Two truths doctrine

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The doctrine of the two truths (Wylie: bden pa gnyis) 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]

There are these two who misrepresent the Tathagata. Which two? He who represents a Sutta of indirect meaning as a Sutta of direct meaning and he who represents a Sutta of direct meaning as a Sutta of indirect meaning.[6]

Saṃmuti or samuti (Pāli; Sanskrit: saṃvṛti, meaning "common consent, general opinion, convention",[7] 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:

The Awakened One, the best of teachers, spoke of two truths, conventional and higher; no third is ascertained; a conventional statement is true because of convention and a higher statement is true as disclosing the true characteristics of events.[8]


The Prajñaptivāda school took up the distinction between the conventional and ultimate (paramārtha/saṃvṛti), 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):

The Buddha's teaching of the Dharma is based on two truths: a truth of worldly convention and an ultimate truth. Those who do not understand the distinction drawn between these two truths do not understand the Buddha's profound truth. Without a foundation in the conventional truth the significance of the ultimate cannot be taught. Without understanding the significance of the ultimate, liberation is not achieved.[9]

In Nagarjuna's own words:

8. The teaching by the Buddhas of the dharma has recourse to two truths:

The world-ensconced truth and the truth which is the highest sense.
9. Those who do not know the distribution (vibhagam) of the two kinds of truth
Do not know the profound "point" (tattva) in the teaching of the Buddha.
10. The highest sense of the truth is not taught apart from practical behavior,
And without having understood the highest sense one cannot understand nirvana.[10]

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:

By and large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by a polarity, that of existence and non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, "non-existence" with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, "existence" with reference to the world does not occur to one.[11]

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:

The Lanka is quite explicit in assuming two forms of knowledge: the one for grasping the absolute or entering into the realm of Mind-only, and the other for understanding existence in its dual aspect in which logic prevails and the Vijnanas are active. The latter is designated Discrimination (vikalpa) in the Lanka and the former transcendental wisdom or knowledge (prajna). To distinguish these two forms of knowledge is most essential in Buddhist philosophy.

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.[12]

Absolute and relative in Zen

The teachings of Zen are expressed by a set of polarities: Buddha-nature - sunyata,[13][14] absolute-relative,[15] sudden and gradual enlightenment.[16]

The Prajnaparamita Sutras and Madhyamaka emphasized the non-duality of form and emptiness: form is emptiness, emptiness is form, as the Heart Sutra says.[15] 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 Tozan[17] and the Oxherding Pictures.

Essence-function in Korean Buddhism

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".[18]

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

[A] more accurate definition (and the one the Korean populace is more familiar with) is "body" and "the body's functions". The implications of "essence/function" and "body/its functions" are similar, that is, both paradigms are used to point to a nondual relationship between the two concepts.[19]

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.[20]

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:[21]

If one trains for a long time in the union of the two truths, the stage of acceptance (on the path of joining), which is attuned to primordial wisdom, will arise. By thus acquiring a certain conviction in that which surpasses intellectual knowledge, and by training in it, one will eventually actualize it. This is precisely how the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas have said that liberation is to be gained.[22][lower-alpha 1]

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):

The learned and accomplished [masters] of the Early Translations considered this simplicity beyond the four extremes, this abiding way in which the two truths are indivisible, as their own immaculate way.[23][lower-alpha 2]


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.[25] Usually two levels are being mentioned,[26] but Shankara uses sublation as the criterion to postulate an ontological hierarchy of three levels:[27][web 1]

  • Pāramārthika (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.[27]
  • Vyāvahārika (vyavahara), or samvriti-saya[26] (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.
  • Prāthibhāsika (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:[28]

  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:

Sextus says [29] that there are two criteria:

  1. [T]hat by which we judge reality and unreality, and
  2. [T]hat which we use as a guide in everyday life.

According to the first criterion, nothing is either true or false[.] [I]nductive statements based on direct observation of phenomena may be treated as either true or false for the purpose of making everyday practical decisions.
The distinction, as Conze[30] has noted, is equivalent to the Madhyamika distinction between "Absolute truth" (paramārthasatya), "the knowledge of the real as it is without any distortion,"[31] and "Truth so-called" (saṃvṛti satya), "truth as conventionally believed in common parlance.[31][32]

See also


  1. "Primordial wisdom" is a rendering of jñāna and "that which surpasses intellectual knowledge" may be understood as the direct perception (Sanskrit: pratyakṣa) of(dharmatā). "Conviction" may be understood as a gloss of faith (śraddhā). An effective analogue for "union", a rendering of the relationship held by the two truths, is interpenetration.
  2. Blankleder and Fletcher of the Padmakara Translation Group give a somewhat different translation:
    "The learned and accomplished masters of the Old Translation school take as their stainless view the freedom from all conceptual constructs of the four extremes, the ultimate reality of the two truths inseparably united."[24]


