The Two Truths
Denmo Lochö Rinpoche
Denmo Lochö Rinpoche, the ex-abbot
of Namgyel, His Holiness the Dalai Lama's monastery in Dharamsala, India, taught
for two weeks at Root Institute in Bodhgaya, India December 1995. Here is an extract.
Translated by Ven Gareth Sparham
I have been asked to give a talk on the Two Truths: the conventional or surface
level of truth and the ultimate truth. Looking at it one way it seems as if I've
already finished my teaching because there are just these two words: conventional
and ultimate, and that's finished! But in fact these two truths subsume within
them all of Buddhism, so there is more to talk about than you'd find in a huge
I ask all of you in this special place of Bodhgaya to bring up within you a special
I motivation. Every living creature, no matter who they are, are living creatures
seeking happiness. At the same time they seek happiness, they are unaware of the
cause of happiness, so call up this motivation: that to relieve them from their
unhappiness, I must myself achieve all the wonderful qualities, all the excellence
of an enlightened state, in order to teach them how to free themselves.
Living creatures, just like ourselves, are defined by seeking to avoid unpleasant,
suffering situations, and seeking to place themselves in happy situations. Animals,
from insects on up, have knowledge of methods to immediately remove suffering,
they have this intelligence. The human being differs from the animal as they have
the intelligence to take into account a much greater time span. They can begin
to do things to alleviate states that they will otherwise experience a long time
in the future -- for example, getting a good education so we can find a job, making
money, and living well in the future. At this point we are talking generally;
spirituality hasn't entered into the discussion at all.
If one performs wholesome deeds, one's future will be in a happy state. If one
has performed unwholesome deeds, one has set down the causes to find oneself in
a state of woe. Spirituality then enters the thought process of a human being
contemplating a future that goes beyond simple death.
Everything that the enlightened one spoke of leads back to the understanding of
the two levels of truth. (This doesn't mean there is no third truth, for example
the Four Noble Truths and so on, so you I can have sub-divisions.) Since you have
two levels of reality, you have to have something being sub-divided, or categorized
in two categories.
So you can ask yourself, "What is being sub-divided'" and the answer
is knowables or objects of knowledge (Tibetan, she-ja) Here, a knowable is simply
something that is existing. To exist means to be knowable, and to be knowable
means to exist.
For example, I could have the idea of antlers on a rabbit -- it could come up
in my mind. I could fabricate this awareness, and in that sense rabbit's antlers
are something known but they certainly don't exist. [The problem] here is that
when you equate things that exist and things that are known, they are known by
[a valid] awareness but not by [just any] awarenesses. In other words I could
get out of this difficulty by saying that, true, rabbit's antlers are known by
[a particular person's] awareness, but this doesn't necessarily mean that they
are known by awareness!
Ultimate truth, paramarthasatya, if you take the [Sanskrit] word apart is this:
artha refers to that which is known; parama refers to that which knows its object,
that is, the mind of a high spiritual being; satya means truth. It is truth because
that which is known is true for that which knows its object, the mind of the high
spiritual being. Therefore ultimate truth, an ultimate thing that is true.
So what about this other truth, the conventional, surface level of truth: how
does one come to understand this second of the two truths if the ultimate reality
is understood in this way? This is samvrtisatya. Samvrti is total covering up,
and covering here means ordinary awareness covering that which is real. Here again
satya is truth, but truth for an ordinary awareness. In other words, all the things
that are true for ordinary minds like our own that are taken as real by them --
are conventional truths. Therefore truth for an ordinary covering mind.
In the scholastic tradition we say that anything that is known will always be
included in one of these two levels of reality. Anything not covered by these
two levels is beyond the sphere of what is knowable. There is a deep logic here
-- that these two categories, the Two Truths, are an exhaustive 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. However, a statement
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 out 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 that 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 being necessitated by another in a see-saw like fashion, and from
that account you can extrapolate out to show that it is a statement that is exhaustive
of all knowables, of all that exists.
In Buddhist systems of ideas, there are many interpretations of what exactly these
two levels of truth are. They are set forth 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 its own personal
mark. Everything exists simply through language, through ideas.
The absence of something, the total absence, the total not-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 isn't something immediately apprehensible
by our senses -- we just can't 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.
Let's start by trying to identify what are classically the most important of these
bases the five aggregates or skandas. In The Heart Sutra it says, "He looked
and saw that the five aggregates are empty of inherent existence." So if
you don't know what these five are, how can you look into the ultimate truth of
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 (Sanskrit, samskara)
and a great heap of awareness.
So then, one has heaps, aggregates, and these locate living creatures. Let's 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 physical things
in this great heap of physical things, while the five senses are the subjective
or internal physical things.
The second heap is that of feelings. What are feelings? They are the experiences
one gets out of things: pleasant experiences, neutral experiences and unpleasant
The next heap is discrimination, which is defined as that part of the mind that
functions to identify particular things as what they are.
The fourth aggregate of created things has most of the non-associated created
things. It's a catch-bag for everything not included in the other four heaps.
And what is 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 its own power. That's what you are
trying to demonstrate.
For example, a seedling isn't 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's 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
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 that depends on conditions is empty."
There are many different reasons a person can use to come to understand emptiness.
But 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 something is there; nevertheless, because it is a reason that 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 doesn't need to go through the whole process again
with another object. Just bringing to the mind the reality you've seen in one
object or person, and turning the mind to another, you will look at its reality
That's why every one of our sadhanas without exception starts with the mantra
that 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.