On Conventional and Ultimate Truth

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One of the most famous Buddhist tropes is the distinction between “conventional truth” and “ultimate truth”. While these terms never appear in the Nikāyas, and so cannot be traced back to the Buddha himself, they do trace to the abhidhamma period, perhaps as a potential explanation for the copious and problematic use of “self” talk within the Canon.

Although the Buddha taught that all dhammas were “non-self” (anatta), nevertheless he did talk about himself. Although he taught that one could not say whether one existed in the past or the future, nevertheless he did talk about his past actions and future plans.

On the face of it, these appear to be contradictions. Either there is a self or there is not; either the self can be distinguished in the world and discussed as such, or it cannot.

One potential response to this dilemma is, basically, to grab for both horns at once. In Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna’s (2nd-3rd c. CE) formulation, there are “two truths”, or two kinds of truth:

The Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma
Is based on two truths:
A truth of worldly convention
And an ultimate truth. (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 24.8)

There is the level of conventional truth in which exist selves, and there is the level of ultimate truth in which there do not. At the conventional level, one can speak truthfully of having a self. One can truthfully say that “By oneself alone is one purified” (Dhammapada 165). On the other hand, at the ultimate level one can speak truthfully of not finding a self. One can truthfully say that “All things are not-self”. (Dhp. 279).

Here the analogy is often made to cases of illusion or misperception, for example being misled by a mirage on a hot day at noontime. (Saṃyutta Nikāya 22.95). It appears that there is a pool of water ahead, but one who “inspects it, ponders it, and carefully investigates it” would find that in fact there is only sand.

In this sense (although perhaps not for Nāgārjuna) “ultimate truth” expresses something metaphysically prior to “conventional”: it expresses reality, the way things really are. There really is only a flat expanse of sand ahead. “Conventional truth” on the other hand doesn’t express reality accurately. It merely expresses forms of misperception. It expresses our ignorant way of taking things: how we perceive the world when we do not ponder and investigate carefully enough.

Varieties of Conventional and Ultimate Truth

At first glance then the distinction between conventional and ultimate truth seems unproblematic, maybe even banal. Of course there is a difference between talking about the mirage of an oasis and a real oasis. Of course we can misperceive and misunderstand the world.

In the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa (5th c. CE) gives an example which I think helps illuminate the difference between conventional and ultimate truth:

Suppose there were three people, a child without discretion, a villager, and a money-changer, who saw a heap of coins lying on a money-changer’s counter. The child without discretion knows merely that the coins are figured and ornamented, long, square or round; he does not know that they are reckoned as valuable for human use and enjoyment. And the villager knows that they are figured and ornamented, etc., and that they are reckoned as valuable for human use and enjoyment; but he does not know such distinctions as ‘This one is genuine, this is false, this is half-value’. The money-changer knows all those kinds, and he does so by looking at the coin, and by listening to the sound of it when struck, and by smelling its smell, tasting its taste, and weighing it in his hand, and he knows that it was made in a certain village or town or city or on a certain mountain or by a certain master. (XIV, 4)

Knowledge and technical proficiency makes a difference to how accurately we see the world, although in Buddhaghosa’s case the distinction is closer to that between partial and complete than conventional and ultimate.

Of course, the paradigm example of the money-changer’s technical knowhow is that realized through the sciences. We know, for example, that color perception is largely an illusion: although phenomenal colors do roughly track wavelength, this is far from always the case. For examples, Akiyoshi Kitaoka has many such illusions on his webpage.

Further, the fact that humans see the particular phenomenological spectrum we do, whereby any color can be produced by the mixing of three hues of light, is wholly due to our retinas having three different kinds of cone cells, each sensitive to stimulation by a particular wavelength of light. This is called “trichromacy”, so most humans are “trichromats”. So called “colorblind” people are typically those with two kinds of cones, also called “dichromats”; they will only require two light hues to produce all possible colors.

On the other side of the scale, several kinds of animals are “tetrachromats”, and perhaps even “pentachromats”. Their visual fields will be at least as different from ours as ours is from someone who is colorblind, and they will see colors which we literally cannot imagine. This implies that colors per se are not features of the external world, they are only features of our responses to the world. In that sense we might say that color-talk exists on the level of conventional truths about surface reflectance while claims about wavelengths of light would be the ultimate truths.

