Graded Study of the Two Truths in the Indian Tenet Systems

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Origin of the Tenet Systems

Indian Buddhism, as transmitted to Tibet, had four main schools of philosophical tenets (grub-mtha’). According to tradition, Buddha is the source of them all. Various Indian masters wrote the major treatises presenting the views of the four.

[See: Indian Sources for Studying the Four Tenet Systems]

Two of the tenet systems are Hinayana (theg-dman) – Vaibhashika (bye-brag smra-ba) and Sautrantika (mdo-sde-pa) – and two are Mahayana (theg-chen) – Chittamatra (sems-tsam-pa) and Madhyamaka (dbu-ma-pa). Each has several subdivisions. Let us speak here of only the four in general.

Within the eighteen Hinayana schools, the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika belong to Sarvastivada (thams-cad yod-par smra-ba), a Sanskrit tradition, different from the Pali Theravada tradition (gnas-brtan smra-ba). The Tibetan lineage of monastic vows comes from another of its sub-schools, Mulasarvastivada (gzhi thams-cad yod-par smra-ba).

It is unclear which of the four schools actually existed as separate traditions in India with these names. Perhaps some did and were studied in separate monasteries where the main authors lived and taught, since the Chinese founded individual traditions based on Chittamatra and Madhyamaka. Probably in later times in India, at monastic universities like Nalanda, all were studied, as in Tibet.

Different Tibetan masters wrote commentaries on the major Indian texts and thus the different Tibetan lineages explain the tenet systems (grub-mtha’) of the four schools differently. Even within one Tibetan lineage, several authors have explained the tenet systems differently. Here, we shall present the Gelug version and, within Gelug, we shall rely primarily on the explanations that accord with the Jetsunpa textbook tradition (rJe-btsun yig-cha) of Jetsun Chokyi Gyaltsen (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan), followed by Sera Je (Se-ra Byes) and Ganden Jangtse (dGa’-ldan Byang-rtse) Monasteries. Occasionally, we shall indicate some of the variant views from the Panchen textbook tradition (Pan-chen yig-cha) of Panchen Sonam Dragpa (Pan-chen bSod-nams grags-pa), followed by Drepung Loseling (‘Bras-dpungs Blo-gsal gling) and Ganden Shartse (dGa’-ldan Shar-rtse) Monasteries.

Occasionally, we shall also indicate some of the major variants found in the non-Gelug Tibetan lineages. To represent the position of these lineages, we shall rely primarily on the explanations given by the Sakya master Gorampa (Go-ram bSod-nams seng-ge).

Study of the Two Truths

All Hinayana and Mahayana tenet systems assert the two truths (bden-pa gnyis). Regardless of how the tenet systems define and delineate them, the two truths always constitute a dichotomy (dngos-‘gal). All knowable phenomena must be members of the set of either one or the other true phenomena, with nothing knowable that belongs to either both or neither of the sets. Consequently, understanding the two truths constitutes understanding all knowable phenomena.

Only the Mahayana schools assert cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib) which prevent omniscience (kun-mkhyen). Omniscience means the simultaneous cognition of all knowable phenomena. Simultaneous cognition of all knowable phenomena, in turn, requires full and accurate understanding of all knowable phenomena – in other words, full and accurate simultaneous understanding of the two truths. Thus, to rid ourselves of the cognitive obscurations and attain enlightenment requires full and accurate understanding of which phenomena constitute each of the two truths and the manners in which each of these constituent phenomena exist and do not exist.

One of the methods followed by the various Tibetan Buddhist traditions for gaining this understanding is through an integrative study of the assertions of all four tenet systems concerning the two truths. This is because the Tibetan tradition regards these assertions as progressively more sophisticated. Understanding the assertions of the less sophisticated tenets provides the foundation for understanding those that are more complex. Thus, by studying all four tenet systems, Mahayana practitioners narrow in on the deepest understanding of the two truths, in order to help them rid themselves of their cognitive obscurations and attain the omniscient state of a Buddha.

My teacher, Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, said that just because the more sophisticated tenet systems refute the less sophisticated ones, we must not think that the latter are senseless or useless. After all, according to tradition, Buddha taught them all, with each intended not only for a specific audience, but also for a specific stage in a practitioner’s development. Significant spiritual progress follows from successively gaining discriminating awareness (shes-rab, wisdom) of all phenomena in terms of each system, as when progressing through the three levels of graded lam-rim motivation.

Buddhist Classification of Phenomena

To understand the two truths, we need to understand the classification of phenomena in Buddhism.

