I was asked to give a talk on the two truths, the conventional or surface level of truth and the ultimate truth. And looked at it one way, you could say that I have already finished my teaching, as it were, because there are just these two words; the surface level and the ultimate level of truth, and that is all.
But looked at it in another way, these two truths subsume within them all of Buddhism that there is, and in that sense, there is more to talk about under these two headings than could fill a huge book.
I will ask you all, therefore, in this special place of Bodhgaya, to bring up within yourselves a very deep motivation. Every living creature, whoever they are, are simply creatures wanting happiness. They seek happiness, but are unaware of what the causes of happiness are. Thus, thinking of all those living creatures and the difficulties that they find themselves in, call up this motivation. In order to relieve them from their unwanted sufferings, I must first achieve all the wonderful qualities, all of the excellences which are in an Enlightened state. I must therefore Enlighten myself in order to teach them how to be free from their misery.
Living creatures like ourselves are defined in general by seeking to avoid unpleasant, suffering situations and seeking to place themselves in happy situations. The animals, from the bugs on up, have a knowledge of how to remove immediate suffering, an intelligence which allows them to get out of immediate difficult situations. The human being differs from the animal, in that the human being has an intelligence which allows them to take into consideration a much greater time span. They can begin to do things to relieve states which they will otherwise experience a long time in the future. for example educating our young with the thought that the good education will allow them to get a job, which will allow them to earn money and live well in the future. These long term methods to remove states which would be otherwise unpleasant, are coming from the intelligence of the human being. At this point we are speaking generally, and spirituality hasn't even entered into the discussion at all.
If one has done wholesome deeds, then ones future will be in a happy state. If one involves in unwholesome deeds, then one has set down the causes to find oneself in a state of woe. Spirituality, then, enters into the intelligence or thought processes of a human being contemplating a future which goes beyond simple death.
It is the two truths that I will take as my point of departure for my lecture here. Everything the Enlightened one spoke of leads back to an understanding of the two levels of truth. Everything is included in the two truths. This does not mean that there is no third truth, for example in the four noble truths and so on. You have therefore a subdivision. Since you have two levels of reality you have something which can be subdivided, and put into two categories.
Therefore, one asks oneself what one is categorizing, what you are dividing into the surface level and the ultimate level of reality. The answer to that question is 'she ja', or 'knowables'. Here, a knowable and something that exists have exactly the same meaning. To exist means to be knowable and to be knowable means to exist.
But wait a minute, there is a difficulty here. To exist and to be knowable does not necessarily mean the same thing because, for example, I could have an idea in my mind of a rabbit with antlers growing out of its head. I could fabricate that awareness in my mind and in that sense it is something known, but a rabbit with antlers is something which certainly does not exist.
What is meant here when one equates things which exist with things which are known, that they are known by awareness, but not specific awareness. In other words, to get out of this difficulty, I would say that it's true that a rabbit with antlers is known by a specific awareness of a rabbit with antlers, but being known by that specific awareness does not necessarily mean being known by awareness.
'Ultimate truth' comes from the Sanskrit as 'Paramarthasatya', and if this is dissected, the 'artha' refers to that which is known, and 'parama' refers to what knows it, in other words the mind of a high spiritual being. 'Satya' means 'truth', because that 'artha' or 'meaning' is true for that 'parama', that mind of the spiritual being. Therefore 'Ultimate Truth'; an ultimate thing which is true.
What about the other truth 'samvrtisatya', which is translated into English as surface level, or covering level of truth. 'Samvriti' is a total covering up, meaning an ordinary awareness covering up what is real. 'Satya' is then 'truth' for an ordinary covering up awareness. Things are taken as true or real by ordinary minds like ours.
Spirituality, then, enters into the intelligence
or thought processes of a human being contemplating a future
which goes beyond simple death.
In the scholarly tradition we say that 'anything which is known will always be included within one of these two levels of reality, and anything that is not within these two levels of reality, or two truths, is totally beyond the sphere of knowable'. There is a deep logic here, in that the two levels of reality gives an inexhaustible description of all that there is.
Here is how it works. truth and lie go together don't they. If a person makes a statement that mirrors reality, then that statement is true. A statement, however, not mirroring reality is a lie.
The ultimate level of reality is mirrored in the mind of awareness that knows it, in a way that is not lying. This necessarily brings about the situation that all conventional truths are lying to the awareness that knows them, about the way they appear. Similarly, ordinary things appearing to ordinary awareness must be said to be lying to that ordinary awareness. You are, by removing this truth, positively showing the truth of the awareness of the ultimate. That ultimate, appearing to an awareness that knows it is not lying to that awareness, is the suchness of things, the ultimate reality of things.
