Two truths doctrine

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The Buddhist doctrine of the two truths (Wylie: bden pa gnyis) differentiates between two levels of satya (Sanskrit), meaning truth or "really existing" in Buddhist discourse: relative or commonsensical truth or real, and absolute or ultimate truth or real.

The exact meaning varies between the various Buddhist schools and traditions. The best-known is the Madhyamaka interpretation, which says that conventional reality is the only reality that exists (relative truth), but that ultimately everything that exists is "empty", sunyata, of an inherent, everlasting "essence" (ultimate truth). Sunyata itself is also "empty" of such an essence; it is not an Absolute, but a statement about the true condition of "things."

The two truths doctrine has also influenced other Indian traditions, especially Advaita Vedanta.

Etymology and definition

Satya is usually taken to mean "truth", but does also refer to mean "a reality," "a genuinely real existent."[1] "Satya" (Sat-yá)[2] is derived from Sat and ya. Sat means being, reality, and is the present participle of the root as "to be" (PIE *h₁es-; cognate to English is).[2] Ya and yam means "advancing, supporting, hold up, sustain, one that moves".[3][4] As a composite word, Satya and Satyam imply that "which supports, sustains and advances reality, being"; it literally means, "that which is true, actual, real, genuine, trustworthy, valid".[2]

The two truths doctrine states that there is:

  • Relative or common-sense truth (Sanskrit saṃvṛti-satya, Pāli sammuti sacca, Tibetan kun-rdzob bden-pa), which describes our daily experience of a concrete world, and
  • Ultimate truth (Sanskrit, paramārtha-satya, Pāli paramattha sacca, Tibetan: don-dam bden-pa), which describes the ultimate reality as sunyata, empty of concrete and inherent characteristics.

The Sanskrit term for relative, "saṃvṛti", also implies nuanced concepts such as false, hidden, concealed, or obstructed.

The conventional truth may be interpreted as "obscurative truth" or "that which obscures the true nature" as a result. It is constituted by the appearances of mistaken awareness. Conventional truth would be the appearance that includes a duality of apprehender and apprehended, and objects perceived within that. Ultimate truths, are phenomena free from the duality of apprehender and apprehended.[5]

Origin and development

While the concept of the two truths is associated with the Madhyamaka school, its history goes back to the oldest Buddhism.

Early Indian Buddhism

Pali Canon

In the Pali canon, the distinction is not made between a lower truth and a higher truth, but rather between two kinds of expressions of the same truth, which must be interpreted differently. Thus a phrase or passage, or a whole sutta, might be classed as neyyattha or samuti or vohāra, but it is not regarded at this stage as expressing or conveying a different level of truth.

Nītattha (Pāli; Sanskrit: nītārtha), "of plain or clear meaning"[6] and neyyattha (Pāli; Sanskrit: neyartha), "[a word or sentence] having a sense that can only be guessed".[6] These terms were used to identify texts or statements that either did or did not require additional interpretation. A nītattha text required no explanation, while a neyyattha one might mislead some people unless properly explained:[7]

There are these two who misrepresent the Tathagata. Which two? He who represents a Sutta of indirect meaning as a Sutta of direct meaning and he who represents a Sutta of direct meaning as a Sutta of indirect meaning.[8]

Saṃmuti or samuti (Pāli; Sanskrit: saṃvṛti, meaning "common consent, general opinion, convention",[9] and paramattha (Pāli; Sanskrit: paramārtha), meaning "ultimate", are used to distinguish conventional or common-sense language, as used in metaphors or for the sake of convenience, from language used to express higher truths directly. The term vohāra (Pāli; Sanskrit: vyavahāra, "common practice, convention, custom" is also used in more or less the same sense as samuti.


The Theravādin commentators expanded on these categories and began applying them not only to expressions but to the truth then expressed:

The Awakened One, the best of teachers, spoke of two truths, conventional and higher; no third is ascertained; a conventional statement is true because of convention and a higher statement is true as disclosing the true characteristics of events.[10]


The Prajñaptivāda school took up the distinction between the conventional and ultimate (paramārtha/saṃvṛti), and extended the concept to metaphysical-phenomenological constituents (dharmas), distinguishing those that are real (tattva) from those that are purely conceptual, i.e., ultimately nonexistent (prajnāpti).

