Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth

1. The Evolution of Buddhist Thought

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Logic and Emotion


IN THE VAST TEACHINGS given by the Buddha in the more than forty years between his enlightenment and his parinirvana, he addressed the fundamental philosophical questions of what is reality and how can we know it extensively and often. Behaving ethically and mastering the mind through meditation are important aspects of our lives, but so too is understanding the nature of reality. Quite simply, we suffer because we misconceive reality.

The main focus of Buddhist philosophy has always been the nature of reality. For over 2,500 years since the Buddha’s time, scholars have been studying his words in order to understand exactly what this reality is. In Buddhist philosophy, when we speak of how things exist and how we perceive they exist, we are talking about the two truths: ultimate truth and conventional, or relative, truth.

Coming to terms with the essence of Buddhist thought is not easy. There are many alien concepts and many very subtle ideas that will not make sense immediately or without effort. If we can see how vital this understanding is and apply ourselves diligently, things will become clearer as time passes. A long view is needed, and both the 2emotional and the logical sides of our nature need to be nurtured together. Only by developing a good heart will we truly become a better person, and only by seeing the reality of our situation will we be able to improve it in a truly meaningful way.

Why do we make mistakes? We need to explore this vital question to see that we suffer because we fail to see how things exist. Ourselves, other people, objects such as our possessions, the events in our lives—the things of which our world is comprised—are constantly misunderstood on a very subtle level, and it is this gap between reality and how we conceive reality that leads to not just some of our problems but all of our problems. That gap is called ignorance.

Our universe is made up of things and events. Some of these may be pure fantasies or simply not exist, but the vast majority exist and function, and at one level we are unmistaken in how we perceive them. That is conventional truth. At a more subtle level however, we fail to see the way they come into existence due to causes and conditions and the way we erroneously ascribe to them a concrete reality. The mode of existence of phenomena at this deeper “ultimate” level is ultimate truth. Narrowing the gap between how things appear to exist and how they actually exist is the focus of this book.

Based on misinformation, we make judgments, mistakes arise, and we suffer. The more accurate our vision of reality is, the more informed our judgments will be, and therefore fewer mistakes and less suffering will occur. Our habitual misreading of reality is so deep-rooted, however, that it is not simply a matter of studying it once and being cured. It takes time to make a true connection with the essence of Buddhist philosophy and to inculcate it within our daily lives on a sufficiently deep level that we can break our present harmful habits.

This is not abstract philosophy, nor is it an interesting but irrelevant mind game. This is the vital key to real happiness. As long as we are perpetually tied up in misconceptions about the nature of reality—in 3particular, as long as we see our own sense of identity as static and eternal—we will forever reify objects and situations, and due to this, we will continue to develop attachment and aversion. Locked into a worldview where “I” is the center and all else must serve the “I,” we have no space to help others and, paradoxically, no space to be happy.

The more egocentric we are, the tighter our mind is, and consequently the unhappier we are. Only by seeing how we misconceive both the “I” and the universe that this “I” inhabits will we be able to break away from the rigid me-me-me space we inhabit now and loosen up into a lighter, happier mindset that cherishes others. This is the goal.


The purpose of Buddhist philosophy is to bring us to an accurate understanding of how the world exists in order to develop our minds to be of most benefit. We need to marry this logical side with our natural emotional side. Emotion alone will not take us very far. Compassion is vital, otherwise the selfish mind will lead us to harm others and, paradoxically, ourselves. However, if that compassion is not supported by the right view of reality, then it will be flawed. We have all seen people who are full of compassion but very short on wisdom and who, despite their good intentions, seem to harm more than help. We need love, compassion, altruism, and all the positive aspects of our emotional life, but we need wisdom as well. Right view and compassion conjoined give us an unbeatable tool to develop our full potential—the potential to free ourselves from both short-term and long-term suffering and to effectively help others out of their suffering.

The quest for the truth leads us through unfamiliar philosophies and alien cultures, and it takes a degree of faith that the early Buddhist philosophers were on the right track in their search. By “faith” 4I don’t mean a blind faith in religious dogma. Instead, I’m talking about a deeply felt conviction that because the ideas of Buddhism work on all the levels we do understand, those we cannot yet understand are, therefore, probably equally valid—it is just that we have not reached that level of understanding yet. As the wonderful Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

           Faith is a bird that feels the light

           and sings when the dawn is still dark.2

I’m not saying that non-Buddhists blindly accept whereas Buddhists understand. Far from it! People of every religion and philosophy tend to hear the tenets of their own religion and simply accept them, rather than do the hard work of understanding them.

