Clarifying the Two Truths

Middle Way | Tibetan MastersPatrul Rinpoche

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Patrul Rinpoche

Patrul Rinpoche

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An Instruction on the View of the Mahayana

Clarifying the Two Truths

by Patrul Rinpoche

For those who wish to attain liberation, there is both (I) the teaching on what is to be realized and (II) the teaching on how to put this into practice.

I. The Teaching On What Is To Be Realized

In this, there are two topics: (1) the natural condition of all knowable phenomena in general and (2) the natural condition of one’s own mind.

(1) The Natural Condition of all Knowable Phenomena

This is also divided into two aspects: (i) the relative and (ii) the absolute.

(i) The Relative Aspect

Generally speaking, all appearances—from those of the lowest hell of Ultimate Torment up to and including the post-meditation experience of bodhisattvas on the tenth bhumi—are relative.

Moreover, there are two kinds of relative, the incorrect relative and the correct relative.

All that we perceive before we set out on the path belongs to the category of the incorrect relative. When we have reached the stage of ‘aspiring conduct’,[1] if we can integrate some realization into our experience, it becomes the correct relative, but whenever we do not, it is the incorrect relative. Once we reach the bhumis, all that appears to the mind is the correct relative—‘relative’ because ‘mere appearances’ have not yet ceased, and [‘correct’] because their falsity is seen directly. These appearances continue to arise from the first bhumi until the tenth bhumi, since the age-old habit of perceiving things as real has not yet been abandoned, in the same way that the scent of musk will linger in a container. Eventually, at the level of buddhahood, when these habitual tendencies have been completely eradicated, there are no dualistic perceptions whatsoever, and one remains exclusively in the ultimate sphere, beyond any conceptual elaboration.

Clinging to the ordinary world, both the outer environment and the beings within it, as real is the incorrect relative. The antidote to this, such as visualizing everyone as pure deities and the environment as the pure mandala palace, while at the same time considering them to be a mere illusion, is the correct relative.

(ii) The Absolute Aspect

In essence, the absolute is the basic space of phenomena (dharmadhatu), devoid of all conceptual elaboration. In its essence, it is without any divisions, but still it is possible to speak of ‘divisions’ according to whether or not this reality has been realized. Thus, there are divisions into the absolute which is the basic nature itself and the absolute which is the realization (or ‘making evident’) of this basic nature. Then again, there is the division into the absolute that is clarified[2] through study and reflection and the absolute that is experienced through meditation practice; or the absolute that is conceptually inferred by ordinary beings versus the absolute that is experienced directly by noble beings. There is also a division into the conceptual absolute (namdrangpé döndam) and the absolute that is beyond conceptualization (namdrang mayinpé döndam).

There are three ways in which we can experience these two truths:

  • At the stage of ordinary beings, appearances are regarded as inherently real and are perceived with grasping. This is called the incorrect relative.

  • At the stage of noble beings, appearances are realized to be deceptive and are perceived without any grasping. This is called the correct relative.

  • At the stage of buddhahood, there are no ordinary appearances or non-appearances whatsoever, and any concerns about grasping or non-grasping no longer applies. This is called the absolute.

To put it another way, the first stage has both appearance and grasping, the middle stage has mere appearance without grasping, and at the final stage there is neither appearance nor grasping.

These three stages are also known as ‘misknowledge’, ‘knowledge of understanding the relative’ and ‘knowledge of understanding the absolute’. In the case of ordinary beings, the wisdom of understanding the relative depends on analysis, but for noble beings it is achieved through direct perception.

Although conventional notions such as ‘understanding’ or ‘not understanding’ do not apply to the absolute space of reality itself, we can still use terms like ‘understanding’ or ‘realizing’ to refer to the recognition of this state.

Ultimately we need to realize the indivisibility of the two truths, but claiming that the relative refers to existence, while on the absolute level things do not exist, will never qualify as the view of the Middle Way. When we realize the one genuine nature of the correct relative, the two truths will merge inseparably, beyond the conceptual extremes of existing, not existing, permanence and nothingness. As it says in the Mother Prajnaparamita:

The real nature of the relative is the real nature of the absolute.

