Monday, November 24, 2008

Three Natures Pt. II

Mike continues:

a) Your original post states the Aryas experience "appearances that are the results of ignorance and karma during post-meditation." I assume that although these arise, the Aryas are not deluded by them, unlike ordinary beings. I.e., they experience them as "dependently-arisen mere appearance" and this is what is meant by the "mere relative."

b) Your subsequent comments suggest "mere relative" may be somewhat comparable to the "pure dependent nature." I don't have my NB sourcebook handy but "pure dependent nature" indicates the appearances of the higher stages of the path, e.g., the pure lands, etc. Would these qualify as karmic visions? Also, how would this fit with the Bodhisattva vow and the idea of being reborn in any of the six realms of samsara?

Regarding a), I'm glad you addressed this, Mike. I think you hit the nail on the head with your suggested description of why the mere relative is called as such. Appearances arisen from ignorance manifest for realized beings in post-meditation, but the beings do not believe that they are real. The Tibetan phrase that describes this perceptive state is snang la ma zhen pa, perceiving but not clinging, fixating, reifying, or getting sucked in.

The topic you raised in b) is very interesting to consider in a Middle Way context. The Karmapa, in his commentary, doesn't make much mention of pure realms and kāyas, etc. In one telling line, he speaks of how the purification of clinging will eventually lead to the purification of appearances, but he doesn't really describe what that purification would "look" like. A safe reading of the Consequentialist system would be to say that all pure realms, etc., are appearances for others, but the Followers of the Middle Way (i.e. the noble ones) are free from any positions (and, it would seem, perceptions) of any existence, nonexistence, etc. of appearances. In terms of the benefit of others, I think the Consequentialist explanation would accord with the general Mahāyāna: that the bodhisattvas, on the level of what is commonly accepted by others, intentionally take birth in saṃsāra to perform the benefit of others. Any display of pure realms, etc., would be an extension of that altruistic vision.

I might have more to say about the purification of appearances later...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mike's Question About the Three Natures

In the comments section of the posting about the relative truth and the mere relative, Mike Hennesy wrote:

Hi Tyler-

This distinction sounds similar to the mind-only school's distinction between the imaginary (imputed) nature and the dependent nature (when empty of the imag. nature).

Or is it better not to mix these?


PS Great blog-- long may it run.

Here was my response:

Hi Mike,

This is an interesting point. Some scholars have said that the dependent nature empty of the imaginary nature is the perfectly established nature. However, I wouldn't equate with imaginary nature to the relative truth as explained here by Chandrakirti and the Karmapa. For sentient beings, the relative truth consists of labels as well as the bases of the labels. If I were to attempt a comparison with the three nature, I would say that relative truth is the impure dependent nature, and the mere relative is the pure dependent nature.

Great question!



To amend these remarks slightly, it's important to say that these are only comparisons or parallels, not equivalents. The Middle Way presentation of relative truth has different foundations than the Mind Only presentation of the impure dependent nature. For some (purported) followers of Mind Only, the dependent nature is "substantially existent," a phrase that the Followers of the Middle Way would never use except in the context of refuting the people who use it. However, there are parallels, since both the impure dependent nature and the relative truth are what are perceived as real by ordinary beings; and both the pure dependent nature and the mere relative are what is perceived in post-meditation by the noble ones.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Three Stages of Analysis

On pages 4 and 80 of The Karmapa's Middle Way, Āryadeva's Four Hundred Verses is quoted:

In the beginning one reverses nonvirtue.
In the middle one reverses the view of a self.
In the end one reverses all views.
Those who know this way are wise.

This verse describes the three stages of Middle Way analysis, which are a very important component of especially the Kagyü presentation of the Middle Way. It would be difficult not to develop major misunderstandings of the view without a good understanding of these three stages. (That sentence sounded pretty professorial and pedantic, but, hey, it's hard to write a blog about this stuff!)

The first stage, which corresponds to "In the beginning one reverses nonvirtue," is called the stage of no analysis. At this stage, no analysis into whether things are real or not is conducted. The existence of things is taken at face value, and the student emphasizes rejecting nonvirtuous or harmful actions and adopting positive actions. I find a verse by Vasubhandu to harmonize with this meaning nicely:

Abiding in discipline and engaging in hearing and contemplating
Excellently prepares one for meditaton.