Indian Mahayana Buddhism


The distinction between the two truths (satyadvayavibhāga) was fully developed by Nāgārjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) and the Madhyamaka school.[11] The Madhyamikas distinguish between loka-samvriti-satya, "world speech truth" c.q. "relative truth"[web 1] c.q. "truth that keeps the ultimate truth concealed,"[12] and paramarthika satya, ultimate truth.[web 1]

Loka-samvriti-satya can be further divided in tathya-samvrti or loka-samvrti, and mithya-samvrti or aloka-samvrti,[13][14][15][16] "true samvrti" and "false samvrti."[16][web 1][note 1] Tathya-samvrti or "true samvrti" refers to "things" which concretely exist and can be perceived as such by the senses, while mithya-samvrti or "false samvrti" refers to false cognitions of "things" which do not exist as they are perceived.[15][16][12][web 3][note 2][note 3]

The ultimate truth to Nagarjuna is the truth that everything is empty, sunyata, of an underlying essence.[11] Sunyata itself is also "empty," 'the emptiness of emptiness', which means that sunyata itself does not constitute a higher or ultimate "essence" or "reality.[22][23][note 4][note 5] Nagarjuna's view is that "the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth".[23] According to Siderits, Nagarjuna is a "semantic anti-dualist" who posits that there are only conventional truths.[23] Jay Garfield explains:

Suppose that we take a conventional entity, such as a table. We analyze it to demonstrate its emptiness, finding that there is no table apart from its parts [...] So we conclude that it is empty. But now let us analyze that emptiness […]. What do we find? Nothing at all but the table’s lack of inherent existence [...] To see the table as empty [...] is to see the table as conventional, as dependent.[22]

In Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā the two truths doctrine is used to defend the identification of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) with emptiness (śūnyatā):

The Buddha's teaching of the Dharma is based on two truths: a truth of worldly convention and an ultimate truth. Those who do not understand the distinction drawn between these two truths do not understand the Buddha's profound truth. Without a foundation in the conventional truth the significance of the ultimate cannot be taught. Without understanding the significance of the ultimate, liberation is not achieved.[25]

In Nagarjuna's own words:

8. The teaching by the Buddhas of the dharma has recourse to two truths:

The world-ensconced truth and the truth which is the highest sense.
9. Those who do not know the distribution (vibhagam) of the two kinds of truth
Do not know the profound "point" (tattva) in the teaching of the Buddha.
10. The highest sense of the truth is not taught apart from practical behavior,
And without having understood the highest sense one cannot understand nirvana.[26]

Nāgārjuna based his statement of the two truths on the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta. In the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta, the Buddha, speaking to the monk Kaccayana Gotta on the topic of right view, describes the middle Way between nihilsm and eternalism:

By and large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by a polarity, that of existence and non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, "non-existence" with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, "existence" with reference to the world does not occur to one.[27]

According to Chattopadhyaya, although Nagarjuna presents his understanding of the two truths as a clarification of the teachings of the Buddha, the two truths doctrine as such is not part of the earliest Buddhist tradition.[28]

Buddhist Idealism


The Yogacara school of Buddhism distinguishes the Three Natures and the Trikaya. The Three Natures are:[29][30]

  • Paramarthika (transcendental reality), also referred to as Parinispanna in Yogacara literature:The level of a storehouse of consciousness that is responsible for the appearance of the world of external objects.It is the only ultimate reality.
  • Paratantrika (dependent or empirical reality): The level of the empirical world experienced in ordinary life. For example, the snake-seen-in-the-snake.
  • Parikalpita (imaginary). For example, the snake-seen-in-a-dream.
Lankavatara Sutra

The Lankavatara Sutra took an idealistic turn in apprehending reality. D. T. Suzuki writes the following:

The Lanka is quite explicit in assuming two forms of knowledge: the one for grasping the absolute or entering into the realm of Mind-only, and the other for understanding existence in its dual aspect in which logic prevails and the Vijnanas are active. The latter is designated Discrimination (vikalpa) in the Lanka and the former transcendental wisdom or knowledge (prajna). To distinguish these two forms of knowledge is most essential in Buddhist philosophy.

