant perceive it? She considers it her home: an ant’s perception of the world differs from mine. All the terms we use, all the concepts we rely on are relative; their “reality” is provisional, rather than definitive, because we perceive and interpret them according to our subjective point of view.

As ordinary beings, we rely on practice and intuition to give us a glimpse of a non-separated, non-dual experience of the world where all assumptions based on subject and object have dissolved and all emotions that cloud the mind are gone. The awakened ones use subject-object language to express this state, all the while knowing that whatever needs to be expressed is beyond words. For them, conventional communication is like talking about the sun behind the clouds. They know that even without seeing the sun, listeners can imagine it behind the clouds and experience it to a certain degree.

As unenlightened beings, we listen to the teachings and practice the path of awakening from within relative, provisional reality. We accept that the teachings use dualistic concepts and methods. We use our dualistic minds to gradually and skillfully work our way into a more open awareness of what is. Whenever possible, we drop the unnecessary labeling and self-cherishing, we drop the habitual subjectivity and enter increasingly open states of mind. We relax the effort to hold onto what we usually perceive as reality and simply leave it be.

From within that deep, open, non-artificial relaxation, the natural receptivity of the open mind produces spontaneous movements of interaction with the world. Awakened activity arises from within that awakened perspective. Because there is no sense of clinging or grasping, it is as if everything unfolds naturally, without an instrument or a plan.

The nature of mind is such that there is always the potential to experience the world subjectively or objectively, relatively or ultimately. The two truths co-exist. In our moments of perception, however, the relative and ultimate do not coincide. As practitioners, we are either functioning within the dualistic framework of subject and object, or the mind has opened into non-dual awareness. And because the possibility of experiencing ultimate reality is always right there, we needn’t fight with provisional reality as we proceed along the path. As our practice deepens, we understand that we can make use of the relative to enter the ultimate: the perception of the awakened ones.

About the Author: Tilmann Lhundrup

Tillman Lhundrup has been teaching meditation and Buddhist philosophy for over 40 years
Lama Lhundrup (Tilmann Borghardt) M.D. began practicing meditation in the late 1970s. In 1981 he met the great Tibetan meditation master Gendun Rinpoche and was inspired to learn about and experience meditation as taught in a variety of traditions from Burma to Tibet and beyond. Lhundrup also studied medicine and received his M.D. degree in 1986, following which he entered full retreat for seven years in France under the guidance of Gendun Rinpoche, who subsequently asked him to guide others in the traditional three year retreats. Lhundrup speaks several languages, translates from Tibetan, and has traveled and taught extensively throughout Europe and in Brazil. He is interested in the interface between Buddhist contemplative practices and psychotherapy, and enjoys writing about contemporary approaches to ancient Buddhist practices. Learn more about Tilmann Lhundrup here.

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