We need every tool at our disposal to shed light on the reality of our lives and break us free from the sloth of our mundane thinking. We have leisure, intelligence, an inquisitive nature that our culture does not suppress, and we have met teachings such as this. I think that when we are struggling with these very esoteric topics, there is a tendency to be overwhelmed. However, by carefully examining their importance and the rarity and preciousness of this opportunity we now have, we will be able to break through the fog of misunderstanding and start to see a glimmer of the meaning of the two truths.

Understanding emptiness (a synonym for ultimate truth) is difficult. Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that his study of emptiness has been a major aspect of his philosophical study since he was sixteen, but only now can he see some light at the end of the tunnel. Fortunately, we don’t need a full understanding of emptiness in order to benefit. In his Four Hundred Stanzas (Chatuhshataka), Aryadeva says:


           Even those with few merits

           Have no doubts about this Dharma [emptiness].

           Even those who still have their doubts

           Will tear [cyclic] existence to tatters.3

Just starting to doubt whether things and events exist inherently really goes a long way toward understanding reality. In this world of billions of people (and countless other sentient beings), very few really try to understand whether appearance matches reality. This doubt about the intrinsic nature of things is an exceptional quality. It actually approaches a real understanding of emptiness and, thus, of ultimate truth. To come to know how the world truly exists, we first need to know how it appears to exist for us; thus, it is vital to understand relative, or conventional, truth as well. In fact, one cannot become a fully realized being without understanding both conventional truth and ultimate truth.

We have freedom and intelligence and we know that through our study of the two truths there is the possibility that we can truly free ourselves from samsara. So really, we have no choice; we have to try, no matter how hard it is. Even having the smallest doubt that the world is exactly as we perceive it “tears cyclic existence to tatters.” That’s quite a challenge!

From my own side, I can see how routine and ordinary the vast majority of my thoughts and actions are. I wake up and simply follow the flow of my ordinary thoughts wherever they take me. Whether my thoughts move in a positive or a negative direction, my mind simply follows, like debris drifting on a river’s current. Generally, my mind is quite neutral and not very active. Of course, I act—I walk, eat, talk, read, and so forth—but I wouldn’t call that active. That is simply the mind and body trudging along the well-worn tracks of utterly routine and, for the most part, boring habits.


For a purposeful and fruitful life, therefore, we need a long vision that allows us to marry logic and emotion in ways that are meaningful. We need to address the fundamental questions that plague all of us. At the end of the day, the philosophy we accept must impact our everyday activities or it will end up a mere abstraction, utterly worthless.

But where exactly do the two truths fit in to our lives? How can they be more than a religious idea, a piece of dogma we are given to absorb somehow, perhaps by placing it on an altar and bowing before it? When we see a bar of chocolate, for instance, we generally feel no need to philosophize about it. (Of course, if we’re on a diet, that is another thing!) What do the two truths have to do with that?

Could studying itself be therapeutic, regardless of the truth of Buddhism’s claims? Perhaps we gain some psychological advantage just by investigating the question of what is real. If the two truths really do describe how things are, how does exploring that relationship become anything more than an intellectual exercise? How does it change our very perception and experience of the world? The process of finding the answer to this question is the process of enlightenment itself. It’s up to you how you approach it—religiously, philosophically, or therapeutically. To be successful, you will likely need to draw on each of these approaches at some point or other.

The Buddha showed us that the peace we all seek is not to be found in the extremes—neither in the reification of things and events nor in nihilistically denying they exist—but in the middle way. The middle ground between seeing things as utterly solid or as completely unreal is a very subtle place.


Initially it is very important for us to read, listen, and discuss the various topics we are studying. Without having enough information 7there is nothing to contemplate, and if there is nothing to contemplate, then there is nothing to meditate on. To use the rather cruel traditional analogy, it is like a fingerless person trying to climb a mountain of ice—nothing to hold on to and no means of holding.

This first aspect of understanding, listening, is the initial step of our spiritual development, no matter what form it takes: listening, reading, discussing, or even watching His Holiness the Dalai Lama on a DVD.

As we embark on this voyage into the nature of reality, we need many different skills. We need to be selective in our reading and listening, sifting out the authentic texts from those that can lead us astray, so an element of discrimination is needed. The authentic texts, such as the sutras themselves and their commentaries, are often dense and couched in unfamiliar terms; we need a good deal of intelligence to tackle them. We also need perseverance, since to get at their actual meaning we will have to study them and listen to teachings on them from qualified masters again and again.

