The Two Truths—the Key to Unlocking Madhyamaka

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö
HITS( 11357)

I. Overview

The differentiation of Madhyamaka

In Tibetan Buddhism, a distinction is made between Madhyamaka (Middle Way) and Mahamadhyamaka (Great Middle Way). Its explanation is the following.

The theory put forward in the scriptures like Nagarjuna’s Six Treatises on Madhyamaka, the Wisdom Chapter of The Way of the Bodhisattvas by Shantideva, Introduction to the Middle Way by Chandrakirti and so forth is Madhyamaka, not Mahamadhyamaka. The reason is that these texts only explain the teachings from the second turning of the wheel of Dharma and do not directly address the luminous nature of mind that is free of all graspings as taught in the third turning of the wheel. It is possible that people with superior faculty may realize emptiness while cultivating renunciation or bodhicitta. For instance, when we have contemplated the different facets of renunciation or bodhicitta for some time until the mind becomes weary, we will stop and just let the mind rest. At this point, all thoughts fall away naturally. If one has accumulated sufficient merit and purified enough negative karma, one may realize emptiness at the very instant when all deluded thoughts vanish. However, one must have acquired certain knowledge of Madhyamaka beforehand.

Mahamadhyamaka refers to Shentong Madhyamaka or Tathagatagarbha. In the Indian Buddhist tradition, there are no such terms as Rangtong (empty of self) and Shentong (empty of other). The Tibetans coined these terms, but the significance of Rangtong and Shentong is still present in Indian Buddhism. Mahamadhyamaka is about Tathagatagarbha. It is Great Madhyamaka because it comprises the additional meaning of “Clear Light.” As there is no discussion of clear light, considered the ultimate of Buddhist teachings, in Nagarjuna’s Six Treatises on Madhyamaka, it is designated only as an exposition on Madhyamaka.

The necessity of separating the two truths

Both Madhyamaka and Mahamadhyamaka should be understood from the point of view of the two truths to avoid misapprehension.

The main subject here is Madhyamaka, not Mahamadhyamaka, and it will be examined from the perspective of the relative truth and the ultimate truth because the two truths encompass the whole meaning of Madhyamaka. It is also critically important to separate the two.

Many people who do not understand the views of Madhyamaka tend to find many contradictions when reading the scriptures of Prajnaparamita, such as the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra, that expound the idea of emptiness, i.e., the five aggregates, the four elements and in fact all phenomena are without distinct self-nature. This is plainly because they do not know the need to separate the two truths in their analysis. Here are some of the usual questions: Is Buddhahood a fallacy? If the Buddha is empty of self-nature, what is the point of practicing the Dharma and how is one supposed to attain Buddhahood? Are causality and rebirth for real? If karma, samsara, Buddhahood, the practice itself and the act of freeing sentient beings from suffering are all real, how can they be empty of self-nature at the same time? To answer these questions, the two truths must be applied separately.

In his treatise, Introduction to the Middle Way, Chandrakirti referred to a debate in the opening chapter on emptiness. As he was explaining the non-existence of cause and effect, someone objected by saying, “Cause and effect clearly are real phenomena to our five sense consciousnesses. If they are non-existent, how can eye-consciousness see, or ear-consciousness hear?”

How did Chandrakirti end the debate? By applying the ultimate truth and the relative truth separately to his explanation, he was able to dispel the doubt.

Actually, the reason to separate the two truths is not to stop any argument or to refute the viewpoints of any individual or other beliefs, but to disprove our own misconceptions. Similarly, the purpose for teaching prajnaparamita by the Buddha or writing the Six Treatises on Madhyamaka by Nagarjuna is to dismiss the wrong views of ordinary people, not merely to prevent any arguments. Though we do not need to debate with others, we need to convince ourselves. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to learn the theory of the two truths of Madhyamaka.

The importance of studying the two truths

The scope of Madhyamaka is very broad, but here we will only focus on its basic but very key points which are both theory and actual practice.

