The Urban Dharma Newsletter... March 16, 2004


In This Issue: Ultimate and Relative Truth in Buddhism

0. Humor/Quotes...
1. The Two Truths
...Mark Whitley's home page - Mark's Musings
2. Relative Truth and Ultimate Truth
...Researched by Andrea Deschenes
3. Buddhism Introduces Absolute and Relative Truth
...Vairocana Monastery
4. Shunyata in Pure Land Buddhism
...Michio Tokunaga
5. The Curative Value of Egolessness and the Ethical Importance of Compassion in Buddhism
...Sharon Belfer
6. Emptiness, Concepts and the knowledge of Truth
...The White Lotus Center for Shin Buddhism
7. E-sangha, Buddhist Forum & Buddhism Forum - Truth?
8. Temple/Center/Website:
A Season for Nonviolence
9. Book/CD/Movie: Appearance and Reality: The Two Truths in Four Buddhist Systems
...by Guy Newland


0. Humor/Quotes...

There are few nudities so objectionable as the naked truth. - Agnes Repplier (1855 - 1950)

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. - Andre Gide (1869 - 1951)

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. - Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 - 1860)

Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. - Bible, John 8:32

Chase after truth like hell and you'll free yourself, even though you never touch its coat-tails. - Clarence Darrow (1857 - 1938)

The public will believe anything, so long as it is not founded on truth. - Edith Sitwell (1887 - 1964)

All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them. - Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642)

1. The Two Truths ...Mark Whitley's home page - Mark's Musings


An Excerpt:

1. The Ultimate Truth - This is the ultimate state of reality that is devoid of all ephemeral, temporal, transitional things that are found on this Earth. This is the destination of the perfect, enlightened being, and the ultimate liberation of all suffering.

2. The Relative Truth - This is the perception of reality as it exists on this Earth. So named because social conditions, human wisdom, lifestyles and human achievements are constantly in a state of flux. Growing an attachment to any Relative Truth is a cause of suffering.

2. Relative Truth and Ultimate Truth ...Researched by Andrea Deschenes


An Excerpt:

Nagarjuna taught that there is neither reality nor non-reality but only relativity. Madhyamika introduced the concept of Sunyata or emptiness. It taught that all elements are impermanent and have no independent existence in themselves. Another important concept attributed to Nagarjuna is his teaching of relative truth and ultimate truth. Relative truth is conventional or empirical truth - that experienced by the senses, whereas, the ultimate truth can only be realized by transcending concepts through intuitive insight.

The Yogacara school emphasised that the ultimate truth can only be known through meditation.

Whereas Madhyamika teaches about two truths - relative and absolute, Yogacara divides truth into three: Illusory truth which is a false attribution to an object because of causes and conditions; Empirical truth which is knowledge produced by causes and conditions which is relative and practical; and finally Absolute truth which is the highest truth.

3. Buddhism Introduces Absolute and Relative Truth ...American Zen Buddhist Temple - Vairocana Monastery


An Excerpt:

Other than the Eight Right Paths, Buddhism introduces Absolute and Relative Truth.

Abhidharmamaha-vibhasa-shastra defines that all understandable phenomena based on worldly common sense or rational traditions and customs that people agree upon with is the Relative Truth and that the truth of the reality that is clearly observed by those Saints without any defilement is the Absolute Truth. The commentary of the Middle Path (Mulamadhyamaka-karika) explains the absolute and relative truth by the empty nature of interdependent origination. The understanding of interdependent origination, that is, all phenomena arise or cease based on co-existing interdependent relationship, is called the Relative Truth. Interdependent origination is a temporary phenomenon. All things do not have permanent and unchangeable nature. Therefore, arising or ceasing is just a false image that has false name and function but no real substance. The arising is not real arising and ceasing is not real ceasing. The reality of no arising and no ceasing is called the nature of emptiness. Realizing the empty nature is the Absolute Truth.

The Absolute Truth and the Relative Truth, one is the empty nature of all phenomena and the other the temporary occurrence and function of all things, are in truth an indivisible method of non-duality. Even though the Relative Truth is not the ultimate, yet we may rely on it to search for the Absolute Truth. For example, language, action, ideal, and concept etc. are all Relative Truth. Yet, if we do not apply them, we are not going to be able to explain the Absolute Truth, which is beyond the Relative Truth, to sentient beings. If there is no way to realize the Absolute Truth, then there is no way to enter the Nirvana.

