Definitions of the Two Truths: Gelug Prasangika

Definition of the Two Truths

Deepest Truth

A mind that analyzes the deepest nature of a knowable phenomenon takes as its involved object (‘jug-yul) its deepest essential nature, i.e. it takes the voidness of the phenomenon as the main object with which it cognitively engages. Although voidness does not stand up to this analysis with reasoning, since no self-establishing nature or self-defining characteristic mark can be found on the side of voidness establishing its existence; nevertheless, voidness, as the involved object of the analysis, is deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa: ultimate truth). It is the deepest true fact about a conventional object, namely how that object actually exists – i.e., totally devoid of a self-establishing nature, since there are no such things.

Superficial Truth

A mind that analyzes the superficial nature of a knowable phenomenon takes as its involved object its superficial essential nature. Its superficial essential nature, for instance as a human, a lake or a religion, also does not stand up to this analysis with reasoning, since no self-establishing nature or self-defining characteristic mark can be found on the side of this superficial nature either, establishing its existence. Nevertheless, when not analyzed, this superficial essential nature appears to be established by a self-establishing nature, although it is not.

Self-establishing natures, when considered actually to exist, although they do not, are superficial truths (kun-rdzob bden-pa; concealer truth, obscurational truth, conventional truth, relative truth). In fact, however, they are not true at all.

Cognition of the Superficial Essential Natures of Knowable Phenomena by Different Minds

Depending on the degree to which the deepest essential natures of knowable phenomena is obscured, different minds cognize the superficial essential natures of knowable phenomena differently.

Mundane Minds

If the mind that analyzes the superficial or deepest essential natures of knowable phenomena – for instance, a human, a lake or a religion – is a mundane one, then when not analyzing, it takes these appearances of self-establishing natures to correspond to something that exists.

  • A mundane mind (‘jig-rten-pa’i blo; worldly mind) refers to the mental activity of someone who does not have a complete true stopping of all degrees of unawareness and occurs when the person is not totally absorbed (mnyam-bzhag; in meditative equipoise) non-conceptually on voidness.

Mundane minds contain both the emotional obscurations and the cognitive obscurations. They grasp for truly established existence in both senses of the term. Such minds give rise to appearances of self-establishing natures and take as true facts what these appearances seem to be. In other words, they take as a true fact that there actually are self-establishing natures located findably inside knowable phenomena and establishing the superficial essential natures of what these knowable phenomena are. Thus, they take as true that there actually is something findable inside certain limited beings, certain objects and certain sets of beliefs that, by its own power or also in conjunction with mental labeling and designation, make them humans, lakes and religions.

In short, to such minds, superficial truth is that the superficial essential natures of things actually are established by self-establishing natures. Superficial truth, then, is actually false.

For Liberated Minds (Arhats)

Consider the case of when the mind that analyzes the superficial or deepest essential natures of knowable phenomena is a liberated one, i.e. one with a true stopping of unawareness, but not yet enlightened. This is the case of a liberated being (arhat; foe-destroyer): either a shravaka, pratyekabuddha or bodhisattva arhat.

  • A shravaka (nyan-thos; listener) is someone who aims for liberation and progresses on the path to this goal by listening to the teachings of a Buddha, either from a Buddha himself or from subsequent teachers, or from reading texts.
  • A pratyekabuddha (rang-rgyal; solitary realizer) is someone who aims for liberation and, because of living in a dark age in which a Buddha’s teachings are unavailable, progresses on the path to this goal by relying on instincts left from hearing a Buddha’s teachings in some previous world age.
  • A bodhisattva (byang-chub sems-dpa’) is someone who aims to attain the enlightenment of a Buddha in order to best be able to lead all others to liberation and enlightenment. Before attaining enlightenment, however, bodhisattvas need first to attain liberation themselves.

Arhats have rid themselves forever of the emotional obscurations, but not the cognitive ones. They have grasping for truly established existence only in the sense that their minds still give rise to appearances of self-establishing natures and, in doing so, they cognize them.

