The Necessity to Understand the Two Truths in the Tenet Systems

The Four Noble Truths: Two Sets of Cause and Effect

As Shantideva said:

(IX.1) The Sage has spoken about all these branches for the sake of discriminating awareness. Therefore, generate discriminating awareness with the wish to pacify sufferings.

Gaining a state of pacification, a state of cessation of all suffering and problems is dependent, then, on the discriminating awareness that there are no such things as truly and unimputedly established identities. The question is how to meditate on this? The way to do this is to first identify correctly and recognize the two truths.

Shantideva said:

(IX.2) Surface and deepest, these are accepted as being the two truths. The deepest aren't cognitive objects of the dualistic mind; the dualistic mind is spoken of (in terms of) the surface.

The four noble truths, the four facts seen as true by highly realized beings, can be classified in terms of two sets of cause-and-effect relationships. On the deluded side, the true causes of suffering constitute the causal part of the set, and true sufferings are the result of them. The fact that there are true problems and suffering is the result of these true causes. On the liberating side, there are the true paths of the mind, the fourth noble truth, as the causal part of the set. The result is a true cessation of suffering and problems. In general, there are different types of results, and, here, true cessations are the type of result categorized as a result that is a state of being parted. This state of being parted from the true causes of suffering and the true suffering they give rise is attained by having true paths of the mind. 

Try to understand these four noble truths in terms of these two sets of cause and effect. This is the significance of the Sanskrit line Om ye dharma hetu prabhava, hetun teshan tathagathohya vadate, teshanca yo nirodha, evam vadi maha-shramanaye svaha, the “essence of dependent arising” mantra. When we recite it, we need to be aware of the meaning. A rough translation is “Om, whatever phenomena have originated from a cause, the Thusly Gone One has in fact spoken of the cause of them; and whatever is the stopping of them has been likewise spoken of by the Great Ascetic, Svaha.” When we do many recitations of this mantra, we should be aware it is referring to these two sets of cause-and-effect relations within the four noble truths.

The Two Truths

To understand the presentation of the two truths, we need to understand the basis for the division – in other words, the basis that is being divided. All validly knowable phenomena are the basis of what is being divided. The Vaibhashika and Sautrantika system divide them into two types of true phenomena. Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, on the other hand, divide two truths about each phenomenon. These two truths have one essential nature in the sense that they come in one package with each phenomenon; however, they can be conceptually isolated as two different things. Therefore, although they share the same essential nature and come in one package, nevertheless, because they can be conceptually isolated from each other and specified, they are different.

It is necessary to understand what is meant when we say that two things are of one essential nature yet have different conceptual isolates. In terms of the surface or superficial, conventional truth and deepest truth of any phenomenon, the point is that when we establish the conventional truth of something, we simultaneously establish its deepest truth as its essential nature. From the Prasangika point of view, whenever the existence of the conventional truth of something is established, it is also established as existing in a manner that is devoid of it being self-established. Therefore, we can say that whenever we establish the conventional existence of something, we simultaneously establish its deepest mode of existence. There is nothing, not even an atom of anything existing, that is findable as something self-established. Therefore, although the two truths about any validly knowable phenomenon come together in one package and are of one essential nature, that doesn’t mean that the two are one and the same. 

One and Many

Without understanding what is meant by “one and many,” and differentiating that from what is meant by things being of the same essential nature, yet different in terms of their conceptual isolates, we are not going to get anywhere. For instance, the Tibetan word “chogsay” and the English word “table” – although they have the same meaning, nevertheless, the word “chogsay” and the word “table” are not one and the same thing. They are not identical words or sounds, they are “many.” “Many,” then, refers to different words or different sounds of words, although they may be referring to the same thing. They are not one and the same word or sound. 

The Four Schools of Philosophical Tenets

There are various ways of asserting the two truths. Within the Buddhist fold, there are the four Indian schools of philosophical tenets and each of them has its presentation of the two truths. It is very important to know, correctly, the exact assertions of each of these schools of philosophical tenets. For this, we can study such texts as The Jewel Rosary of Philosophical Tenets and the like. By studying these carefully, you will gain a correct understanding of the two truths in each of the philosophical schools.