East Asian Buddhism

When Buddhism came to China from Gandhara (now Afghanistan) and India in the first/second century CE, it was initially adapted to the Chinese culture and understanding. Buddhism was exposed to Confucianist[31] and Taoist[32][33][34] influences. Neo-Taoist concepts were taken over in Chinese Buddhism.[35] Concepts such as "T’i -yung" (Essence and Function) and "Li-Shih" (Noumenon and Phenomenon) were first taken over by Hua-yen Buddhism,[35] which consequently influenced Chán deeply.[36]

The two truths doctrine was another point of confusion. Chinese thinking took this to refer to two ontological truths: reality exists of two levels, a relative level and an absolute level.[37] Taoists at first misunderstood sunyata to be akin to the Taoist non-being.[38] In Madhyamaka the two truths are two epistemological truths: two different ways to look at reality. Based on their understanding of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra the Chinese supposed that the teaching of the Buddha-nature was, as stated by that sutra, the final Buddhist teaching, and that there is an essential truth above sunyata and the two truths.[39]

Hua-yen Buddhism

The Huayan school or Flower Garland is a tradition of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy that flourished in China during the Tang period. It is based on the Sanskrit Flower Garland Sutra (S. Avataṃsaka Sūtra, C. Huayan Jing) and on a lengthy Chinese interpretation of it, the Huayan Lun. The name Flower Garland is meant to suggest the crowning glory of profound understanding.

The most important philosophical contributions of the Huayan school were in the area of its metaphysics. It taught the doctrine of the mutual containment and interpenetration of all phenomena, as expressed in Indra's net. One thing contains all other existing things, and all existing things contain that one thing.

Distinctive features of this approach to Buddhist philosophy include:

  • Truth (or reality) is understood as encompassing and interpenetrating falsehood (or illusion), and vice versa
  • Good is understood as encompassing and interpenetrating evil
  • Similarly, all mind-made distinctions are understood as "collapsing" in the enlightened understanding of emptiness (a tradition traced back to the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna)

Huayan teaches the Four Dharmadhatu, four ways to view reality:

  1. All dharmas are seen as particular separate events;
  2. All events are an expression of the absolute;
  3. Events and essence interpenetrate;
  4. All events interpenetrate.[40]

Absolute and relative in Zen

The teachings of Zen are expressed by a set of polarities: Buddha-nature - sunyata,[41][42] absolute-relative,[43] sudden and gradual enlightenment.[44]

The Prajnaparamita Sutras and Madhyamaka emphasized the non-duality of form and emptiness: form is emptiness, emptiness is form, as the Heart Sutra says.[43] The idea that the ultimate reality is present in the daily world of relative reality fitted into the Chinese culture which emphasized the mundane world and society. But this does not tell how the absolute is present in the relative world. This question is answered in such schemata as the Five Ranks of Tozan[45] and the Oxherding Pictures.

Essence-function in Korean Buddhism

The polarity of absolute and relative is also expressed as "essence-function". The absolute is essence, the relative is function. They can't be seen as separate realities, but interpenetrate each other. The distinction does not "exclude any other frameworks such as neng-so or "subject-object" constructions", though the two "are completely different from each other in terms of their way of thinking".[46]

In Korean Buddhism, essence-function is also expressed as "body" and "the body's functions":

[A] more accurate definition (and the one the Korean populace is more familiar with) is "body" and "the body's functions". The implications of "essence/function" and "body/its functions" are similar, that is, both paradigms are used to point to a nondual relationship between the two concepts.[47]

A metaphor for essence-function is "A lamp and its light", a phrase from the Platform Sutra, where Essence is lamp and Function is light.[48]

Tibetan Buddhism


The Nyingma tradition is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It is founded on the first translations of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Tibetan, in the eighth century. Ju Mipham (1846–1912) in his commentary to the Madhyamālaṃkāra of Śāntarakṣita (725–788) says:[49]

If one trains for a long time in the union of the two truths, the stage of acceptance (on the path of joining), which is attuned to primordial wisdom, will arise. By thus acquiring a certain conviction in that which surpasses intellectual knowledge, and by training in it, one will eventually actualize it. This is precisely how the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas have said that liberation is to be gained.[50][note 6]

The following sentence from Mipham's exegesis of Śāntarakṣita's Madhyamālaṃkāra highlights the relationship between the absence of the four extremes (mtha'-bzhi) and the nondual or indivisible two truths (bden-pa dbyer-med):

The learned and accomplished [masters] of the Early Translations considered this simplicity beyond the four extremes, this abiding way in which the two truths are indivisible, as their own immaculate way.[51][note 7]


Dzogchen holds that the two truths are ultimately resolved into non-duality as a lived experience and are non-different.

