The Trouble with Truth: Confusing the terms Relative and Absolute Truth – Why Lama Shenpen Prefers to teach about One Truth.

A student writes:

I’m trying to understand what is meant when I hear the terms Relative and Absolute Truth. When we say the world is illusion, but we still have to obey the rules of the world, would that be an example of Absolute Truth? If the Absolute Truth is that the world is illusion, then is Relative Truth that it’s still meaningful and its rules affect us? And what about when you teach that: people are inseparable, yet distinct, is that another example of Absolute (we are all one) and Relative (yet distinct)?

Lama Shenpen replied:

I don’t like talking about the terms Relative and Absolute Truth in this way because it is very confusing! The first example – the world as illusion, that’s really interesting because that particular distinction is the trickiest in terms of the different Buddhist systems. There’s another word – conventional – that I would prefer to use for cause and effect/Karma, where it matters what we do in the world. Without any deep understanding one could actually just believe that it matters what we do, it’s a convention, it’s what we’ve been told and there’s no particular need to examine it.

To understand why it’s like that ultimately, what’s behind it, you’d have to investigate the nature of reality and the nature of mind and so on, but looking at these conventional truths, we don’t have to examine anything, we could say ‘well the Buddha said so, he said if you killed you go to hell’ so let’s just accept that. And we see these conventions in everyday life, we know if we put our hands in a fire it would get burned, it’s just truth, conventionally.

So you could say that’s relative truth, using the English meaning of the words, relative truth – because you could say that it is relatively true to where you are looking from: you will feel the bad effect of putting you hand in a fire in relationship to you and your future. But that isn’t a technical term, we’re just choosing to use that word ‘relative’.

Then there’s another world ‘Samvriti’ which is often translated as relative truth but it actually means ‘false appearance’. So while we’re deluded, all that conventional stuff looks real, it appears real, it’s apparently true and that would included all sorts of deluded views such as grasping and attachment to things as real.

So what we’re doing as Buddhist practitioners is looking at the Samvriti, our false view of things and seeing what is true. In these meditations we’re using our Prajna (wisdom/intelligence/insight) to see what’s false, right here and now on the spot, not seeing false theories as false, just seeing directly – like time, space, self, other etc, it’s all kinds of concepts, it’s not real, you can drop it. So Samvriti is what you drop. That’s the false reality that you drop, in order to realise the true nature of mind.

But when I talk about people being not separate yet distinct, I’m actually talking about the Absolute – in the sense it’s beyond concepts. You might call it Emptiness, the Clear Light Mind, or any of those grand sounding terms. When you look directly and experience the Chitta (our Heart-Mind) that is Absolute. It doesn’t change, it’s non-conditioned. In the non-conditioned that is not created by the mind that thinks, it is actually ultimately true and real. But you might think that if something’s manifesting it must be relative, but actually that’s not necessarily true. It depends what you mean by ‘relative’. It doesn’t have to be Samvriti, it doesn’t have to be false just because you can’t grasp it as anything.

So when we’re thinking about self and other and thinking of another being, we think we know another being because we have a conventional idea, and then we put some false overlay on that and then think that’s how it is, it’s like this solid person who’s different and separate from me and then how on earth can we ever connect? But actually if you let go of that grasping at things as solid and real and conceptual time/place etc and just let go, you come to that indestructible nature, and that’s actually where we meet.

But you might say, does that mean we merge? Does it mean we become indistinguishable now? Are we all on person now, does it all go blank? Does all the manifestation disappear? So that’s when I say, we remain distinct. We meet but you remain distinct and I remain distinct but it can’t be grasped. We’re distinct so we can communicate with each other and find out things. So that’s the way I’m using it – at an absolute level where it’s beyond concepts, it’s beyond the grasping mind, but I’m using it with people (those who are doing the Living the Awakened Heart training) at an early stage, because people already intuit it.

People even in their most confused state still intuitively sense that connection in the heart, and that is actually proof that our heart is Tathagata (Buddha), because we understand that, and I find that really amazing and that is Absolute. You could say it’s Empty – yes, but that means it’s the essence of life itself, it can’t be grasped.

That’s the only truth really. That’s why I don’t like talking about two truths. I like to emphasise that there is one Truth, we already intuit it, we are already it, and the best things about us are related to that. We’re already ‘there’ but we overlay it with all these doubts and confusion, which is what we’re working with.

So there’s this apparent problem, the doubts and confusions that we’re trying to remove, so I wouldn’t call that truth! I would call that an apparent reality, which is a fair translation of Samvriti.

But for people who are not teaching the way I’m teaching, they have to consider the conventional reality – it’s really important. The way I’m teaching, because it’s so directly connected to the heart, the tendency to produce good karma is very strong, because in our heart we don’t want to harm people, so as a teacher I don’t need to stress karma/cause and effect so much.

But if you’re not teaching in this way and you’re teaching that everything is impermanent and suffering and changing, and saying you’ve got to see everything as empty, then there’s a danger that people can get a bit nihilistic. That’s when you need to stress the conventional truth, that it does matter, but you’re just taking that as given, you’re told it’s what the Buddha said, or told you have to keep the precepts etc. So it’s really important in that system, so they will keep stressing very much that you cannot do anything without the relative truth, Samvriti, or they might call it conventional truth.

But it gets a bit confused. So this is going on in the Buddhist world and the books you’re reading and you’ve got to actually distinguish where they’re coming from. In books that aren’t written from the Shentong point of view they will stress more the need for that kind of belief in these systems because otherwise there’s that danger of nihilism.

I think I need to write something more on all this because a lot of things get pushed together as one thing and called ‘relative truth’ when they are actually quite different!

Lama Shenpen