A Tibetan master has said that if the food is delicious and you don’t have any teeth, then you need to chew with your gums. We are presently toothless. (As well as fingerless—we’re in a bad way!) Just because it is hard to understand the great texts does not mean we should find more easily digestible but less tasty ones. Many Buddhist philosophical works were written for Tibetan monastics and in an archaic style; consequently, they can be quite dense. Yet if you read them again and again—chewing with your gums—they will get richer and richer. It’s amazing how a good novel can keep you absorbed for hours, but a Dharma book can send you to sleep after only a page. Nevertheless, by persevering, understanding will come.

Listening without assimilating what we are listening to is useless, of course, so the second step is contemplating, which means absorbing more deeply whatever we have heard, into our hearts. For instance, 8hearing that ignorance is the root of samsara will not get us any closer to freedom from suffering unless we apply that knowledge. So we need to contemplate the meaning, explore whether it is true, and then apply it to our lives.

Contemplation means to investigate what we have heard, to come to know as much as we can about it, and to understand it as deeply as we can. Only then are we ready to start meditating on it, which is the third of the three steps to understanding. You can see that meditation comes quite late in the process. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be earnestly trying to develop your vital meditation skills now. But without a fairly profound understanding of the subject, there is little to meditate on apart from closing our eyes and peacefully staying still. To get to the level of understanding where meditating on a topic becomes truly fruitful, we need to have already contemplated it, and fruitful contemplation requires prior listening. There is no way to skip a step. We truly need a long view.

The Evolution of Buddhist Thought

If you were to ask me, as a Tibetan monk from the monastic system, what the final view of Buddhist thought is, I would say that it is the Prasangika Madhyamaka view that all things and events are free of any intrinsic reality. That does not mean, however, that we should only study the Prasangika Madhyamaka system. A clear understanding of the evolution of the philosophical systems allows us to see and appreciate the ever-growing subtlety of the view. In actuality, it is very difficult to jump to the final view without a grounding in the “lower” or less subtle systems, in the same way as it would be foolhardy to attempt a Ph.D. before completing one’s bachelor’s or master’s degrees.


Historically and logically it appears that one school grew from another and that different views emerged gradually and were “created” by different scholars; but we need to be very clear that there is nothing here that the Buddha did not teach. All the shades of philosophy studied in the Tibetan monasteries come from the Buddha. He taught not only the Pali sutras that are studied in the Theravada schools, but also the Perfection of Wisdom (prajñaparamita) sutras from the so-called second turning of the Dharma wheel and the Buddha Nature Sutra (Tathagatagarbha Sutra) from the third turning.

What follows in this volume is my understanding of what I was taught. Current historical evidence does not support such clear boundaries between the various Buddhist schools in India, but in the monastic education I received, historical accuracy was not the main point when studying philosophical views. What mattered was the depth of our understanding. Studying the views of the lower schools made our grasp of the highest view that much more subtle and precise.


Buddhism in India can roughly be divided into three stages. Without written records of the first stage—the time of the Buddha and soon after—there is a lot of confusion about dates and concepts. It is further confused by the fact that, like most religions, Buddhism did not arise fully grown from an empty arena but developed within a richly cultured and philosophical society with already well-established religions, such as Brahmanism and Jainism. For a long period there was no such term as “Buddhism,” and the Buddha’s followers were thought of no differently than the followers of many of the other masters around at that time.

The Buddha’s students were neither many nor influential, and because many of the subjects that the Buddha taught, such as the law 10of cause and effect (karma) and liberation (moksha), already existed within the other traditions, it is not necessarily true that the Buddha attracted followers because of new radical teachings. Only slowly did Buddhist views become distinguishable from other existing views and become a separate philosophy, and this was often as a reaction to the demands or constraints of society.

The first survival stage lasted about two hundred years until the time of King Ashoka, whose reign marked the start of Buddhism’s second stage in India. Ashoka ruled almost the whole of India and had converted to Buddhism; consequently, during his reign Buddhism became a strong and separate religion, rather than being mixed up in the public’s mind with Brahmanism or Jainism, as it had been previously. By 250 B.C.E. the Buddha’s teachings were quite established and respected; hence, his followers had more opportunity to debate on the exact meaning of what the Buddha had taught.

