05 August 2011

Not Two Truths

alchemy pictureFOR SOME TIME I have wanted to write a critique of the Doctrine of the Two Truths. The task is potentially a large and difficult one because there is no single version of the idea that is universally accepted, and the history of its development is complex. Some version of the idea of Two Truths is accepted by most schools of Buddhist thought, but they do not agree on the details. An in-depth exposition on the subject would be a long book project.[1] However, I think a single wrong step begins the path that leads to all versions of this theory. Therefore, I may be able to head them all off by identifying that step and suggesting reasons why we should not take it.

In broad outline, the idea of Two Truths says that there are two ways of understanding the world. In the conventional (samvṛti) sense the world is just as it appears to the unawakened. So, for instance, we find the world to be a relatively reliable place where the laws of physics and chemistry apply; where we are born and die; where we interact with people. And yet, according to this theory, this conventional world is not real. Taking the world to be real is why we suffer. Buddhist theorists came up with the idea of an ultimate (paramārtha) truth, the perception of which is liberating, and the understanding of which is liberation—those who see things this way see things as they really are, i.e., they see Reality (with a capital R). Many different explanations of this duality are supplied throughout the history of Buddhist philosophy. I'm going to go out on a limb and argue that all of these explanations are wrong. So, I'm probably mad, or deluded, but bear with me.

Let's begin at the beginning, or as close to it as we'll ever get. We do not find the idea of Two Truths in the Pāli suttas, nor, so far as I am aware, in the early Buddhist texts preserved in other languages. So, we cannot cite any Pāli sutta in defence of this idea. And this is, unsurprisingly, my first point. The idea is a later development. If the early Buddhists did not feel the need for such a theory why did later Buddhists invent it? (This is a question worth asking for many other ideas as well!).

I have argued for some time now that paṭicca-samuppāda is not a Theory of Everything.[2] Not only does paṭicca-samuppāda not explain the universe and everything in it, it was never intended to be applied beyond the arising of experiences in the mind, i.e., dukkha (literally: disappointment, dissatisfaction; suffering)—dukkha is our experience. The 'things' that arise in dependence on conditions are none other than dhammas, and these are the objects of the mind sense. The early texts have little or nothing to say about the ontological status of these dhammas. Indeed, the early Buddhist texts explicitly argue that ontological terms like 'existence' and 'non-existence' do not even apply (especially the Kaccānagotta Sutta. S ii.16). This is not to say that non-mental phenomena are not conditioned, or that cause and effect are not observed. They are. But this was not, so far as we can tell, the Buddha's insight, nor his teaching. So much should be familiar to readers of this blog. [and if this is not familiar then please read the essay referred to in footnote 2.]

Perhaps because their non-Buddhist contemporaries were deeply interested in ontology, such issues also came to occupy the minds of Buddhists. Not content to leave the dhamma as an indeterminate 'mental thing', what I refer to deliberately vaguely as 'an experience', they began to speculate on the nature of dhammas. Were they real? Were they ultimate? How long did they last? The answers to these questions were, from the beginning, irrelevant to the Buddhist program of practice. But, in some cases, they came to occupy centre stage of Buddhist discourse—so much so that many people today talk about the goal of Buddhism as "insight into the nature of Reality". [Google that phrase] The trouble with asking such questions is that people are rarely satisfied with not coming to a conclusion. I suspect that one only asks such questions when one already considers there to be a definite and preferable answer. A lot of time and energy is then wasted over competing opinions about something that is simply not relevant.

I understand the early Buddhist response to the question of whether dhammas are real or unreal to be that the question was neither answerable nor relevant, so even attempting to answer it is pointless. By extension I take the appearance of answers to this question to be one of the limits of what we I think of as early Buddhism.

It is a relatively straightforward proposition to argue that the external world is not dependent on my seeing it, for it to have form. It is harder to believe that the entire universe blinks out of existence and back into existence each time my eyelids close and open than that the Buddha was talking about was the world of 'subjective' experience. In fact, even the terms 'subjective' and 'objective' are out of place here, since the 'world' the Buddha was talking about arises from the condition of both sense object and sense faculty—that world is neither subjective nor objective. In any case, I have found no reference in any early Buddhist text to the reality or unreality of sense objects, nor any mention of it in secondary literature which discusses the early Buddhist world-view. Sense objects are always part of the process of unenlightened consciousness, but there is no speculation on their nature.

However, if I close my eyes then my mode of perception has changed, and my experience of 'the world' has radically changed. This probably leaves the world itself unchanged. I say 'probably', because I do not know and I do not believe I can know the world except through my senses. This leaves me uncertain, and unable to come to any firm conclusion. So neither materialism or idealism in the strict senses are intellectually honest. All I know for certain is that I have experience of something; I find the experiences I have problematic; and early Buddhism tells me that the something is not the source of the problem.