Everything is knowable. Existent phenomena (yod-pa) may be known by valid cognition (tshad-ma). Nonexistent phenomena (med-pa) – such as hallucinations, turtle-hair, and impossible ways of existing – may be known by invalid, distorted cognition (log-shes). When known, nonexistent phenomena themselves do not appear to distorted cognition, because they do not actually exist. According to Sautrantika and the Mahayana systems, the consciousness cognizing them merely takes on or assumes a mental aspect (rnam-pa) that represents them, somewhat like a mental hologram.

[See: The Appearance and Cognition of Nonexistent Phenomena]

Existent phenomena are divided into:

  • Nonstatic (impermanent) phenomena (mi-rtag-pa)
  • Static (permanent) phenomena (rtag-pa).

Both nonstatic and static phenomena may have a beginning and an end, no beginning and no end, a beginning but no end, or no beginning but an end. Thus, the distinction between nonstatic and static phenomena has nothing to do with how long a phenomenon lasts. Rather, the distinction is drawn in terms of whether or not something changes from moment to moment while it lasts.
Nonstatic phenomena arise from causes and conditions, are affected by other phenomena, change from moment to moment, and produce effects. Static phenomena do not arise from causes and conditions, are not affected by other phenomena, do not change from moment to moment, and do not produce any effects.

[See: Static and Nonstatic Phenomena]

Nonstatic phenomena are divided into:

  • Forms of physical phenomena (gzugs)
  • Ways of being aware of something (shes-pa)
  • Noncongruent affecting variables (ldan-min ‘du-byed, nonassociated compositional factors). In general, these are defined as nonstatic phenomena that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something – for example, acquirements (thob-pa), arisings (skye-ba), agings (rga-ba), and perishings (‘jig-pa). Noncongruent affecting variables do not share five things in common (mtshungs-ldan lnga) with the primary consciousness (rnam-shes) and subsidiary awarenesses (sems-byung, mental factors) that they accompany.

Although Vaibhashika mentions only fourteen noncongruent affecting variables, other nonstatic phenomena also fall into this category, such as

  • Time
  • Order
  • Number
  • Motion
  • Nonstaticness
  • Karmic tendencies (sa-bon, seeds)
  • Habits (bag-chags)
  • Persons (gang-zag).

[See: Congruent and Noncongruent Affecting Variables]

Static phenomena include

  • Spaces (nam-mkha’)
  • Analytical stoppings (so-sor brtags-pa’i ‘gog-pa)
  • Nonanalytical stoppings (so-sor brtags-pa min-pa’i ‘gog-pa).

Although Vaibhashika mentions only the above three static phenomena, the other tenet systems accept as static:

  • The lack of an impossible soul (bdag-med, selflessness, identitylessness)
  • Voidnesses (stong-nyid, Skt. shunyata, emptiness)
  • Nonimplicative negations (med-dgag, nonaffirming negations, absolute nullifications)
  • Audio categories (sgra-spyi, sound universals)
  • Meaning/object categories (don-spyi, meaning/object universals).

A space is the absence of obstructive contact. In other words, it is the absence of any material object in a location that would obstruct something from occupying three dimensions there. It is a static fact about a material object that accounts for its existence in three dimensions, but without being the cause for its occupying three dimensions. Space is also a static fact about an in-between area (bar-snang) – an open area between two material objects, such as the two sides of an open door. The space that is an imputation on an in-between area accounts for a material object either to be situated in the area or to pass through it. It does not produce, as its effect, an object’s sitting somewhere or moving elsewhere. Space, then, does not refer to the space an object occupies, or to the space inside it, the space around it, or the open space between it and something else.

An analytical stopping is a true stopping (‘gog-bden, true cessation) of a portion of either emotional obscuration (nyon-sgrib) or cognitive obscuration, such that that portion will never arise again. It is a static eternal parting (bral-ba) from that portion of obscuration and is attained through analytical cognition of the four noble truths.

A nonanalytical stopping is a static eternal parting from the occurrence of a result arising from a particular cause, once that result has occurred from another cause. An example is the nonanalytical stopping of arriving at work today by car when you have arrived today by bus. Once you have arrived today by bus, your arriving today by car will never happen. The fact that it will never happen will never change and cannot be affected by anything.