If we were talking about the phenomenology of vision however, the case would be different. Then colors — or so-called “color qualia” — appear to be the basic features, for which no further analysis is possible: there just is a way this leaf looks green, and that’s an end to the analysis. So phenomenologically, the ultimate truths would involve color-talk.

Lots and Lots of Levels

As we saw in Buddhaghosa’s example, and apparently in contrast to the claims in certain Theravāda commentaries, there appears to be more than one kind of conventional truth. The child sees figured and ornamented metal pieces, while the villager knows their value as media of exchange: these are different ways to view the coins, but neither can be precisely called “false”, at least on a conventional level. They are, one might say, both good so far as they go. One may in some sense be more complete, or closer to the truth, than the other, but both are still true.

In the same fashion, some philosophers of science have said that there are levels of truth in the sciences, or scales of reduction. So, for example, the claims in chemistry may not be ultimately true, but they are more complete and accurate than those in biology, or psychology, or economics. Or one might say that economics, truly understood, reduces to psychology of a certain kind: if we only knew the psychology of each mind involved in economic interactions, we would have a complete science of economics. Then of course psychology in some sense may be cashed out in neurological terms, neurons in chemical terms, and so on down to basic physics.

This all goes well beyond Buddhism, much as some might like to find echoes of contemporary physics in the dhamma. The main issue is that the notion of a singular “conventional truth” cannot really be supported, either in the premodern understanding of the world provided by Buddhaghosa, or in the understanding given us through the sciences. If there are such things as conventional truths, there are a lot of them about any given subject matter.

Does “anything go” then with respect to conventional truths? If it’s to be a useful concept, we need some way to distinguish what counts as a “conventional truth”, as opposed to counting simply as a “falsehood”. Mark Siderits defines a statement as “conventionally true”

… if and only if it is acceptable to common sense and consistently leads to successful practice. (p. 56)

As it stands this is not a very satisfactory definition. At the very least it does not clear up much of our confusion as to how to distinguish true from false conventional claims. Indeed, it doesn’t even distinguish conventional from ultimate very well. For example, it is paradigmatically Buddhist to claim that one cannot practice successfully if one is deluded about the existence of self. Yet belief in a self is the paradigmatic conventional truth.

Now, if this were a philosophy paper we might work to refine Siderits’s definition in order to overcome these problems. For our purposes it is perhaps sufficient to note that there are many ways to “lead to successful practice”, and many beliefs that do so. For some people, to claim that global warming is false “consistently leads to successful practice”: it makes them lots of money. For some people, “it is acceptable to common sense” that ghosts exist, or the Christian God. For others, of course, none of this would qualify as anything other than falsehood, conventional or no.

A lot gets shoved under the rug when we claim that “conventional truth” is simply a point about the existence of a self, which is apparently how it all got started. Conventions come cheap. However the concept “truth” is precious: if split, it shatters.

Is there an Ultimate?

To return to Buddhaghosa’s example, we would not want to say that the money-changer had grasped the “ultimate truth” about any particular coin. (That was not the point of the example, anyhow). From a scientific standpoint, much more can be known and said about a coin than simply “by looking at the coin, and by listening to the sound of it when struck, and by smelling its smell, tasting its taste, and weighing it in his hand”. We could analyze its chemical makeup, for example. Would such an analysis lead us to some kind of “ultimate truth”, though? No, because there is always further analysis to be done.

Eventually such an investigation would lead us to the fundamental constituents of physical matter, and to claims of our most basic physics. But even here we do not have a grasp on “ultimate truth”. Our current physics is incomplete: it is not yet anything like a Theory of Everything. In particular, gravity has not yet been adequately understood in quantum mechanical terms.

