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The Buddhist doctrine of the two truths differentiates between two levels of 'truth' (Sanskrit: satya) in Buddhist discourse, a "relative", or commonsense truth (Pali: Sammuti Sacca), and an "ultimate" or absolute spiritual truth (Pali: Paramattha Sacca). This avoids confusion between doctrinally accurate statements about the true nature of reality (e.g., there is no "self") and practical statements that make reference to things that, while not expressing the true nature of reality, are necessary in order to communicate easily and help people achieve enlightenment (e.g., talking to a student about "himself" or "herself").
Stated differently, the two truths doctrine holds that truth exists in conventional and ultimate forms, and that both forms are co-existent. Other schools, such as Dzogchen, hold that the two truths doctrine are ultimately resolved into nonduality as a lived experience and are non-different. The doctrine is an especially important element of Buddhism and was first expressed in complete modern form by Nagarjuna, who based it on the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta.
Nomenclature, orthography and etymology
The two truths doctrine (Tibetan: bden-pa gnyis):
- a "relative", commonsense, conventional truth (Tibetan: kun-rdzob bden-pa; Sanskrit: samvrtisatya); and
- an "ultimate", deepest, absolute truth (Tibetan: don-dam bden-pa; Sanskrit: paramarthasatya).
The Sanskrit term for relative, samvrt, also implies false, hidden, concealed, or obstructed, as well as other nuanced concepts. Translator Jules Levinson interprets the conventional truth as "obscurative truth" or "that which obscures the true nature" as a result.
Berzin (2007) frames the centrality of the two truths doctrine to Buddhism:
All Hinayana and Mahayana tenet systems assert the two truths (bden-pa gnyis). Regardless of how the tenet systems define and delineate them, the two truths always constitute a dichotomy (dngos-‘gal). All knowable phenomena must be members of the set of either one or the other true phenomena, with nothing knowable that belongs to either both or neither of the sets. Consequently, understanding the two truths constitutes understanding [the nature of] all knowable phenomena.
While this division, particularly when referred to as the "satya-dvaya", is often associated with the Madhyamaka school, its history is quite extensive. Casual readers of Buddhist thought have often used the ideas of the two truths to erroneously identify Buddhism as being Transcendental in nature, and thereby identify its doctrines with Plato or Kant.
In Buddhism, it is applied particularly to the doctrine of emptiness, in which objects are ultimately empty of essence, yet conventionally appear the contrary at any given moment in time, such that they neither exist nor do not exist.
In the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta, the Buddha, speaking to the monk Kaccayana Gotta on the topic of "right view", says the following:
- By and large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by a polarity, that of existence and non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'non-existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one.
Two pairs of terms are used in the Pali Tipitaka. One pair is nītattha (Pali; Sanskrit: nītārtha, "of plain or clear meaning" (Monier-Williams)) and neyyattha (Pali; Sanskrit: neyartha, "(a word or sentence) having a sense that can only be guessed" (Monier-Williams)). These terms were used to identify texts or statements that either did or did not require additional interpretation in order to be made clear and/or non-contradictory and/or doctrinally accurate in a strict sense; a nītattha required no explanation, while a neyyartha text might mislead some people unless properly explained. (McCagney, 82)
- There are these two who misrepresent the Tathagata. Which two? He who represents a Sutta of indirect meaning as a Sutta of direct meaning and he who represents a Sutta of direct meaning as a Sutta of indirect meaning.
- — Anguttara Nikaya I:60 (Jayatilleke, 361, in McCagney, 82)
The other pair is saṃmuti (Pali; Sanskrit: saṃvṛti; Pali = "common consent, general opinion, convention" (PED), with same meaning in Buddhist Sanskrit) and paramattha (Pali; Sanskrit: paramārtha, "ultimate"). These are used to distinguish conventional or common-sense language, as used in metaphors or for the sake of convenience, from language used to express higher truths directly.
The term vohāra (Pali; Sanskrit: vyavahāra, "common practice, convention, custom" is also used in more or less the same sense as samuti.
In the canon, the distinction is not made between a lower truth and a higher truth, but rather between two kinds of expressions of the same truth, which must be interpreted differently. Thus a phrase or passage, or a whole sutta, might be classed as neyyattha or samuti or vohāra, but it is not regarded at this stage as expressing or conveying a different level of truth.
There is a canonical assertion that "truth is one" that might be held to conflict with a systematic assertion that there is a bifold distinction of truths.
