Buddhism 101 #5 – The Two Truths, Relative and Absolute


According to the Buddhist tradition, it seems the spiritual path is a two-way street. This doesn’t mean that either you are going one way in the right direction or another way in the wrong direction (though that can often be the case). This has to do with perspective, or view.

There is absolute truth and relative truth. First of all, as with all Buddhadharma we are dealing with experienced realities so ‘truth’ here doesn’t refer to some theoretical ‘objective’ truth. From the Buddhist point of view there is no such thing for such a notion can only be cooked up in the kitchen of conceptual mind. We imagine a self-existing objective world out there but have no way of verifying if it exists outside our subjective perception of it or any data we might evaluate about it. With that in mind:

Absolute truth, often described as ‘the basic nature of mind,’ is nondual. Relative truth, which is the way we usually experience mind, is dual. Dual here means a view which perceives a fundamental separation – and thus a duality – between self and other, one person and another, one place and another, one moment and another, one wave on the ocean and another.

In the Trikaya ocean analogy, the absolute truth is how the entire thing is essentially one in that each ripple, wave or sparkle is a part of and not apart from that all-containing ocean. Similarly, in meditator’s terms, our thoughts are not apart from underlying, primordial mind even though each thought has various particular and unique characteristics and is seemingly taking place at a unique, particular time.

So nondual perception is aware that there is no fundamental difference between thought and underlying mind, or being, whereas duality mode sees no end of mental, emotional and physical experiences as unique, independent, continuous, irreducible and so on.

The reason it is called ‘absolute’ truth is because there is no beginning or end to it. No matter what thoughts arise on the surface of the mind, the underlying ocean of its primordial nature remains unchanged. It was there before any such occurrence, is unaffected by its presence and remains afterwards unaffected by its absence. Whether stormy or placid on the surface, with huge waves or none at all, the vast and fathomless ocean beneath is entirely unaffected, remaining essentially the same. The waves on the surface have a beginning, a middle and and end like all life forms such as ourselves,but our underlying nature – beingness as it were – remains unchanged. We can learn to experience this in meditation and daily life by simply becoming aware of what is always aware, some sort of sense of consciousness, of primordial wakefulness.

Whether we are happy or sad, calm or upset, distracted or paying attention – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching or thinking – our underlying aliveness, which has fundamental qualities of being awake and aware, remains unchanged, always there. Furthermore, if you learn to tune into it, you can feel directly for yourself that it has no dimension or duration and therefore no beginning or end. Because there is no dimension in space or duration in time therefore it is called ‘absolute’ and it is called ‘truth’ (or ‘dharma’) because it just is so and we can experience it thusly, we can know it directly.

The two-way street notion: some approaches begin with the perspective of absolute truth whilst others start from the point of view of relative truth which tends to regard absolute truth as a philosophical abstraction or fantasy. (Meanwhile, from the point of view of absolute truth, relative truth is a confused perspective that needs to be seen through.) So some approaches begin by deconstructing relative truth and others begin with absolute truth experience – often called ‘the nature of mind’ – thereby orienting the practitioner to tune into that as much as possible whilst navigating through the world of relative truth which we all, having been born into it, share even though its nature isn’t actually as solid and permanent as we think.

In a comment following the Buddhism 101 #3 Karma post, I expressed distrust of institutions. This holds for national governments and multinational corporations generally speaking but also more specifically regarding spiritual institutions. This post’s subject matter, the Two Truths, is a main part of the reason why.

To function efficiently over time institutions must invest heavily in relative truth operations. Properties, rented or purchased, have to be managed along with complex interpersonal and institutional dynamics of the ever-changing populations involved. Good relations have to be maintained with local communities and related institutions including where necessary various regional and national governments. A great deal of money and influencing may be in the mix. Most major religions, for example, end up with vast property holdings and no end of fingers in no end of governmental, royal, military and cultural pies not to mention enjoying significant regular presence on the local community, or parish, level including in the school systems.

All of this has little to do with either deconstructing the seeming solidity of relative truth or tuning into transcendentally primordial absolute truth meaning that the priorities and agendas of any given institution, including a spiritual one like a Buddhist Sangha, are at odds with the spiritual path it is purportedly there to promulgate.

This does not mean that no such institutions, or Sanghas, should ever exist but it does imply that such endeavours are no easy things and they can often go wrong. Sometimes this unfolds in obvious ways – if they devolve into little better than brainwashing cults or collapse from lack of funds or congregants for example – but often although they may seem to be flourishing in relative truth frames of reference meanwhile any spiritual heart inside has been broken though members and leadership are unaware of this or in denial.

Future posts can tackle traditional Buddhadharma material like suffering and samsara by examining them from the perspectives of both relative and absolute truth. Doing so in this way will make it easier to place them in personal context, i.e. why they are important and what issues they are discussing that relate to everyday experience.

Published by The Baron

Retired non-profit administrator.

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