First of all, we should know that to encounter the teaching on emptiness is not something to be taken for granted. Hearing it plants the seed for realization of emptiness that is not only indestructible but will also come to fruition in the near future. It is stated in the Four Hundred Verse Treatise by Aryadeva: Most sentient beings do not have the chance to hear the profound teaching on emptiness due to insufficient merit. Even if they do, most are unable to generate faith in or have reasonable doubt about the empty nature of phenomena, having little merit and inferior capacity or being negatively influenced by the surrounding environment and their social background. Anyone who can muster even the slightest doubt about the plausibility of all phenomena being empty of self-nature will hence have the means to cease samsara in the end.

In addition, without the knowledge of emptiness, one cannot grasp the meaning of “a mind free of clinging and concepts” and will have difficulty applying this in one’s practice according to the three supreme methods. In this respect, studying the view of Madhyamaka is indeed very important.

After generating renunciation and bodhicitta, next comes the practice of emptiness. In The Three Principal Aspects of the Path by Je Tsongkhapa, the first two aspects are renunciation and bodhicitta, and the third is none other than the right view of emptiness. For us to arouse genuine renunciation and bodhicitta is not a problem, just a matter of time. From that point on, one must succeed in realization of emptiness in order to attain ultimate liberation. Otherwise, one cannot but fail to achieve this final goal, no matter how skillful one is in the practice of renunciation and bodhicitta.

Mahayana practitioners need to pass three checkpoints on the path to liberation, namely, renunciation, bodhicitta and realization of emptiness. The importance of gaining the wisdom of emptiness is thus apparent. Although it may still be too early for most of us to practice emptiness now, to learn something about it in advance definitely helps what we want to accomplish in due course.

Nowadays, some people suggest that one only needs to undertake the actual practice and not care about the theory behind it. But how should one practice without knowing why to practice first? People like Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chinese Zen lineage, and Jetsun Milarepa did not go through the traditional academic training, only relied on a long period of ascetic practice and the supreme blessing of their masters, to attain ultimate realization. But, then again, they were of incomparable faculty. How likely is it that we have the same quality? Not very likely for most of us, I would think.

What we should do is to set out on the path by way of learning and contemplating the teachings of the Buddha. Otherwise, how is one supposed to practice, knowing neither the theories nor the methods? Merely keeping the mind calm and thoughtless is not what practice is about. We all know that many animals regularly go into hibernation for months on end or even longer. Would anyone call this a form of practice? Or, would they thus be enlightened? I think not. So, just keeping the mind blank is not so important. What we really need is forming the correct view, which can only come from learning and contemplating the teachings. This is why the process of learning the Dharma has occupied such a critical position on the path to liberation.

What we need to know and think about is this: The right view of emptiness is the mighty sword needed to cut the root of samsara. Lacking this and relying only on the power of renunciation, bodhicitta, the six paramitas and so forth cannot stop cyclic rebirth completely. You may feel that sometimes we emphasize the importance of renunciation as if nothing else matters, next we praise bodhicitta as the saving grace of all evil, and still at other times we make realization of emptiness the sole solution to all problems. The fact is that one should be equally mindful of all three. It is the actual practice that one should proceed in due order, starting with generation of renunciation to finally attaining realization of emptiness. As each has its own merit and functions, only by combining all three can one reach the final destination of liberation; not one is dispensable.

II. The meaning of Madhyamaka and the two truths

The meaning of Madhyamaka

Madhyamaka means to cease all attachments and abandon the notion of duality. Simply put, duality refers to the tendency of clinging and grasping of ordinary people. Even our dreams are based on the notion of duality. During twenty four hours of a day, the things that we do, the thought from the sixth consciousness and the sensations of the five consciousnesses are all deemed duality. Duality denotes a twofold division as we always tend to think in relative terms like have and have not, permanent and impermanent, high and low, left and right, up and down, long and short….. The path to move away from this dichotomy and take the middle is Madhyamaka, the Middle Way. Well, does the “middle” exist somewhere? No, that is not possible. Be it as such, the term “middle way” is still the one provisionally suitable to express the concept of emptiness in human language. To fully understand it, however, one must only rely on direct personal experience.

