Dharma Notes‎ > ‎

The Two Truths

According to Buddhism, there are two kinds of
truth, relative or worldly truth (samvriti satya) and
absolute truth (paramartha satya). We enter the
door of practice through relative truth. We
recognize the presence of happiness and the
presence of suffering, and we try to go in the
direction of increased happiness. Every day we go
a little further in that direction, and one day we
realize that suffering and happiness are "not two."

A Vietnamese poem says:

People talk endlessly about their suffering and
their joy.
But what is there to suffer or be joyful about?
Joy from sensual pleasure always leads to pain,
and suffering while practicing the Way always
brings joy.
Wherever there is joy, there is suffering.
If you want to have no-suffering, you must accept

The poet is trying to leap into absolute truth
without walking the path of relative truth. Many
people think that in order to avoid suffering, they
have to give up joy, and they call this
"transcending joy and suffering." This is not
correct. If you recognize and accept your pain
without running away from it, you will discover
that although pain exists, joy also exists. Without
experiencing relative joy, you will not know what
to do when you are face-to-face with absolute joy.
Don't get caught in theories or ideas, such as saying
that suffering is an illusion or that we have to
"transcend" both suffering and joy. Just stay in
touch with what is actually going on, and you will
touch the true nature of suffering and the true
nature of joy. When you have a headache, it would
not be correct to call your headache illusory. To
help it go away, you have to acknowledge its
existence and understand its causes.

We enter the path of practice through the door
of knowledge, perhaps from a Dharma talk or a
book. We continue along the path, and our
suffering lessens, little by little. But at some point,
all of our concepts and ideas must yield to our
actual experience. Words and ideas are only useful
if they are put into practice. When we stop
discussing things and begin to realize the teachings
in our own life, a moment comes when we realize
that our life is the path, and we no longer rely
merely on the forms of practice. Our action
becomes "non-action," and our practice becomes
"non-practice." The boundary has been crossed,
and our practice cannot be set back. We do not
have to transcend the "world of dust" (saha) in
order to go to some dust-free world called nirvana.
Suffering and nirvana are of the same substance. If
we throw away the world of dust, we will have no

In the Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the
Dharma, the Buddha taught the Four Noble
Truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the
cessation of suffering, and the path. But in the
Heart Sutra, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara tells
us that there is no suffering, no cause of suffering,
no cessation of suffering, and no path. Is this a
contradiction? No. The Buddha is speaking in
terms of relative truth, and Avalokiteshvara is
teaching in terms of absolute truth. When
Avalokiteshvara says there is no suffering, he
means that suffering is made entirely of things that
are not suffering. Whether you suffer or not
depends on many circumstances. The cold air can
be painful if you are not wearing warm enough
clothes, but with proper clothing, cold air can be a
source of joy. Suffering is not objective. It depends
largely on the way you perceive. There are things
that cause you to suffer but do not cause others to
suffer. There are things that bring you joy but do
not bring others joy. The Four Noble Truths were
presented by the Buddha as relative truth to help
you enter the door of practice, but they are not his
deepest teaching.

With the eyes of interbeing, we can always
reconcile the Two Truths. When we see,
comprehend, and touch the nature of interbeing, we
see the Buddha.

All conditioned things are impermanent.
They are phenomena, subject to birth and death.
When birth and death no longer are,
the complete silencing is joy.

This verse (gatha) was spoken by the Buddha
shortly before his death. The first two lines
express relative truth, while the third and fourth
lines express absolute truth. "All conditioned
things" includes physical, physiological, and
psychological phenomena. "Complete silencing"
means nirvana, the extinction of all concepts. When
the Buddha says, "The complete silencing is joy,"
he means that thinking, conceptualizing, and
speaking have come to an end. This is the Third
Noble Truth in absolute terms.

The Buddha recommends that we recite the
"Five Remembrances" every day:

(1) I am of the nature to grow old. There is no
way to escape growing old.

(2) I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is
no way to escape having ill-health.

(3) I am of the nature to die. There is no way to
escape death.

(4) All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature to change. There is no way to
escape being separated from them.

(5) My actions are my only true belongings. I
cannot escape the consequences of my actions.

My actions are the ground on which I stand.
The Five Remembrances help us make friends
with our fears of growing old, getting sick, being
abandoned, and dying. They are also a bell of
mindfulness that can help us appreciate deeply the
wonders of life that are available here and now. But
in the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara teaches that
there is no birth and no death. Why would the
Buddha tell us that we are of the nature to die if
there is no birth and no death? Because in the Five
Remembrances, the Buddha is using the tool of
relative truth. He is well aware that in terms of
absolute truth, there is no birth and no death.
When we look at the ocean, we see that each
wave has a beginning and an end. A wave can be
compared with other waves, and we can call it
more or less beautiful, higher or lower, longer
lasting or less long lasting. But if we look more
deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. While
living the life of a wave, it also lives the life of
water. It would be sad if the wave did not know
that it is water. It would think, Some day, I will
have to die. This period of time is my life span,
and when I arrive at the shore, I will return to
nonbeing. These notions will cause the wave fear
and anguish. We have to help it remove the notions
of self, person, living being, and life span if we
want the wave to be free and happy.

