A History of Buddhism in India and Tibet

The Two Truths and Scripture

– +


The Two Truths and Scripture

To the Well Gone Ones of the three times who, with the solar rays of their great compassion and

with affection for the entire range of animate beings, naturally achieve benefits for others;

to the Victors’ greatest son Nāgārjuna, who released a great rain of wisdom upon those prepared to receive it;

and finally, to all who descend from this clarifier of the Teachings. To them all I bow.98

Writing so scholars who behold it will be amazed at some of the ways

the Teacher has unerringly arranged the Teachings with all their interconnections,

writing to overcome with their light the thoughts of deluded individuals,

writing to fulfill the entreaties of my sons, my disciples,

I shall base myself herein upon the sutras, the tantras, and the Lamas.

GENERALLY SPEAKING, it is said that all the Dharma Teachings spoken by the Perfectly Enlightened Buddha may be subsumed under one or another among the various twofold categories of the conventional and ultimate truths, or scriptural learning and practical realization, or scripture and commentary. 58If we categorize them under the two truths,99 it is as Nāgārjuna said in his Root Verses of the Middle Way Entitled Wisdom:

The Dharma Teachings of the Buddhas

have recourse to the idea of two truths:

the conventional truth of this world and

the truth of ultimate meaning.100

Some might wonder, ‘But can you not find a scriptural authority for that?’ Indeed we can. The Meeting of Father and Son Sūtra says:

You, knower of the world, knew how—on your own,

without learning it from anyone—to correctly teach the two truths.

They are these: the relative and ultimate truths. A third truth? There is no such thing.101 [L2]


If one were to ask about the defining marks of the two truths, they are these. The truth of ultimate meaning is free of egoic interferences.102 It does not fall within the intellectual scopes of ordinary unenlightened beings, but rather is a subject for the kind of full knowledge that each individual can become aware of only as an individual.103 Conventional truth is just the contrary and is not dissociated with the thinking mind. It is in those terms that Akṣayamati speaks when he says:

Ultimate truth does not fall within the orbit of the thinking mind.

It is said that the thinking mind falls within the conventional.104

The faults of not understanding the two truths are told in the Verses on the Middle Way:

A teaching that proves ignorant of the correct

distinctions between the two truths

is the teaching neither of the Buddha

nor the Dharma nor the Saṅgha.105


The same text tells us the benefits of understanding the two truths:

Those who are skilled in the two truths distinction

do not get confused by the scriptures of the Sage. [4]

They accumulate all the accumulations106 and,

upon their completion, cross to the other shore.107

As for scriptural learning and practical realization, the Victor Maitreya said,

The holy Dharma of the Teacher is twofold,

characterized by scriptural learning and practical realization.108

What qualifies the term practical realization,109 as it is used here? “It is both a stoppage [of sensory distractions] as well as a release of the objective Dharma Realm from adventitious impurities. It is a realization on the Path of subjective 61wisdom that has been freed of phenomenal appearance . . . ,” and we also find, “Hearers realize the nonself of persons. Solitary Realizers realize nonself one and one half times. Followers of the Mahāyāna realize the two types of nonself. Those are the qualities of practical realization.”110

What qualifies scriptural learning? The Vaibhāṣika school says that it is characterized by societies of words, terms, and letters.111 The Sautrāntika school says that it is a society of terms.112 The Cittamātrin say that it appears as a string of sounds to the mental consciousness or to its grasping aspect. To the Mādhyamikas . . . a mere stoppage.113 [L3]

Apart from that, another matter we must discuss is the set of two types of societies of terms that lead to practical realizations. These are scriptures and treatises that were gathered together in two collections. As the Questions by the Holy Divine Prince explains:

All the Dharma Teachings are subsumed under scripture and treatises.

The former means well-spoken statements [of Buddha],

while the latter comments on their intended meanings.

Through their influence the Teachings of the Śākya Sage

will remain for a lengthy period in this worldly realm.114


We could also say that what is very well beyond dispute is scripture,115 while those texts that disentangle the Buddha’s intentions in conformity with scripture are treatises. Noble Maitreya speaks in those terms in his treatise entitled Uttaratantra. First he gives the meaning of scriptures:

Whatever is stated meaningfully in close connection with the Dharma

and leads to the abandonment of generally afflictive mental states of the three realms

while pointing out the benefits of mental peace,

that is what is to be identified as a statement of the Sage.