The meaning of the ultimate truth and the relative truth

To ordinary people, the ultimate truth represents an invisible, untouchable state. In other words, it is a condition that our six consciousnesses have never been exposed to. The fact is that other than the physical and the mental world that can be reached via the six consciousnesses, there is another state which by no means parallels Plato’s world of Forms. Rather, it can be compared to the reappearance of a blue sky after dark clouds have been blown away. Our senses and perceptions are like dark clouds that block the truth of everything, including the self. All we need is to find a powerful force like the wind that can blow the clouds away. Once the clouds are cleared, we will discover this other state where there are no illusory manifestations of matter, mind, or movement, just a spatial, luminous and peaceful world like the clear blue sky of late autumn. Although this state does not exist as in the normal sense of a world, it can be addressed, albeit spuriously, as a “world.” Such is the state of the ultimate truth, the ultimate reality of all phenomena.

Incidentally, it was from the viewpoint of the ultimate truth that the Venerable Huineng composed his well-known stanza on the nature of mind:

There is no Bodhi tree, Nor stand of a mirror bright.

As nothing is ever there, Where can the dust alight?

Who then is privy to this indescribable state? The Buddhas, bodhisattvas and realized beings know and can enter this state at will. Ordinary people are unable to directly experience it, but they can verify its existence by employing the logic of Madhyamaka.

The relative truth is however something we understand most well. Everything from what we can feel via the five sense consciousnesses to all the thoughts arising from the sixth consciousness are deemed to be the relative truth. Consequently, there exist in the relative truth various phenomena of cause and effect, samsara, good and evil karma, success and failure as well as matter, mind, time, space, movement and all the disciplines of the world such as art, science, philosophy and the like.

The Buddha once said, “I do not argue with worldly people, yet they argue with me.” The first part of this sentence was spoken from the perspective of the relative truth. In this context, “worldly people” refers to the viewpoints formed on the basis of the five sense consciousnesses. From the standpoint of the relative truth, are the objects that worldly people see considered physical matter? Yes. And more than being physical, all the objects including mountains, rivers, land, etc. and our thoughts and feelings are also deemed to be existing. So do samsara and nirvana, good and evil. That is, everything that people can see, hear, smell, taste and touch exists. However, the sensations that people gain in this fashion only manifest a world of illusions, a world created by the five consciousnesses. Even if tentatively, the Buddha still affirmed the dream-like existence of this world. And whatever the five consciousnesses do not acknowledge, the Buddha considered them non- existent as well. Thus, the Buddha maintained his position of not arguing with worldly people. The view that he acquiesced to is the relative truth.

The following stanza composed by the Venerable Shenxiu1 can be understood from the perspective of the relative truth.

Our body the bodhi-tree, The mind a mirror bright

Constantly wipe them clean, And let no dust alight.

However, as a representation of Shenxiu’s realization of prajna, it has yet reached the ultimate state.

What did the Buddha mean by “worldly people argue with me”? The Buddha had said this from the perspective of the ultimate truth. Why would worldly people argue with the Buddha? As the state of the ultimate truth expounded by the Buddha has surpassed what people’s five consciousnesses can normally comprehend, they cannot help arguing with him.

All things exist on two levels, namely, the relative truth and the ultimate truth. Let us take the example of a house. If observed from the point of view of the five consciousnesses, a house does exist in terms of the relative truth, serving its purpose in daily life. What is a house in terms of the ultimate truth? This we need to examine carefully. Our eyes may see a house, but does it truly exist? In fact, our eyes only see the appearance of a house, a phenomenon, but cannot distinguish whether this phenomenon is real or false.