The second stage, which corresponds with "In the middle one reverses the view of a self," is called the stage of slight analysis. Here one begins to apply (actually, in contrast to the somewhat misleading name, quite a freaking bit of) analysis into whether things exist or not. Breaking down conceptions that falsely set up a status of existence, one concludes that one's perceptions of the existence or realness of things were false. To familiarize oneself with this conclusion, one emphasizes the thought of nonexistence. (Thus we find in the Heart Sūtra, "There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind...")

The third stage, which corresponds with "In the end one reverses all views," is the stage of thorough analysis. "Thorough," according to Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, primarily means "beyond" here, for it is at this stage where one lets go of and transcends even the thought of nonexistence to nakedly experience the nature of things without any conceptual label.

So, in sum, you could say that the first stage provides one with a stable environment that prepares one to work with one's more subtle thoughts and assumptions about the way things are. The second stage robustly challenges our preconceptions about the solidness of the things to which we cling in our lives. And the third stage, following the "break down" stage, allows us to let go of even the concept of dismantling, to finally experience reality without any reifying concepts.

May we all genuinely traverse the path of these three stages! E Ma Ho!

Relative Truth and the Mere Relative

On page 212 and 213 of The Karmapa's Middle Way, the Karmapa details a key distinction in his Middle Way presentation, the distinction between the relative truth and the mere relative. Relative truth, he says, is that which appears as real to the confused minds of ordinary beings. The mere relative is a more interesting category, and applies to the post-meditation experience of the noble ones--beings who realize and dwell within the ultimate nature, but who still experience appearances that are the results of ignorance and karma during post-meditation.

So, in terms of unconfused perceptions, relative reality is not reality. There is no truth to relative truth. However, it is a reality for those for whom it appears to be real. I find this explanation to be a nice way of expressing the balance between the two truths. Even though the relative truth has no ontological status when subjected to an ontological analysis, it will entail real effects and real experience for everyone who perceives the phenomena of the relative to be real.

Ordinary beings perceive the relative truth; bodhisattvas in post-meditation perceive the mere relative.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Book Launch Tonight at Nalanda West

Join me and the leadership of Nitartha Institute tonight at 7pm at Nalanda West for our book launch and celebration extravaganza for The Karmapa's Middle Way. I'll be giving a talk, reading from the book, and fielding questions.

The main event is in the big shrine room upstairs, but it will be followed by refreshments and music downstairs in the dining room. It's good to have this book done finally, but I also still haven't finished celebrating what happened to our country thirteen days ago. So feel free to come by and shake that out as well!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Response to James's Comment: the Two Truths in Daily Life

James Vitale, in a comment on the original posting about the two truths, raised questions about how the two truths are applied in daily life, as well as about how they are used in formal meditation in our tradition. Good questions, James.

The first thought I had in reflecting on how to approach these questions led me to the first two lines of verse 6.80 of the Madhyamakāvatāra, which appears on p. 279 of The Karmapa's Middle Way:

The conventional truth is the method;
The ultimate truth is what arises from the method.

In terms of the personal experience of traversing the path, I think this couplet summarizes the utilitarian aspect of the two truths very nicely. The conventional (or relative) truth is composed of everything we engage in in order to develop further insight into the nature of things. The ultimate truth is the wisdom that arises from those engagements.

Ontologically, the meaning of the two truths is summarized in one of Chandrakīrti's most famous verses, verse 6.23, which is found on page 204:

Since all things can be seen genuinely or falsely,
Every thing bears two natures.
The Buddha taught that the object of genuine seeing is suchness
And that false seeing is the relative truth.

It should be noted that Ari Goldfield made a beautiful song arrangement for this verse, with which many of you will be familiar. The translation for that arrangement reads:

There are two ways of seeing everything,
The perfect way and the false way.
So each and every thing that can ever be found
Holds two natures within.

And what does perfect seeing see?
It sees the suchness of all things.
And false seeing sees the relative truth.
This is what the perfect Buddha said.

I think as a general rule of thumb in reading The Karmapa's Middle Way, it is helpful to be mindful of the distinction between Wangchuk Dorje's explanation of the basic principles of topics versus his unique presentations of those topics. For his basic presentation of the two truths, reading the first five paragraphs of page 205 in the book should be helpful. In sum, Wangchuk Dorje seems to say that relative truth includes everything that is perceived and experienced by a mind that has not realized the true nature of things, and, indeed, by a mind that is not currently abiding in the realization of the true nature of things (though in a future posting I will detail the distinction between relative truth and the mere relative, a distinction within which the "mere relative" would form a unique qualification to this definition). The ultimate truth is what is seen by noble beings, i.e. by those who are currently abiding in a realization of the way things really are. In other words, relative truth is what is seen by a mistaken mind; ultimate truth is what is seen by an unmistaken mind.

