Two truths

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Two truths (Skt. dvasatya; Tib. བདེན་པ་གཉིས་, denpa nyi, Wyl. bden pa gnyis) — everything has an absolute aspect, or absolute truth, and a relative aspect, or relative truth. The absolute or ultimate is the inherent nature of everything, how things really are. The conventional or relative is how things appear. In the teachings, these are known as ‘the two truths’, but they are not to be understood as two separate dimensions, rather as two aspects of a single reality.

From the Sutras

འཇིག་རྟེན་མཁྱེན་པས་བདེན་པ་འདི་གཉིས་ཏེ། །

ཁྱེད་ཀྱིས་གཞན་ལས་མ་གསན་རང་གིས་རིག །
དེ་ནི་ཀུན་རྫོབ་བདེན་དང་དོན་དམ་སྟེ། །

བདེན་པ་གསུམ་པ་གང་ཡང་མ་མཆིས་སོ། །

You, the knower of the world,
Realized the two levels of reality,
By yourself, not studying them from others.
They are the relative and the ultimate.
There is not some third level of reality.

Buddha Shakyamuni, Sutra of the Meeting of Father and Son

The Two Truths According to the Four Schools

The Vaibhashika View

Khenpo Ngakchung says:

The Abhidharmakosha says:
Things which, when destroyed or mentally dissected,
Can no longer be identified by the mind,
Such as pots or water, are relative;
All else besides is ultimately existent.
Treasury of Abhidharma, VI, 4
As this says, any coarse thing which can be smashed to pieces with a hammer or dissected into parts by the mind, so that the mind which apprehended that coarse appearance no longer identifies it as such, belongs to the relative truth. Then concerning the absolute, any coarse material thing or state of consciousness can be broken down into its ultimate constituents, which are individual particles or moments. Therefore the partless particles, which are the ultimate constituents of coarser things, and the indivisible moments of consciousness, which are the ultimate constituents of mental phenomena, are said to be absolute truth.

The Sautrantika View

Khenpo Ngakchung says:

Then, if we consider the Sautrantikas, it says in the Commentary on Valid Cognition[1]:
"That which can perform a function
Is here said to be ultimately existent.
All that can not perform a function
Is said to be relatively existent.
These are specific and general characteristics."
So, here, in this context, anything with unique characteristics that can perform a function is said to be absolute truth, and anything that is generally characterized and can not perform a function is said to belong merely to relative truth. Although things are explained this way when analyzing things so as to determine whether or not they have unique characteristics, this does not mean to say that there are not other classifications of the two truths.

The Chittamatra View

Khenpo Ngakchung says:

All the dualistic phenomena of the imputed nature and the mind and mental phenomena of the dependent nature are the deceiving phenomena of delusion, the relative truth. The essence of the dependent nature, which is the naturally luminous consciousness, and the fully established nature, which is the fact that this [i.e., the dependent nature] is empty of the dualistic projections of the imputed nature—comprising the nature of reality and wisdom—are said to be the absolute truth.

Canonical Literature


  1. དོན་དམ་དོན་བྱེད་ནུས་པ་གང༌། །

    དེ་འདིར་དོན་དམ་ཡོད་པ་ཡིན། །

    གཞན་ནི་ཀུན་རྫོབ་ཡོད་པ་སྟེ། །

    That which can ultimately perform a function
    Is here said to be ultimately existent.
    All else besides has relative existence.

    Dharmakīrti, Commentary on Valid Cognition, chapter III, 3

Oral Teachings Given to the Rigpa Sangha

Further Reading

  • Kangyur Rinpoche, Treasury of Precious Qualities (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2001), 'Appendix 7' on the two truths according to the Madhyamika view.
  • Khenpo Palden Sherab Rinpoche, Ceasless Echoes of the Great Silence, a Commentary on the Heart Sutra. Translated by Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche (Published by Sky Dancer Press), pages 59-64.
  • Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, The Two Truths (Prajña Editions, 2003)
  • Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness (Auckland: Zhyisil Chokyi Ghatsal Publications, 2001), pages 3-5.
  • Thinley Norbu, The Small Golden Key (Shambhala Publications, 1999), ‘8. The Two Truths'.

External Links