For example, when there is something wrong with the eyes, one may see a snowy mountain as being yellow or blue. From the analysis of the mind consciousness, one knows that white should be the real color while yellow or blue is an illusion. And the evidence on which the mind consciousness bases its analysis comes from the correlated eye consciousness: Over the years, I have seen the snow white mountain. But now, all of a sudden, it becomes yellow. This must be a problem with my eyes, not due to any change of the mountain. It is through this kind of inference that one positively identifies the color of the snowy mountain as being white, not yellow. However, neither the eye nor the mind consciousness can transcend itself. Eyes can only see what they normally see and cannot go beyond that. The bases of mind consciousness all trace their origins to the five consciousnesses; they cannot overstep these boundaries either. Therefore, both the eye and the mind consciousnesses have their limitations and can never pass beyond that limit. This limited extent is the domain of the relative truth. Yet, by studying the theory of Madhyamaka, we can learn of the ultimate truth of, say, a house.

The ultimate truth is like the original white color of the snow mountain, and the relative truth the illusion caused by the eye problem of seeing a yellow or blue mountain. White is reality while yellow or blue is illusion. Or it can be said that the ultimate truth is like what we experience when we are awake and the relative truth the scenes in our dreams. The fact is that everything we go through in life, no matter waking up or sleeping, is really nothing more than a dream at the end. The so-called success or failure is just a matter of having a good dream or a nightmare. Judging from the point of being awake, the scenes in dreams are completely non-existent; all the feelings of pain and happiness, of being beautiful and ugly, vanish with the end of dreams. Similarly, when we finally reach the state of ultimate truth, joy and sorrow, good and evil, and all other phenomena of the mundane world will cease altogether. Yet, at the same time, we are still aware of the joy and the suffering of others. This awareness, serving as the impetus, will propel us to continue forever the task of freeing others from samsara.

Above is a general introduction of the relative truth and the ultimate truth.

III. How to discern the two worlds

How do we traverse between the worlds of the ultimate truth and the relative truth? Is only one of them the real truth? Or are both the real truth?

Ordinary people, unable to go in and out of the worlds of the ultimate truth and the relative truth, can only stay in the world defined by the relative truth. We practitioners now know the existence of the ultimate truth, but we still cannot enter it through our own practice. The bodhisattvas who have attained the first bhumi and up can move back and forth between the two worlds from time to time. When they abide in the meditation of emptiness, they are in the world of the ultimate truth; once out of that meditation, they are in the world of the relative truth. The Buddha, on the other hand, always remains in the world of the ultimate truth as he has forever transcended that of the relative truth. Still, the Buddha knows fully the world of the relative truth: what sentient beings do, how to save them from suffering…..

Thus, it concludes that there are three types of people2: one remains in the world of the relative truth all the time, one always in the ultimate truth, and the third moves between the two worlds. Those who stay in the world of the relative truth are us ordinary beings. The ones who remain always in the ultimate truth are Buddhas. And the bodhisattvas from the first to the tenth bhumi move in between the world of the ultimate truth and the relative truth.

The bodhisattvas are fully aware of the empty nature of phenomena once entering the state of the ultimate truth. When they are out of meditation, they return to the world of the relative truth. Back in this world, they experience various phenomena, both physical and mental, but they already know deep in their hearts that all is unreal, like dreams.

What do ordinary people, the first type of person, need to do now? They need to transcend their knowledge of the relative truth. Once that is done, they will discover the existence of another world, the world of the ultimate truth. Subsequently, they will compare the two truths and realize the huge difference between them. From this exercise, they come to see that the world they are living in, the world of the relative truth, is really just based on illusions. As they continue to practice the teachings faithfully, the whole phenomenal world will gradually disappear until there is nothing left. Does this mean that there is just a total blank afterwards? No, clear light of Tathagatagarbha will manifest at the very end. Although our topic today is Madhyamaka, not Mahamadhyamaka, still Madhyamaka must ultimately acknowledge Tathagatagarbha (Buddha nature) that is encompassed within Mahamadhyamaka.

