The Relative and Ultimate Truths in the Dharma

by Drikung Ontrul Rinpoche

In order to receive the teachings, first you should cultivate the right motivation that you would like to listen to these teachings in order to liberate all sentient beings. This motivation is bodhicitta.

With regards to Bodhicitta, there are Six Paramitas, which are the precepts or the practices of bodhisattvas. These Six Paramitas is the path of the bodhisattvas. But we do not leave the Six Paramitas to do sometime in the future.

We can start to practice the Six Paramitas now during this teaching, even if it is through more general or easier methods. For instance, while receiving teachings, we can try to practice the paramita of generosity. This can be done by making offerings of flowers, incense sticks, and by making contributions.

The second paramita, which is morality, can be practiced while we are listening to the dharma, by abstaining from all rude behaviors, and by maintaining very polite gestures and behaviors. Even keeping the shrine room and kitchen area clean can also be a type of moral practice.

While we are sitting listening to the dharma, you might feel some inconveniences or physical discomforts, such as getting tired, having back pain or feeling hungry or thirsty. Enduring or tolerating these discomforts can be considered a practice of the third paramita, which is patience.

When you listen to the dharma, one comes here because you take delight in the dharma. You like to listen to the dharma, so you make an effort to come to this place to listen to the dharma. One feels it is an important thing to do, and this sense of delight in listening to the dharma can be a practice of the fourth paramita of enthusiastic effort.

While listening to the teachings, you gaze at the face of the teacher and then you listen to the words with full attention and without wondering. This undistracted listening to the dharma is a practice of the fifth paramita, which is meditation (contemplative stability).

When we listen to the teachings, certain doubts and confusions in your mind get dispelled. When you gain that kind knowledge and gain confidence in the teachings, it is a practice of the last paramita, wisdom.

Therefore, we do not have to think that the Six Paramitas are some practice to be done in the future; both the student and the teacher can practice them right now!

Rinpoche's teachings is based on the Two Truths, and the source of his explanations comes from the text, "Instruction of the Mahayana View, the Two Truths" by Dza Patrul Rinpoche, a great Dzogchen master.

For all those who want to free themselves from samsara, there are two types of dharma to follow. The dharma of practice and the dharma of realization.

The dharma of realization has two functions: to analyze and examine general phenomenon, and the mind. Regarding the division between general phenomenon and the two truths (relative and absolute), relative truth pertains to all phenomenon up to the Tenth-Level Bodhisattva. The Tenth-Bodhisattva Level (bhumi) is the last stage before Buddhahood is attained. All the phenomenon, experience, and specifications on the path are also called relative truths. Relative or conventional phenomenon are of of two specific types, correct conventional phenomenon and incorrect conventional phenomenon.

Incorrect conventional phenomenon is the perception of ordinary, deluded beings, who wander in samsara. Without spiritual realization, whatever they perceive and recognize is considered to be incorrect conventional phenomenon. After having achieved the stages of the Bodhisattva and reached the state of aspiration, one attains some degree of realization.

Then whatever you perceive, you see phenomenon as correct conventional phenomenon. The reason the perception of the individual on the path of the Bodhisattva is called correct relative phenomenon is because he or she can directly relate to the reality of appearance; this means, phenomena is appearing but the bodhisattva knows it has no intrinsic reality.

From the first to the last stage of Bodhisattvahood, all the appearances of the world occur due to the result of habitual patterns; they are a reflection of one's habitual patterns. Even though it is known that these habitual patterns do not have an intrinsic reality, these inherently emtpy appearances still are there.

For example, there is a type of medicine called deer musk which is very smelly. Even if one takes it away and the musk is not present, the smell stays around for some time. This is an analogy to phenomenon on this level of bodhisattva realization; it is there even though it does not have intrinsic reality.

So the Buddha Shakyamuni went through all the stages of Bodhisattva practice. He does not have any habitual patterns and all conventional phenomenon seized to appear as we ordinary beings see them (ordinary beings falsely see phenomena as solid entitites). Such a person, like the Buddha, abides in a state free from all elaboration; they see all just as it is.

