Vaibhashika and Sautrantika: The Two Truths

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The two truths are a quite complex and deep topic within the sphere of Buddhism and I would like to try to present them in a practical way, trying to indicate that these are not just a topic of intellectual interest, but of practical use. We are aiming in Buddhist practice to become an enlightened Buddha and that means that we need to overcome our unawareness of reality – unawareness of all things – so that we are in the best position to help everybody.

Deceptive Appearances and the Two Truths

What we all perceive in the world is quite confusing; we normally perceive what is known as deceptive appearances. These deceptive appearances fool us into thinking that things exist in the manner in which they appear. Based on that we have all sorts of disturbing emotions that arise and that leads to the compulsive behavior of karma. In order to become a fully enlightened Buddha we need to understand what is known as the two truths concerning what we experience in life.

In Buddhism, when we speak of these two truths, both of them are valid within their own context. It’s not that one is truer than the other; it’s not that to understand some transcendental truth, we have to totally ignore the other truth. But what is known as the superficial truth always hides something that is deeper. So, these two truths can be understood as superficial and deepest truths.

The Meaning of “Superficial”

To understand these two truths, we need to deconstruct the superficial level in order to know the deeper level. When we successfully do that, we understand the full extent of what exists. In the term “superficial truth,” the great Indian Buddhist master Chandrakirti has explained the word “superficial” (kun-rdzob) as having three different meanings. “Superficial” means:

  • Something that obstructs seeing the deeper nature with which things exist. It obscures either the four noble truths or voidness, the absence of impossible ways of existing.
  • Something that relies on or depends on something else, for instance parts. This is not referring to only something that relies on causes and conditions, since that would include only nonstatic phenomena.
  • Something that depends on worldly convention. This is referring to things like categories. Categories are conventions, like the category “dog,” or “good” or “bad.” They obscure the members of the categories. 

We’re talking about something that covers over something else. So the appearance of something can hide how something actually exists. For instance, something that is made of parts seems like it is solid, but the appearance covers over the parts it’s made of. It appears solid, but it’s actually made of parts. Or when we speak of general categories of things, it obscures the individuality of the items that can be included in the categories.

The Four Tenet Systems

We have in general, four Buddhist tenet systems in Indian Buddhism. Two of them belong to the so-called Hinayana systems and two belong to the Mahayana systems. Within Hinayana we have Vaibhashika and Sautrantika and in Mahayana we have Chittamatra and Madhyamaka. The Tibetans have divided Madhyamaka in several different ways. The Tibetan Gelugpa school divides Madhyamaka into Svatantrika and Prasangika. So we have, in the end, five different views that we will look at. All of them are very helpful in the process of deconstructing deceptive appearances, so that we see not only the superficial, surface level of things, but we also see the deepest level.

As for the Hinayana systems, Vaibhashika and Sautrantika, when they speak of the two truths, they’re speaking about two different types of true phenomenon. These are two types of true phenomena and so essentially they are two different types of things. The technical term is they have different essential natures.

When we speak about the two truths in the Mahayana systems, they share the same essential nature. This means that the superficial truth is referring to the appearance of things and the deepest truth is referring to their mode of existence. They’re referring to basically the same thing from two points of view; from the point of view of how it appears to exist and how it actually exists.

The Two Types of True Phenomena According to Vaibhashika

First let’s look at the Vaibhashika system. Here, what we want to do is basically deconstruct what appears to us to be solid. These things that appear to us to be solid, as if they have no parts, hide or conceal the things that they’re made up of. Deepest truths, on the other hand, are things that basically aren’t like that, to put it in simple language. The actual definitions are rather complex.

Superficially True Phenomena According to Vaibhashika

Superficial true phenomena are things that we can no longer cognize the conventional identities of while we are dissecting them by physical means or analyzing them by mental scrutiny. Let me repeat the definition in slightly different words. Superficially true phenomena are things which, while we are trying to deconstruct them either physically or mentally, we can no longer cognize their conventional identities.

For instance, this table; if we deconstruct this table, we ultimately come down to atoms – particles – and so while we are analyzing and getting down to the atoms, we can no longer recognize the table. It loses its identity; it’s just an accumulation of atoms. If we think of a sentence, we don’t hear a sentence all at once, do we? We hear only parts of syllables, consonants and vowels, one at a time. If we dissect a sentence into its component sounds, it loses its meaning, doesn’t it?

Although, of course, sentences exist, there’s no problem with that, and tables exist as well; nevertheless, they are not as solid as they appear to be. Notice how you can have problems when you view the world as solid entities. We can imagine a mood, “I am in a terrible mood!” and make it into something solid, but actually it’s made up of little parts. Each moment is different and what is happening in each moment is different. Or somebody says something to us that we take as solid and we get very angry with what they said, very hurt. But actually it’s just made up of parts. Each tiny little sound of the sentence they said is just a sound. Like that, deconstruction into the component parts, the most fundamental parts, helps us to overcome disturbing emotions, doesn’t it? It’s very helpful.