A wave can recognized by signs — high or low,
beginning or ending, beautiful or ugly. But in the
world of the water, there are no signs. In the world
of relative truth, the wave feels happy as she
swells, and she feels sad when she falls. She may
think, "I am high," or "I am low," and develop a
superiority or inferiority complex. But when the
wave touches her true nature — which is water —
all her complexes will cease, and she will transcend
birth and death.

We become arrogant when things go well, and
we are afraid of falling, or being low or inadequate.
But these are relative ideas, and when they end, a
feeling of completeness and satisfaction arises.
Liberation is the ability to go from the world of
signs to the world of true nature. We need the
relative world of the wave, but we also need to
touch the water, the ground of our being, to have
real peace and joy. We shouldn't allow relative
truth to imprison us and keep us from touching
absolute truth. Looking deeply into relative truth,
we penetrate the absolute. Relative and absolute
truths inter-embrace. Both truths, relative and
absolute, have a value.

Sitting in the northern hemisphere, we think we
know which direction is above and which is below.
But someone sitting in Australia will not agree.
Above and below are relative truths. Above what?
Below what? There is no absolute truth of above
and below, old age and youth, etc. For me, old age
is fine. It is nice to be old! There are things young
people cannot experience. Young people are like a
source of water from the top of the mountain,
always trying to go as quickly as possible. But
when you become a river going through the
lowland, you are much more peaceful. You reflect
many clouds and the beautiful blue sky. Being old
has its own joys. You can be very happy being an
old person. When I sit with young monks and
nuns, I feel that they are my continuation. I have
done my best, and now they are continuing my
being. This is interbeing, nonself.

This morning, before giving a Dharma talk, I
was having breakfast with my attendant, a lovely
novice monk. I paused and said to him, "Dear one,
do you see the cow on the hillside? She is eating
grass in order to make my yogurt, and I am now
eating the yogurt to make a Dharma talk."
Somehow, the cow will offer today's Dharma talk.
As I drank the cow's milk, I was a child of the cow.
The Buddha recommends we live our daily life in
this way, seeing everything in the light of
interbeing. Then we will not be caught in our small
self. We will see our joy and our suffering
everywhere. We will be free, and we won't see
dying as a problem. Why should we say that dying
is suffering? We continue with the next
generations. What is essential is to be our best
while we are here. Then we continue to be through
our children and grandchildren. Motivated by love,
we invest ourselves in the next generations.
Whether birth and death are suffering depends on
our insight. With insight, we can look at all these
things and smile to them. We are not affected in the
same way anymore. We ride on the wave of birth
and death, and we are free from birth and death.
This insight liberates us.

All "formations" (samskara) are impermanent.
This sheet of paper is a physical formation formed
by many elements. A rose, a mountain, and cloud
are formations. Your anger is a mental formation.
Your love and the idea of nonself are mental
formations. My fingers and my liver are
physiological formations.

Look into the self and discover that it is made
only of non-self elements. A human being is made
up of only non-human elements. To protect
humans, we have to protect the non-human
elements — the air, the water, the forest, the river,
the mountains, and the animals. The Diamond
Sutra is the most ancient text about how to respect
all forms of life on earth, the animals, vegetation,
and also minerals. We have to remove the notion of
human as something that can survive by itself
alone. Humans can survive only with the survival
of other species. This is exactly the teaching of the
Buddha, and also the teaching of deep ecology.
When we look deeply into living beings, we find
out that they are made of non-living-being
elements. So-called inanimate things are alive also.
Our notions about living beings and inanimate
things should be removed for us to touch reality.
The fourth notion to be removed is life span.
We think that we exist only from this point in time
until this point in time, and we suffer because of
that notion. If we look deeply, we will know that
we have never been born and we will never die. A
wave is born and dies, is higher or lower, more or
less beautiful. But you cannot apply these notions
to water. When we see this, our fear will suddenly