Perhaps we would like to think that a future unified physics would supply us with “ultimate truth” in the form of a Theory of Everything, but here we run into our deepest epistemic problem. We can never know that our present theory, however good it is, really is the correct theory. It always remains possible that our knowledge will break down at higher levels of energy, at greater distances, at smaller scales, at distant times, at beyond the farthest bounds of our ability to measure. So if there are in fact sentences which are “ultimately true”, sentences that express the true state of affairs in the single best possible Theory of Everything, we can never know with certitude which ones they are. That’s because we will never know if our theory is actually the best, or if it is another example of Newtonianism: true near our level of energy, mass, velocity, acceleration, but false outside of it.

It may also be that there simply is no single, best Theory of Everything. Perhaps reality is (as they say) like an infinitely layered onion. If it were, there would be no way we could know it, since we cannot perform an infinite number of experiments in a finite time, and a finite time is all we will ever have.

You may well say that this hardly matters: if our understanding allows us to predict everything we require of it with arbitrary accuracy (which it will never do, but set that aside for the present), then it hardly matters if there is some realm of energy in which it breaks down. What we will have will be just as good as knowing the ultimate truths. And perhaps that’s the point: truths only matter insofar as they can be put to use somehow, for example in successful predictions. The problem therefore with the concept “ultimate truth” is that it claims to go beyond mere use.

In the history of Buddhist philosophy, theories of “ultimate truth” ramified greatly, from the realism of the abhidhamma, where the ultimate was constituted by momentary psychophysical events, to the non-dual consciousness of Yogācāra, to the ineffabilism of the Madhyamaka. Seen from the perspective of centuries, the process seems to have been a kind of distancing and dilution of the “ultimate” from something close in and comprehensible (things and phenomena) to something so recondite and esoteric as to be quite literally indescribable. At that point I think we reach a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the concept “ultimate truth”, at least as a matter of Buddhist philosophical history. I doubt Nāgārjuna would entirely disagree.

Conventional and Ultimate Truth in the Nikāyas

It can never be entirely clear what the Buddha would have made of any development that occurred after his passing, but I think we can at least hazard a few educated guesses, based on the extant work.

There is a sense in which the Buddha might have accepted something like a distinction between conventional and ultimate truth: that is, he did equivocate when it came to the self. Sometimes he said (or seemed to say) it was real and important, other times he said quite emphatically that it was not. Further, much of the material of the Nikāyas is about our continual misperception of the world: we see the impermanent as permanent, the non-beautiful as beautiful, the unbeneficial as beneficial, and so on. In our daily lives we often tend to be wrong, sometimes radically so, in our evaluation of the way things are.

The Nikāyas do contain a very few references to manners of speaking about the self, so confusion about this must have been an issue even in the Buddha’s day. For example,

[A devatā:]
If a bhikkhu is an arahant,
Consummate, with taints destroyed,
One who bears his final body,
He might still say, ‘I speak,’
And he might say, ‘They speak to me.’
Skillful, knowing the world’s parlance,
He uses such terms as mere expressions. (SN 1.25)

[The Buddha:]
[When talking about various kinds of self], these are mere names, expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use in the world, which the Tathāgata uses without misapprehending them. (Dīgha Nikāya 9.53).

No doubt the Buddha would have understood some general notion of “conventional truth”. There is “the world’s parlance”, involving “designations in common use in the world”. Such phrases as these are in common usage, they do not need to be explained or philosophically clarified.

The closest the Buddha ever gets to discussion of “ultimate truth” in the Canon involves the three marks of existence and Right View itself. The three marks of existence are that all compounded things are impermanent, that all compounded things are unsatisfactory, and that all things are non-self. (Dhp. 277-279). These are, one might say, the metaphysical bedrock of the dhamma. In “A World of Impermanence” I argued that of the three, impermanence was the most basic, at least as regards saṃsāric reality: impermanence is the way things are that, in the presence of ignorance, produces the dissatisfaction that makes the Buddhist path necessary. Without impermanence, the path would be idle.

Doctrinally however, the Four Noble Truths constitute what might be termed “ultimate truth”, at least in the Nikāyas: they are the most fundamental truths that constitute and permeate the Buddha’s dhamma.

Nevertheless I do not believe that the concepts “conventional truth” and “ultimate truth” belong in the Buddha’s discourse. I do not believe he would have welcomed them. For the Buddha “truth” was antidote to the ignorance that, in the presence of impermanence, produces dukkha. Impermanence cannot be overcome, but ignorance can.