Whatever leads in the opposite direction is something other.

Immediately after this he gives the meaning of treatises:

Whatever is composed entirely under the influence of the Victor’s Teachings,

is explained by someone with an undistracted mind,


and accords with the Path to the attainment of liberation,

that, too, we take upon the crowns of our heads, just as if they were the scriptures of the Sage.116

We could also say that all scriptures are taught with the five unities,117 while all treatises are taught with either the five topics or the four ancillary modes of explanation.118


We have the personage who is reliable, the composer. We have the Dharma text that he or she composed. Then we have the marks of that Dharma text, what marks it as Dharma, and what actual thing bears those marks.

Our discussion will fall under three parts: the introductory matter, the main body, and the conclusion. [5]

98. Encoded in the four lines of this first verse is a homage to the three Bodies of the Buddha: the Dharma Body, the Full Resources Body (I prefer this translation to the more common “Enjoyment Body”), and the Manifestation Body. Three times is a stock expression in Buddhist works that simply means past, present, and future. Well Gone Ones translates Bde gshegs, a short form of Bde bar gshegs pa, the usual Tibetan translation for Sanskrit Sugata. Sugata is entirely synonymous with the Thus Gone Ones, in Tibetan De bzhin gshegs pa, in Sanskrit Tathāgata. Both Sugata and Tathāgata are names for the Completely Enlightened Ones, more commonly known as the Buddhas, and often, as we see here, also known as Victors (Sanskrit Jina). Nāgārjuna (Tibetan Klu sgrub), well known as the founding teacher of the Mādhyamika school of Great Vehicle Buddhism, also played a role in the revelation of the Wisdom Gone Beyond scriptures that had been concealed in the land of the nāgas, so that it might be said he was, in effect, responsible for the transmission of the Great Vehicle itself. In this context, as he is widely regarded as a Bodhisattva who experienced direct vision of the truth, Nāgārjuna stands for the entire group of Bodhisattvas.

99. The discussions and translations related to this very important topic that are likely to be most relevant are found in Lindtner, “Atiśa’s Introduction to the Two Truths”; Eckel, Jñānagarbha on the Two Truths; Newland, Two Truths; and Sonam Thakchoe, Two Truths Debate.

100. This refers to Nāgārjuna’s Verses on the Middle Way, with the particular passage found in chapter 24, verse 8. For an alternative translation of this verse in the context of a complete English translation, see Garfield, Fundamental Wisdom, 296, although there are a number of other translations available. Note also the translation in Lindtner, “Atiśa’s Introduction to the Two Truths,” 164, which reads “presupposes the two truths” instead of our “have recourse to the idea of the two truths,” a significant difference.

101. This sutra was translated already in the late imperial period, in the early ninth century, and the colophon makes no mention of any post-imperial revision. For another citation, in English translation, see Newland, Two Truths, 51. It is interesting to notice that Mi pham could quote from the Teaching by Akṣayamati Sūtra (fol. 123b) a passage that does affirm a third truth called “the truth of characteristics” (mtshan nyid kyi bden pa). See Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche, Gateway to Knowledge, 2: 174, with English translation and text in Tibetan script.

102. The technical term spros pa, the Tibetan for Indic prapañca, here translated as “egoic interference,” is employed by all schools of Buddhism as well as by Hindus and Jainas. The term has long proven quite difficult to translate. It is rendered sometimes as “conceptual proliferation.” Words like “fabrication,” “construct,” and “delusion” are often used. I’ve noticed one use of the translation “plurification” (by Christian Lindtner). My most preferred translation at present is “narcissistic confabulation as a world-distorting mechanism,” although this is admittedly far too unwieldy for everyday use. The two most recommended writings on the subject in English are Premasiri, “Papañca,” 299–303, and Lang, “Meditation as a Tool.”

103. The Sanskrit behind this phrase is pratisamvidjñāna.

104. In the oldest Tibetan translations of Śāntideva’s Living a Bodhisattva Life, the name given for the author was Akṣayamati. We might consider Akṣayamati here as just a descriptive epithet for Śāntideva, with the meaning “Inexhaustible Intellect.” The quote above is found in Śāntideva’s work, chap. 9, verse 2, which exists in a large number of fine English translations. Consult Karma Phuntsho, Mi-pham’s Dialectic, 276n27 (which supplies the Sanskrit and Tibetan texts), and especially the valuable and detailed discussion of the philosophical implications of different readings of this verse on 166ff. For an alternative translation, see Cabezón, Buddha’s Doctrine, 202n11.