Given these definitions, it is therefore straightfoward to determine how to engage the relative truth in day-to-day life, because the relative truth is all that our minds can reach at present (please refer to my response to Nick's comments for a fuller explanation of the "realities" that are within the grasp of ordinary beings in a context of sūtrayāna): from the strict perspective of Chanrakīti's and the Karmapa's ontology, whatever we are doing on the path, that is relative truth.

Can we engage in the ultimate truth at all as ordinary beings? No and yes. We have already looked at why no is the answer, but we can study and talk about the ultimate truth from a conceptual vantage point. The Nyingma school makes frequent use of a way of categorizing the ultimate that is very helpful in this context: the ultimate, they say, is of two types: 1) the nominal ultimate truth, and 2) the genuine ultimate truth. The genuine ultimate truth is exactly "what perfect seeing sees." For everyone else, there is the nominal ultimate truth. The nominal ultimate truth is not the real deal, but it is helpful in that it helps us to form conceptual images of what the ultimate truth is like. These conceptual images are very important, because they form the basis of certainty that can become further refined until certainty itself serves as a springboard for direct realization. In his discussion of the paths and levels in the Treasury of Knowledge, Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye talks about the extremeley clear "object generality" of emptiness that the meditator forms on the path of juncture, the second of the five paths. This object generality is not genuine emptiness, but it is the fruit of intensive training in the concept of emptiness, and it is the final, most refined form of conceptual emptiness that is present before the final veils to direct realization are broken through. So gaining conceptual understanding of ultimate truth is very important: all our studies and contemplations of the ultimate are, strictly speaking, relative truth, but without them, there would be no way to approach the actual ultimate.

In this vein, the Karmapa, on pages 48 and 279 of the book, quotes the ever-important verse from Nāgārjuna:

Without relying on conventions,
One cannot realize the ultimate.
Without realizing the ultimate,
One cannot attain nirvāṇa.

In the final analysis, anything that depends on another concept is a relative truth. Therefore, ultimate truth in the context of the pair of relative and ultimate is nothing more than a relative truth. To paraphrase a quote from the Buddha, in true reality, there is only one truth, and that truth is the ultimate truth. Yet, of course, from the point of view of the Karmapa's thorough analysis, even that rendition of the ultimate truth would need to be released by the meditator aiming to dwell in the ultimate equipoise.

This is a very short, and undoubtedly severely truncated, description of the way the two truths play out in the Karma Kagyü Middle Way tradition (or at least the Middle Way tradition of the Eighth and Ninth Karmapas).

I want to stress again, for the general reader, that I think it is much more important in the beginning to learn and become familiar with the basic concepts of the two truths before one worries too much about the subtleties of Wangchuk Dorje's unique presentations.

A quick final thought on the two truths in meditative practice: roughly speaking, one can consider the first five pāramitās to be practices of the relative truth and the sixth pāramitā to be a practice of the ultimate truth. In our analytical meditation and in our lives, we employ as subjects of analysis the phenomena--our phenomena--of relative truth and reflect on their deeper nature using the teachings' scripture and reasoning.

Open Thread

I'm currently working on a response to James Vitale's comment from the other day. My response will appear as a posting here on the front page, but in the meantime I wanted to invite your questions and requests for future material. Do you have any questions about Middle Way studies? Would you like to see any issues in particular explored here? Do you have any ideas that you would like to bounce off of me and this blog's readership? Fire away in the comments. Thank you for your participation!

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Response to Nick's Comments: Ordinary Consciousness in Sūtra and Tantra

Nick Vail left two interesting comments (here and here) to my posting on the two truths. Here are some thoughts in response:

Thank you for your comments, Nick. There is a lot to unpack and respond to in the issues you raised; due to time and all sorts of other limitations, I surely won't be able to address your questions fully.

In an inadequate, soundbite-style fashion, however, I would respond as follows: I think that most of the examinations in The Karmapa's Middle Way are made within the context of determining the view; the Ninth Karmapa's other writings, such as those on Mahāmudrā, often come from the context of experiencing the true nature in meditation. Although in the final analysis one of course wants one's view and meditation to be of one taste, my sense of the Tibetan pedagogical approach is that compartmentalization is regarded as necessary when one is still training one's mind in the view. At the Consequentialist stage, the stage of the present study, the main emphasis is on undermining conceptual clinging.

