The Two Truths

According to Buddhism, there are two kinds of truth, relative or worldly truth (samvriti satya) and absolute truth (paramartha satya). We enter the door of practice through relative truth. We recognize the presence of happiness and the presence of suffering, and we try to go in the direction of increased happiness. Every day we go a little further in that direction, and one day we realize that suffering and happiness are "not two."

A Vietnamese poem says:

People talk endlessly about their suffering and
their joy.
But what is there to suffer or be joyful about?
Joy from sensual pleasure always leads to pain,
and suffering while practicing the Way always
brings joy.
Wherever there is joy, there is suffering.
If you want to have no-suffering, you must accept
no-joy.

The poet is trying to leap into absolute truth without walking the path of relative truth. Many people think that in order to avoid suffering, they have to give up joy, and they call this "transcending joy and suffering." This is not
correct. If you recognize and accept your pain without running away from it, you will discover that although pain exists, joy also exists. Without experiencing relative joy, you will not know what to do when you are face-to-face with absolute joy. Don't get caught in theories or ideas, such as saying that suffering is an illusion or that we have to "transcend" both suffering and joy. Just stay in touch with what is actually going on, and you will touch the true nature of suffering and the true nature of joy. When you have a headache, it would not be correct to call your headache illusory. To help it go away, you have to acknowledge its existence and understand its causes.

We enter the path of practice through the door of knowledge, perhaps from a Dharma talk or a book. We continue along the path, and our suffering lessens, little by little. But at some point, all of our concepts and ideas must yield to our actual experience. Words and ideas are only useful if they are put into practice. When we stop discussing things and begin to realize the teachings in our own life, a moment comes when we realize that our life is the path, and we no longer rely merely on the forms of practice. Our action becomes "non-action," and our practice becomes "non-practice." The boundary has been crossed, and our practice cannot be set back. We do not have to transcend the "world of dust" (saha) in order to go to some dust-free world called nirvana. Suffering and nirvana are of the same substance. If we throw away the world of dust, we will have no nirvana.

In the Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the Dharma, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path. But in the Heart Sutra, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara tells us that there is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no cessation of suffering, and no path. Is this a contradiction? No. The Buddha is speaking in terms of relative truth, and Avalokiteshvara is teaching in terms of absolute truth. When Avalokiteshvara says there is no suffering, he means that suffering is made entirely of things that are not suffering. Whether you suffer or notdepends on many circumstances. The cold air canbe painful if you are not wearing warm enough clothes, but with proper clothing, cold air can be a source of joy. Suffering is not objective. It depends largely on the way you perceive. There are things that cause you to suffer but do not cause others to suffer. There are things that bring you joy but do not bring others joy. The Four Noble Truths were presented by the Buddha as relative truth to help you enter the door of practice, but they are not his deepest teaching.

With the eyes of interbeing, we can always reconcile the Two Truths. When we see, comprehend, and touch the nature of interbeing, we see the Buddha.

All conditioned things are impermanent. They are phenomena, subject to birth and death. When birth and death no longer are, the complete silencing is joy.

This verse (gatha) was spoken by the Buddha shortly before his death. The first two lines express relative truth, while the third and fourth lines express absolute truth. "All conditioned things" includes physical, physiological, and psychological phenomena. "Complete silencing" means nirvana, the extinction of all concepts. When the Buddha says, "The complete silencing is joy," he means that thinking, conceptualizing, and speaking have come to an end. This is the Third Noble Truth in absolute terms.

The Buddha recommends that we recite the "Five Remembrances" every day:

(1) I am of the nature to grow old. There is no
way to escape growing old.

(2) I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is
no way to escape having ill-health.

(3) I am of the nature to die. There is no way to
escape death.

(4) All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature to change. There is no way to
escape being separated from them.

(5) My actions are my only true belongings. I
cannot escape the consequences of my actions.

My actions are the ground on which I stand. The Five Remembrances help us make friends with our fears of growing old, getting sick, being abandoned, and dying. They are also a bell of mindfulness that can help us appreciate deeply the wonders of life that are available here and now. But in the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara teaches that there is no birth and no death. Why would the Buddha tell us that we are of the nature to die if there is no birth and no death? Because in the Five Remembrances, the Buddha is using the tool of relative truth. He is well aware that in terms of absolute truth, there is no birth and no death. When we look at the ocean, we see that each wave has a beginning and an end. A wave can be compared with other waves, and we can call it more or less beautiful, higher or lower, longer lasting or less long lasting. But if we look more deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. While living the life of a wave, it also lives the life of water. It would be sad if the wave did not know that it is water. It would think, Some day, I will have to die. This period of time is my life span, and when I arrive at the shore, I will return to nonbeing. These notions will cause the wave fear and anguish. We have to help it remove the notions of self, person, living being, and life span if we want the wave to be free and happy.