105. The Dergé Tengyur version of this verse might be translated, “Those who do not understand what distinguishes the two truths, they do not understand the profound suchness of the Buddha’s Teachings.” The verse as it appears in our text: yang dag bden pa rnam gnyis kyi || rnam dbye rnam par mi shes pa || de ni sangs rgyas chos dang ni || dge ’dun gyis kyang bstan pa min. This may be compared with the considerably different Dergé version, fol. 15a: gang dag bden pa de gnyis kyi || rnam dbye rnam par mi shes pa || de dag sangs rgyas bstan pa ni [~yi?] || zab mo’i de nyid rnam mi shes. It is possible that our history preserves an earlier unrevised translation, so it would make little sense for us to revise its version against the translation available in the Dergé.

106. The two accumulations are those of merit (Skt. puṇya) and full knowledge (Skt. jñāna), which respectively overcome obscurations due to afflictive emotions (Skt. kleśa) and knowable objects (Skt. jñeya). The gradual developments of these two factors largely define the levels of the Path to Enlightenment according to the Great Vehicle.

107. The Sage refers to the Buddha. This particular verse doesn’t appear at all in the Wisdom Root Verses of the Middle Way. Rather, it is to be found in a verse work by Jñānagarbha that is translated in Eckel, Jñānagarbha on the Two Truths, 70, verse 2, with the Tibetan text on 155 (agreeing with the Dergé version): “Those who know the distinction between the two truths do not misunderstand the Sage’s teaching. They acquire all prerequisites and achieve the goal.”

108. This quote is translated in Gold, “Sa-skya Paṇḍita’s Buddhist Argument,” 172, but there it is attributed by Bsod nams rtse mo to the Mdzod, meaning the Abhidharma Treasury, and indeed it may be located in Vasubandhu’s Abhidharma Treasury Commentary, chapter 8, verse 39 (Pruden tr.), 4: 1281.

109. For this part that follows, see Gold, Dharma’s Gatekeepers, 54–55, 205n63. The source given there is Bsod nams rtse mo, Gateway to the Dharma. These unacknowledged citations by the author of the long Deyu do not entirely adhere to the wording of the original text, and for this reason I do not place them in quote marks. For an English translation of the source passage, see Sonam Tsemo, Admission at Dharma’s Gate (Wilkinson tr.), 28.

110. These would appear to be two quotations from the same text, although I was unable to identify the source so far. The single nonself of the Hearers is the nonself of persons. The one-and-one-half nonselves of the Pratyekabuddha means they realize one nonself of persons, and one-half nonself of dharmas. This is of course the way they are characterized from a Mahāyāna perspective, which regards both of the nonselves as necessary for reaching complete Enlightenment.

111. These three societies, described as the “stuff grammar is built upon,” are discussed in Gold, “Sa-skya Paṇḍita’s Buddhist Argument,” 156 (see also Gold, Dharma’s Gatekeepers, 199n10). Abhidharma texts, in their treatment of mental states, place these three societies among the complicit factors (meaning that even while they are indeed associated with mental states, they are not themselves mental states).

112. On the Sautrāntika, see Klein, Knowledge and Liberation, and on Sautrāntika linguistic philosophy in particular, see 184ff.

113. Since the greater part of the statement is lacking (a lacuna of about six syllables), as we may know by referring back to the facsimile edition, it is impossible to understand the small part of it that remains at the end or know what the author intended to say. The greater part is also absent from the parallel text in the small Deyu (2–3). Certainly one of the last things Middle Way philosophy ought to be accused of is annihilationism or nihilism, although this would appear to be implied in the words “mere stoppage.”

114. Our text gives the title here translated as Questions by the Holy Divine Prince as Lha bu dam pas zhus pa’i mdo, although it is elsewhere clear that this ought to mean the Questions by the Divine Prince Susthitamati. For an English translation made from another quotation of this verse (the first line only), see Stearns, Taking the Result as the Path, 131. The same verse is found, without any indication of the title of the sutra, in Bu ston’s history (Obermiller tr.), 1: 24. The small Deyu, 3, quotes a nearly identical verse that is there attributed to Vasubandhu’s Principles of Explanation and reads as follows: chos rnams thams cad bka’ dang bstan bcos gnyis su ’dus | legs par gsungs dang de’i dgongs ’grel pa | de’i dbang gis shākya seng ge’i bstan pa ’di | ’jig rten dag tu yun ring gnas par ’gyur. I was unable to trace this quote in the Vienna online canon, and it does seem counterintuitive, as Jonathan Silk pointed out to me, that a proper sutra would be making statements about the scriptural and commentarial collections in general, so my feeling is this may be from a commentarial comment about a passage from the mentioned sutra and not from the sutra itself. This requires more investigation.