And what, bhikkhus, is ignorance? Not knowing suffering, not knowing the origin of suffering, not knowing the cessation of suffering, not knowing the way leading to the cessation of suffering. This is called ignorance. (SN 12.2).

There is no sense here of a distinction between “conventional” and “ultimate”. There is just truth, or these few truths, lived, experienced, and directly known. Once we begin to introduce grades or kinds of truth, we have I think moved into more exclusively philosophical territory. It’s a move intended to ‘clean up’ a reasoned exposition of the dhamma, but in a way that only a certain kind of intellectual would love, since as we have seen in fact it introduces more questions than it resolves.

Conclusion

The distinction between “ultimate truth” and “conventional truth” was formulated in the abhidhamma to clean up apparent contradictions in the Buddha’s teaching. This lead to a kind of hypostasization of momentary events as the only features of the world that could be said to exist with “ultimate truth”. While I believe that is the correct realist interpretation of the dhamma, nevertheless I don’t believe that saying so would have been to the Buddha’s liking. For the Buddha, the problem was always and only the extinction of dukkha. Knowing what might be the most basic features of reality has nothing essential to do with such an end; it only engenders useless disputation.

Later Buddhist thinkers like Nāgārjuna, perhaps partly due to skepticism with these disputed views, revisited them in a new light, reinterpreting basic terms like the Sanskrit “svabhāva” in ways that made them untenable. In so doing they no doubt saw themselves as purifying the dharma of a certain kind of pointless scholasticism. Whether or not they were successful in such a project is irrelevant, though they are taken to have been by most Tibetan or Tibetan-trained exegetes. What is relevant however is that the Buddha would likely have been just as uninterested in the philosophical elaborations of the Madhyamaka as he would have been those of the later abhidhamma. For no matter what Nāgārjuna or his followers might say, the Madhyamaka is just as much a “thicket of views” (Majjhima Nikāya 2.8) as is any other developed philosophical system. For evidence of this, one only need note the extraordinary breadth of argument and disagreement it has produced between its proponents, as well as the inarguably abstruse nature of their disputes. The same is true of the doctrine of two truths itself.

Development and elaboration of these doctrines amounts essentially to philosophizing for its own sake. Though those involved did believe they were advancing the dharma by arguing and debating, I think even a glance at the tenor of the later philosophical debates reveals them to be different in kind from the goals and interests of the Buddha as described in the Nikāyas.

Perhaps then the best way to approach the distinction between the two truths is by setting them to one side. In the words of an old professor of mine and sometime antagonist of Buddhism,

The locution ‘ultimate truth’ is redundant and ‘conventional truth’ is an oxymoron. (Yandell/Netland, p. 128).

We need something both simpler and more profound than we find in the doctrine of two truths. In place of two, I would suggest a return to four.

————————————

Bhikkhu Bodhi. Various Nikāyas (Wisdom).

Gil Fronsdal (Trans.) The Dhammapada (Shambhala, 2005).

Jay Garfield. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Oxford, 1995).

Richard Hayes, “Madhyamaka”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Bhikkhu Ṇāṇamoli (Trans.) The Path of Purification (Buddhist Publication Society, 1975).

Mark Siderits. Buddhism as Philosophy (Hackett, 2007).

Sonam Thakchoe, “The Theory of Two Truths in India”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Maurice Walshe. The Long Discourses of the Buddha (Wisdom, 1987).

Keith Yandell and Harold Netland. Buddhism: a Christian Exploration and Appraisal (InterVarsity, 2009).

No Comments

  1. mufi on March 13, 2015 at 7:23 am

    For the Buddha, the problem was always and only the extinction of dukkha. Knowing what might be the most basic features of reality has nothing essential to do with such an end; it only engenders useless disputation.

    That sounds right to me, Doug, although I admit that I have days (like today, I suppose) when the Buddha’s worldview seems so radically different than mine (say, as a 21st-Century North American with a secular, pragmatic, science-influenced worldview) as to raise serious doubts about his understanding of that problem…for example, what “dukkha” means, whether it is in fact a real problem, whether or not it is in fact extinguishable, and if so how to go about performing that task.

