21.5.06

The Two Truths

"Very often," says Maurice Walshe in the introduction to his translation of the Long Discourses of the Buddha (Digha Nikaya), "the Buddha talks in the Suttas in terms of conventional or relative truth (sammuti-sacca), according to which people and things exist just as they appear to the naïve understanding. Elsewhere, however, when addressing and audience capable of appreciating his meaning, he speaks in terms of ultimate truth (paramattha-sacca)."
The notion of Two Truths goes entirely against the grain of what the Buddha taught. Siddhattha Gotama's teaching is not founded on absolutes of any kind. He avoids the deeply ingrained assumption of much religious thought that reality is somehow split down the middle (God and Creation / Brahman and Maya / Nirvana and Samsara / Emptiness and Form). Ironically, of course, such divisions are blatantly dualistic -- a position most Buddhists are supposed to be at pains to avoid.

It might come as a surprise, therefore -- particularly after having just read the words of an eminent translator of the Buddha's word -- to learn that nowhere among the discourses (sutta) in the Pali canon does the Buddha use such terms. This famous distinction between "relative" and "absolute" truth is entirely alien to these early texts. One can certainly interpret his teaching through the lens of such an idea (which, if you read the passage carefully, is what Maurice Walshe does) but bear in mind that the distinction itself is one the Buddha never employed.

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