IV. Why is the world of the relative truth illusory?

In terms of the relative truth, the primary task for us ordinary people is not to comprehend the nature of Buddhahood or to attain the same realization as the bodhisattvas. Those are really far beyond what we can handle at this point. Instead, our task should be to disprove the viewpoints formed on the basis of our sense consciousnesses. But can we? Yes, we can. The foundation of all our clinging is without logic and unstable, so it can be knocked down quite easily. There are many ways to do this, but we will only select a few for discussion here.

Although in the Abhidharma-kosha-shastra, it has pointed out the five aggregates, twelve sense bases (Ayatana3) and eighteen elements (dhatus4) of humans, people normally are only aware of the mental world and the physical world. Hence, our discussion will be conducted only from the perspective of these two and leave out the more complicated details.

Discern the illusive nature of the physical world

Many people have this doubt in mind: The physical world is an objective reality. How can it be non-existent? But one should ask in return: Who knows that the existence of the physical world is an absolute fact? Is this idea self-taught, taught by others, or just felt like this way? The substantiality of the physical world is not instilled into us by our parents or teachers, but comes from our own sense experience. When do we start having this sensation? For instance, some people did not believe in Buddhism at first. After learning its doctrines from reading the scriptures, they think it makes sense and thus become Buddhists. Is it the same with our sense of a concrete physical world, that we initially did not feel this way but later on develop it after learning of some theories? No. We were born with this innate sense. The sense of “I,” being inborn, then gave rise to the sense of “my.” We never ask for evidence of this sense of “I” and “my”; we simply accept this view without question. So, it is just our own idea, for no good reason, that the physical world is substantial.

i. Search for the evidence of physical existence

Take the white wall for example. Just because the eyes can see it, we believe that the wall is white. But as said earlier, is there any reason why we believe so other than our eyes see a white object? No. The so- called reason is merely a sensation of the eyes; there is no other evidence. Then, are the eyes reliable? Do they always have the final say on everything? They certainly do not. Our eyes cannot even see the micro- universe in terms of the relative truth, not to mention that of the ultimate truth. Thus for the eyes to see a world more refined than the micro-universe would be totally out of the question. After going through a series of close observations and rigorous analyses, we find that there is no way to substantiate that the wall is white; no proof can be produced.

Furthermore, the temperature, speed and weight of an object can be measured by the instruments. Does this mean that the object exists? The instruments, however, need to be monitored by the eyes. Without the five sense organs, who is to know that the instruments could measure these data? This means that ultimately our perception is just a function of the sense organs. Other than this, there is no evidence whatsoever to prove the wall is white.

But the Buddha or Nagarjuna did not force this conclusion on us. Rather, it is derived from the fact that we really cannot produce any evidence to support the claim that “it truly is a white wall” after repeated observations.

ii. Search for the evidence that the present is not a dream

Another example is to distinguish between reality and dream. If I were to ask you to come up with the evidence in ten minutes to show that being here now and listening to this teaching is not a dream, I doubt that any of you could do that. The fact is that the inherent nature of dream and the actual world are not different; both are unreal. Some people may insist that being in class here and now is definitely a reality, not a dream, because they were not sleeping before coming here. In order to dream, one must be asleep. How can they be dreaming now if they are fully awake? Nevertheless, we often see in dreams exactly the same situation as when we are awake. So this kind of argument cannot prove anything.

To people in general, the period prior to and after this life is nothing but a blur. We might have assumed that at least we know well what the present life is about. But judging from the reasoning above, we may no longer be so sure.

So far we have not tried to explain the two truths by way of the analytic methodology of Madhyamaka but from an angle that is easily understandable. Through the prior analysis, we cannot find the evidence to substantiate that, firstly, the wall is white and secondly, the present is not a dream. It goes to show that nothing that people do, see, or hear is actually based on anything solid. But in the modern society, most people are only concerned with accumulating wealth; whether they are living a real life or a dream is not important. The fact is that if people can contemplate seriously, they will realize that no evidence can be found to substantiate the reality of any matter or object.