The division into the two truths is only a provisional device, based on the distinct perspectives of two states of mind, that is made in order to facilitate understanding. All the various entities which appear to a confused state of mind are labelled ‘relative’, whereas ‘absolute’ refers to a state of mind in which confusion has come to an end and in which there is not even the slightest trace of any conceptual focus, even towards non-existence itself. As it is said:

When the notions of real and unreal
Are absent from before the mind,
There is no other possibility,
But to rest in total peace, beyond concepts.[3]

In reality, within the great non-conceptual simplicity of the absolute sphere—the ultimate nature that is to be understood—there is no basis for making any distinction between two levels of reality, and so there is no such division. In the final realization of buddhahood too there is no division into two levels of truth. Even the delusory appearances we experience right now are not comprised of two distinct levels of reality; they are simply the inseparable unity of appearance and emptiness, or awareness and emptiness.

Realization or complete understanding of this is the wisdom mind of a buddha, the non-dual pristine awareness of reality itself. By understanding the two truths individually, eventually they will merge together in an inseparable union, and this is what we call ‘the non-dual wisdom of unity’ or ‘non-abiding nirvana’ and so on.

(2) The Natural Condition of One’s Own Mind

Although we may understand the natural condition of all knowable phenomena in this way, if we do not understand the natural condition of the knowing subject, which is our own mind, all phenomena will remain objects of knowledge and this will not serve as an antidote to our mental afflictions. In fact, this realization itself will become a cause for feeling arrogant and conceited, and only serve to reinforce our sense of a personal self. This is why we need to recognize the actual nature of the one who has the realization—that intellect, mind, or consciousness.

There are two aspects to this: (i) gaining provisional understanding in terms of the two truths, and (ii) gaining ultimate understanding in which the truths are inseparable.

(i) The Provisional Understanding In Terms Of The Two Truths

When we understand the natural condition of phenomena in general, and realize that they are similar to an illusion on the relative level because they appear although they are not truly existent, whereas they are like space on the absolute level because they can not be established as existent or non-existent, and we also understand that ultimately the truths are inseparable within the great Middle Way—the absolute space of reality beyond all conceptual extremes—the mind or awareness that has this understanding is relative. As Shantideva said:

The absolute lies beyond the reach of the intellect,
For the mind is only relative, it is taught.[4]

An intellectual mind that has this kind of understanding can become arrogant and conceited. This kind of arrogance and conceit are the agencies of mara and will only spoil our understanding. As The Sutra Revealing the Inconceivable Realm of the Buddhas says:

So called ‘attainment’ is transient indeed,
And so called ‘realization’ is arrogant assumption.
Transient or arrogant assumption, it must be the work of mara.
They are extremely arrogant who think, “I have attained this.”
Or say to themselves, “I have understood completely.”

The nature of the relative mind which understands is the absolute. If we look into the very nature of the awareness or mind or intellect which understands, we can not find anything real or substantial at all. In fact, it has always been devoid of existence and non-existence, devoid of arising and ceasing, devoid of coming and going, devoid of permanence and nothingness, devoid of past, present or future, and therefore it is absolute reality itself.

The Sutra Requested by Kashyapa says:

Mind is not to be found within. Nor does it exist outside. And it can not be observed anywhere else.

The Sutra Requested by Maitreya says:

Mind has no shape, no colour and no location. It is like space.

(ii) The Ultimate Understanding in which the Truths are Inseparable

In the mind’s ultimate nature, the two truths are inseparable. The application of the two truths to the single nature of the mind is nothing more than a provisional use of labels or terminology. There is no ordinary mind within the ground or absolute space of reality, so there is no basis upon which the two truths could be applied. Nor is there any ordinary mind at the fruition, the wisdom mind of buddhahood, so that too can not be labelled in terms of two truths. Even in the clarity and emptiness, which is the nature of the minds of confused sentient beings, we can not find this [distinction], because there is only clear awareness and emptiness. This is why we must realize how the two truths are inseparable.

Even so, because the inseparability of the two truths can only be realized once we have understood the characteristics of each individually, there is still a purpose to making the twofold division.