4. Shunyata in Pure Land Buddhism ...Michio Tokunaga


An Excerpt:

The Highest Truth in Two Divisions

There is in Mahayana a noteworthy analysis of the highest truth in two divisions - the 'mundane' truth and the 'supramundane' truth - usually termed 'two truths'. The relationship between the two has been given in diverse ways but, in order to avoid confusion, the 'two truths' doctrine is discussed here only as two aspects of shunyata. One is the highest truth, which is formless and beyond conceptual understanding, and the other, the manifestation of the formless in the realm of human conception, that is, form.

It was Nagarjuna who first presented the notion of 'two truths' as an analysis of shunyata. The highest truth (paramarthasatya) is beyond words or description, i.e. beyond the reach of conceptual understanding and yet it was presented by the Buddha Shakyamuni as his teaching so that our conceptual understanding could grasp it. It is in this sense that the teaching is regarded as an 'expedient means' (upaya), often likened to a finger pointing to the moon. What is crucial about this metaphor is that the finger and the moon are mutually reflexive. Without the finger, the moon would not be known. Without the moon, there would be no need for the finger pointing to it. The one is involved in the other. The finger and the moon are inseparable. In this sense, the 'two truths' may be called the 'twofold truth'.

Kumarajiva, in his treatment of shunyata philosophy in translating Nagarjuna into Chinese, used the term chia-ming ("name only for a temporary use") for the mundane aspect of the truth. 'Temporary' in this compound represents the negative aspect of the highest truth. 'Negative' in this case means the non-substantial nature of beings from the viewpoint of the truth of shunyata. 'Name' represents the positive aspect in which conceptual understanding 'revives' only after it is once negated. Even shunyata is a 'name only for a temporary use' so long as it is expressed in order for our conceptual understanding to grasp it. It is chia-ming which is the very ground of Pure Land Buddhism and which refers to the 'positive' phase of shunyata expressed in 'forms'.

5. The Curative Value of Egolessness and the Ethical Importance of Compassion in Buddhism ...Sharon Belfer, Department of Psychology - Simon Fraser University


An Excerpt:

Absolute Personhood and the Path to Self-Actualization

Whereas Gautama's path to cure focuses on the insubstantiality of self, Gautama's path to self-actualization focuses on the insubstantiality of the dualism between self and other. In other words, once one's cognition, affect and conation have been cured of ignorance of egolessness, one has only achieved an understanding of relative reality. To become a fully self-actualized person, however, one must achieve a three-fold understanding of both absolute and relative reality.

A cognitive understanding of absolute reality involves an intellectual recognition that "all experience is basically a manifestation of mind. . .the whole of existence is empty of a duality of substance between mind and matter" (Gyamtso, 1988, p. 39). According to Gautama, the essence of this universal mind is luminous, unborn awareness; absolutely real, yet "empty" of concepts and preconceptions. Once one realizes that the essence of absolute reality is indiscriminate and nomothetic, one will inevitably realize that the nature of everyone's mind is this luminous awareness. At this point, one intellectually understands that there is no absolute basis for the relative experience of duality between self and other (Rahula, 1974). Note that Gautama is neither denying the existence of individual differences nor suggesting that all people are really just one big Person. Rather, he is suggesting that the essence of all people (and of the entire world, for that matter) is the same indestructible, unalterable quality of luminous awareness. Accordingly, although differences among people obviously exist, they are meaningful only on a relative level.

An affective understanding of absolute reality involves an emotional experience of the lack of duality between self and other. Having already experienced the relative realization that there is no "self" to protect and prioritize, one now experiences the absolute realization that there is no "other" to be compassionate towards (Trungpa, 1975). Because there is no longer any sense of "mine" and "yours", one's primary emotional state is characterized by spontaneous compassion, beyond contrivance or condescension. At this point, one has transcended both the intellectual dualism between self and other, and the emotional dualism between giver and receiver (Trungpa, 1975).