What then is the conclusion following this line of thinking? It should at least raise some questions in our minds: What am I? Am I living in a big dream? This is something we would not have thought about without going through the following process of thorough examination: the dreams at night are small dreams→life in daytime is a big dream→the small dreams are enclosed within the big dream.

iii. Search for the essence of matter

It would be easy to discern that the physical world is unreal by applying the reasoning of Madhyamaka, such as Nagarjuna’s five reasons5 or Chandrakirti’s seven reasons6 of the non-existence of the wooden cart. We will not go through all of them here, only take one simple example to demonstrate its logic.

Say, a disassembled car will become a pile of car parts, not a car any more. To continue disassembling, parts will become pieces of iron, then particles, then at last all matter will disappear before our eyes; nothing is left.

This would be the end result if analyzing from the point of the physical world. On a larger scale, the Earth is just a very small particle of the immense Milky Way. By further and further breaking apart the Earth, smaller particles will keep emerging until the end. So far, no philosophy, science, or other disciplines of the world have been able to perceive what would be at the end of this process. The Buddha, however, explained clearly some twenty-five hundred years ago: At last, no matter how small the particle is, it can neither be divided endlessly nor be indivisible. The so-called smallest particle can still be divided further until nothing is left. Another example is made with a dollar bill. If a dollar is changed to ten dimes which then are given to ten people, the dollar essentially disappears. The division of matter is similar to this. Ultimately, it will disappear without a trace.

If it is too difficult to comprehend how the smallest particle can be divided down to nothing, one can use the construct of a car, a house, or a piece of fabric for observation of the illusory nature of matter. For example, when a piece of fabric is made into garments for people to wear, the fabric will be seen as something truly existent. But when the fabric is divided into threads, one does not see the fabric any more. If the threads are subdivided into wool (providing the threads are made of wool), no more threads will remain, only wool. To subdivide the wool further, it leaves just particles to be seen. Then, may I ask what happened to the fabric, the threads, and the wool? They have all disappeared one by one.

In fact, all matter can be broken down, ultimately, to nonexistence. After all, matter arises from emptiness, disintegrates into emptiness, and is inseparable from emptiness at all time.

So far, we have at least understood that the external physical world is all an illusion. Yet, as ordinary people tend to cling to the idea of inherent existence, in the end they can only pin their hopes on the existence of mind. However, the nature of mind is also non-existent.

Discern the insubstantiality of the mental world

Now let us turn inward and observe our own self. According to the Buddhist text, humans are made up of five aggregates. We all know that flesh, bones, skin and so forth compose the physical body and all its components can be taken apart further. Apart from these constituent elements, there is mind. The so-called mind refers to the mind consciousness or spiritual consciousness. If the five sense organs of eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body are impaired, their corresponding consciousnesses cannot continue. Can mind consciousness continue nonetheless? No, it cannot exist on its own either. But how is this possible? We have always thought that mind is the one who does the thinking, who receives and rejects the external stimuli, while the body is like its servant doing whatever mind tells it to do. For example, if mind orders the body to touch fire, even though fire will consume the body, the body must still obey the order if mind so desires. Then we cannot help but ask, “What exactly is the intrinsic nature of mind consciousness (or mind)?”

Can the myriad instruments be used to measure mind consciousness directly? No. When emotions arise in mind, the brain and other organs will be duly affected. Instruments, in this situation, can only indirectly infer the state of mind through the detection of physiological changes. The true nature of mind, however, can never be found this way.

As a matter of fact, what mind can do is beyond imagination. So for questions regarding the nature of mind, it would be best to ask mind itself. How to do that? Just calm the mind first and then observe what it is. That is, by using the method of Great Perfection to look for the answer, the inherent truth of mind will present itself. Although there are other methods, such as the logical system of Madhyamaka, they are not effective enough. Thus, the best option is to go directly to mind.