    In other words, for the Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths” to be of much use to me, I often find that I must abstract them to the point where the Buddha would most likely have found them alien…not so unlike the way that orthodox Theravadins do nowadays! More to the point, I need not even concern myself with “the most basic features of reality” in order to recognize this gulf in (conventional?) worldviews between us (i.e. the Buddha and me).

    Mind you, if we’re comparing ancient religions, then I’ll readily admit that Buddhism (as in: the Buddha-Dhamma) most resonates with my own sensibilities (now that I’m reading the Qur’an for the first time, that judgment seems especially right). But then, strictly speaking, it’s not like we’re forced into a decision here. We might just as well wave off all of the options as inadequate and judge the comparison to be more like a vain intellectual exercise, which bears the potential to engender “useless disputation.”

  2. Carl H on March 14, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    Thanks for the paper Doug, I’ve enjoyed your writing that has appeared here. However, I’m a bit sensitive to this subject since I wrote some about it here almost a year ago. In my view, so called “truths”, or factual statements, exist in a hierarchy. (See Ken Wilber) There are lower order truths such as Newtonian physics, and higher order truths such as quantum mechanics. This does not make one conditional and one ultimate. The ultimate truth that I found was that there was no ultimate truth, it was the same as conditional truth, empty. In the beginning of your piece you seem to present the ideas of conditional and ultimate truths as legitimate, and by the end your piece you seem to say that while they exist, they aren’t really helpful. Unfortunately, I found this dissatisfying.

    • Doug Smith on March 14, 2015 at 3:16 pm

      Hello Carl and thanks for your comment. I think the problem is that this is a complicated topic with many nuances; it’s hard to come to a firm conclusion about “truth” except that the distinction between “conventional” and “ultimate” is unhelpful, because those locutions are too problematic to be very useful. There is more than one kind of “conventional truth”, and “ultimate truth” promises more than it can deliver. Given that, it is best to persist with a single notion of truth.

      The reason I presented them as legitimate in the beginning is to motivate their historical use: there is a reason that thinkers in the abhidhamma started using the concepts, and it’s not hard to understand. The problem is that (at least in my opinion) this was a wrong turn, leading further into wilderness rather than really clarifying anything.

  3. Michael Finley on March 14, 2015 at 11:51 pm

    Doug, Like Carl, I’m particularly interested in this topic. So please allow me to riff on some things in your (as usual, clear and thought provoking) treatment of the 2 truths, even if I stray a bit from your account.

    I’m certainly all for “setting aside” the 2 truths & returning to the 4. In fact, I’m perhaps even more inclined to argue that the 2 were no part of the Dharma in Gotama’s time, not even by implication. I think it might be more helpful to say that what Gotama & his contemporaries were on about was not so much “ultimate truth” as understanding — understanding that everything, and particularly the self, is impermanent. Of course this can be regarded as “ultimate truth” itself, but the search for understanding need not imply layers of truth. I can talk of tables and the atoms (or of chariots and dharmas) without calling either pure illusion or ultimate truth, or even hierarchical truths. A physicist doesn’t find it necessary to say that atoms are the ultimate truth about tables. It’s probably better just to say that I understand that tables are composed of atoms (and that’s the truth about them). I suspect that Gotama’s approach to truth was somewhat similar.

    I doubt that setting up an ultimate, inevitably hidden, truth was really part of Gotama’s project. As you suggest, his goal was release from dukkha. He didn’t pursue the ontological possibilities, at least not very far or entirely consistently.

    IMO, it was the ontological speculations of the Adhidharmikas that were quite directly responsible for the 2 truths doctrine. They dissected phenomena into simpler and simpler elements until they were left, they thought, with irreducible dharmas, the only “ultimately true” existents. This substantialist or realist view led them to set up too strong a distinction between experience & reality, worldly & ultimate.

    I suppose my view leaves even Carl’s hierarchy of truths approach in doubt. However, it may be close to Nagarjuna’s. N placed emphasis on the importance of conventional truth as well as ultimate truth: “The teaching of the Buddhas relies on two truths: The conventional worldly truth and the ultimate truth. Those who do not understand the distinction do not understand the full depth of the truth taught by the Buddha Without a foundation in the conventional truth, the ultimate truth cannot be taught. Without understanding the ultimate truth, freedom is not attained.” (Karika, 24.8-10).