Therefore, being attached to the world and ordinary appearances is called incorrect or perverted conventional phenomenon. In order to get rid of this ordinary perception, you can meditate using Deity Practices (meditation on Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, etc.) and you can meditate on the illusory-nature of phenomenon.

The perception gained from these practices is called correct conventional phenomenon, because it is used to overcome the incorrect view of conventional phenomenon. These are still all part of the first truth, which is the relative or conventional truth.

Absolute truth refers to the state where there are no elaboration; the state of Buddhahood.

When all elaboration has ceased, this is called dharmadhatu. Dharmadhatu is a Sanskrit word; it is defined as the unconceived or unfabricated mode of existence, which is essentially Buddhahood. Dharmadhatu itself does not have classification or division, but in order to realize it and begin to understand it, some classification has been made. Therefore we can talk about realizing the nature of all phenomenon, realizing the dharmadhatu. We can talk about gaining the absolute realization, which is Buddhahood.

But, in the state of dharmadhatu itself, there is nothing that can be experienced or not experienced. However, in order to relate to dharmadhatu you can explain it in a conventional way. Ordinary beings can relate to absolute truth by inference but not directly; ordinary beings can infer or imagine but cannot directly see absolute truth, until they have gained enlightenment. However, exalted beings on the path of the bodhisattvas can relate more directly.

So, in summary now, there is first the appearance of phenomena and then there is also attachment to it. This is how phenomenon appears to ordinary beings with ordinary perception; this is the incorrect conventional/relative perception. This incorrect perception is called invalid cognition.

To persons on the exalted path, the path of the bodhisattva, phenomenon appears to them but they do not have attachment to it. This is how they perceive. This type of perception is called correct relative perception, or valid cognition.

When there is no more specification anymore such as appearance and nonappearance, attachment and non-attachment, and realizing and not realizing, when all these dualistic perceptions have subsided that state is called Buddhahood, and also known as the Absolute Truth, or cognition which realizes ultimate reality.

Therefore, ordinary beings perceive the phenomenon and are attached. The second type of person, those who are not yet enlightened but not ordinary (since they are progressing on the bodhisattva path) see the phenomenon but are not attached. Finally those who abide in a state of Buddhahood are beyond both extremes, and have no specification of appearance or attachment.

For ordinary beings to understand the relative truth they have to rely on examination and analyzation. Whereas, exalted beings or bodhisattvas can realize the nature of appearance directly through practice, without examination and analyzation.

Those who are in the state of dharmadhatu, Buddhahood, have realized the ultimate nature of phenomenon and so there is no specification such as realizing and non-realizing. However, in order for us to relate to these states we need conventional terms such as realization.

So, from the point of view of the equality of the two truths, there is no perception of existence or nonexistence. As long as one holds on to any of the two extremes, one has not gained this state of equality, which is the Madhyamika view or middle way. The moment one realizes the unperverted relative truth, all the perceptions of existence and nonexistence dissolves. So at that moment, that very moment one realizes the absolute nature of the conventional truth, all specifications that exist in the perception of existence and nonexistence, permanence and impermanence (all this duality of ideas) dissolves!

The true nature of the relative aspect itself is ultimate truth. The true nature of the relative truth is the ultimate truth, that is said in the Prajna-Paramita Sutra. The reason for dividing reality into Two Truths is to make it easier for people to realize it, to make it more systematic to follow.

So whatever appears, perception which is not enlightened (not based on the view of the Buddha's enlightened mind) is called relative truth. When all the confusions and the ordinary perceptions are dissolved, when the mind is free from the perceptions of not having confusions or ordinary perception, this is called Absolute or Ultimate Truth.

Shantideva said in the Bodhicaryavatara, the perception of existence and nonexistence does not remain in front of the (enlightened) mind, there remains no perception of any sort. In this state one is free from all conceptualization and the mind is pacified. From the point of view of the ultimate truth there is no ability to be divided or unequal, since it does not exist itself as an entity. Because it does not exist as a true thing, it cannot be divided. The mind of the Buddha is free from all extremes. From that point of view, reality cannot be divided into any number.