In this way, the non-conceptual simplicity that is the natural condition of what is to be known merges indivisibly with the non-conceptual simplicity of the natural condition of mind. Within this experience, which is devoid of any notion of an individual self or phenomenal identity, all outer and inner phenomena are seen to be like uncreated space, free from any kind of conceptual construct such as existing, not existing, being permanent or nothingness and so on, and yet the experience is beyond the duality of something seen and one who sees, or something realized and one who realizes. Therefore it is perfect, unmistaken realization.

II. The Teaching On How To Put This Into Practice

This section has two parts.

1. The Direct Practice For Those With The Sharpest Faculties

Those who have gathered the two accumulations in the past, and who have profoundly good karma and good fortune can gain realization merely by receiving instructions on the two truths. In their case, simply to sustain the continuity of this recognition is sufficient. In their meditative equipoise, which is devoid of the duality of knowing and something known, and is beyond any notion of a self, they will meditate in a space-like way without any conceptual elaborations related to the two truths. When practising meditation like this, there are no negative thoughts to be cleared away and no positive states of mind to be focused upon. As Lord Maitreya says:

In this there is not a thing to be removed,
Nor the slightest thing to be added.
It is looking perfectly into reality itself,
And when reality is seen, complete liberation.[5]

Following this, [in the post-meditation period] one maintains the dream-like experience of the unity of the two truths by recognizing how all that is perceived appears while lacking any true reality. At the same time, with illusory bodhichitta, love and compassion for all illusory dream-like beings who have not realized this, one gathers the two illusory accumulations and makes vast prayers of aspiration for their benefit.

2. The Gradual Practice For Those With Duller Faculties

Those with duller faculties need to train in gradual stages, beginning with the four contemplations that turn the mind away from samsara. Unless they proceed this way, they will never go beyond conceptual ideas about profound realization.

It is said:

All our thoughts and perceptions are relative.
The realization of their nature is the absolute.
The mind which realizes this is the relative.
Mind’s absence of true reality is the absolute.
The terms signifying the two truths are relative.
The absence of true reality in such terms is the absolute.
The non-duality of these is the union of the two truths.
In the nature of what is known and the buddhas’ wisdom mind,
Even the unity of the two truths can not be observed,
And so it is called ‘the absolute space beyond elaboration’.
Therein, the self of the individual or of phenomena can not be found.
Realization of this is the view.
To abide by it is meditation.
To gather the accumulations out of a compassionate concern for others is action.
The dissolution of dualistic perception within basic space is the fruition.
Wisdom pervading everywhere represents enlightened qualities.
And naturally bringing about the benefit of others is enlightened activity.
Without clinging to words and labels as if they were the meaning itself,
Direct the mind instead to the meaning that words merely point towards.

The actual mind, which is the experiencer of phenomena, is devoid of any true reality, and so, in reference to this, we say that there is no self, no sentient being, no individual, no agent and so on. When we say “no” or “non-existent” in this context, it signifies that existence can not be established. Yet since existence can not be established, non-existence can not be established either, and so the term “no” signifies the non-establishment of both existence and non-existence.

This consciousness that perceives its object is not dependent on the sense faculties. It does not originate from objects. And it does not remain somewhere in between. It exists neither internally nor externally. When it arises it does not come from anywhere, and when it ceases it does not go anywhere. It is empty as it originates, and empty as it ceases to be. This is how it is described. In the sutras, for example, we find statements like this:

In that perfect seeing no phenomena whatsoever will appear.

And the Mother Prajnaparamita says:

Conceptualization is involvement with the desire realm, form realm or formless realm. But non-conceptualization is not associated with any of them at all.

A sutra says:

When no activity whatsoever is performed,
That is what is called ‘yogic action’.

And:

Therefore, sustaining the ordinary state free from any dharmas is the supreme Dharma.

A sutra says:

What is the supreme Dharma?
It is the absence of any notion of dharmas.

The Mother Prajnaparamita says:

Since no awakening can be observed, ‘awakening’ is just a name. Since no buddhahood can be observed, it too is but a name.