When not analyzing, such a mind takes the appearances of self-establishing natures merely to be the appearances of something that those with unawareness consider to actually exist. Liberated beings, however, know that self-establishing natures do not exist at all and so they do not consider them true. They know that these deceptive appearances are merely like illusions (sgyu-ma lta-bu).

The appearances of self-establishing natures are dualistic appearances (gnyis-snang), because they are different from and thus dual to the deepest essential nature of how things actually exist. In other words, dualistic appearances are those in which the manner of appearance (snang-tshul) and manner of abiding (gnas-tshul) are two different manners.

Liberated beings, then, cognize mere superficial objects (kun-rdzob-pa tsam; mere concealer objects). These are conventional objects that merely appear to be self-established, but actually are not. But because they appear like that, their appearance is only superficial: they still conceal these objects’ deepest essential natures of voidness. The superficial objects that appear to them are called “tainted” (zag-bcas), because they are tainted with an appearance of self-established existence.

In short, liberated beings cognize what conventionally are humans, lakes and religions. These knowable objects appear to them to be self-established, but they know that those appearances of self-established existence are distorted. They know that these objects are merely conventionally existent as humans, lakes and religions in relation to mental labeling and designation alone.

Arhats do, however, still cognize the superficial truths of these merely conventional superficial objects, but only in the sense that when they cognize these objects they know that mundane beings consider their appearance of being self-established to be true.

For Buddhas

To the omniscient deep awareness (rnam-mkhyen ye-shes) of Buddhas, all knowable phenomena arise simultaneously, without any appearance of self-establishing natures. This is because Buddhas have attained a true stopping of both the emotional and the cognitive obscurations and, consequently, experience neither form of grasping for self-established existence.

What Buddhas cognize, then, are untainted phenomena (zag-med-kyi chos), i.e. knowable phenomena unstained by any appearances of self-establishing natures. It is because they do not give rise to appearances of self-establishing natures that the omniscient deep awareness of Buddhas cognizes simultaneously all knowable phenomena and the void sphere of all phenomena (chos-dbyings, Skt. dharmadhatu), including the voidness of their own deep awareness.

Buddhas also cognize that for both liberated minds and mundane minds, the superficial essential natures of conventional objects appear to be self-established and they also know that liberated beings do not take these tainted appearances to be true, whereas mundane minds do take them to be true. In this way, Buddhas cognize simultaneously the two truths, but without self-establishing natures appearing to their minds.

In other words, when Buddhas cognize anything, although they themselves no longer have any conceptual cognition, nevertheless they know all the conventions by which others cognize something and all the words that others use for it. This is because they simultaneously cognize a total absence of anything findable on the side of the object that establishes its conventional existence as just one thing, designated by just one word. Nothing appears to a Buddha’s omniscient deep awareness as fitting into just one category or as being designated with just one word. Thus, although Buddhas cognize individual conventional objects with what is known as “individualizing deep awareness” (so-sor rtogs-pa’i ye-shes), yet because there are no findable boundaries in their cognitions isolating things from each other and locking them into any one category by means of some self-establishing nature, Buddhas cognize all knowable phenomena all at once.

In the same way as other knowable phenomena, the Form Bodies that Buddhas spontaneously manifest and appear in also are conventional objects that, like illusions, appear to be self-established to all who are not yet Buddhas. Mundane minds take these Form Bodies actually to be self-established.

Summary of the Two Truths

In the formulation of the two truths, the term “truth” has two different meanings.

  • In terms of superficial truth, “truth” means true to mundane mental activity. Superficial truths, however, are deceptive. They are not true.
  • In terms of deepest truth, “truth” means non-deceptive.

The two truths, then, are posited in reference to these two essential natures:

  • Superficial truths are what mundane minds viewing the superficial essential natures of conventional knowable phenomena consider to be true.
  • Deepest truths are what non-deceptive minds viewing the deepest essential natures of conventional objects consider to be true.

To the mental activity of all those who are not yet enlightened, superficial objects conceal their deepest truth. This is because superficial objects appear to them to be established by self-establishing natures, whereas the deepest truth is that there are no such things as self-establishing natures.