Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Vol. 4

1. Appearance and Reality

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Appearance and Reality

IN THE THIRD VOLUME of this series we gave a brief explanation of the main tenets of both non-Buddhist and Buddhist philosophical systems as presented in the classical Indian texts. This fourth volume concerns the views themselves, focusing especially on six important themes. Here we begin by presenting the theory of the two truths—conventional truth and ultimate truth. After having presented the ultimate truth, we investigate the question of self and no-self, with the latter especially in the context of Madhyamaka and Cittamātra views. Then we offer a presentation on classical Indian epistemology, especially its views on knowledge or “valid cognition” (pramāṇa). This is followed by some crucially important additional topics pertaining to philosophy of language, especially the notion of word meaning69 and the Buddhist theory of apoha, literally “the exclusion of other.” The most important textual sources we have relied on concerning these topics are Nāgārjuna’s Six Collections of Reasoning; Āryadeva’s Four Hundred Stanzas; Buddhapālita’s Commentary on the Fundamental Treatise; Bhāviveka’s Heart of the Middle Way and Lamp of Wisdom; Candrakīrti’s Clear Words, Commentary on the Four Hundred Stanzas, Commentary on the Sixty Stanzas of Reasoning, and Entering the Middle Way with its autocommentary; Śāntarakṣita’s Ornament for the Middle Way with its autocommentary and his Compendium of Reality; Kamalaśīla’s Commentary on the Difficult Points in the Compendium of Reality and Illumination of the Middle Way; Jñānagarbha’s Distinguishing the Two Truths with its autocommentary; Maitreyanātha’s Teachings of Maitreya; Asaṅga’s [2] Yogācāra Levels; Vasubandhu’s Twenty Stanzas, Thirty Stanzas, the Treasury of Knowledge with its autocommentary, and his commentaries on the Teachings of Maitreya and the Compendium of the Mahāyāna; the epistemological works of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti and their followers; 36then several philosophical texts of non-Buddhist masters, such as Īśvarakṛṣṇa’s Verses of Sāṅkhya, and some texts of non-Buddhist masters on pramāṇa, such as Kumārila Bhaṭṭa’s Exposition of Verses on Mīmāṃsā.

We begin with our presentation of the two truths. Most ancient Indian philosophers generally agree that the way things appear to the ordinary cognition of those whose minds are not inclined toward philosophy does not match the way things exist in reality. Regardless of whether they use the terminology of the two truths—conventional truth and ultimate truth—when explaining their views on how things exist, it is evident that this is the case. For example, the Sāṅkhya propose twenty-five categories of objects of knowledge. Among these, both the principal or primal nature (Skt. prakṛti) and the consciously aware self or person (Skt. puruṣa) are ultimate truth, while the remaining twenty-three are said to be mistaken conventional appearances. Moreover, they maintain that when one obtains the wisdom seeing the way things exist, all ordinary phenomena disappear. In a similar manner, the Vedānta state that only the great or pure self, a permanent nondual consciousness, is ultimate truth, while all phenomena that appear dualistically are mere conventional illusions.70 The Vaiśeṣika and Naiyāyika consider the six categories (padārtha) of objects of knowledge—substance, quality, universal, particular, [3] activity, and inherence—to be truly established in reality.71 These six categories, which encompass all existent phenomena, are posited in terms of their functions, according to which various ways of positing their illustrations occur. So the philosophical systems agree in stating that in the context of rationally ascertaining the mode of existence of something, a distinction is made between what appears or is merely seen temporarily and the ultimate state of existence of something in reality.

However, it is in Buddhist philosophy more generally, and especially among the followers of Nāgārjuna known as Mādhyamikas, that the language of the two truths and the use of the two truths as a foundational framework for establishing the nature of reality is emphasized. As a means to ascertain the way things exist based on the two truths, the Mādhyamikas set forth teachings that are found in the definitive sūtras such as the Meeting of the Father and Son Sūtra:

Thus the Tathāgata comprehends both the conventional and the ultimate, and here the conventional and the ultimate are exhaustive 37of what is to be known. Moreover, since the Tathāgata perfectly perceives, perfectly knows, and fully actualizes [them in] emptiness, he is called “omniscient.” Of these two, the Tathāgata perceives the conventional to be the purview of the world. That which is the ultimate is inexpressible: it is not an object of knowledge, it is not an object of detailed knowledge, it is not an object of thorough knowledge, [4] it is not shown.72

Also this same sūtra says:

O master of the world, [you teach that] truth is twofold,

which you perceived yourself without learning it from others—

that is, conventional truth and ultimate truth—

for there is no third truth whatsoever.73

The Teachings of Akṣayamati Sūtra also says:

Moreover, there are two kinds of truth. What are they? Conventional truth and ultimate truth. Conventional truth, as when [Buddha] spoke of the truths, [includes] the truth of suffering, the truth of its cause, the truth of its cessation, the truth of the path, and the truth of customary classificatory conventions, the manifold indicated by letters, words, and labels. Ultimate truth is the inexpressible attribute: nirvāṇa. Why? Since it is always the suchness74 of phenomena, it is classed as permanent. Bodhisattvas teach conventional truth, yet they are not at all disheartened; they directly perceive ultimate truth, yet they do not fall [into peace] but bring about the complete maturation of sentient beings. This is known as the bodhisattva’s mastery of the truth.75 [5]

Also, the Questions Regarding Selflessness Sūtra frequently makes such statements as the following:

The conventional and the ultimate

are correctly explained as two categories:

mundane phenomena are conventional,

and the supramundane is ultimate.76


On the basis of such definitive sūtras, Nāgārjuna’s Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way states:

The Dharma teaching of the Buddha

rests on the two truths:

mundane conventional truth

and the ultimate truth.

Those who do not understand

this distinction between the two truths

do not understand reality in accordance with

the profound teaching of the Buddha.

The ultimate truth cannot be taught

independently of customary conventions;

and without realizing the ultimate,

nirvāṇa will not be attained.77

This passage clearly states that any Dharma teachings spoken by the Buddha concern the two truths. His teachings begin with both the mundane conventional truth and the ultimate truth. Those who do not understand this differentiation of the two truths will not develop an understanding of the profound suchness taught by the Buddha. Furthermore, ultimate truth must be taught in dependence upon the conventional (tha snyad) or concealing (kun rdzob) truth; [6] and unless one realizes the mode of existence that is the ultimate truth, it is impossible to attain the state of liberation from suffering.

In accordance with this, Jñānagarbha’s Distinguishing the Two Truths states:

Those who understand the distinction between the two truths

will not be confused regarding the Buddha’s words.

Having accumulated the collections78 completely,

they will pass beyond to the excellent state.79

Candrakīrti’s Entering the Middle Way also says:


Conventional truth is the means;

ultimate truth is the end.

One who does not understand the distinction between them

enters an unwholesome path owing to distorted conceptions.80

Therefore, when the Madhyamaka texts of Nāgārjuna’s disciples establish the way things are, they skillfully teach the distinction between the two truths, the definitions of each, the analyses of whether they are the same or different, the way to realize them, and so forth. Thus there arose a great tradition of establishing the two truths by means of reasoning, an explanation of which is presented below. [7]

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