So you have one which is necessitated by another in a sea-saw like fashion, and from that account, you can extrapolate out to show that it is a statement that is exhaustive of all knowables, all that exists.
In Buddhist systems of ideas, there are many interpretations of what exactly these two levels of truth are. They are set fourth as the four Buddhist schools of philosophy.
In the most profound school, the middle way consequentialist school, just what is emptiness or the ultimate? It is this: That in fact nobody or nothing, anywhere, has anything that inherently makes it what it is. Nothing has it's own personal mark, Everything exists simply through language, through ideas.
The absence of something, the total absence, the total non-being, non-existence of anything that is not there through the power of language and thought is shunyata, emptiness, the ultimate truth.
When one talks of an ultimate truth, of emptiness, one has a focus; one is looking at objects and finding them to be totally empty. What one is looking at and finding to be empty is very important. The identification of things first becomes an important thing to do because the ultimate truth is not something immediately apprehensible by our senses, we just cannot see it. We have to arrive at it through our thought processes, and in order to do this we have to use reasoning. This reasoning takes as its point of departure certain things or bases, so we must identify these in the first instance.
Lets start by trying to identify what are classically the most important of these bases, the five aggregates (Skt. Skandas). In the Heart Sutra it says, ' he looked and saw that the five aggregates were empty of inherent existence'. so, if you do not know what these five are, how can you look into the ultimate truth of them?
The five aggregates are - a great heap of physical things - a great heap of feelings - a great heap of discriminations - a great heap of created things (Skt. Samskara) - a great heap of awareness.
So then, one has heaps or aggregates and these locate living creatures. Let us take the aggregate of physical things, which can be further broken down into the external objective physical things, and the internal subjective physical things. Sights sounds, smells, tastes and sensations are the external or objective phisical things in this great heap of phisical things, while the five senses are the subjective of internal physical things.
The second heap is that of feelings. What are feelings? They are the experiences one gets out of things, either pleasant, neutral or unpleasant.
The next heap is discrimination, which is defined as that part of the mind which functions to identify particular things as what they are.
The forth aggregate of created things has most of the non-associated created things. It is a catch bag for everything not included in the other four heaps.
And what of the fifth heap? This is all our awarenesses or consciousness or thoughts. This is generally looked at as sense based awareness coming from a thinking mind.
One can only focus on the reality of emptiness, when one has seen the size, the dimensions, of what one is refuting or denying.
The Tibetan saint Tsong Khapa said 'anything that is produced from conditions is never produced'. You can unpack this apparent paradox in this way. What you are saying is that nothing is produced as something that is independent. Nothing is produced as something that is there under it's own power. That is what you are trying to demonstrate.
For example, a seedling is not produced as something there under its own power, as something that is inherently what it is. Why? Because it is produced from causes and conditions. That is how you break down the meaning of the statement to formulate it as a reason for the hidden meaning, which is emptiness, to come clear to the mind.
This necessarily brings about the situation
that all conventional truths are lying
to the awareness that knows them
Lama Tsong Khapa writes in his famous 'Praise to Dependent arising' - 'what is more amazing, what better way of expressing a reality has ever been found, namely, that anything which depends on causes and conditions is empty'.
There are many different reasons that a person can use to come to understand emptiness. Here we meet with the king of all reasonings, Dependent Arising, because being produced, or arising dependently is the reason for everything's emptiness. Using this reason, one avoids the extreme of nihilism, because dependent arising shows that something is there. Never the less because it is a reason that also shows emptiness, it also removes eternalism.
As the great Aryadeva said, 'anyone who gets a view into one reality gets a view into all realities'. What he is saying is that if one plumbs the depths of reality of anything, one does not need to go through the whole process again with another object. Just bringing to the mind the reality you have seen in one object or person, and turning the mind to another, you will look at its reality as well.
That is why every one of our sadhanas without exception starts with the mantra which means 'Om, this is purity, all Dharmas are pure, I am that purity'. Before doing any sadhana, one brings to mind this fact of the ultimate reality, of emptiness.
Transcribed and edited in Bodhgaya by Patrick Moss of Montana. All mistakes are his alone.
The great saint, Chandrakirti said, 'we are just as the leader of the swans, who, by relying on two broad wings, can fly across the ocean to its destination. So too should the great Bodhisattva, the heroic being, by relying on the two wings of method and wisdom, cross over to the great city of freedom'.