Vaibhashika

We start out with the Vaibhashika School. It presents the two truths as two different types of true phenomena, differentiated in the terms of the mind that cognizes them. For instance, suppose there is a mind that is perceiving a vase and let’s say the vase perceived by such a mind is smashed into pieces. If that mind perceiving the vase is lost when the vase is smashed – looking at the parts, the mind no longer sees a vase – such a phenomenon as a vase is a surface or superficial or conventional true phenomenon. If when the object is smashed or broken into parts, the mind perceiving the object is not lost – for instance when looking at a clump of earth – then that is a deepest true phenomenon.

As another example, if we have a piece of felt cloth and shred it into bits and pieces, then the mind with which we perceived the felt cloth at the beginning is lost. The mind seeing all these tiny shreds no longer perceives a piece of felt cloth. That is an example of a conventional true phenomenon. Whereas if, when we take an object apart, the mind with which that object was perceived is not lost in such a manner, then that is a deepest true phenomenon.

Sautrantika

The Sautrantika School also speaks of two types of true phenomena, rather than the two truths about each phenomenon. Affected phenomena – meaning nonstatic, impermanent phenomena – objective entities, and appearing objects of bare perception are synonymous and are considered as deepest true phenomena. In contrast with them, unaffected phenomena – meaning static phenomena – metaphysical entities, and the appearing objects of conceptual consciousness are synonymous and considered as conventional true phenomena.

Therefore, in the presentation of this Sautrantika School concerning the yogic bare cognition of the identitylessness of a person, the object that appears and is explicitly cognized by that mind is the aggregates – an objective entity – devoid of having a truly established identity as a person. In this philosophical framework, it isn’t that the absence of a true identity of a person itself – a metaphysical entity – is the appearing object explicitly cognized by that yogic bare cognition.

Chittamatra 

The view of the two truths in the Chittamatra Mind-Only School is a little bit more difficult. It presents two truths about each phenomenon. According to this system, all knowable phenomena are divided into three types of characterized phenomena, with each one having a different type of characteristic mark. Dependent phenomena – literally, other-powered phenomena, referring to nonstatic phenomena – and thoroughly established phenomena, referring to voidnesses and true cessations, are both asserted to have truly and unimputedly established existence and existence established by their individual defining characteristic marks findable on their own sides. Totally conceptional phenomena – referring to static phenomena other than voidnesses, as well as to nonexistent phenomena – lack truly and unimputedly established existence. 

These assertions are made based on a quotation from the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, The Sutra Unraveling What Is Intended, by the Buddha. In this source, two points are established regarding each of these three types of characterized phenomena: their lack of an essential nature and their lack of an arising. Each type of characterized phenomenon has its own type of lack of an essential nature, with the third type of lack of an essential nature having a further division into two types. 

As for the lack of an arising, there are separate presentations with respect to dependent phenomenon and thoroughly established phenomena. If you want to gain a fine understanding of all these different points and divisions here, you should consult your excellent Geshe Rinpoche and learn this in detail, since it can be quite confusing. 

However, in short, of these three types of characterized phenomena, dependent phenomena and thoroughly established phenomena are asserted as having truly and unimputedly established existence, whereas totally conceptional phenomena are asserted to lack truly and unimputedly established existence.

Within these three, thoroughly established phenomena are asserted as being ultimate phenomena. The reason for this is that they are the ultimate focal object that appears to an arya’s total absorption on voidness, and so they are named accordingly. Dependent phenomena are also called ultimate phenomena, although unlike thoroughly established phenomena, they arise from causes and conditions. 

Although these two are both ultimate phenomena and are established simultaneously, they each have a different lack of essential nature. The reason for asserting dependent phenomena as ultimate phenomena is that they are the basis for voidness. So, when the deep awareness of an arya’s total absorption focuses on voidness, it is aimed at the dependent phenomenon that is its basis. But when it apprehends voidness, because the apprehension of the dependent phenomenon that is its basis does not arise, then dependent phenomena as ultimate phenomena are asserted separately. This is because, although they are ultimate phenomena, they lack an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena. The necessity for this is asserted in the Samdhinirmocana Sutra.

Also, because thoroughly established phenomena lack a truly established identity as a phenomenon, then although they are deepest truths, they lack an essential nature of being truly and unimputedly established as ultimate phenomena. 