The same thing with motion: motion is made up of tiny moments of change. But, we can get very upset, for instance, about the motion or speed with which our computer is working, “It’s so slow,” or the way that things are developing over time.

Again, we can get caught up in the solidity of it if we don’t deconstruct it into its parts. When we examine in minutest detail these superficially true phenomenon, we come down to their ultimately smallest parts. And for physical object, these smallest parts, from the Vaibhashika point of view, are particles. Vaibhashika and Sautrantika assert that there are ultimately smallest particles and smallest units of time that cannot be divided any further.

Mahayana schools say that there’s no ultimately smallest particle or unit of time. You can always divide further. It’s very interesting if you think of modern science and the quest to find the ultimately smallest particle and then they discover after another decade that what they thought were the smallest are actually made up of even tinier particles, and so on and so on.

Vaibhashika says, “There is an ultimately smallest particle,” and Mahayana says “No, everything is made of parts.” So, according to Vaibhashika, superficially true phenomena are those where, while we deconstruct them either mentally or physically, they lose their identity.

Deepest True Phenomenon According to Vaibhashika

Deepest true phenomena are those things that we can still cognize the conventional identities of while we are dissecting or analyzing them. So, dissected or deconstructed either mentally or physically, still we can identify what they are. That not only refers to these ultimately smallest particles or units of time, but also to such things as forms of physical phenomena or happiness.

If you have a form and cut it up into small pieces it’s still a form. If you cut that further it’s still a form. No matter how small you divide a form, it’s still a form. Or happiness, even the smallest moment of it is still happiness.

This means that, according to Vaibhashika, there are some things that are basic, fundamental building blocks of reality and these include not just the smallest particles and smallest units of time but also these more fundamental things like forms, sounds, happiness, etc.

The Theravada system – which is also Hinayana but is not discussed in the Tibetan Sanskrit tradition – has a similar type of presentation of these two truths. You have these fundamental phenomena as the deepest ones.

Space is also a deepest true phenomenon. In Buddhism, space has a very specific meaning. It’s a fact about something; it’s not the space that something occupies. It is a fact that there is nothing obstructing this material object from occupying three dimensions. In other words, no matter where I put my wristwatch, there’s nothing obstructing it from occupying three dimensions and I can’t put it inside something else that is solid. But that fact that it can occupy three dimensions anywhere that I move it, so long as there’s not something else occupying those three dimensions, is what is known as space.

Although we call it by the word “space” in our Western languages that is often a bit confusing for us, we have quite a different concept of what that word means. Anyway, when we analyze space, no matter how small it becomes it still retains the identity as space.

Space is a static phenomena – it is unaffected by anything and thus never changes. In Vaibhashika, all static phenomena are deepest true phenomena, but not all deepest true phenomena are static. Some deepest true phenomena, like the smallest particles, the smallest units of time and happiness, are nonstatic. So, some nonstatic phenomena, like a table, are superficial true phenomena, and some are deepest true phenomena.

Vaibhashika asserts, however, that both static and nonstatic phenomena have the same type of existence. Both are substantially existent phenomena, in the sense that both perform the function of serving as the objects of the cognitions of them.

The Two Types of True Phenomena According to Sautrantika

Although there are things that are made of parts and conceal the parts that they rely on; nevertheless, here in Sautrantika, we are deconstructing from a different point of view when we speak of the two truths. Here, we are turning our interest more toward the mind; and what we are differentiating here, speaking in very general terms, and deconstructing are our projections.

Conceptual Cognition through Categories

We perceive things conceptually through the medium of categories. Obviously we have non-conceptual cognition as well – we see, we hear – but that lasts for only a tiny moment. We fit what we perceive through the senses into categories in order to make sense of it. So, dog, cat, table, these are categories. Categories can be designated with various words or names in different languages and they could even be part of our mental process without any names. Animals perceive in terms of categories. “My barn, my master.” They have categories without words. Infants have them as well.

Many different things that look quite different from each other may all fit into one category. The easiest example is the category “dog.” We have dachshund, we have German shepherd, we have poodle, we have chihuahua, we have great Dane, we have all these different types of animals. They all look very different and yet we have a category of animal that they fit into which is “dog.” They don’t fit into the category of “cat,” they fit into the category of “dog.” That is just a way of conceptually organizing things.

Categories have defining characteristics and, when we think in terms of categories, we also have something that represents that category. If we all try to think of a dog, everybody will have quite a different mental picture of a dog that represents what a “dog” is. Now, that’s not such a problem with dog. However, when we all think of the word “friend,” or we think of “love,” or we think of “pretty” or “ugly” or “good” or “bad,” everybody has something quite different that represents it and even with different definitions. The problem is that we project that category and what represents it when we perceive somebody. We project onto them what in our mind a good friend should be. “You’re not a good friend.” We have a lot of problems because of that, don’t we? This is conceptual thinking.

“If you love me, you should do this and that, but you don’t do that. Therefore you don’t love me.” That’s projection, isn’t it? In our normal, everyday language; and it has to do with categories and what represents that category.

According to Vaibhashika, categories are nonstatic phenomena that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something. There are dogs, there are friends and they are all non-static because dogs and friends do things. Sautrantika disagrees with that and asserts that categories are static phenomena.