As the third aspect of Gautama's path to nondual, nonconceptual self-actualization, the conative understanding of absolute reality transcends the duality between intention and action. Remember that in the relative reality of ethico-legal personhood, people are held responsible only for actions with deliberately intended consequences; people are not held responsible for actions which have unforseen or unintended consequences. Implicit in this distinction is a recognition that people are either not interested in being aware or are not able to be aware of all the consequences of their actions. In contrast, in the ultimate reality of Gautama's absolute, self- actualized personhood, one is always aware of the consequences of one's actions, and one always acts with the intent of achieving a desired result.

In relative reality, people's actions are caused by both the efficient motivators of unconscious karmic predispositions, and the teleological motivators of conscious intentions. In absolute reality, however, one is no longer subject to the unconscious, self-perpetuating force of karma , and one's actions are therefore entirely motivated by the conscious intent to achieve a desired end result (Trungpa, 1981). Free of all karmic tendencies to act mindlessly and habitually, one now realizes that there is no absolute basis for the relative distinction between the giver and the act of giving (Trungpa, 1981). Moreover, one's sense of morality is no longer constrained by the arbitrary, dualistic distinctions of relative reality. Once one has developed a three-fold understanding of the indestructible luminosity of one's mind and one's world, cognition, affect and conation become synchronized beyond the relative dictates of culture and law. One may not always think, feel and act in a culturally appropriate manner, but one will always think, feel and act in a way that manifests the absolute nature of one's mind (Trungpa, 1994). Therefore, although Gautama emphasized the ethical value of the synoptic functioning of cognition, affect and conation, his path of self-actualization is really one of absolute personhood, in which the fundamental essence of a person is universal and nomothetic.

In distinguishing between relative and absolute reality, Gautama was aspiring to make his theory applicable to all human beings, beyond the relative boundaries of culture, financial situation and social status. Contrary to the stereotype of the disheveled Buddhist struggling to escape the grime and grit of everyday reality, Gautama's curative goal of ethico-legal personhood stresses the importance of being able "to function as normal human beings" within the shared reference point of relative reality (Gyamtso, 1988, p. 21). Moreover, Gautama's ethical goal of absolute personhood does not contradict or deny the importance of relative truth. Although "self" and "other" may not exist in an absolute sense, they still have a relative existence which enables us to communicate and function within the constraints of common sense reality. For Gautama to deny the importance of relative reality, encouraging each student to believe that "the world is his own invention and that nothing exists outside of himself. . .would be like some kind of madness" (Gyamtso, p.38, 1988). As Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso (1988, p. 14) has pointed out: "without a proper understanding of the vast aspects of the relative truth, meditation on Emptiness [i.e. absolute reality] can be misleading and even dangerous". Therefore, to follow the path of the Buddha is not to deny the importance of our relative situation; but to realize that our absolute essence remains unaltered by the happiness or misery of our present situation. Like the sun which has been temporarily covered by passing clouds (Rahula, 1974), absolute truth pervades and sanctifies the poignancy of our relative truth, even on our sickest and most un-actualized days.

6. Emptiness, Concepts and the knowledge of Truth ...The White Lotus Center for Shin Buddhism


An Excerpt:

Already the historical Buddha stated that:

all forms of existence are characterized by unsatisfactoriness;
all forms of existence are characterized by impermanence;
all elements of existence are characterized by non-self.

Within the existential experience we can therefore not speak of permanent or autonomous values.

But how then should we interpret this existential experience?

In Buddhist terms this is samsara, the 'world of suffering'. 'To exist' is what each separate being perceives for itself. Existence is that which takes place - again for each separate being - between the moment that has passed and the moment that is not yet here, i.e. the transitional process from past (karma = the acts of the past) towards future (phala = karmic results). The present therefore is always a 'becoming'. This 'becoming' is none other than pratitya samutpada, namely, a process of causal conditions.

That which is 'true' therefore remains beyond being (permanence) and non-being (annihilation).

Nagarjuna consequently extends this train of thought.

He calls this 'neither being nor non-being' sunyata (empti-ness). Emptiness is not a negative concept (as in 'nothing'), but affirms the possibility, in function of eventual relational conditions, of manifesting all imaginable characteristics.