    But I actually suspect that N was less enamored by the 2 truths than is usually is assumed. He was aware of the ontological possibilities. The substantialist views of the Abdhiarmikas was one of his principal targets. For Nagarjuna (or at least the N who wrote the Karika) even emptiness was a concept, a view, not an ultimate reality. The doctrine of the 2 truths sits poorly with this. In fact, despite the notion that it was N who perfected the doctrine, it should be noted it is referred to in the Karika only in the 3 verses quoted above. They follow a passage in which N writes that critics who argue that “If all were empty,nothing could come about or perish” misunderstand emptiness. It is they, N counters, who do not understand that the worldly “truth” of dependent arising is as necessary as the “ultimate truth.” It is they who are ultimately hung on the petard of ultimate truth, and who cannot explain impermanence. It’s not entirely implausible to suggest that N introduces the 2 truth notion only for polemical purposes, turning it against its authors (as he often did with opponent’s ideas). For N, the “ultimate truth” is neither more nor less than emptiness, the absence of permanence or self-nature in all things: “The ultimate [standpoint] is none other than emptiness”. (Sunyatatasaptati, verse 69). And both emptiness and the impermanence of dependent arising are ways of viewing the world: “Both are used only for the sake of understanding, in order to speak of these things.”(Karika, 22.11). So N’s attitude toward truth & understanding may not differ much from Gotama’s.

    Finally, it’s interesting to note that chapter 24 of the Karika, which contains the discussion of the 2 truths, is traditionally entitled “The 4 Noble Truths.” N’s ontology certainly has problems of its own, and is probably not as close to Gotama’s position as he seems to have thought. But for both “the problem was always and only the extinction of dukkha,” achieved through understanding the 4 noble truths, not through esoteric knowledge of ultimate realities.

  4. Carl H on March 15, 2015 at 6:18 am

    Thanks for the reply Doug. I agree that the motivations for the early development of the concept are there to see, but that it was an unfortunate detour from the core teachings that has caused a great deal of trouble. The question of ultimate/conditional truth seems to be directly related to the question of what is ultimately or conditionally real. This was a major area of contention in early Indian philosophy. Take a look at this interesting paper by Amber Carpenter on the Pudgalavadins: http://www.york.ac.uk/media/philosophy/documents/staff/carpenter/pudgala8.pdf
    What is only conditionally real is only conditionally true and what is ultimately real is ultimately true. I said more on this in my article “Running on Emptiness”.

  5. Doug Smith on March 15, 2015 at 10:52 am

    Thanks very much for your kind thoughts, Michael and Carl. I hesitate to get too deeply into Madhyamaka exegesis, simply because it is so recondite. But in my understanding of Nāgārjuna’s presentation, the Four Noble Truths and the truths of impermanence and dukkha end up being varieties of “conventional truth”; ultimate truth simply being the claim of emptiness. Of course, since emptiness is itself empty, the very distinction between conventional and ultimate truth is itself a conventional truth. There is really nothing one can say about ultimate truth which isn’t in a sense a conventional truth. This seems to me to land one simply into an assertion of the ineffability of reality: reality as it is goes beyond conceptualization. All concepts are mere conventions.

    While such a view is indeed important in certain branches of Buddhist philosophy, particularly the Madhyamaka, its Tibetan offshoots, and Zen, I do not believe such a view is an accurate understanding of the Buddha’s teaching. (I also think it is problematic in its own right, but that is a different matter). For the Buddha “the way things are” that one is supposed to see directly do allow of true conceptual description: they can be accurately described following the three marks of existence and the Four Noble Truths. Hence for the Buddha reality “the way things are” does not (or not necessarily!) outrun our concepts, and it is not (or not necessarily!) the case that all our concepts are mere conventions.

    None of this is well explicated in the Canon, of course, since it wasn’t in the Buddha’s interest to do so. Such distinctions as these are really only of purely philosophical interest.