So, the two truths do not exist ultimately. All phenomenon are the unity of appearance and emptiness. When we realize the unity of appearance and emptiness, when one realizes the undifferentiable state of appearance and emptiness, such a person is said to have the understanding, view, or thought and understanding of the Buddha. This is called primordial wisdom, un-discriminatable wisdom of Dharmadhatu.

When the two truths are realized in their own order, this state is called non-dual wisdom or nirvana (enlightenment, without anymore rebirth in samsara). Although, one realizes only the true nature of all the phenomenon but not the mind. Therefore, on this level, the whole dharma remains an object to know and this is not a proper antidote for afflictive emotions. Moreover, if one does not realize the nature of the mind, then there is a possibility that one still has pride or ego based on the understanding of the object. So the way to realize the true nature of the mind is to go through the understanding of the relative truth, the ultimate truth, and the unity of the two truths.

First what does it mean to understand the two truths?

It means to understand the nature of general phenomenon which lack clear existence. Once you realize that from the ultimate point of view there is nothing which has true and intrinsic existence, then you understand that there is no difference between the two truths.

The mind should be free from all sorts of extremes, and all the specifications have dissipated or dissolved from the mind that realizes itself as conventional. Shantideva states in his Bodhicaryavatara, that the relative aspect of phenomenon can be discerned with the mind. But there is a possibility that one may get pride from the knowledge of phenomenon as empty.

So long as mind has pride and arrogance it is called a perverted mind, since it is under sway of these emotions.

It is said in the sutras that thinking, "Yes I have achieved, realized it," is a conceit and pride. Arrogance and conceit are known as the activities of the maras (obstacle creators). One must get rid of them!

If you look at the nature of mind, it appears that there is nothing truly existent. You will also come to know it is empty of any existence or nonexistence at the level of primordial wisdom. It is empty of birth and cessation, coming and going. It is empty of permanence and impermanence. It is also empty of the three times ---past, present, and future. For this reason it is called the reality, empty of all specifications.

In a sutra, the Buddha said that the mind is neither inside or outside of the body. It is also that it does not exist somewhere else. It is said in another sutra that the mind has no shape, no color, and no place, and is like space. The true mode of the way the mind exists is ultimately free from the notion of relative and absolute truth. The nature of the mind is one free from all extremes. (note: this can be found in the Buddha's discussion with his disciple Ananda in the Surangama Sutra, concerning the location of mind)

But we have just designated the two truths based on the mind. The classification of relative and ultimate truth are conventional ideas.

In the state of enlightenment or Buddhahood there does not remain any specific entity as the mind, so there is no classification of the two truths. While, sentient beings perceiveand categorize phenomena into the two truths (which is a false perception according to the ultimate truth), the nature of these perceptions are also lacking any true existence.

Therefore, by remaining in the unified state of mind where appearance and emptiness are unified, in this state one can realize the absolute truth. So in order to realize the undifferentiable nature of the two truths, one has to understand the definition of the two truths. For this reason the truth has been divided into two truths, to make it understandable to ordinary beings.

At the ultimate level of dharmadhatu, all the extreme views are dissolved and become the uncompounded mental phenomena. So the correct state of mind must be realized, free from the perception of realizing and not realizing, seeing and not seeing. In order to put this idea into practice, there are two dharmas.

For a person of sharp intelligence and who has accumulated the two accumulations, the absolute truth can be realized just by introducing it to them. Such a being of sharp intelligence (once given the introduction to absolute and relative truth) can directly realize it, just by remaining in that realization regularly.

While one is in the meditation of the absolute truth, one sees that there is no distinction between the object to know and the mind to know, the object of knowledge and the known, and also one should be free from the notion of true and untrue. In short, free from all duality thinking. One should be meditating in a way where there exists no center or fringes. In such a meditation there is no particular negative thought to give up and no particular divine or positive thought to acquire and posses.

