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.


Nick Vail said...

Good stuff, T.
With regard to ordinary beings absurdly perceiving the ultimate - how the Karmapa once said something to the affect that the true nature of mind is so close we can't even see it.
To me, this is similar to the contemplation of whether or not we are able to visually perceive space.
Space is not form, so it does not have shape nor color, the two very things that the eye sense consciousness perceives, and yet we are able to live in a seemingly 3 dimensional world, and create paintings with perspective, etc.
Is spatial coordination merely a function of the conceptual consciousness, or an interaction between several, such as the eye, and according to modern medical science, much of our sense of balance or equilibrium resides in minute bones in our ears (which, from a morphological/evolutionary level, used to be gills), and our conceptual consciousness?
Or is all sense of depth perception or perspective merely conceptually imputed?
I have experienced seemingly non-conceptual perception of running in an airport to catch a connecting flight, dodging people and navigating through form and space.
Now, I agree that any thoughts about space, near versus far, high versus low, etc. are obviously conceptual.
But it seems to me that when one genuinely engages in shamatha practice or t'ai chi or so forth, one's nonconceptual relationship with space "opens up."
If, as the Karmapa says, the analogies describing space are excellent ways to think about mind, then it follows that exploring these questions could be helpful (at least for me), in this dialectic.
As DPR recently said during this year's retreat, we ordinary beings are often deperately trying to cram all of existence into our tiny heads. Engaging in meditative practices, let alone things like space-awareness, seems to ventilate that clautrophibic tendency.
Speaking of space-awareness, I have noticed in those practices that in my field of vision, I am able to have an all-encompassing soft-focus, and then engage multiple "objects," at once. In doing so, other "objects" become less apparent, despite the fact that I have not shifted my physical eye balls.
While observeing the soft-focus "whole" field of visual perception, I can differentiate or make discrete various objects, without necessarily conceptualizing about them.
Perhaps this relates back to your post about perceiving the relative and the ultimate simultaneously.
If suchness, and therefore awareness, are undifferentiated and all pervasive, it follows that the perception of ordinary beings at least has the potential, if indeed is not wholly, the perception of the ultimate.
Since form is emptiness and emptiness also is form, etc., then the relative is the ultimate and the ultimate is also the relative, etc.
To me, it seems as if ordinary beings do indeed perceive the ultimate, but don't realize it, nor experience it as the ultimate, but most often through the time-delayed lens of concept, darkly.
Buddha Shakyamuni lived in this world and taught beings for about 45 years after attaining complete, perfect enlightenment. From "his side" that might have been spontaneous presence, but from beings' side, it was enlightened say potato, I say potatoe. Are they any different?
Let's call the whole thing off.
Lotsa love.

Nick Vail said...

Another visually-oriented analogy popped into mind:

The physical human eye is only able to apprehend a limited number of frequencies within the larger wave spectrum.

We can see visible light and colors, but not microwaves, gamma waves, x-rays, ultraviolet, infrared, etc.

Scientific apparatus can apprehend these waves, and render them into data or forms that our eyes can see. Of course these are just simulacra, symbols for something that is intangible to our sense organs.

The point I'm trying to make is whether humans can see both the relative and the ultimate simultaneously...that is, in this analogy, whether we can see shapes and colors, but also apprehend the much more diverse world of energy that is co-manifesting in and around us.

Technically, perhaps not with the eyes alone, but a human being has many different senses working at the same time, and therefore, apprehension of phenomena might occur in alternative ways than we are conventionally used to.

Another analogy is seeing with two eyes at once. If you labeled one eye "relative" and the other "ultimate," you could close one at a time to have mono-vision, and then see with both for our binocular vision. With both open at once, one cannot say one is seeing only the relative or only the ultimate...the visual input are merging and coexisting within the visual cortex of the brain.

Each retina has a somewhat different upside down image within the physical eyeballs, but these electrical impulses are translated by the brain into one image.

This of course begs the question about whether or not we directly apprehend an "external world," which, by reasoning, renders "objective reality" to merely being like a mirage, reflection, illusion, dream, etc. By examining the phenomenology of epistemology, one comes up with profound ontological implications.

But with both eyes seeing in union, it is impossible to mentally differentiate the "relative" perspective from the "ultimate;" the right eye's point of view from the left's. To me, this seems similar to form is emptiness, emptiness also is form...the nature of equality, perfectly pure.

James said...

Dear Tyler,

I've been reading your new book with great interest. I'd like to explore my own understanding of the two truths and relate how they work in my mind and my way of approaching situations and I'd love if you would correct any inaccurate ideas I have about it!

On the nature of the two truths, it seems to me that the Karmapa is saying that these concepts (the two truths, and, I suppose, all of Madhyamaka) are merely a skillful path, a way to begin the approach of looking at the difference between what is and how our minds alter that by the time we cognize what we think is. So it is a path for us to move from where we are towards a genuine realization, but that at some point, we will have to abandon these ideas as the path and somehow shift to a more direct method of cognition. In other words, these concepts are only valuable in a certain context, for a being with a certain predisposition, but ultimately, they are like all concepts, inexact and falling short, and there is nothing special about them beyond their effectiveness in a certain context. In a sense, they are neither of them actually "truths", just some effective words which might help us get started in the right direction.

So the question for me then becomes, how to apply them? It seems to me that they are effectively employed like a person walking a tightrope uses a balancing stick. If we get too caught up in the relative details of our view of a situation, we can bring ourselves back into balance by emphasizing the essential nature. If we over-emphasize the essential nature and disconnect, we can balance that by remembering the dependence of the absolute on the relative and find a way of being that brings both into integration.

Can you explain how these concepts are used in a formal meditation session in our tradition? I know I sometimes refer to the two truths when I'm reflecting on a situation already past, for example, when I've been way too serious or significant about something and I look to see what was happening. I'll sometimes ask myself, ok... what actually happened and what elaborate story did you overlay to entertain yourself? I then am reminded of the 16th Karmapa's famous quote: "Nothing ever happens."

Thanks for writing the book and having this blog!


James Vitale