The Buddha’s teachings are usually divided into three baskets or pitakas: the Vinaya Pitaka, the Abhidharma Pitaka, and the Sutra Pitaka. The Vinaya basket discourses are mainly concerned with the rules and regulations of the monastic community, whereas the Sutra basket comprises the bulk of the teachings of the Buddha, those on developing compassion, concentration, and so on. There was never much debate about these two baskets, but the Abhidharma teachings, which deal with philosophy, were debated extensively. It is often the case that once a philosophy becomes established, then there is time to reflect on the meaning of the teaching in all its detail. So it was with Buddhism. The debates really started once Buddhism became strong and established in India. This in turn led to sectarian development, with some practitioners leaning toward one developing system of ideas and other practitioners toward another.

These rigorous debates took place in many universities, the greatest of which was Nalanda, located north of Bodhgaya in India. From 11about 200 C.E. to about 1200 C.E. tens of thousands of scholars studied and debated with an incredible intensity and single-mindedness.

With the growing need to clarify concepts and to defend Buddhist ideas from the criticisms of non-Buddhist scholars, Buddhist practitioners worked hard at establishing exactly what Buddhism defined as truth, which inevitably led to disagreements and differing opinions.

In India, the Abhidharma texts were the main debating point because they explained the nature of reality of things and events. The Buddha’s teachings clearly denied the existence of an ultimate creator, so using the doctrine of cause and effect, these early works sought to find logical explanations for how and why things come into existence. In ways that would seem very familiar to modern scientists, they relentlessly divided and subdivided the objects of the known world in an attempt to reach the basic building block of the universe. Belief in the reality of atom-like building blocks is a hallmark of the Vaibhashika, or Great Exposition, school.

Then more radical views emerged, calling into question whether such a basic universal building block existed from its own side (a bit like the way quantum physicists radicalized the world of physics). This far-from-traditional interpretation of the Abhidharma texts started around the time of Nagarjuna and his student Aryadeva. It is generally agreed that Nagarjuna lived in the second century C.E. and was the founder of the Madhyamaka, or Middle Way, school.

The third stage of Buddhism in India began with a surge of development in more sophisticated philosophical tools. Logical reasoning reached a new level with Dignaga (ca. 450) and his follower Dharmakirti (ca. 625). They refined the use of logic and contributed new and sophisticated epistemological tools to the larger philosophical discussion of the time. In addition, the texts explaining their system of thought brought a completely new understanding about the mind 12and standardized the presentation of Buddhist psychology. These presentations form the basis for the Sautrantika, or Sutra, school of Buddhism.

Buddhapalita and his contemporary Bhavaviveka (sixth century) both claimed to be Madhyamikas and followers of Nagarjuna, but Bhavaviveka strongly attacked Buddhapalita’s commentary on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamaka) and defeated Buddhapalita’s followers in debate. Later, Chandrakirti (seventh century) resuscitated Buddhapalita’s views and attacked the position of Bhavaviveka. Chandrakirti’s works eventually became central to the Tibetan interpretation of Madhyamaka philosophy, especially within the Gelug school, and for this reason Bhavaviveka is often depicted in a negative light by Gelug commentators. The split between Bhavaviveka’s views and those of Chandrakirti form the basis for dividing Madhyamikas into Svatantrika (autonomy) and Prasangika (consequence).

Next, we find two brothers, Asanga and Vasubandhu (fourth century). The elder, Asanga, created a system of philosophy that became the Chittamatra (Mind Only) school, also called the Yogachara school, which asserts that external objects have no reality separate from the consciousness that perceives them. This, he claimed was the middle way between the realism of Vaibhashika and the nihilism of Madhyamaka. (Madhyamaka scholars, not surprisingly, see themselves as holding the middle way, and Chittamatra concepts as idealism.) Asanga and Vasubandhu also wrote the Abhidharma texts that are most authoritative for Tibetan Buddhism.


This gives you some sense of the historical basis for what the Tibetan tradition identifies as the four Buddhist schools. These are:


       ImageImage  Vaibhashika

       ImageImage  Sautrantika

       ImageImage  Chittamatra

       ImageImage  Madhyamaka

The first two schools, the Vaibhashika (Great Exposition) school and the Sautrantika (Sutra) school, searched for the basic building block of the universe, and because these basic particles were seen as truly existent, these two schools are known as realist schools. These two schools assert only the selflessness of persons, not the selflessness of phenomena.

With the third school, the Chittamatra (Mind Only) school, the intrinsic reality of external objects is questioned. It is argued that whereas the mind is real, the objects perceived by the mind cannot have independent existence because of that very reliance on the mind to ascertain them.

Finally, there is the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school, the fourth and (so my tradition considers) “highest,” or most subtle school. The Madhyamaka view is the “middle way” because its position lies between what it sees as the eternalism of the first two schools that sees objects as existing from their own side, and the nihilism of the Chittamatra school that asserts that things and events have no reality at all.