A wave can recognized by signs — high or low, beginning or ending, beautiful or ugly. But in the world of the water, there are no signs. In the world of relative truth, the wave feels happy as she swells, and she feels sad when she falls. She may think, "I am high," or "I am low," and develop a superiority or inferiority complex. But when the wave touches her true nature — which is water — all her complexes will cease, and she will transcend birth and death.

We become arrogant when things go well, and we are afraid of falling, or being low or inadequate. But these are relative ideas, and when they end, a feeling of completeness and satisfaction arises. Liberation is the ability to go from the world of signs to the world of true nature. We need the relative world of the wave, but we also need to touch the water, the ground of our being, to have real peace and joy. We shouldn't allow relative truth to imprison us and keep us from touching absolute truth. Looking deeply into relative truth, we penetrate the absolute. Relative and absolute truths inter-embrace. Both truths, relative and absolute, have a value.

Sitting in the northern hemisphere, we think we know which direction is above and which is below. But someone sitting in Australia will not agree. Above and below are relative truths. Above what? Below what? There is no absolute truth of above and below, old age and youth, etc. For me, old age is fine. It is nice to be old! There are things young people cannot experience. Young people are like a source of water from the top of the mountain, always trying to go as quickly as possible. But when you become a river going through the lowland, you are much more peaceful. You reflect many clouds and the beautiful blue sky. Being old has its own joys. You can be very happy being an old person. When I sit with young monks and nuns, I feel that they are my continuation. I have done my best, and now they are continuing my being. This is interbeing, nonself.

This morning, before giving a Dharma talk, I was having breakfast with my attendant, a lovely novice monk. I paused and said to him, "Dear one, do you see the cow on the hillside? She is eating grass in order to make my yogurt, and I am now eating the yogurt to make a Dharma talk." Somehow, the cow will offer today's Dharma talk. As I drank the cow's milk, I was a child of the cow. The Buddha recommends we live our daily life in this way, seeing everything in the light of interbeing. Then we will not be caught in our small self. We will see our joy and our suffering everywhere. We will be free, and we won't see dying as a problem. Why should we say that dying is suffering? We continue with the next generations. What is essential is to be our best while we are here. Then we continue to be through our children and grandchildren. Motivated by love, we invest ourselves in the next generations. Whether birth and death are suffering depends on our insight. With insight, we can look at all these things and smile to them. We are not affected in the same way anymore. We ride on the wave of birth and death, and we are free from birth and death. This insight liberates us.

All "formations" (samskara) are impermanent. This sheet of paper is a physical formation formed by many elements. A rose, a mountain, and cloud are formations. Your anger is a mental formation. Your love and the idea of nonself are mental formations. My fingers and my liver are physiological formations.

Look into the self and discover that it is made only of non-self elements. A human being is made up of only non-human elements. To protect humans, we have to protect the non-human elements — the air, the water, the forest, the river, the mountains, and the animals. The Diamond Sutra is the most ancient text about how to respect all forms of life on earth, the animals, vegetation, and also minerals. We have to remove the notion of human as something that can survive by itself alone. Humans can survive only with the survival of other species. This is exactly the teaching of the Buddha, and also the teaching of deep ecology. When we look deeply into living beings, we find out that they are made of non-living-being elements. So-called inanimate things are alive also. Our notions about living beings and inanimate things should be removed for us to touch reality. The fourth notion to be removed is life span. We think that we exist only from this point in time until this point in time, and we suffer because of that notion. If we look deeply, we will know that we have never been born and we will never die. A wave is born and dies, is higher or lower, more or less beautiful. But you cannot apply these notions to water. When we see this, our fear will suddenly vanish.