However, do not ask mind before we have generated renunciation and bodhicitta because it will not answer anyway even if we do. Once renunciation and bodhicitta have been aroused, mind will reveal its true identity as soon as we ask.

The mental world is more complex and subtler than the physical world, having unfathomable aspect with layers of deepening profundity and unimaginable power. This is why that, throughout the human history, intelligent people have all been confounded by it except the Buddha who alone has grasped the essence of mind. It is a pity that most of the wonders of the mental world are kept only in the realization of certain practitioners and in specific Buddhist texts. Ordinary people, though have never been separated from the mental world, know nothing about its true face and magical powers. The truth is that the infinite cosmos is sustained merely by a subtle and magical inner power. When this power dissipates completely, all the splendid phenomena in the universe will vanish in an instant. How unbelievable!

Some people get terrified when they just barely experience emptiness during meditation. That may be the experience of some of you as well. Because we have always believed that self exists, the sudden discovery of the total non-existence of self terrifies us. We wonder, “If I do not exist, what is ‘this thing’ that is sitting here? What is one to do?” Have no fear, really. This is a normal reaction of a person of relatively inferior` capacity, a sign of getting a little closer to the state of emptiness. For instance, when the hand is near the fire, it feels the heat. If the hand is far away, it will not feel anything, no matter how fierce the fire may be. By the same token, there are many teachings on emptiness in the Buddhist canon. If we do not learn or practice them, emptiness will mean very little to us, if any. When we almost have the first taste of emptiness during meditation, we begin to have some reactions. Being scared is one of them. But this fear is only temporary and we will soon overcome it. By continuing the learning process, we will come to know that our inherent nature has always been like this since the very beginning, that there has never been an inherently existing “I.” Yet, I have still survived. “I” is both empty and existing at the same time. So, do not fear.

Now we know that neither the physical world nor the mental world exists. And the physical and the mental world compose the world of the relative truth; everything is contained within these two worlds. If they do not exist, what does? This means that in the final analysis not a single thing exists, just as Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch, had said in his well- known stanza, “Nothing is ever there.” At this point, intellectually we know, or more precisely sort of sense, that the two worlds of mind and matter do not exist, but this is only a superficial sense of the consciousness, not realization of emptiness.

V. The indivisible union of the two truths

Emptiness (ultimate truth, reality) and phenomena (relative truth) have never been contradictory to each another. As mentioned previously, some people mistakenly think that emptiness of the ultimate truth and the phenomena of the relative truth are contradictory after reading the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. They think that if emptiness is true, there can be no samsara; if samsara exists, it cannot be emptiness. But this is just their personal view. In fact, the two truths do not contradict each other at all.

Take the earlier example of a piece of fabric. The observation can be made in reverse order from emptiness to the aggregation of quarks, atoms, molecules, etc. and finally wool. Wool can be knitted into yarn, yarn to fabric, and fabric made to clothes. Either to take apart or put together the constituent elements, the essence of fabric is actually the same. When put together, the existence of fabric is of the relative truth. When taken apart, the final non-existence of fabric is of the ultimate truth. The essence of fabric has never been separated from the ultimate truth, but, in the relative truth, fabric exists and can be made into clothes. The two are not contradictory. Hence, it was said before that all matter can be defined by the ultimate truth and the relative truth.

Are all these only some kind of theory? Not so. This is not just a play of words but principles that can be applied to practice the union of the two truths. How? At present, we must start from the relative truth, that is, to generate renunciation and bodhicitta first. Cultivating the view of emptiness can wait. Once a firm foundation of renunciation and bodhicitta is laid, everyone will be able to enter the state of emptiness without much difficulty. Conversely, absent this foundation, it would be quite a difficult task to realize emptiness. No amount of empowerment that one receives, or however many tulkus one can meet and rituals to attend can help in this regard. The key to Buddhist practice does not lie in what kind of image one can produce, but in seeking a secure spiritual path from within and following that path with best effort. Only then can any accomplishment be attained.