The four schools are divided into the non-Mahayana schools of Vaibhashika and Sautrantika and the Mahayana schools of Chittamatra and Madhyamaka. In addition to their assertion that things exist independently, the first two schools’ view of karma and cyclic existence is simpler than that of the later schools and can be of more immediate impact in our daily lives. The Mahayana schools would argue, however, that their philosophies cannot take us all the way to enlightenment. In very general terms, the first two schools work 14toward achieving individual liberation whereas the Mahayana tradition works toward attaining full enlightenment in order to free all beings from suffering.

All the philosophical schools have subdivisions—none are as neat as the texts suggest—but the most important subdivision for us is the division of the Madhyamaka school into the Svatantrika Madhyamaka and the Prasangika Madhyamaka subschools. Such a distinction was not made in India. When Buddhist philosophy was studied in Tibet, however, these different views were regarded as quite separate; in Tibetan writings they appear almost as two completely different schools. In this way, the Svatantrika became another “lower” school to be refuted.


Before Buddhism, Tibet had its own native shamanistic religion called Bön. It was natural that as Buddhism gradually became established, Bön ideas and practices merged with the new religion to influence what was to become Tibetan Buddhism. There are still Bön practitioners in Tibetan communities today.

The influx of Buddhism into Tibet happened over two main periods, called the two disseminations. Although at the time Buddhism was already being practiced by some individual practitioners, the first dissemination is said to have dated from around 617 C.E., when Songtsen Gampo, the Tibetan king who was to become very important to Buddhism, sent people trained in Sanskrit to India to study Buddhism.

The next king of Tibet, Trisong Detsen, worked with Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita to make Buddhism the state religion. Padmasambhava founded the first tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma, and developed the ritual side of Buddhism to fit in with the then-existing very ritualistic system of Bön. He and Shantarakshita 15also founded the first monastery, Samye, and Shantarakshita introduced Madhyamaka philosophy to Tibet, specifically the views of the Svatantrika Madhyamaka subschool.

The next king, Langdarma, was very opposed to Buddhism and almost destroyed it, forcing it underground for almost a hundred years. During that time, Buddhist practitioners were only able to practice clandestinely in caves. Although Langdarma only reigned for four or five years, the repercussions were enormous and severe. Books and monasteries were destroyed, and it took a long time for Buddhism to be reestablished there.

The second dissemination started in the eleventh century with Lotsawa Rinchen Sangpo (lotsawa means “translator”), who translated a great many of the texts that had been destroyed. By then Nalanda was starting to crumble under the waves of repeated Muslim invasions, and many escaping Indian masters came to Tibet.

Around that time the Kadam tradition developed. Although it was later integrated into the other four schools—Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug—originally the Kadam tradition was on its own. Its founder, the Indian master Atisha, worked tirelessly to reestablish the teachings and strengthen Buddhism in Tibet by showing there was no contradiction in practicing both Sutrayana and Vajrayana.

Because Atisha was a Prasangika practitioner, Prasangika views became prominent in the second dissemination, whereas they had hardly existed in the first. Around this time, as well, translations of Buddhist texts into Tibetan were becoming far more accurate. A translation would be accepted only after there was agreement between both of the bilingual translators, one Indian and one Tibetan. All the texts from both the Kangyur (teachings of the Buddha himself) and the Tengyur (shastras or commentaries) were translated in this way.

Marpa Lotsawa, a contemporary of Atisha who founded the Kagyu tradition, held Prasangika views. His disciple was Milarepa, who was 16famous for his austerity and the many beautiful songs and poems he wrote. Although the Sakya tradition had started much earlier, it really flowered around the same time as the Kagyu tradition, and Sakya Pandita (1182–1251), the greatest philosopher of the Sakya tradition, was also a very strong advocate of Prasangika Madhyamaka views. Later, Lama Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), who championed Chandrakirti’s interpretation of Nagarjuna, went on to found the Gelug school.

With this second dissemination of Buddhism, a pattern emerged in that each Tibetan king had his own Buddhist teacher, and whatever view that master held became, by royal decree, the dominant view of the country. Thus, each of the four traditions became more defined. From about the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–82) until the Chinese invasion in 1959, the Gelug tradition was dominant.

In this way the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism were founded, each emphasizing different texts and each with slightly different views on reality, but all paying homage to Nagarjuna as the preeminent interpreter of the Buddha’s teachings on ultimate truth. And so it has remained until today. Many learned scholars have written commentaries over the years, but no radically different schools of Buddhist thought have emerged since.

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