  1. Tsering, Geshe Tashi (2008). Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth: The Foundations of Buddhist Thought Vol 2. Wisdom Publications. p. 4. ISBN 0-86171-271-4. 
  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. Anguttara Nikaya I:60 (Jayatilleke: 361, in McCagney: 82)
  7. PED
  8. Khathāvatthu Aṭṭha kathǎ (Jayatilleke: 363, in McCagney: 84)
  9. Nagarjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārika 24:8–10. Jay L. Garfield|Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: pp. 296, 298
  10. Mūlamadhyamakakārikā Verse 24
  11. Source: Kaccāyanagotta Sutta on Access to Insight (accessed: January 2, 2008)
  12. Garfield 2011, p. 76.
  13. Kasulis 2003, pp. 26–29.
  14. McRae 2003, pp. 138–142.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Liang-Chieh 1986, p. 9.
  16. McRae 2003, pp. 123–138.
  17. Kasulis 2003, p. 29.
  18. 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
  19. Park, Sung-bae (2009). One Korean's approach to Buddhism: the mom/momjit paradigm. SUNY series in Korean studies: SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-7697-9, ISBN 978-0-7914-7697-0. Source: [2] (accessed: Saturday May 8, 2010), p.11
  20. Lai, Whalen (1979). "Ch'an Metaphors: waves, water, mirror, lamp". Philosophy East & West; Vol. 29, no.3, July, 1979, pp.245–253. Source: [3] (accessed: Saturday May 8, 2010)
  21. 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: [4] (accessed: February 28, 2009), as rendered into English by the Padmakara Translation Group (2005: p. 304)
  22. Shantarakshita (author); Ju Mipham (commentator); Padmakara Translation Group (translators)(2005). The Adornment of the Middle Way: Shantarakshita's Madhyamakalankara with commentary by Jamgön Mipham. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala Publications, Inc. ISBN 1-59030-241-9 (alk. paper), p. 304
  23. Doctor, Thomas H. (trans.) Mipham, Jamgon Ju.(author)(2004). Speech of Delight: Mipham's Commentary of Shantarakshita's Ornament of the Middle Way. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-217-7, p. 127
  24. Shantarakshita (author); Mipham (commentator); Padmakara Translation Group (translators)(2005). The Adornment of the Middle Way: Shantarakshita's Madhyamakalankara with commentary by Jamgön Mipham. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala Publications, Inc. ISBN 1-59030-241-9 (alk. paper), p. 137
  25. Renard 2010, p. 130.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Renard 2010, p. 131.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Puligandla 1997, p. 232.
  28. Wilber 2000, p. 132.
  29. Sextus Empericus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, II.14–18; Anthologia Palatina (Palatine Anthology), VII. 29–35, and elsewhere
  30. (1959: pp. 140–141)
  31. 31.0 31.1 Conze (1959: p. 244)
  32. McEvilley, Thomas (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought. Allworth Communications. ISBN 1-58115-203-5. , p. 474


Published sources

  • Conze, Edward (1959). Buddhism: Its Essence and Development. New York, USA: Harper and Row.
  • Garfield, Jay L.; Priest, Graham (2003), NAGARJUNA AND THE LIMITS OF THOUGHT. In: Philosophy East & West Volume 53, Number 1 January 2003 1–21 (PDF) 
  • Garfield, Jay L.; Edelglass, William (2011), The Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy 
  • Gethin, Rupert. Foundations of Buddhism. pp. 207, 235–245
  • Jayatilleke, K.N. Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. George Allen and Unwin, 1963
  • Kasulis, Thomas P. (2003), Ch'an Spirituality. In: Buddhist Spirituality. Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World; edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass 
  • Keown, Damien. Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxford University Press, 2003
  • Liang-Chieh (1986), The Record of Tung-shan, William F. Powell (translator), Kuroda Institute 
  • Lopez, Donald S., "A Study of Svatantrika", Snow Lion Publications, 1987, pp. 192–217.
  • McCagney, Nancy. The Philosophy of Openness. Rowman and Littlefield, 1997
  • McRae, John (2003), Seeing Through Zen, The University Press Group Ltd 
  • 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
  • Puligandla, Ramakrishna (1997), Fundamentals of Indian Philosophy, New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd. 
  • Renard, Gary (2004), The Disappearance of the Universe, Carlsbad, CA, USA: Hay House 
  • Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro, The Lankavatara Sutra, A Mahayana Text Routledge Kegan Paul, 1932
  • Wilber, Ken (2000), Integral Psychology, Shambhala Publications 


External links

Works related to Saṃyukta Āgama 301: Kātyāyana Gotra Sūtra at Wikisource

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