Understanding in other traditions

Advaita Vedanta

Advaita took over from the Madhyamika the idea of levels of reality.[53] Usually two levels are being mentioned,[54] but Shankara uses sublation as the criterion to postulate an ontological hierarchy of three levels.[55][web 4][note 8]

  • Pāramārthika (paramartha, absolute), the absolute level, "which is absolutely real and into which both other reality levels can be resolved".[web 4] This experience can't be sublated by any other experience.[55]
  • Vyāvahārika (vyavahara), or samvriti-saya[54] (empirical or pragmatical), "our world of experience, the phenomenal world that we handle every day when we are awake".[web 4] It is the level in which both jiva (living creatures or individual souls) and Iswara are true; here, the material world is also true.
  • Prāthibhāsika (pratibhasika, apparent reality, unreality), "reality based on imagination alone".[web 4] It is the level in which appearances are actually false, like the illusion of a snake over a rope, or a dream.

Mīmāṃsā refutation of Two Truths Doctrine

Chattopadhyaya notes that the eighth-century Mīmāṃsā philosopher Kumārila Bhaṭṭa rejected the Two Truths Doctrine in his Shlokavartika.[57] Bhaṭṭa was highly influential with his defence of the Vedic rituals against medieval Buddhist rejections of these rituals. Some believe that his influence contributed to the decline of Buddhism in India[58] since his lifetime coincides with the period in which Buddhism began to decline.[59] According to Kumarila, the two truths doctrine is an idealist doctrine, which conceals the fact that "the theory of the nothingness of the objective world" is absurd:

[O]ne should admit that what does not exist, exists not; and what does exist, exists in the full sense. The latter alone is true, and the former false. But the idealist just cannot afford to do this. He is obliged instead to talk of 'two truths', senseless though this be.[57][note 9]

Correspondence with Greek scepticism

McEvilley (2002) notes a correspondence between Greek Pyrrhonism and Madhyamika doctrines:

Sextus says [60] that there are two criteria:

  1. [T]hat by which we judge reality and unreality, and
  2. [T]hat which we use as a guide in everyday life.

According to the first criterion, nothing is either true or false[.] [I]nductive statements based on direct observation of phenomena may be treated as either true or false for the purpose of making everyday practical decisions.
The distinction, as Conze[61] has noted, is equivalent to the Madhyamika distinction between "Absolute truth" (paramārthasatya), "the knowledge of the real as it is without any distortion,"[62] and "Truth so-called" (saṃvṛti satya), "truth as conventionally believed in common parlance.[62][63]

See also


  1. According to Lal Mani Joshi, Bhāviveka (6th century CE), the founder of the Svātantrikasubschool of the Mādhyamaka, classified samvrti into tathya-samvrti and mithya-samvrti.[13] Candrakīrti (7th century CE), one of the main proponents of the Prasaṅgika subschool of Madhyamaka, divided samvrti into loka-samvrti and aloka-samvrti.[13][14] Shantideva (8th century CE) and his commentator Prajñakaramati (950-1030[web 2]) both use the terms tathya-samvrti and mithya-samvrti.[15][16] Kumārila Bhaṭṭa, an influential 8th century Mimamsa-philospher, in commenting on Madhyamaka philosophy, also uses the terms loka-samvrti and aloka-samvrti.[12] Murti, in his The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, uses the term aloka, and refers to the synonym mithya samvrti.[17]

    Murti: "In calling it 'loka samvrti,' it is implied that there is some appearance which is 'aloka' - non-empirical, i.e. false for the emprical consciousness even."[18]

