The Two Truths

Another point about emptiness that is important to grasp, specially if you want to move into something that involves a somewhat more technical understanding of the concept, is to see emptiness as connected to a doctrine that we call “two truths”. There are two separate perspectives you can take in any ordinary aspect of our experience.

Conventional and Ultimate Truths

From the point of view of ordinary experience you have to take life seriously. You’ve got a job to do, you need to bring a paycheck in at the end of the week. You’ve got people who make a demand on you. Now matter how much you try to separate yourself from all of those issues, they are there. If you step away from them, you are going to bear all kind of consequences that are going to be painful to you. That’s conventional reality.

Ultimately, according to the doctrine of emptiness, that doesn’t exist. It just isn’t there. It has no identity. What’s this? Where are we? I’m not here, that’s all an illusion, it’s empty. There is nothing here for us to talk about.

These are the two truths. Conventional truth is real in terms of our ordinary experience. Ultimately, what is that? Nothing. It’s empty.

How Do We Live With These Two Truths?

A true understanding of emptiness holds both of these together simultaneously. This is a pretty interesting thought experiment that soon becomes a life experiment: to hold both of these things together simultaneously. To take seriously all the conventional issues that we got to deal with in the world, and realize at the same time that it isn’t there.

You see this very clearly in the terminology of the Mahayana tradition. Someone asked me how a bodhisattva has compassion for other people if there is no self. In the Mahayana tradition, you have that kind of compassion by walking right straight into this paradox. The text says: “May I achieve salvation for the sake of all other beings, and may I understand that there is no awakening to achieve, no other beings for me to have compassion on, and that I myself don’t exist”. Both of these things are needed to work out the bodhisattva ideal.

The relation between these two truths is not a static thing. You can’t get conventional truth over here on this side of the room, and you have ultimate truth on this side. The truth is that you get something more like a process. A process of thought and a process of life where you move from the conventional to the ultimate, and back to the conventional. This brings a taste of one and mixes it with the taste of the other.

This article is part of the series about Emptiness.

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