If one of the wings is damaged, the swan can never fly, similarly, the Bodhisattva, striving in the practices for the state of Enlightenment, must have undamaged both the conventional level of the thought of Enlightenment and the ultimate level of the thought of Enlightenment. That is, both the conventional and ultimate Bodhicittas.
The conventional thought of Bodhicitta is looking towards Enlightenment as the thing one is trying to obtain. Ultimate Bodhicitta, however, is the understanding in the mindstream of a Noble Being, of the Mahayana wisdom sort, in which the duality between what is looked at, Enlightenment, and the one who is looking has disappeared. A Noble Being is someone on the path of seeing, the path of meditation or the state of no more learning.
"Every single creature has within them
a fully perfected Enlightened One"
So what do you mean when you say it is a sort of non dual awareness? It is a wisdom awareness of Mahayana awarenesses. One sort of awareness is called method and the other, wisdom. A Mahayana method would be, for example, great compassion. It is an awareness called a method. A Mahayana wisdom would be the understanding of emptiness.
You can have Mahayana wisdom in non Mahayana practitioners. For example a Hinnayana thinking of liberation can have in their mindstreams a Mahayana wisdom, yet they are not Mahayana. Similarly a Mahayana can have in their mindstreams a non Mahayana wisdom, such as the understanding of impermanence.
So what then is ultimate Bodhicitta? It is the ultimate thought of Enlightenment that is looking at the ultimate nature of Enlightenment, which is the same as the ultimate nature of everything else, totally empty. So this is looking at the emptiness of Enlightenment.
Think like this, the ultimate is the thing being seen, the thing known, which is Enlightenment. The thought of Enlightenment is the thing knowing that Enlightenment. You should not think that the thing known, or the thing knowing are inherently there. Both are simply co-dependent. You cannot have a thing known without a knowing consciousness, and visa-versa.
When we say ultimate, we mean the way it is. That is, when you go looking for anything, anywhere, in the very deepest way it exists, you will find the same thing. Total emptiness of inherent existence. You will find only an idea, a name. This is the ultimate truth of all things, this is the nature of the mind.
When you say this, you are not saying that at one time the mind inherently existed and then, slowly through practices lost its inherent existence. There was never any time when it existed inherently. On the other hand, the mind has always had obscurations and these obscurations also lack inherent existence.
What all this means is that the ultimate nature of the mind lacks inherent existence. You do not have to meditate to get rid of it, it has never been there. You do however have to free your mind from obscurations. They have to be removed by meditation, by using the antidote.
"You cannot have a thing known
without a knowing consciousness
In the old Nyingmapa tradition, it is explained as follows. Every single creature has within them a fully perfected Enlightened One, and thus the explanation of meditation that you find in the old texts is lie this; 'Our minds from the very beginning were never created. That total lack of inherent existence within our minds is a fully formed Buddha which has always existed'. Then how does one get to be Enlightened? By becoming increasingly aware of the reality that was always there.
So you see, the actual emptiness cannot go anywhere. It can neither improve nor not improve, but when talking about emptiness, you are talking about a thing which is empty. Here, it is that sort of clarity or light of the mind that can somehow increase or acquire new qualities.
You can see then how a mind like ours, which right now has obscurations, and that mind when it is free of obscurations in the future, are exactly the same from the angle of being free of inherent existence. This is why it is said that there is not one atom of difference in terms of excellence between the emptiness of an ordinary beings mind and the emptiness of an Enlightened Beings mind. They are equally free from the very beginning of ever having anything inherent in them.
In newer texts it says that one cannot say that beings have within them a fully perfected Enlightened One. The Enlightened One which beings will become is something which must be developed anew. There is no real contradiction between the two. It is just that the words which are trying to get the meaning across are different.
You find in the new texts statements like this; 'The nature body of an Enlightened one, from the point of view of its natural purity is to be found in meaning in the mindstreams of ordinary beings'. This is referring to the same thing, the emptiness of the Enlightened Mind, however you simply say the natural purity of any type of inherent existence of the Omniscient or ordinary mind.
One should be aware that even in the old texts, there is never any talk of an ordinary being having the physical form of an Enlightened One, the marks and signs. So you see there is no contradiction and the ultimate nature of our minds, its suchness is the main thing that we should meditate on.
It is based on this fact that every one of our minds is in ultimate nature totally empty. It is based upon this that you can demonstrate that every living creature has the capacity to transform into an Enlightened Being.
Transcribed and edited in Bodhgaya by Tony Simmons. All mistakes are his alone.