    David Seyfort Ruegg further comments: "The samvrti in worldy usage is termed lokasamvrti; and while it can serve no real purpose to distinguish an alokasamvrti opposed to it (from the point of view of ultimate reality both are unreal, though in different degrees from the relative standpoint), one may nevertheless speak of an alokasamvrti as distinct from it when considering that there exist persons who can be described as 'not of the world' (alokah) since they have experiences which are falsified because of the fact that their sense-faculties are impaired (and which, therefore, do not belong to the general worldly consensus."[19]
  2. An often-used explanation in Madhyamaka literature is the perception of a snake. The perception of a real snake is tathya-samvrti, concretely existing. In contrast, a rope which is mistakenly perceived as a snake is mithya-samvrti. Ultimately both are false, but "the snake-seen-in-the-rope" is less true than the "snake-seen-in-the-snake." This gives an epitemological hierarchy in which tathya-samvrti stands above mithya-samvrti.[web 1][12][web 3] Another example given in Madhyamaka literature to distinguish between tathya-samvrti and mithya-samvrti is "water-seen-in-the-pool" (loka samvriti) as contrasted with "water-seen-in-the-mirage" (aloka samvriti).
  3. Mithya-samvrti or "false samvrti" cam also be given as asatya, "untruth."[web 1] Compare Peter Harvey, noting that in Chandogya Upanishad 6.15.3 Brahman is satya, and Richard Gombrich, commenting on the Upanishadic identity of microcosm and macrocosm, c.q. Atman and Brahman, which according to the Buddha is asat, "something that does not exist."[20] Compare also Atiśa: "One may wonder, "From where did all this come in the first place, and to where does it depart now?" Once examined in this way, [one sees that] it neither comes from anywhere nor departs to anywhere. All inner and outer phenomena are just like that."[21]
  4. See also Susan Kahn, The Two Truths of Buddhism and The Emptiness of Emptiness
  5. Some have interpreted paramarthika satya or "ultimate truth" as constituting a metaphysical 'Absolute' or noumenon, an "ineffable ultimate that transcends the capacities of discursive reason."[23] For example T.R.V. Murti (1955), The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, who gave a Neo-Kantian interpretation.[24]
  6. "Primordial wisdom" is a rendering of jñāna and "that which surpasses intellectual knowledge" may be understood as the direct perception (Sanskrit: pratyakṣa) of(dharmatā). "Conviction" may be understood as a gloss of faith (śraddhā). An effective analogue for "union", a rendering of the relationship held by the two truths, is interpenetration.
  7. Blankleder and Fletcher of the Padmakara Translation Group give a somewhat different translation:
    "The learned and accomplished masters of the Old Translation school take as their stainless view the freedom from all conceptual constructs of the four extremes, the ultimate reality of the two truths inseparably united."[52]
  8. According to Chattopadhyaya, the Advaita Vedantists retain the term paramartha-satya or parmarthika-satya for the ultimate truth, and for the loka samvriti of the Madhyamakas they use the term vyahvarika satya and for aloka samvriti they use the term pratibhasika:[56]
  9. Kumārila Bhaṭṭa: "The idealist talks of some 'apparent truth' or 'provisional truth of practical life', i.e. in his terminology, of samvriti satya. However, since in his own view, there is really no truth in this 'apparent truth', what is the sense of asking us to look at it as some special brand of truth as it were? If there is truth in it, why call it false at all? And, if it is really false, why call it a kind of truth? Truth and falsehood, being mutually exclusive, there cannot be any factor called 'truth' as belonging in common to both--no more than there can by any common factor called 'treeness' belonging to both the tree and the lion, which are mutually exclusive. On the idealist's own assumption, this 'apparent truth' is nothing but a synonym for the 'false'. Why, then, does he use this expression? Because it serves for him a very important purpose. It is the purpose of a verbal hoax. It means falsity, though with such a pedantic air about it as to suggest something apparently different, as it were. This is in fact a well known trick. Thus, to create a pedantic air, one can use the word vaktrasava [literally mouth-wine] instead of the simpler word lala , meaning saliva [vancanartha upanyaso lala-vaktrasavadivat]. But why is this pedantic air? Why, instead of simply talking of falsity, is the verbal hoax of an 'apparent truth' or samvriti? The purpose of conceiving this samvriti is only to conceal the absurdity of the theory of the nothingness of the objective world, so that it can somehow be explained why things are imagined as actually existing when they are not so. Instead of playing such verbal tricks, therefore, one should speak honestly. This means: one should admit that what does not exist, exists not; and what does exist, exists in the full sense. The latter alone is true, and the former false. But the idealist just cannot afford to do this. He is obliged instead to talk of 'two truths', senseless though this be."[57]


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External links

Works related to Saṃyukta Āgama 301: Kātyāyana Gotra Sūtra at Wikisource