Within us, we carry the world of no-birth and
no-death. But we never touch it, because we live
only with our notions. The practice is to remove
these notions and touch the ultimate dimension —
nirvana, God, the world of no-birth and no-death.
Because of the notions we carry, we are unable to
touch it, and we live in constant fear and suffering.
When the wave lives her life as a wave deeply, she
touches the dimension of water that is within her,
and suddenly her fears and notions vanish, and she
is truly happy. Before that, her happiness was just
a kind of band-aid. The greatest relief is to touch
nirvana, the world of no-birth and no-death.
The Third Holy Truth is about relative wellbeing,
which is impermanent. Your toothache is
impermanent, but your non-toothache is also
impermanent. When you practice deep Buddhism,
you remove all these notions and touch the world
of no-birth and no-death. With that insight, you
look at birth, death, old-age, ups and downs,
suffering, and happiness with the eyes of a sage,
and you don't suffer anymore. You smile, no longer

The Fourth Noble Truth is the cessation of the
causes of suffering. When we put an end to our
suffering, we feel relative joy. But when all of our
concepts of suffering and not suffering cease, we
taste absolute joy. Imagine two hens about to be
slaughtered, but they do not know it. One hen says
to the other, "The rice is much tastier than the
corn. The corn is slightly off." She is talking about
relative joy. She does not realize that the real joy
of this moment is the joy of not being slaughtered,
the joy of being alive.

When we practice the Four Holy Truths in the
dimension of relative truth, we obtain some relief.
We are able to transform our suffering and restore
our well-being. But we are still in the historical
dimension of reality. The deeper level of practice is
to lead our daily life in a way that we touch both
the absolute and the relative truth. In the
dimension of relative truth, the Buddha passed
away many years ago. But in the realm of absolute
truth, we can take his hand and join him for
walking meditation every day.

Practice in a way that gives you the greatest
relief. The wave is already water. To enter the
heart of the Buddha, use your Buddha eyes, which
means your insight into interbeing. Approach the
heart of the Buddha in the realm of absolute truth,
and the Buddha will be there with you. When you
hear the sound of the bell, listen with your ears,
and also listen with the ears of your ancestors,
your children, and their children. Listen in the
relative and absolute dimensions at the same time.
You don't have to die to enter nirvana or the
Kingdom of God. You only have to dwell deeply
in the present moment, right now.

The Avatamsaka Sutra says that all dharmas
(phenomena) enter one dharma, and one dharma
enters all dharmas. If you go deeply into any one
of the teachings of the Buddha, you will find all of
the other teachings in it. If you practice looking
deeply into the First Holy Truth, you can see the
Noble Eightfold Path revealed. Outside of the First
Holy Truth, there cannot be any path, holy or
unholy. That is why you have to embrace your
suffering, hold it close to your chest, and look
deeply into it. The way out of your suffering
depends on how you look into it. That is why
suffering is called a Holy Truth. Look deeply into
the nature of the path, using your Buddha eyes.
The truth of the path is one with the truth of
suffering. Every second I am on the path that leads
out of suffering, suffering is there to guide me.
That is why it is a holy path.

This book began with the sentence, "Buddha
was not a god. He was a human being. . . ." What
does this mean? What is a human being? If the
trees and the rivers were not there, could human
beings be alive? If animals and all other species
were not there, how could we be? A human being
is made entirely of non-human elements. We must
free ourselves of our ideas of Buddha and of human
beings. Our ideas may be the obstacles that
prevent us from seeing the Buddha.

"Dear Buddha, are you a living being?" We want
the Buddha to confirm the notion we have of him.
But he looks at us, smiles, and says, "A human
being is not a human being. That is why we can
say that he is a human being." These are the
dialectics of the Diamond Sutra. "A is not A. That
is why it is truly A." A flower is not a flower. It is
made only of non-flower elements — sunshine,
clouds, time, space, earth, minerals, gardeners, and
so on. A true flower contains the whole universe.
If we return any one of these non-flower elements
to its source, there will be no flower. That is why
we can say, "A rose is not a rose. That is why it is
an authentic rose." We have to remove our concept
of rose if we want to touch the real rose.
Nirvana means extinction — first of all, the
extinction of all concepts and notions. Our
concepts about things prevent us from really
touching them. We have to destroy our notions if
we want to touch the real rose. When we ask,
"Dear Buddha, are you a human being?" it means
we have a concept about what a human being is. So
the Buddha just smiles at us. It is his way of
encouraging us to transcend our concepts and
touch the real being that he is. A real being is quite
different from a concept.

If you have been to Paris, you have a concept
of Paris. But your concept is quite different from
Paris itself. Even if you've lived in Paris for ten
years, your idea of Paris still does not coincide
with the reality. You may have lived with someone
for ten years and think that you know her
perfectly, but you are living only with your
concept. You have a concept of yourself, but have
you touched your true self? Look deeply to try to
overcome the gap between your concept of reality
and reality itself. Meditation helps us remove

The Buddhist teaching of the Two Truths is
also a concept. But if we know how to use it, it
can help us penetrate reality itself.

From "Heart of the Buddha's Teachings"
by Thich Nhat Hanh