The Two Truths: both/and…

endless knot

The Two Truths express the dual nature of all phenomena as both real and illusory, or empty. That is the defining premise of this blog. Everything appears to have substance: material reality as well as mental activity, sensation, emotion and our intellectual capacities. This is relative truth, the universe of form. The illusory aspect is that there is no material substance to any part of conditioned existence. What we take to have intrinsic existence has none whatsoever.

Everything we can grasp, everything we feel or think, if examined closely, is dependent on something else, which in turn is also dependent on some further pre-condition. This process of examination can proceed ad infinitum. Eventually it becomes obvious that there is no material reality whatsoever upon which any aspect of the world of form firmly stands. This is the definition of emptiness. This is regarded as the absolute nature of reality. All phenomena are empty in nature. There is no intrinsic reality anywhere to be found.

Conventional thought is that there is substance to be found everywhere and in everything. All our thoughts certainly seem to be real; emotion seems to be real. The car is real as I drive over a very real Golden Gate Bridge. Thank goodness! Material reality and any idea of an illusory reality are held entirely separate from each other. In some sectors of Buddhism, these ideas are treated as separate as well. In Buddhism, there is samsara, the conventional transactions of the world of suffering, and there is nirvana, the virtually unattainable completion of uncounted lifetimes of overcoming karma.

The world of particle physics is not the domain of conventional thinking. Scientific reality often takes decades to make inroads into, let alone supersede conventional thinking. Suggesting to a conventional thinker that there is no material reality to existence likely elicits guffaws, ridicule and even scorn. To say such a thing to a particle physicist would likely elicit a nod of agreement.

Mainstream understanding of what Buddhism means when it talks about emptiness is to confuse it with nothingness–that there is no meaning to life—because the substance of life is what gives it meaning, right? And if we are not devoting ourselves to refining and correcting our flawed material relations, devoting ourselves to the pursuit of happiness and the relief of suffering, then what is life all about, right?

David Paul Boaz, from The Two Truths, Our Two Ways of Being Here, reminds us:

“It is important to understand here, that the ultimate truth of emptiness, although it is referred to with such epithets as “primordial ground” and “supreme source” of arising form, etc…… is not itself a kind of absolute substrate, or creator that exists independently of the relative physical, emotive and mental phenomena that is form. Emptiness is merely a quality, aspect or property of form. No form, no emptiness. No emptiness, no form. “All emptiness is emptiness of something.” This relationship is often expressed as the “emptiness of emptiness.” Emptiness is not, on this view, some vast space or ground of consciousness, some essentially existent thing or entity “out there.” Nor is emptiness a dark, nihilistic nothingness.”

The conventional story is that our purpose in life is to improve samsara so that it will eventually conform to our idea of nirvana. We are here to create heaven on earth. Anyone with the audacity to suggest otherwise is a nihilist and we just don’t have any time for that. However, emptiness is not just some other condition. Since emptiness itself is empty, it neither is, nor is not. It is neither this nor that. Yet our brains hold a bias toward dualistic thinking. We are always differentiating between this and that, or between what is and what is not. So it’s very difficult for us to wrap our brains around the idea that there is no actual samsara different from nirvana. We are not here to create heaven on earth. Earth is already heaven. There is heaven in every bit of our earthly experience.

The problem with the conventional story is that it is based on beliefs. And those engender myriad derivative beliefs about how to improve samsara so that it will conform to some version of nirvana, or heaven, or utopia. Beliefs and fear ride together. In fact, without fear, there would be no thinking, ergo, no beliefs. Think about that for a moment.

Fear and belief tend to stimulate conflict over whose belief will dominate, don’t they? Such opposition requires that there be opposing realities competing for believers. And believers looking for a personal founding belief can achieve the satisfaction of arriving at a purpose–because the competing belief is always that there is no purpose to life. And we can’t have that. 

In the ultimate state, if the Two Truths are indivisible, then they are not truly Two. The very idea of Two Truths is conceptual, or dualistic. In fact, from the view of ultimate emptiness, since there is no such thing as falsehood, there is no such thing as Truth, either.

Charles Eisenstein has become one of the most prominent voices for an emerging New Story. He is also resisting labeling what the New Story is because we simply don’t know its features quite yet. We can sense that there are a few possible characteristics or signposts of what the New Story looks like and feels like. But being too quick to attribute characteristics to something (the unity of Two Truths) that has no characteristics would be self-defeating. The practice central to the highest levels of inner tantra, the pinnacle of ati yoga, the Great Perfection of Dzogchen, might well give us a window into a New Story.

Holding the paradox of relative and absolute truth as indivisible, simultaneous and equally true, throws us into a new territory of consciousness about being in the world. Even in the upper reaches of tantric practice, the full realization of the true nature of the Two Truths is approached gradually.

The highest attainment is the rarified domain where there is no remaining distinction between absolute and relative reality. There are no further fabrications of meditative practice necessary or useful, or even possible. There is nothing further to accomplish. There is only realization just as it is, of phenomena as both conditioned and as utterly insubstantial. There is no belief in something as true or false. There is no faith in what might be that is not yet. There is no need for hope as everything is utterly perfect as it is. There is no distinction between being and doing. Being becomes doing, which is the fruition of achieving a union of realization and action. There is no further possibility of separating practice from action, the internal from the external universe or, for that matter, self from other. Inter-being becomes the only choice.

This function is what Tsoknyi Rinpoche calls “mere I.”

The mereness of things actually allows us to intelligently, compassionately, and creatively engage in the drama of life without a lot of attachment and grasping. It is the light touch: open, fully present, flexible, and gutsy. This I is neither something truly existent (permanent, independent, singular) nor nonexistent—it is simply mere.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche
Two Truths–Indivisible.

Action in the world becomes the expression of a new ethic of finding no enemies, defending no beliefs, acting spontaneously with full and irrevocable positive regard for every being just as they are, exactly where they are. This union, this unity of appearance and emptiness as mutually reinforcing aspects of a single truth implies the absence of belief, the continuous release of any form of reifying ego definition or reinforcement. This is not to say that individuality completely disappears. That’s the beauty of relative truth, isn’t it? It’s true. How handy! The intellect may still operate and there is certainly a consciousness, but there is no longer anything to defend.

The New Story is not new. The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible is already here. It has always been here. We have only to realize that we are the ones who have constructed the obstacles to knowing it. Samsara is Nirvana. There is nothing to strive for. All we have left is the choice we make in every moment about how we embody this knowing, this one taste.

All of this in no way suggests that activism on behalf of others is irrelevant. More on that later.

©2015 Gary Horvitz. All rights reserved.

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