Since all that is knowable (the phenomenal world) is 'empty', also all our knowing which is made relative by the relation (subject/object) is 'empty'. We reduce the perception into elementary concepts (dharmas), who in their turn can be again regarded as cognitive objects. Nagarjuna stresses the 'emptiness' of each dharma on every level of our cognitive abilities.

Concepts (dharmas) are empty, i.e. without substance. Our discursive thought, which uses language to attach concepts to what is perceived, is therefore irrelevant when it comes to adequately knowing reality in-itself, i.e. independent from perception.3

The only thing that can be said with sense, is that all experience and expression of that experience, is 'emptiness'. 'Emptiness' is, where our powers of cognition are concerned, the only reality that all things (subjects and objects) have in common.

But also this concept of 'emptiness' is 'empty' and in the final analysis irrelevant - yet, it remains the ultimate point of what is expressible.

Conceptual thought is necessarily dualistic since - when reduced to its simplest expression - it can only exists in the mutual relationship of a 'conceiver' (as subject) and a 'concept' (as object). Neither 'conceiver' nor 'concept' can be regarded as separate entities. By way of discursive thought, which works with concepts and their language expressions, we therefore can never go beyond what is relative (or relational).

Here, Nagarjuna manifests himself clearly as an empirical epistemologist. He comes to the conclusion that there are three levels of truth. The first two are mutually related and form a bivalence: something is untrue/something is true. Which gives us:

1. asatya - untruth (lie or mistake), e.g. "a hare has horns"

2. loka-samvriti-satya - 'world speech truth', 'relative truth', e.g. "a hare does not have horns"

the third level of truth is non-conceptual :

3. paramartha-satya - 'ultimate truth, absolute truth'. Since this third level can neither be conceptual nor discursive, it is a truth which is inconceivable and inexpressible.

Traditionally these three levels of truth are illustrated by the metaphor of the snake :

At dusk a man walks along a path in the forest. Suddenly on the road in front of him he sees a snake. He is terrified and runs off. Next morning he walks the same path and discovers that what he took to be a snake is, in broad daylight, just a rope.

1. the perceived 'snake' is untruth

2. the 'snake that is a rope' is a relative truth.

Nagarjuna adds to this that both 'rope' and 'snake' are only concepts and concludes:

3. in 'absolute truth' there exist neither snake nor rope, only the empty concepts of them.

Concepts that are untruth, belong to the world of ego-illusion (aham iti = I am) and are characterized by ego-thought:

subject 'untrue' object 'untrue'

Concepts that are relative truth, are forms of expression from a non-ego perspective. They are 'true' in the system in which they appear:

subject 'untrue' object 'true'

Concepts can never be 'absolute truth', since on this level every duality falls away. Every knowledge of absolute truth therefore has to be non-conceptual i.e. 'im-mediate' (without mediator)

In the forms of mediate knowledge, which makes use of ideas, thoughts, words, etc., things are only knowable as concepts, i.e. within the relations in which they appear. Subject and object are reducible to dharmas, thus, 'emptiness' is the only 'true' nature we can attribute to them.

Where there is dualism present, the "true nature of things" or "true reality" remains beyond knowing; the "knower" - at best - remains at the level of relative truth.

Some examples of dualisms or dichotomies: good/evil, creator/creation, the Enlightened One/the foolish being, transcendent/immanent, suffering/joy, duality/unity, samsara/nirvana.

Applied in relation to the Buddhist teachings this gives:

* untruth: adharma, the non-teaching

* relative truth: buddhadharma, the teaching as it was proclaimed by the historical Buddha Sakyamuni.

* absolute truth: saddharma, the Teaching seen beyond time and space.

What then, is the relation between the Four Noble Truths and the levels of truth established by Nagarjuna?

To the level of relative truth belong the first two Noble Truths (Suffering and the Cause of Suffering), since they take place on the samsaric level. They form as it where the transition from (a) to (b) and their result is relative knowledge (jñana: knowledge).

To the level of absolute truth belong the last two Noble Truths (Cessation of Suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path), since they take place on the nirvanic oriented level. They form as it where the transition from (b) to (c), and their result is absolute knowledge (sarvajña: omniscience or prajña: wisdom).