As it said by Maitreya Buddha, from the point of view of the ultimate nature there is nothing to take away and nothing to get. Seeing the ultimate reality as it is, is the only thing that is needed.

The moment one sees reality as it is, one is liberated. One should always try to maintain an outlook that phenomena is dreamlike. It appears as dreams, which can appear but have no intrinsic reality, one should always try to maintain such an outlook.

For ordinary people who have not reached this level of realization, it is more effective to meditate on love, compassion, and Bodhicitta. In this state, a lot of merit should be accumulated for the benefit of all sentient beings, but all these methods should be regarded as illusions.

Ordinary beings, beginners, have to follow the path. One first must contemplate the Four Thoughts or Foundations of turning the mind to the dharma. These are to think about the precious human life that is hard to achieve, impermanence and death, karma and result, and the false nature of Samsara. If one does not meditate in this way, the ultimate truth cannot be totally realized.

Appearance that we relate to are part of the relative truth. The true nature of the appearance themselves is the ultimate truth.

The mind that is active realizes that the relative mind is itself the ultimate truth. For instance, the sound that is made in saying the words the two truths is the relative part, and the nature or meaning of the sound is the ultimate truth.

From the point of view of the true nature of phenomenon and the point of view of the realization of a Buddha, there does not exist even the unified state of the two truths. That also does not exist. In this state, where there are no extremes left, this state is called a state free from elaboration, or a state of dharmata (suchness).

From the ultimate point of view, the self or person does not exist, as we perceive. When the self of person and the self of phenomenon are realized as having no true existence, this is called the view, and to maintain this view is called meditation.

This perception, the conception of the subject and object into the state of dharmadhatu is the truth, the result of the Buddhahood. Then, to act out of compassion to accumulate merit for the benefit of all sentient beings, spontaneously accomplishing their benefit, is Buddha-activity.

We right now perceive things and put names or labels on them. We have words and ideas to relate to those things and this system should be related to just as names and nothing more. This is how you should maintain your perception. It is because the nature of the mind itself has no intrinsic reality. The nature of the mind is lacking any true existence of its own. For this reason, there is no perception of self, no perception of other, and there is no duality or specifications there from that point of view, like self and others.

When you see the words "do not exist," this is to overcome the perception of thinking that things really exist. This mind, which recognizes and perceives things through the senses, does not exist in reality. It does not exist in between, or inside or outside. It does not come from anywhere.

When it ceases to exist, it has no where to go. It is empty of arising and it is empty of feeling. It is said in the sutras, the ordinary mind exists in the desire, form, and formless realms. We relate with the ordinary mind to specific states of existence. When one does not relate to anything, it is called the conduct of yogis .

When ordinary beings can maintain their practice in a way where is no particular dharma, that is the best way for the ordinary person to practice. This actually means to maintain the ordinary nature of the mind, without trying to fabricate or make it better, just maintain the ordinary nature of the mind. It is said in the sutras, the best dharma is when a person does not have any conceptuality as specific to the dharma. It is said in another sutra, that enlightenment does not exist as an entity. Enlightenment is not visible. Since it is not an object that we can see, it is just a name. So the even word Buddha is also just a name.

From the point of view of the ultimate truth, in the state of dharmadhatu, all the elaborations and the specifications are dissolved. It is beyond expression and thinking. From this point of view, things such as meditation and practicing dharma are like space looking at the space. When we are viewing it from a relative level it is like space looking at space, because in the state of ultimate there is no such thing as meditation and no meditation. So while meditating on the ultimate truth, the practitioner should maintain the true nature which is originally free from all elaborations.

And one should maintain meditation that has no distinction between meditation and post meditation.

It is reasonable then to say that the two truths are one. The ultimate truth is nothing more then the true nature of the relative truth. As it is said, the ultimate truth is not a property of the thinking mind. It cannot be realized by thinking. The ultimate truth has no elaborations or specifications.

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Revised 2002 Simhanada

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