Within us, we carry the world of no-birth and no-death. But we never touch it, because we live only with our notions. The practice is to remove these notions and touch the ultimate dimension — nirvana, God, the world of no-birth and no-death. Because of the notions we carry, we are unable to touch it, and we live in constant fear and suffering. When the wave lives her life as a wave deeply, she touches the dimension of water that is within her, and suddenly her fears and notions vanish, and she is truly happy. Before that, her happiness was just a kind of band-aid. The greatest relief is to touch nirvana, the world of no-birth and no-death. The Third Holy Truth is about relative wellbeing, which is impermanent. Your toothache is impermanent, but your non-toothache is also impermanent. When you practice deep Buddhism, you remove all these notions and touch the world of no birth and no-death. With that insight, you look at birth, death, old-age, ups and downs, suffering, and happiness with the eyes of a sage, and you don't suffer anymore. You smile, no longer afraid.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the cessation of the causes of suffering. When we put an end to our suffering, we feel relative joy. But when all of our concepts of suffering and not suffering cease, we taste absolute joy. Imagine two hens about to be slaughtered, but they do not know it. One hen says to the other, "The rice is much tastier than the corn. The corn is slightly off." She is talking about relative joy. She does not realize that the real joy of this moment is the joy of not being slaughtered, the joy of being alive.

When we practice the Four Holy Truths in the dimension of relative truth, we obtain some relief. We are able to transform our suffering and restore our well-being. But we are still in the historical dimension of reality. The deeper level of practice is to lead our daily life in a way that we touch both the absolute and the relative truth. In the dimension of relative truth, the Buddha passed away many years ago. But in the realm of absolute truth, we can take his hand and join him for walking meditation every day.

Practice in a way that gives you the greatest relief. The wave is already water. To enter the heart of the Buddha, use your Buddha eyes, which means your insight into interbeing. Approach the heart of the Buddha in the realm of absolute truth, and the Buddha will be there with you. When you hear the sound of the bell, listen with your ears, and also listen with the ears of your ancestors, your children, and their children. Listen in the relative and absolute dimensions at the same time. You don't have to die to enter nirvana or the Kingdom of God. You only have to dwell deeply in the present moment, right now.

The Avatamsaka Sutra says that all dharmas (phenomena) enter one dharma, and one dharma enters all dharmas. If you go deeply into any one of the teachings of the Buddha, you will find all of the other teachings in it. If you practice looking deeply into the First Holy Truth, you can see the Noble Eightfold Path revealed. Outside of the First Holy Truth, there cannot be any path, holy or unholy. That is why you have to embrace your suffering, hold it close to your chest, and look deeply into it. The way out of your suffering depends on how you look into it. That is why suffering is called a Holy Truth. Look deeply into the nature of the path, using your Buddha eyes. The truth of the path is one with the truth of suffering. Every second I am on the path that leads out of suffering, suffering is there to guide me. That is why it is a holy path.

This book began with the sentence, "Buddha was not a god. He was a human being. . . ." What does this mean? What is a human being? If the trees and the rivers were not there, could human beings be alive? If animals and all other species were not there, how could we be? A human being is made entirely of non-human elements. We must free ourselves of our ideas of Buddha and of human beings. Our ideas may be the obstacles that prevent us from seeing the Buddha.

"Dear Buddha, are you a living being?" We want the Buddha to confirm the notion we have of him. But he looks at us, smiles, and says, "A human being is not a human being. That is why we can say that he is a human being." These are the dialectics of the Diamond Sutra. "A is not A. That is why it is truly A." A flower is not a flower. It is made only of non-flower elements — sunshine, clouds, time, space, earth, minerals, gardeners, and so on. A true flower contains the whole universe. If we return any one of these non-flower elements to its source, there will be no flower. That is why we can say, "A rose is not a rose. That is why it is an authentic rose." We have to remove our concept of rose if we want to touch the real rose. Nirvana means extinction — first of all, the extinction of all concepts and notions. Our concepts about things prevent us from really touching them. We have to destroy our notions if we want to touch the real rose. When we ask, "Dear Buddha, are you a human being?" it means we have a concept about what a human being is. So the Buddha just smiles at us. It is his way of encouraging us to transcend our concepts and touch the real being that he is. A real being is quite different from a concept.

If you have been to Paris, you have a concept of Paris. But your concept is quite different from Paris itself. Even if you've lived in Paris for ten years, your idea of Paris still does not coincide with the reality. You may have lived with someone for ten years and think that you know her perfectly, but you are living only with your concept. You have a concept of yourself, but have you touched your true self? Look deeply to try to overcome the gap between your concept of reality and reality itself. Meditation helps us remove concepts.

The Buddhist teaching of the Two Truths is also a concept. But if we know how to use it, it can help us penetrate reality itself.


From "Heart of the Buddha's Teachings"
by Thich Nhat Hanh
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