A voidness is a static fact about some phenomenon. It is the static fact of a phenomenon’s total absence of existing in an impossible way. Although the term voidness appears primarily in the Mahayana systems, we may use the term loosely to refer to both the lack of an impossible soul of a person (gang-zag-gi bdag-med, selflessness of a person, identitylessness of a person) and the lack of an impossible soul of phenomena (chos-kyi bdag-med, selflessness of phenomena, identitylessness of phenomena), Each tenet system specifies, within the context of its own definitions, the ways of existing and “souls” that are impossible.

  • Only the Mahayana tenet systems assert the selflessness of phenomena.
  • One important distinction to note is that a space is the absence of something that does exist, while a voidness and selflessnesses are absences of something that does not exist, never has existed, and never will exist.

A nonimplicative negation phenomenon is one in which, after the sound of the words of the negation have eliminated the object to be negated (dgag-bya), no affirmation phenomena (sgrub-pa) are left behind or implied.

  • Except for Vaibhashika, all other tenet systems assert that both spaces, voidnesses, and selflessnesses are nonimplicative negation phenomena. Vaibhashika does not assert nonimplicative negations. 
  • According to Vaibhashika, spaces and selflessnesses are implicative negation phenomena (ma-yin dgag, affirming negations). An implicative negation phenomenon is one in which, after the sound of the words of the negation have eliminated the object to be negated, both affirmation and negation phenomena are left behind or implied.

[See: Negation Phenomena: Implicative and Non-Implicative]

A conceptual category (spyi) is an imputation on a set of individual items sharing a common feature, such that all the items in the set can be understood as being the same general type of thing. Conceptual categories are static implicative negation phenomena. Specifically, they are conceptual isolates signifying a category (spyi-ldog) – in other words, conceptual exclusion phenomena (blo’i gzhan-sel) of the type “nothing other than” itself (ldog-pa).  

  • The individual items that fit into an audio category are the sounds of a word, pronounced with any voice, accent, or volume, but not necessarily having any meaning understood by the sounds. When anyone says “table,” whether or not the person understands the meaning of this acoustic pattern, the person is saying sounds that fit into the audio category of the word table.
  • The individual items that fit into a meaning/object category are the objects meant or signified by the sounds of a word. All individual objects with a flat surface supported by legs fit into the meaning/object category table.

Categories are formulated in terms of words, definitions, and concepts, but they are not created by words and so on. They do not grow from a word and a definition like a plant that grows from a seed, with the help of water. Moreover, categories do not change from moment to moment. A new category, such as the audio and meaning/object category computer may have a beginning. But even as new individual items (new models) are designed and built, they can still be included in the category computer, so long as they fulfill the individual defining characteristic marks agreed upon by convention as what specify a “computer.” The category computer itself does not change and does not do anything.

  • Vaibhashika does not accept that either audio and meaning/object categories or the selflessness of persons are static phenomena. According to Vaibhashika, they are nonstatic phenomena – specifically, noncongruent affecting variables.

The General Meaning of the Two Truths

The two truths (two true phenomena) are the superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, Skt. samvrtisatya, relative truth, conventional truth) and the deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa, Skt. paramarthasatya, ultimate truth).

According to the Indian master Chandrakirti, in his Clarified Words (Tshig-gsal, Skt. Prasannapada), the term translated here as “superficial” (kun-rdzob, Skt. samvrti) has three meanings:

  • That which obstructs seeing the accordant nature of reality (de-bzhin-nyid, thusness, suchness) – namely, seeing the reality of the four noble truths
  • That which is dependent on something else (gzhan-la ltos-pa)
  • That which is convention (tha-snyad-pa).

The Vaibhashika system uses “superficial” in the second meaning, as referring to things that depend on parts or on a basis for imputation (gdags-gzhi). They lack a self-nature of being able to stand firmly (rang-la tshugs-thub-kyi rang-bzhin med-pa) when analyzed with scrutiny.

The Sautrantika system tends to use “superficial” in the third sense, as referring primarily to conventions – namely static metaphysical entities such as categories, designated with words and names – that are mentally labeled on the basis of objective entities.

The Mahayana systems use “superficial” in the first sense, as referring to a truth about some phenomenon, which either partly veils or completely conceals something deeper about that phenomenon. The deepest truth about the phenomenon is what the former truth partly veils or completely conceals. In general, the superficial truth about something is its appearance – what it appears to be. Its deepest truth is how it actually exists.

In a sense, one could say that even in the second and third meanings, superficial true phenomena obscure deepest true phenomena. Anything that is dependent on parts obscures or veils the ultimately smallest parts on which it depends, and worldly conventions obscure the objective entities that are known through them.