    It is true that there are some apophatic descriptions of nibbāna within the Canon. I view these as poetic overstatements of the fact that the path to practice is not merely conceptual.

    Thanks Carl for the paper link. It does look interesting!

    • Nick on March 18, 2015 at 1:31 pm

      I have no ‘personal’ hesitation in calling out Nāgārjuna school. The Four Noble Truths are ultimate truth because they hold absolutely true always. When there is suffering, it is always clinging to the aggregates. When suffering originates, it is always due to craving leading to (‘self’) becoming. When there is Nibbana, it is always due to the cessation of craving & becoming.

      The ultimate truth of the Four Noble Truths can be compared to relative or general truth of the workings of kamma. Bad kamma, for example, while initially painful, can result in certain awakenings, change & eventual enlightenment. Thus there is no ultimate truth in kamma-vipaka because good can result in good, good can result in bad, bad can result in bad and bad can result in good.

    • Nick on March 18, 2015 at 1:37 pm

      Both ‘conceptuality’ & ‘non-conceptuality’ are unrelated to ultimate truth or ultimately reality. That ice melts or that life forms age & pass away is not ‘conceptuality’. If the Mahayana stare like a non-conceptual zombies for long enough, with toothpicks keeping their eyes open, I trust eventually the toothpicks will break & the lights will go out.

  6. Michael Finley on March 15, 2015 at 4:48 pm

    I think I missed your article on emptiness. Doug. I’ll have a look. I I guess my present reading of Najarjuna’s Karika differs from yours, particularly in regard to ineffability. But that can be for another time. For now, I’ll just leave the thought that N often seems to be least clear when he’s dealing with what us moderns seem to think are critical distinctions — I suspect his priorities were very different than ours.

  7. Herbie on March 16, 2015 at 9:07 am

    “ultimate truth” and “conventional truth” are merely intellectual artifice made up by religious traditions to support themselves: First traditions make up new linguistic expressions to arouse curiosity of the naive and once they are asked by the naive “what is this?” “what does that mean?” then they bind their hearers by means of further conceptual speculative elaborations which cause even more questions. So traditions always have something to teach and their hearers have always something to listen to. Everybody stays busy and traditions are supported. Rarely is it seen that what traditions teach is just much ado about nothing to perpetuate the tradition’s existence.

    • Carl H on March 16, 2015 at 11:42 am

      Unfortunately, this guy is a self absorbed troll, he thinks everything is just a view and all views are equal, if you engage with him he will just run you in circles. We’ve dealt with him for weeks over in a discussion group. I recommend shunning.

      • Herbie on March 16, 2015 at 12:11 pm

        Now this kind of agitation I already know from traditional buddhist sites where believers alway feel threatened by open statements of non-belief. So to have such kind of agitation here on this site supports my suspicion that removing a few beliefs from traditional buddhism and call the remainder “secular buddhism” does not necessarily make a significant difference. But then agitation against non-believers is of course always an individual trait (initially at least since it may affect a group of individuals and cause harmful behaviour) and does not depend on labels.

  8. Nick on March 18, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    And what is right view? Right view, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions [of becoming]; there is right view that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.

    “And what is the right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions? ‘There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits & results of good & bad actions. There is this world & the other worlds. There is mother & father. There are spontaneously born beings; there are contemplatives & brahmans who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the others after having directly known & realized it for themselves.’ This is the right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions.

    “And what is the right view that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The discernment, the faculty of discernment, the strength of discernment, analysis of qualities as a factor for awakening, the path factor of right view in one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is without effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path. This is the right view that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.