Sautrantika differentiates objective entities from metaphysical ones. Nonstatic phenomena are objective; whereas static ones are metaphysical. Sautrantika then goes on to assert that static phenomena are superficial true phenomena; while nonstatic phenomena are deepest true phenomena.

Superficial true phenomena have their existence established merely by being mentally labeled by conceptual cognition. Vaibhashika says nothing exists like this, but Sautrantika disagrees and says that that categories exist only by the fact that they are mentally labeled by conceptual cognition. You label the category “dog” on specific animals and you label the category “friend” on specific people. These categories don’t exist outside of this conceptual process. They are metaphysical entities.

Categories don’t do anything. Individual dogs do something; individual friends do something; but the categories themselves don’t do anything. They’re just part of your conceptual framework. There are object categories like “dog,” “friend” and so on; and there are also audio categories. No matter whose voice the sound of the word “dog” is said in, no matter the volume, no matter the pronunciation, we can understand it as being the sound of the word “dog.” All those individual examples of the sound of that word are quite different, but they all fit in the audio category of the sound of the word “dog.” It’s amazing that we can understand that everybody’s saying the same word. That’s an audio category. It is static and a metaphysical entity.

Superficial and Deepest True Phenomena According to Sautrantika

In Sautrantika, superficial true phenomena are those things that are established merely in terms of being imputed by conceptual cognition. They include all metaphysical entities, so all static phenomena. They don’t perform any function – Sautrantika does not consider serving as an object of cognition as performing a function. So, they’re not substantially existent and here they also include the lack of an impossible self of a person. Now, what’s the equivalent of voidness becomes a superficial truth in Sautrantika because it is just established in terms of conceptual cognition. That’s quite a special assertion in the Sautrantika system.

Deepest true phenomena, on the other hand, have their existence established from the side of their own individual manner of abiding without depending on being imputed by words or conceptual cognition. Sautrantika calls such phenomena “objective entities.” So, metaphysical entities are those things that we project and use conceptually to understand things; while objective entities include all non-static phenomenon – they constitute “objective reality.”

Another definition of superficial true phenomena is those items the mode of existence of which does not withstand analysis by logic. That means that when we analyze these categories, they are not findable, objectively existing outside of the context of our conceptual thinking process. That’s very significant because that means that analysis clears away our projections – we no longer find these superficial truths, whereas deepest true phenomena are those items the mode of existence of which does withstand the analysis of logic. After analyzing it with logic, we discover that an object is still findable objectively existing outside the context of our conceptual thinking process.

For example, I was looking at the shape of the physical appearance of you sitting there through the category of “woman” or “friend.” I analyze the concepts of woman and friend I have and I see that outside of that context, those concepts don’t exist anywhere. Whereas if I analyze you, the appearance of you and your physical appearance, you’re still sitting there. I can find you outside of the conceptual process. That’s objective reality.

In short, only these deepest true phenomena are substantially existent. They are able to perform functions, so they truly exist and they are what are known as “ultimate phenomena.”

Self-Established Existence (Inherent Existence)

According to Sautrantika, all validly knowable phenomenon, whether we’re talking about the superficial or deepest true ones have their existence established by their self-natures. They have self-established existence. Sometimes that’s translated as inherent existence and it’s synonymous with existence established from something’s own side. It is defined as existence established by the fact that when one searches for the referent thing – that’s the actual thing that’s referred to by the name or concept, corresponding to the name or concept for something – that actual referent thing is findable. It’s findable on the side of the object that’s being named.

“Glass” for example, there’s the name “glass,” there’s also the category “glass” and what establishes that it’s a glass? What establishes it is that there actually is a glass sitting here, a referent thing that corresponds to that name or category. That’s a findable referent thing.

Sautrantika says everything is like that, so when we search for objective things like the glass, then we find an actual thing existing on the side of the object that that word for it is referring to. Metaphysical entities are the same. We don’t find them in objective reality, but the category “glass” has a name associated with it and that name refers to the category and the category you can actually find in that conceptual cognition. It’s there, from its own side, sitting in the conceptual cognition, even though it’s not found objectively outside of the conceptual thought.

Defining Characteristic Marks

In addition, both superficial and deepest true phenomenon have their existence established by their individual defining characteristic marks, findable on their own side. I think the easiest way to understand this is something like a barcode on the side of the object, whether we’re talking about categories or we’re talking about objective things, they have a barcode and that barcode establishes what something is and what its qualities are. They are the basis for them and for their qualities being labeled by categories and designated with names and words and concepts for them.

I’m looking at you, for example, and on your side there’s a barcode and that barcode could be the barcode of “student,” the barcode of “woman,” the barcode of “friend.” I could designate you with those words, but even if I don’t designate you with those words, that barcode is there. Of course, you are objectively a woman, you are a student, you are a friend. Okay? That’s the same thing with categories; they have their defining characteristics like a barcode. This is not so alien to this whole thing of genomes and DNA and things like that, which characterize the individuality of something, I’m just using different technical terms.