We can note here that each of these transitions is nothing else than a process of dependent causation, which takes place according to the paradigm which is pratitya-samutpada.

Nagarjuna's point of departure is clearly negating. The introductory verses to his MMK e.g. are (from the Sanskrit Version):

"I salute him, the fully enlightened, the best of speakers, who preached the non-ceasing and the non-arising, the non-annihilation and the non-permanence, the non-identity and the non-difference, the non-appearance and the non-disappearance, the dependent arising, the appeasement of obsessions and the auspicious."

7. E-sangha, Buddhist Forum & Buddhism Forum -> Topics in Buddhism -> Buddhist Philosophy - (Truth?)



An Excerpt:

Monk "Kyrie, Iisous Christos, Yios Theou, eleison imas." :

If we all see truth different, how do we know what truth really is?


hi mr monk,

yes, the practice of Buddhism is relative to the induvidual. in Buddhism the major part of practice whether in meditation, or in daily affairs, is mindfulness. being mindful means we should be mindful of many things in order to learn about how we act and react according to the arising and cessation of phenomena in inter-action with the essence of mind consciousness which creates all our experiences. this being the case each particular participant in the play of the Dhamma is learning in relativity to ones own experiences as we are all the owners of these aggregates and our actions which we create by using these aggregates as a vehicle ... the senses which with we perceive and experience contact with phenomena, including that of ourself, perceive according to how they are physically engineered and also the way which our physical self behaves is in accordance with how the mind consciousness reacts to that experiencing of phenomena, including that of ourself.

this being the case each individual, having differing experiences will learn in differing stages and sequences according to which parts of the Dhamma they are capable of associating with at certain and various times depending on their circumstances which have led up to that point of such time.

therefore there is very little chance of ever getting the same response from any two practicing Buddhists because each experience will vary accordingly, although the four noble truths and the eightfold path are timeless truths which have been expounded by all the Buddhas and are essentially necessary teachings within the teachings of the Buddha, and therefore for that reason the understandings in these areas will be more consistent than understandings in other areas.

the areas which become most confusing are those which attempt to define the undefinable, but even so there is much to be learnt from speculating these kinds of things, though any conclusions should never be taken as a final or definite conclusion. methods of meditation vary in practice also relative to the preferences and needs of the individual practitioner, in theory methods are similar in most cases, some have extra aspects such as recitation, chanting, visualising, etc ... but essentially mindfulness, effort, and concentration are key elements in meditation, and also right intention so one should understand the purpose of meditation in Buddhist practices. breath meditation is common amongst the traditions, also metta (loving kindness) is common, the main purpose is to attain the jhanas but until then we just have to keep meditating as best as we can, so in that way meditation will also vary relative to each individual practitioner.

Monk "Kyrie, Iisous Christos, Yios Theou, eleison imas." :

You do understand that relativism (meaning all points of view are equally valid and that all truth is relative to the individual), is self refuting?


yes, i guess so, i would say that whatever one perceives to be the truth, whether it is the truth or not, is valid to one, ... just as what is perceived to be truth to another, whether it is the truth or not, is valid to the same extent to that individual.

whether it is valid as an accurate and effective truth is another matter, but each individual sees truth in their own experiences whether it is true or not. if one reflects deeply enough then they are able to see this, and then make effort to change that pattern to some extent so that one may realise that they should not take their own comprehensions as truth, but always accept that everything is merely speculation, and the truth is always around the next corner ..... but even so, one still believes oneself to a large extent simply because we all have the affliction of delusion.

maybe i have understood what you want to know ...

or maybe i have misunderstood myself ...

Monk "Kyrie, Iisous Christos, Yios Theou, eleison imas." :

If all truth is relative, then the statement "All truth is relative" would be absolutely true. If it is absolutely true, then not all things are relative and the statement that "All truth is relative" is false.