    Maha-cattarisaka Sutta: The Great Forty

  9. Herbie on April 9, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    The weakness of buddhism’s conventional/ultimate truth categories is that it makes sense only after you have commited yourself to buddhist system of beliefs expressed as ascriptive and descriptive designations. Because if you investigate into the truth status of ascriptive and descriptive designations and you take all ascriptive and descriptive designations available in language regardless of the system of beliefs they originate from – i.e. you take them from buddhism, science, christianity etc. – then you end up with a bunch of “conventionally true” contradictions caused by the incompatibility of ascriptive and descriptive designations of buddhism, ascriptive and descriptive designations of science, scriptive and descriptive designations of christianity, etc. and still it is just what you want to believe that determines how you handle these contradictions.
    I am accusing the buddhist philosophers and partisans of the conventional/ultimate truth dichotomy of intellectual dishonesty. Because their aim is just to safeguard buddhist belief system especially to safeguard belief in “causality” in the context of buddhist practice. Becaue if they were intellectually honest they would have to investigate into truth status of linguistic expressions as ascriptive and descriptive designations in general, regardless of what system of belief they originate from. There is not only one set of conventional language but every system of beliefs, be it buddhism, be it natural science, be it christianity, etc. has its own set of conventional linguistic expressions. Admittedly these “sub-conventions” are overlapping to a signifcant degree within one mother-language but they are incompatible where they do not overlap but still these non-overlapping portions are to be categorized as “conventional truths” across all systems of beliefs although they “conventionally” contradict each other.

    From my perspective Nagarjuna actually has been a scientist of language investigating into the conditioned truth habit language is based on. Having been conditioed by his culture he of course was focused on linguistic expressions originating from buddhist context. His indo-tibetan interpreters have misused his karikas for their addictive ontological speculations and based their sectarianism on these.
    Now in 21. century it may be appropriate to take up Nagarjuna’s linguistic project and consider liguistic expressions in general using pure intellect focusing on linguistic expressions exclusively not biased by belief in any system of beliefs which also excludes ontology.
    It may be the time to “secularize” Nagarjuna’s linguistic project and be alert not to spare the results of this project linguistically expressed as ascriptive and descriptive designations.

  10. Jennifer Hawkins on May 23, 2015 at 8:07 pm

    For the author and anyone else interested in how to define things like conventional truth or questions like, “Is there an ultimate truth,” I’d like to recommend a free online course from Coursera called “Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy”

    https://www.coursera.org/course/mathphil

    About the Course
    Since antiquity, philosophers have questioned the foundations–the foundations of the physical world, of our everyday experience, of our scientific knowledge, and of culture and society. In recent years, more and more young philosophers have become convinced that, in order to understand these foundations, and thus to make progress in philosophy, the use of mathematical methods is of crucial importance. This is what our course will be concerned with: mathematical philosophy, that is, philosophy done with the help of mathematical methods.

    As we will try to show, one can analyze philosophical concepts much more clearly in mathematical terms, one can derive philosophical conclusions from philosophical assumptions by mathematical proof, and one can build mathematical models in which we can study philosophical problems.

    So, as Leibniz would have said: even in philosophy, calculemus. Let’s calculate.

    Course Syllabus
    Week One: Infinity (Zeno’s Paradox, Galileo’s Paradox, very basic set theory, infinite sets).

    Week Two: Truth (Tarski’s theory of truth, recursive definitions, complete induction over sentences, Liar Paradox).

    Week Three: Rational Belief (propositions as sets of possible worlds, rational all-or-nothing belief, rational degrees of belief, bets, Lottery Paradox).

    Week Four: If-then (indicative vs subjunctive conditionals, conditionals in mathematics, conditional rational degrees of belief, beliefs in conditionals vs conditional beliefs).

    Week Five: Confirmation (the underdetermination thesis, the Monty Hall Problem, Bayesian confirmation theory).

    Week Six: Decision (decision making under risk, maximizing xpected utility, von Neumann Morgenstern axioms and representation theorem, Allais Paradox, Ellsberg Paradox).

    Week Seven: Voting (Condorcet Paradox, Arrows Theorem, Condorcet Jury Theorem, Judgment Aggregation).

    Week Eight: Quantum Logic and Probability (statistical correlations, the CHSH inequality, Boolean and non-Boolean algebras, violation of distributivity)

    Recommended Background
    We will not presuppose more than bits of high school mathematics.

    Suggested Readings
    We will give you lists of additional references later in the course.

    Course Format
    The class will consist of lecture videos, which are between 8 and 15 minutes in length. These contain 1-2 integrated quiz questions per video.

    I have some difficulties following these types of things, but I still had a lot of fun auditing the course. People who would like to play with these ideas of “truths” a bit more might have fun with that class too.

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