The realization that there is nothing in the space-like natural condition of all phenomena which could be the object of consciousness or wisdom is the view. Remaining with that recognition—in the manner of ‘non-remaining’—is the meditation. In the post-meditation, to gather the illusory accumulation of merit for the sake of illusory sentient beings is the action. The dissolution of mind’s illusory perceptions within basic space is the ultimate fruition.

The basic space of phenomena is beyond conceptual elaboration and inexpressible by speech or thought,
In this, there is not the knowing of some object to be known.
Yet still, there is said to be the practice of view and meditation,
Like space viewing space or the sky meditating upon itself.
In genuine reality, there is no mind and no appearances,
But saying “no” indicates that even the dichotomy of existence and non-existence is transcended.

It is said that not fearing the profound meaning of emptiness but feeling inspired by it is the sign of a fortunate being who has heard and trained in the teachings before and is destined to swiftly reach awakening.

Reality itself, sky-like basic space, free from any thought,
When it is realized in a state of primal wisdom beyond expression,
Is fundamental equality, free from speculation or deliberate activity.
This is the wisdom mind of the buddhas of the three times.
The absolute, the nature of reality itself, is like the child of a barren woman,
Nothing can manifest or appear;[6] it is simply a state of the most fundamental ordinariness.
To experience the conditioned phenomena of the relative, magical appearances of unity,
Without accepting or rejecting them and without attachment,
Is to take the wisdom mind of the buddhas into experience.
Until you reach this level of mental mastery and attainment,
Renounce any attachment to material possessions,
And keep to isolated forests and retreats, like a wild deer.
This is how to remain on the path without ever falling back.
Remain without joy or sorrow, attachment or aversion and so on[7]
Towards all circumstances, outer and inner, favourable and unfavourable,
And every experience will assist you greatly on your path.
This is how to find stable realization into the unborn nature of phenomena.
When the wisdom of realizing the sky-like nature of mind
And the compassion of not forsaking illusory sentient beings
Are brought together in concomitant view and activity,
Great non-abiding primal wisdom will swiftly be attained.

The Nirvana (Sutra) says:

Emptiness means perceiving neither ‘empty’ nor ‘non-empty’. The natural radiance of emptiness can appear as anything at all. Since it is empty as it appears, appearance and emptiness are a unity. This can only be known by looking inwards. It is within the domain of your own self-knowing awareness-wisdom.

Machik Labdrön said:

When nothing whatsoever is conceptualized,
How could you possibly go astray?
Annihilate your conceptions. And rest.

And:

Since mind is not a duality,
Look as if there is nothing to be looked at.
This mind of ours is not seen by any ‘looking’.
Mind’s very nature is not realized by being ‘seen’.
In fact, there is not the tiniest fraction
Of something to be looked at.

The nature of mind, empty and clear and beyond conceptual focus, is the genuine fundamental condition. Since this pure awareness, free from conceptual constructs and impossible to pinpoint, arises unceasingly[8] as the illusory appearances that are its basic expression, we must put all our trust in this state beyond clinging, this state in which there is no separation between meditation and post-meditation, and in which clarity and emptiness are a unity, and take it to heart through practice.

Written by Patrul Rinpoche.

| Translated by Adam Pearcey, Rigpa Translations, 2005, revised 2012.


  1.  i.e., the paths of accumulation and joining.  ↩

  2.  Literally “about which misconceptions are eliminated.”  ↩

  3. Bodhicharyavatara, IX, 34.  ↩

  4. Bodhicharyavatara, IX, 2.  ↩

  5. Ornament of Clear Realization, V, 21 and Sublime Continuum, I, 154. It is also verse 7 of Nagarjuna’s Heart of Dependent Origination.  ↩

  6.  The སི་ཁྲོན་མི་རིགས་དཔེ་སྐྲུན་ཁང། has མི་བསམ།. The Varanasi edition has མི་གསལ།.  ↩

  7. Varanasi edition has སོགས།. The སི་ཁྲོན། edition has ཐོགས།.  ↩

  8. The different Tibetan editions say འཆར་སྒོམ་འགགས་པའི། but I am reading this as འཆར་སྒོ་མ་འགགས་པའི།, following the clarification of Ringu Tulku Rinpoche.  ↩

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