This pragmatic position avoids any argument about relative and ultimate. Such a duality is simply unnecessary. But once we begin to take sides, to insist that dhammas must either be real or unreal, or worse, that objects in the world are real or unreal, then we come into a dilemma because neither stance makes sense in light of the nature of perception.

If we begin to apply the paṭicca-samuppāda as a theory to everything, if we apply it not only to the arising of experiences in our minds, but to the arising of what we suppose to be objects in the putative world, then we create a problem. I have discussed this problem with respect to the simile of the chariot. In this case we lose sight of the fact that the chariot is a metaphor for how our 'world'—that is the world that we experience, not the world as ontological reality—is conditioned by the meeting of sense faculty (indriya) and sense object (dhamma) in the present of sense awareness (viññāna). The chariot is not the point of this story and neither is the world of sense objects. The main point is made in the seldom quoted statements that follow the simile:
"apart from dukkha nothing arises, and apart from dukkha nothing ceases".
When we focus on the chariot and its parts we start asking questions like: is the chariot real or not? Is there a chariot apart from the parts? Is there some essence of chariot? And we come to strange and speculative conclusions. In effect we must invent something like the Two Truths to account for the paradoxes that arise. Plainly, the chariot exists and is, in a sense, 'real', since we perceive it; but it can't be really 'real', or solidly existent because we know it to be merely a conglomeration of parts. Clearly, it cannot be both real and unreal, both exist and not-exist at the same time, so... there must be two distinct truths about reality: at one level it is real and at another unreal.[3]

If we reframe the question in terms of experience, then we already know that our mental states are neither real nor unreal—these kinds of dichotomies don't apply to experience. If we remove the sense object, the sense faculty or awareness from the equation our experiential world ceases or fails to arise (that being, this becomes, etc.). While the three factors are present, then there is both the experience and the experiencer. The khandhas are just another way of breaking up the experience and making the same point. [See The Apparatus of Experience] When we limit our domain to experience, then dualities like real/unreal or existence/non-existence simply and straightforwardly do not apply, and we do not create paradoxes.

All experiences, including the experience of self-hood, are formed this way: from an interaction of our mind, sense faculties and sense objects. And all experiences are characterised as impermanent, disappointing and insubstantial. We may think that a pleasant experience equates with happiness, but we find the experience is fleeting, and it isn't repeatable, which we take to mean that we are unhappy. We grasp after pleasure, but can never be satisfied, and the harder we pursue pleasure the less pleasure we experience. It is not that there is no experience, just that we fail to understand the nature of experience. And experience has only this nature. Awakening, I would say, is awakening to the nature of experience.

It's not that conventionally something exists, but ultimately it doesn't—if we are using words like exist, true or real then we're applying the theory in the wrong way and/or in the wrong domain. Because we are, or should be, talking about experience of things rather than the things in themselves, we have no need of two different truths. Only those who attempt to stretch the application of the paṭicca-samuppāda beyond it's intended domain require two truths.

The other aspect of the Two Truths that is insisted upon is that the ultimate truth is inaccessible to words: "Reality is ineffable". Words do a fair job of communicating about objects and ideas. But when it comes to experiences... no experience can be communicated in words. We can say that we have had an experience; we can say how we explain and/or interpret that experience; we can say how we feel about having had that experience; we can say how the experience changed us: but with mere words we cannot communicate the experience we've had. This is true of every single experience. So experience, all experience, is ineffable. And in fact probably all of us have had life changing experiences after which we have never been the same. We shouldn't make a big deal out of that in the case of bodhi. The ineffability of experience is a simple truism, not a profound Truth. I think the tendency is to emphasise the mystical aspects of bodhi, and for someone like me it makes it seem impossible.

So this is my mad thesis—that all Buddhist philosophers (including the modern Theravāda) are barking up the wrong tree with this business of Two Truths. If we take paṭicca-samuppāda in its natural domain there is no need to go down the route of inventing this dichotomy, because we do not meet the paradoxes that arise from the misapplication of the theory. The early Buddhists had no need of a Two Truths theory because they understood the domain in which paṭicca-samuppāda applies. We have no need of it either; in fact, it is probably a hindrance.


  1. A good overview of the subject is: Thakchoe, Sonam, 'The Theory of Two Truths in India,' The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Online: plato.stanford.edu. [though of course the theory developed outside India as well!]. See also Ñāṇavīra. 'Paramattha Sacca.' Notes on Dhamma. p. 27-33. Online: www.nanavira.110mb.com.
  2. For an extended treatment of this topic see my long essay: Is Pāṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything? This is based on a close reading of the Kaccānagotta Sutta (S ii.16). I've covered some of the same ground in this blog:
  3. If you are at all tempted to invoke Quantum Mechanics at this point then I suggest that you read my essay: Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat. I don't think QM has anything helpful to say to us about this issue because conclusions about the nature of single sub-atomic particles do not apply when several septillion of them conglomerate at room temperature.
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