According to the Gelug presentation, none of the tenet systems asserts one of the two truths as the absolute or actual truth, truer than the other is. Rather, each is true to the valid cognition (tshad-ma) that takes it as one of its cognitive objects. In other words, Buddhism does not present two truths as extreme transcendental religions or philosophies do, with the two totally separate from each other. It does not share the philosophy of “deny this world and accept only the world beyond.” Nor does it assert levels of reality existing independently of each other, as in the case of a transcendent God existing before the universe and then creating the universe. The two truths in Buddhism are interdependent.

Organizing the Hinayana and Mahayana Presentations into a Graded System

The main difference between the Hinayana and Mahayana presentations of the two truths concerns whether or not the two truths share the same essential nature. An essential nature (ngo-bo) is the basic type of phenomenon that something is, such as something being a sight, a sound, or a way of being aware of something.

  • In the Hinayana systems of Vaibhashika and Sautrantika, the two truths are two sets of true phenomena. In technical terms, the two types of true phenomena have different essential natures (ngo-bo tha-dad): they are essentially two different types of things.
  • In the Mahayana systems of Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, the two truths share the same essential nature (ngo-bo gcig). They are two true facts about the same aspect of a particular phenomenon: such as about the sight of something or about the sound of something.
  • Chittamatra and Sautrantika Madhyamaka assert that the two truths are two facts about all phenomena, all of which have existence established from their own sides (rang-ngos-nas grub-pa). The two truths share the same essential nature in both being facts about the same aspect of such phenomena cognized by two different types of scrutinizing minds. Prasangika refutes that any phenomenon has such existence. The two truths are merely the involved objects (‘jug-yul) of two different types of scrutinizing minds. The two truths share the same essential nature of both being devoid of existence established from their own sides.

Despite these fundamental differences, we can gain an introductory overview of the two truths that spans both the Hinayana and Mahayana systems by looking at the Hinayana presentation in terms of the Mahayana formulation. To do this, let us not look at all aspects of each system’s presentation of the two truths, but simply examine how each presentation regards the cognition of one item – for instance forms of physical phenomena, such as a hand.

In general:

  • In the Hinayana systems, when we examine a hand with a mind valid for cognizing superficial true phenomena, we cognize one type of phenomenon. When we examine with a mind valid for cognizing deepest true phenomena, we cognize another type of phenomenon. In brief, according to Vaibhashika, we cognize either a material hand or the smallest particles it is made of. According to Sautrantika, we cognize either the category “hand” or the material hand. The material hand obscures the particles, and the category obscures the material hand.
  • In the Mahayana systems, when we examine a hand with a mind valid for cognizing superficial truths, we cognize what an object appears to be and how it appears to exist. When we examine with a mind valid for cognizing deepest truths, we cognize how an object actually exists. In brief, according to Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, we cognize either a hand or its voidness of existing in an impossible way.

What something appears to be – the sight of a hand – may be either accurate (tshul-bcas) or inaccurate (tshul-min), depending on whether or not it can be corroborated by further valid cognition of what things conventionally are. Similarly, how something appears to exist may be either pure (dag-pa) or impure (ma-dag-pa), depending on whether or not the way that something appears to exist corresponds to the way in which it actually exists.

  • Many of the non-Gelug systems include among superficial truths only impure appearances. Because of their assertion of the inseparability of voidness and appearance, they include pure appearances as deepest truths.

Impure superficial truths appear to exist in impossible ways. The actual manner in which superficial truths exist is devoid of those impossible ways in which they impurely appear to exist. Chittamatra and Madhyamaka differ as to which are the impossible ways:

  • Chittamatra asserts two impure appearances for the hand. (1) The dualistic appearance (gnyis-snang) that the hand and the valid cognition of the hand derive from different natal sources (rdzas). In other words, the appearance that the hand exists as an external object (phyi-don). (2) The appearance in conceptual cognition that the hand has its existence as a “hand” established by an individual defining characteristic mark (rang-mtshan), findable on the side of the hand, that serves as a foundation on which affixes the sound of the word “hand.”
  • Svatantrika-Madhyamaka asserts that the impure appearance of the hand is its appearance that it has its existence as a cognitive object established by its own uncommon manner of abiding on the side of the hand, without it being set also by the power of something added by the mind.
  • Prasangika-Madhyamaka asserts that the impure appearance of the hand is its appearance that it has its existence as a cognitive object established by the fact that when one searches for the referent “thing” (btags-don) corresponding to the name and concept “hand,” that referent “thing” is findable on the side of the hand.