115. The facsimile edition reads btsod in place of rtsod here. I am concerned there may be still more problems with the readings of our text at this point, although I base my interpretation on what is there. Still, I should point out that the usual expression to be found in such a context is something meaning “Whatever is well spoken is the Word of the Buddha.” For some, as for Bu ston’s history (Obermiller tr.), 1: 25–30, the term “well spoken” (Skt. subhāṣita) is not intended in the general Indian sense as any and every finely written piece of literary art. It is taken as little more than an epithet for the Word of the Buddha. For a discussion about this expression, which seems to appear in both Pāli and Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures, see Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism, 42. See also Lopez, “Authority and Orality,” 27. The Sanskrit source is the scripture entitled Behested by Adhyāśaya.

116. Both verses may be located in the Dergé version of the Uttaratantra of Maitreya, also known as the Ratnagotravibhāga, at fol. 72b (not far from the end of the text): gang zhig don ldan chos dang nyer ’brel zhing || khams gsum kun nas nyon mongs spong byed gsung || zhi ba’i phan yon ston par mdzad pa gang || de ni drang srong gsung yin bzlog pa gzhan || gang zhig rgyal ba’i bstan pa ’ba’ zhig gi || dbang byas rnam g.yeng med yid can gyis bshad || thar pa thob pa’i lam dang rjes mthun par || de yang drang srong bka’ bzhin spyi bos blang. I had to make use of the canonical version in some places where it differs from our text. These verses are numbered as 394–95 in Holmes, Maitreya on Buddha Nature, 321–22, including translations of the verses as well as traditional commentary on them. One may compare, too, the English translation in Fuchs, Buddha Nature, 291–92. For an early translation by Obermiller, one may see Prasad, Uttaratantra of Maitreya, 422–23, with the corresponding Sanskrit text on 185, verses 18–19.

117. The literal meaning of phun sum tshogs pa is “fullness” or “complete perfection,” and in general it means a copious fullness, like a cornucopia, or like the word pleroma in Greek. Still, I prefer the translation “unity,” which in English usage felicitously evokes associations with classical European dramatic theory, in part drawn from Aristotle, with which the Buddhist five unities arguably correspond. The three unities in the European tradition are action, place, and time (here the actor and audience are assumed). The five Buddhist unities are usually given as teaching, time, teacher, place, and audience. All five are generally to be identified within the opening statements of Buddhist scripture. Some commentaries discuss them in considerable detail. For more discussion, see Tiso, Study of the Buddhist Saint, 281n14.

118. The “five topics” (rtsis mgo lnga) probably come from a work by Vasubandhu where they serve as the main outline for the same, a work devoted to interpretation of sutras. The five are: (1) according with the purpose of the scripture itself, (2) supplying the summarized purpose, (3) giving the sense of the words, (4) joining together or finding interconnections between things, and (5) predicting objections and answering them. See Skilling, “Vasubandhu and the Vyākhyāyukti Literature,” 318. Observe, however, that there is yet another variant listing of five topics that descends from a work by Candrakīrti, where they correspond to the five preliminaries that together constitute the first of the seven ornamentations. The five are: (1) the identity of the compiler, (2) the sources it draws upon, (3) to which party it belongs, (4) for what purpose it was intended, and (5) the significance of the text as a whole. For a variant listing, see Thurman, “Vajra Hermeneutics,” 136. The use of the word rtsis mgo in Old Tibetan secular contexts is discussed in Dotson, Old Tibetan Annals, 54–55, where the preferred translation is “manual.” As for the “four ancillary modes of explanation” (yan lag bshad tshul bzhi), I presume this means the well-known four modes (tshul bzhi), usually listed in this way: (1) literal sense, (2) commonly shared sense, (3) concealed sense, and (4) ultimate sense.

Join Wisdom

This content is only available to Plus, and All-Access members of the Wisdom Experience. Please log in, upgrade your membership, or join now.

Join Now
rotate left rotate right