I think that the Vajrayana/Mahamudra traditions would indeed be accommodating of the suggestion that beings experience the ultimate nature of reality more than they think; it's just a matter of whether they recognize and appreciate these experiences or not. In the Consequence stage, however, the approach is, to my senses, more ruthless. Any conceptual clinging, or preference, for any position is dismantled.

The underlying context here is the sūtrayāna presentation of the paths and bhumis, in which only noble beings are taught to directly realize emptiness. Undeniably, the sūtrayāna presentation gives sentient beings' consciousness less benefit of the doubt than do the Mantrayāna, etc. However, the sūtrayāna emphasis on describing how ordinary beings' perceptions are confused can also be seen to underline the profundity of the higher vehicles' views. Appreciating the depth and extensiveness of mundane confusion enhances the appreciation of the power of the wisdom that the higher vehicles are capable of laying bare.

I may be able to better elaborate on this topic later on...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Two Truths: Not the Same, Not Different

One of the key questions the Eighth and Ninth Karmapas tackle in their Entrance to the Middle Way commentaries is that of the relationship between the essential natures of the two truths. In the sixth chapter of The Karmapa's Middle Way, the Karmapa asks the question, Are the two truths of the same essential nature, or are they of different essential natures?

It is important to understand that Middle Way presentations in general, and the Karmapa's stylistic emphasis in particular, are not about setting forth an assertion, or suggestion to the reader that things are or are not a certain way. Rather, the teachers of the Middle Way tradition mainly refer to other teachers of the past who have articulated the options that our conceptual minds may very likely come up with on their own when we set to grappling with these questions. Following Nāgārjuna's approach in the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, the Karmapa sets up assertions, then dismantles them with reasoning.

The purpose of this dismantling is not (to use some language of the season) to say "gotcha." It is to give our conceptual minds an opportunity to get involved in the discussion, take a side, and then be shown the inherent error of the given concept. When we finally and resolutely puncture the veils of conceptual mind's mistakenness, we see nakedly the true nature of all things. This naked, clear seeing leads to freedom from suffering.

(As a side note, I saw an interview with George Soros on Bill Moyers's PBS show recently. In a discussion about the currect crisis in the financial markets, Soros was asked by Bill Moyers, "What is the correct ideology?" Soros response was that the correct ideology is to understand that all human thought is flawed. On this particular point, I found this to be quite a Nāgārjunian observation.)

Moving along: if one posits that the two truths are of the same essential nature, the Karmapa says, there would be the absurd consequence that ordinary beings would see the true nature of reality. For ordinary beings perceive the relative truth, and they would also be perceiving the same essential nature as the ultimate truth. There would therefore be no "ordinary beings" at all, because all beings would be seers of the ultimate. (And it is seeing ultimate reality that distinguishes the noble ones from the ordinary sentient beings).

Furthermore, if the two truths were of the same essential nature, it would absurdly follow that noble ones would perceive the afflicted phenomena of the relative truth when they were resting in meditative equipoise within realization of the ultimate. For they would be perceiving the ultimate, and the ultimate would be of the same nature as the relative.

Nor can the two truths be held to possess separate natures. They are not inherently separate, because they are mutually dependent. Anything that depends on something else to achieve its own identity cannot exist on its own as an inherently separate entity.

In sum, the true nature of the two truths is beyond conceptual elaborations. From the perspective of the noble ones' seeing, both truths are merely conceptual categories.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Welcome to the KMW Blog

Image courtesy of

Welcome to the official blog of The Karmapa's Middle Way: Feast for the Fortunate, now available from Snow Lion Publications. The Karmapa's Middle Way was translated under the auspices of Nitartha Institute, and is a Nitartha Institute Series book. From time to time (I hope around once a week), I will be posting here with thoughts, analysis, and summaries related to topics explored by the Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje, in the book, which contains a translation of his Feast for the Fortunate, a commentary on Chandrakīrti's Entrance to the Middle Way (Madhyamakāvatāra).

In the meantime, please feel free to post questions, comments, or suggestions for topics to explore in the postings. I plan to make this blog an interactive forum, where posting topics are inspired by and are responses to comments.

More advanced participants will undoubtedly send me into research mode, while those new to Middle Way studies are equally welcome to ask questions to seek clarification about whatever Middle Way topics interest them.

And for those of you who live in Seattle, Nitartha Institute and I will be formally introducing KMW to the public at a book launch event at 7pm, Monday, November 17 at Nalanda West. You are invited!