In terms of external conditions, nothing can surpass the great compassion and tremendous power of the Buddha. If external conditions could force liberation on us, we would not be in samsara today as the Buddha would have done everything within his power to free us from all suffering. In fact, the Buddha has already shown us many paths to liberation, but due to our own inertia we are still mired in samsara like the rest of the ordinary people.

In summary, first by learning the doctrine of the two truths, we know that all phenomena are simultaneously empty and existent. From that point on, we will ask no more such question: If both the Buddha and sentient beings are empty of self-nature, why bother with Buddhahood, bodhicitta, and the like? We can go on with the practice with full confidence. Then on the basis of firm renunciation and genuine bodhicitta, we can approach the actual practice of emptiness.

The way to practice emptiness is first to understand what we have so far discussed as well as the theories put forth in Madhyamaka, then to contemplate the reasoning behind them over and over again. Realization, or a deeply felt recognition, that everything is empty of self-nature will arise subsequently. By then, one will not feel obligated to acknowledge emptiness in all things just because the texts say so, but still feel deeply a sense of void when doing the observation by oneself regardless of what the view of the text is. This feeling, in fact a preliminary understanding, is called realization. To prolong this cognitive feeling is in effect cultivating the mind. Naturally, the longer the feeling stays the better. As we live in a state of grasping and clinging all the time before coming to realization, the longer we can remain in realization after attaining it, the less time we will spend with attachment.

Emptiness has many levels, so does realization. What we just discussed is the very first level. To keep building on this, one will eventually attain true realization of emptiness and thus end all that clinging and grasping. Since the view of not-self and clinging to an existing self are totally incompatible, once the view of not-self is firmly established, attachment to an existing self naturally falls apart.

VI. The purpose of realization of emptiness

Lastly, we must know why we need to realize emptiness. From the Theravada perspective, one needs realization of emptiness to attain one’s own liberation, to break the cycle of death and rebirth for oneself. From the Mahayana perspective, the purpose of realizing emptiness is not for one’s own sake but to gain better ability to benefit sentient beings.

Why is realization of emptiness capable of this task? It is because without this realization, self-grasping will persist. That means one cannot completely give up the idea that self-interest still accounts more importance than others’ even if one is willing to dedicate oneself to serving others selflessly and unconditionally. This thought of valuing oneself above others, if let stay, will hamper one’s effort to give oneself unselfishly and unconditionally to others, so it must be destroyed. Once it is gone, self-grasping also ceases. One’s own welfare will not be a concern any more. At that point, one would be totally free to do the only task at hand, that is, to deliver sentient beings from the suffering of samsara. Thus it is for this reason that the bodhisattvas aspire to attain realization of emptiness, not at all for the pursuit of personal liberation. Understand clearly the purpose of realization of emptiness is very important.

In conclusion, the bodhisattvas are said to have transcended but not abandoned samsara. Having transcended samsara is because they are no longer bounded by the six realms, completely undefiled and unaffected by samsara. Not to abandon samsara is because they have reached the highest state of realization of emptiness but opted to remain forever in samsara as their sole purpose is to benefit sentient beings more effectively. This is the ultimate state, the final goal that we should all aim for.

1 A patriarch of the “Northern School” of Chinese Chan Buddhism who supposedly had the famous verse-writing contest with Huineng in the 7th century

2 In this context, people refer to ordinary human beings and the manifestations of Buddhas or bodhisattvas in the human realm

3 Twelve ayatana: the six sense organs and sense objects

4 Eighteen dhatus can be arranged into six triads where each has a sense-organ, a sense object and sense consciousness

5 refer to Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika)

6 refer to Introduction to the Middle Way (Madhyamaka-avatara)