Chittamatra asserts that the ultimate focal aim of the pure pathway of mind of an arya is thoroughly established phenomena. If dependent phenomena were not also the ultimate focal aim of the pure mind of an arya, they would not be said to lack an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena, and then they would be no different from totally conceptional phenomena, with their lack of essential nature. Therefore, they are not explained as being like that. 

Remember, the three types of characterized phenomena each have a lack of an essential nature. Totally conceptional phenomena lack an essential nature of existing with defining characteristic marks, dependent phenomena lack an essential nature as something that does not arise, and thoroughly established phenomena lack an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena. Dependent phenomena also lack an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena. So, the way in which thoroughly established phenomena lack an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena and the way in which dependent phenomena lack an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena are two different ways of lacking them.

As for dependent phenomena’s lack of an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena, if you assert that this is because it is not a focal object of a pure pathway of mind and that that is the reason why it lacks an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena, then dependent phenomena become no different from totally conceptional phenomena. You could also say that totally conceptional phenomena also lack an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena. To understand this, you need to know the definitions of all these terms.

As for why totally conceptional objects are not explained as lacking an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena, but dependent phenomena are, if you say that it is merely because they are not the focal aim of pure paths of mind, then you could also say that totally conceptional phenomena are also not the focal aim of pure paths of mind.

One type of totally conceptional phenomena is all static, permanent phenomena other than voidnesses and true cessations. But there are also the totally conceptional phenomena that are to be refuted. Referring to these, dependent phenomena are devoid of these totally conceptional phenomena. But this is not in the sense of dependent phenomena merely not being totally conceptional. That is not something thoroughly established. What is thoroughly established is their voidness of totally conceptional phenomena.

As for the manner in which phenomena are devoid of totally conceptional phenomena, the Chittamatra view has two ways of formulating this. One is the view of voidness in relation to conceptual mental cognition and one is the view of voidness in relation to sensory cognition. The voidness of forms of physical phenomena, for instance, having existence established by individual defining characteristic marks as foundations on which to affix the sound of the words “forms of physical phenomena” is their voidness in relation to conceptual mental cognition. Their voidness in relation to sensory cognition is the voidness of forms of physical phenomena deriving from different natal sources than the valid sensory cognitions that take these forms as their cognitive objects. Like this, Chittamatra has two views of voidness. 

These two voidnesses are thoroughly established phenomena. These thoroughly established voidnesses alone are the ultimate focal objects of an arya’s pure pathway of mind. But whether it is the voidness of forms of physical phenomena, for instance, having existence established by individual defining characteristic marks as foundations on which to affix the sound of the words “forms of physical phenomena” or the voidness of forms of physical phenomena deriving from different natal sources than the valid sensory cognitions that take these forms as their cognitive objects, nevertheless, to focus on these voidness, the ultimate focal objects of a pure pathway of mind is just these voidnesses. But, as an auxiliary to this, they need to focus on the form of physical phenomenon that is their basis. But because the pure pathway mind is aimed at both form as what has the nature of voidness and the voidness that is that nature, the doubt then arises as to whether the form is actually an ultimate phenomenon. To dispel this doubt, Chittamatra asserts that dependent phenomena lack an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena. 

It’s like, for instance, when seeing both you and me and cognizing you as an American, the doubt would arise as to whether I too am an American. Although you see both of us, you only are cognizing you as an American, not me. 

When dependent phenomena are asserted as being devoid of totally conceptional phenomenoa, this refers to their being devoid of these two totally conceptional phenomena to be refuted; it does not refer to them being devoid of just anything. When the deep awareness of an arya’s pure pathway of mind focuses on the voidness of a form of physical phenomenon, it focuses on both the voidness and the form that is its basis. It does not focus on the totally conceptional phenomenon that is being refuted. Therefore, it is dependent phenomena that are devoid of being totally conceptional, and not totally conceptional phenomena that are devoid of being totally conceptional. Thus, there are two types of lack of an essential nature as ultimate phenomena: totally established phenomena’s lack of an essential nature as ultimate phenomena and dependent phenomena’s lack of an essential nature as ultimate phenomena. 

[See: The Three Types of Phenomena: Gelug Chittamatra.]

We are very fortunate to have this opportunity to discuss back and forth this ninth chapter on discriminating awareness from the Bodhisattvacharyavatara. That is all for this morning.

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