Is there an absolute truth taught in Buddhism?


individually perceived truths are relative, but the truth is the truth and is not relative, so truth both is and isn't relative depending on whether you mean it is relative to the individuals understanding and grasping of some speculated truth, or if it is relative to the effective existence of the individual.

although even a speculated truth which is not true has effects on the individual who grasps at it and believs it because in turn it manipulates his/her way of thinking, of course thoughts are precursors to actions, and so our actions will be influenced by what we believe at that particular time. so in turn it has truthfully deceived the owner of those thoughts and actions, so in this way it is possible to consider that it is a truth but not not a true truth ....

in Buddhism there is no absolute or ultimate truth which is taught, although there is a truth which one comes to realise through actually experiencing it, ... or ... through not experiencing it even these kinds of truths should not be taken as truth.

the truth is always around the next corner.

the truth is that the dhamma makes perfect sense and we are able to benefit and create benefits for others, and so we practice it like dhamma junkies just for the heck of it ... well, maybe there is a bit more to it than that.

now then ... what was that about relativism again ???


Monk, You are asking a good and difficult question that pierces to the heart of things. I would say, Buddhism teaches one absolute truth, that is the truth of interdependent arising, but understood fully, and not only as 12 links of interdependent arising, but understood fully as shunyata (Buddhist emptiness).

This is mentioned over and over again in every school of Buddhism. You can think of shunyata as absolute, but it has no particular form of its own, so if you label it "absolute" you still can't grasp it. So, if by "absolute" you're trying to fix a picture or some idea in your mind, it will not work.

If you are interested further in this, and you are of a philosophical bent, you may want to pick up "The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika" translated and commented by Jay L. Garfield.

I also like this writing from Theravada:


I would especially suggest reading the commentary in addition to the actual sutta.

If you are not of a hugely philosophical bent, you may want to ponder a little bit on this: when you see light, right away you know what darkness is, even if you are not yet experiencing darkness. If you see 'self' right away you know what 'other' is and vice versa. If you see past, you also see present and future, and if you see present, you see past and future, etc. And what is time without form? What is the nature of mind? Where is the limit of mind? And meditate, obviously, right?

Last few words: this question only occurs when you cling to the idea of 'self'. Without 'self' this question loses its importance.

If anyone notices any errors, etc., please correct me.

Monk "Kyrie, Iisous Christos, Yios Theou, eleison imas." :

I'm new, so all I can do is ask questions.

8. A Season for Nonviolence



As a human family we are asking the question: “How can any act of violence be recognized as a solution to the consequences of violence that we face today?” Violent actions and reactions are the scars of social, educational, and economic wounds... the voices of a spiritually inarticulate culture.

The practice of nonviolence is initiated by choice and cultivated through agreement. The time has come to agree upon this as a global community--as if our lives, and those of our children’s children, depended on it. Our vision is of a better world for all human beings.

To this end, we undertake “Gandhi & King: A Season for Nonviolence” by applying our efforts and resources to identifying, then bringing into focus the spectrum of grassroots projects and programs by individuals and organizations who are pro-actualizing a peaceful social order.


Our mission is to create an awareness of nonviolent principles and practice as a powerful way to heal, transform and empower our lives and communities.

Through an educational and community action campaign, we are honoring those who are using nonviolence to build a community that honors the dignity and worth of every human being.

We are demonstrating that every person can move the world in the direction of peace through their daily nonviolent choice and action.

9. Appearance and Reality: The Two Truths in Four Buddhist Systems ...by Guy Newland


Amazon.com - Reviewer: An Amazon.com Customer ...When someone seeks to understand Buddhism, where should one start: With the elaboration on what it means to take refuge in the three jewels? Or the four noble truths? When the Dalai Lama was asked this question, he suggested that for many in the West today, the two truths, conventional truth and ultimate truth, is the best place to start. When the Buddha awoke from the dream we still dream, he saw the ultimate reality of things just as they are. There are shifting appearances and conventions, the manners and traditions of the vast and diverse world; and then there is the mystery of things just as they are, sheer reality. And yet we cannot find this reality anywhere else but right here. Each system of Buddhist philosophy has its own way of explaining exactly what these two truths are and how they relate to one another. In exploring these systems, we are looking over the shoulders of Buddhist thinkers as they grapple with a basic question: What is real? This is not an idle intellectual question, but a matter which cuts to the heart of our practice in life.


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