The theory of the two truths has a twenty-five century long history behind it. It has its origin in the sixth century BCE India with the emergence of the Siddhārtha Gautama. It is said, according to the Pitāpūtrasamāgama-sūtra, Siddhārtha became a buddha “awakened one” because he fully understood the meaning of the two truths—conventional truth (saṁvṛti-satya) and ultimate truth (paramārtha-satya)—and that the reality of all the objects of knowledge, the text says, is exhaustively comprised of the two truths (Sde Dge, dkon brtsegs nga, 60b). The theory of the two truths, according to the Samādhirāja-sūtra, is a unique contribution made by the Buddha towards Indian philosophy. This text states: “the knower of the world, without hearing it from others, taught that there are the two truths” (Sde dge, mdo-sde da 174b–210b). Nāgārjuna, in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā [MMK], attributes the two truths to the Buddha as follows: “the Dharma taught by the buddhas is precisely based on the two truths: a truth of mundane conventions and a truth of the ultimate” ([MMK] 24:8).
The Madhyamaka philosophers claim the theory of the two truths is the heart of the Buddha’s philosophy. According to them it serves as the mirror reflecting the core message of the Buddha’s teachings and the massive philosophical literature it inspired. At the heart of the theory of the two truths is the Buddha’s ever poignant existential and soteriological concerns about the reality of things and of life. Nirvāṇa, ultimate freedom from the suffering conditioned by desires, is only ever achieved, according to the theory of the two truths, from a correct understanding of two truths. Knowledge of the conventional truth informs us how things are conventionally, and thus grounds our epistemic practice in its proper linguistic and conceptual framework. Knowledge of the ultimate truth informs us of how things really are ultimately, and so takes our minds beyond the bounds of conceptual and linguistic coventions.
In theory of the two truths, as we know it today, may be unknown to the earliest start of Buddhist thought in India. Contemporary scholarship suggests that the Buddha himself may not have made any explicit reference to the two truths. The early textual materials such as Pali Nikāyas and āgamas ascribe to the Buddha does not make explicit mention of the distinction of the two truths. Recent studies also suggest that the two truths distinction is an innovation on the part of the Abhidhamma which came into prominence originally as a heuristic device useful for later interpreters to reconcile apparent inconsistent statements in the Buddha’s teachings (Karunadasa, 2006: 1; 1996: 25-6 and n.139, The Cowherds, 2011; 5). This distinction is however not entirely disconnected from the Buddha’s teachings. The antecedent hermeneutic distinctions drawn in the Aṅguttara Nikāya (AN II.60) between two linguistic concepts (paññatti) – nitattha (Skt. nitārtha) and neyyatta (Skt. neyārtha) – provides us a useful insight into the rationale basis from which later develops the formulation of the two truths distinction. This latter pair of terms deals with the hermeneutic strategies explaining the purported meaning of the Buddhist scriptural statements. Nitattha is a statement the meaning of which is “drawn out” (nita-attha), definitive and explicit, taken as its stands, and neyyattha is a statement the meaning of which is “to be drawn out” (neyya-attha) and interpretive (Karunadasa, 1996: 25). The commentary (Aṅguttaranikāya Aṭṭhakatah II.118) on the Aṅguttara Nikāya II.60 explores nitattha/neyyattha distinction’s connection with the sammuti/paramattha distinction. This simple heuristic device however stimulated rich philosophical exchanges amongst the Buddhist philosophers and practitioners, not to mention the exchanges with traditional Hindu thinkers. The exchange of different ideas and views of the two truths between the early Buddhists, among other factors, gave birth to Buddhism as the philosophy we know today. The transformation of the two truths theory from a simple hermeneutic strategy to a complex system of thought with highly sophisticated ontological, epistemological and semantic theories blurring a clear methodological distinction between “reality” and “truth”. As always two terms – reality and truth – are expressed with one Sanskrit term satya; often reality/truth are seen as having an interchangeable usage and meaning. This philosophical development is perhaps the most significant contribution resulting from the schisms the Buddhism experienced after the Buddha passed away (ca. 380 BCE). Various schools with varying interpretations of the Buddha’s words soon appeared in Buddhism, which resulted in rich and vibrant philosophical and hermeutic atmosphere.
In later years, Sarvāstivādin (Vaibhāṣika) and Sautrāntika, Madhyamaka (from the first century CE onwards) and Yogācāra (ca. sixth century CE onwards) became the dominant schools. Our investigation of the theory of the two truths will briefly focus on how these schools have received, interpreted and understood it. Although all these schools regard the theory of two truths as the centrepiece of the Buddha’s philosophy, all have nevertheless adopted very different approaches to the theory. As we shall see each understood and interpreted the two truths in different ways, and are often fundamentaly and radically opposed to each other… [+]