Theravāda commentarial tradition
The Theravādin commentators expanded on these categories and began applying them not only to expressions but to the truth then expressed.
- The Awakened One, the best of teachers, spoke of two truths, conventional and higher; no third is ascertained; a conventional statement is true because of convention and a higher statement is true as disclosing the true characteristics of events.
- — Khathāvatthu Aṭṭha kathǎ (Jayatilleke, 363, in McCagney, 84)
Further developments in Nikaya Buddhism
The Prajnāptivāda school took up the paramārtha/saṃvṛti distinction, and extended the concept to dharmas (metaphysical-phenomenological constituents), distinguishing those that are tattva (real) from those that are purely conceptual, i.e., ultimately nonexistent, "prajnāpti".
The two truths are central to many Mahayana texts. In Yogacara texts you may alternatively find discussions of the three natures.
Some presentations distinguish not only which teachings are classified as relating to the relative truth or ultimate truth, but also which kinds of knowledge or methods are for accomplishing each. In his introduction to his translation of the Lankavatara Sutra, D.T.Suzuki writes the following:
- Without a theory of cognition, therefore, Mahayana philosophy becomes incomprehensible. The Lanka is quite explicit in assuming two forms of knowledge: the one for grasping the absolute or entering into the realm of Mind-only, and the other for understanding existence in its dualistic aspect in which logic prevails and the Vijnanas are active. The latter is designated Discrimination (vikalpa) in the Lanka and the former transcendental wisdom or knowledge (prajna). To distinguish these two forms of knowledge is most essential in Buddhist philosophy.
Within the Mahayana presentation, the two truths may also refer to specific perceived phenomenon instead of categorizing teachings. Conventional truths would be the appearances of mistaken awareness - the awareness itself when mistaken - together with the objects that appear to it or alternatively put the appearance that includes a duality of apprehender and apprehended and objects perceived within that. Ultimate truths, then, are phenomenon free from the duality of apprehender and apprehended.
The distinction between the two truths (satyadvayavibhaga) is of great importance for the Madhyamaka school, as it forms a cornerstone of their beliefs; in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārika, for example, it is used to defend the identification of pratītyasamutpāda with śūnyatā.
The Buddha's teaching of the Dharma is based on two truths: a truth of worldly convention and an ultimate truth. Those who do not understand the distinction drawn between these two truths do not understand the Buddha's profound truth. Without a foundation in the conventional truth the significance of the ultimate cannot be taught. Without understanding the significance of the ultimate, liberation is not achieved.
—Nagarjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārika 24:8-10
Nyingma view of Two Truths doctrine
Ju Mipham (1846–1912), in his purport to the first couplet of quatrain/śloka 72 of the root text, housed within his Commentary to the Madhyamālaṃkāra (8th century CE) of Śāntarakṣita (725–788), as rendered into English by the Padmakara Translation Group (2005: p.304), holds that:
If one trains for a long time in the union of the two truths, the stage of acceptance (on the path of joining), which is attuned to primordial wisdom, will arise. By thus acquiring a certain conviction in that which surpasses intellectual knowledge, and by training in it, one will eventually actualize it. This is precisely how the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas have said that liberation is to be gained.
In this quotation, 'primordial wisdom' is a rendering of jñāna and 'that which surpasses intellectual knowledge' may be understood as the 'direct perception' (Sanskrit: pratyakṣa) of dharmata. 'Conviction' may be understood as gloss of śraddhā. An effective analogue for 'union', a rendering of the relationship held by the Two Truths, is interpenetration.
In his magnum opus McEvilley (2002) maps an interesting case for mutual iteration and pervasion of Pyrrhonism and Madhyamika doctrines. In the following extract containing an open quotation of Sextus, which broaches upon paraphrase, McEvilley (2002: p.474) frames a commonality shared by the two traditions, being a pedagogical binary division of a truth (esoterically held to be indivisible):
The relation between absolute and relative being necessarily involves the doctrine of the double truth, another central theme shared by Pyrrhonists and Madhyamikas, Sextus says (OP† II.14-18, AP‡ VII.29-35, and elsewhere) that there are two criteria: that by which we judge reality and unreality, and that which we use as a guide in everyday life. According to the first criterion, nothing is either true or false, inductive statements based on direct observation of phenomena may be treated as either true or false for the purpose of making everyday practical decisions. The distinction, as Conze♦ has noted, is equivalent to the Madhyamika distinction between "Absolute truth" (paramārthasatya), "the knowledge of the real as it is without any distortion,"¡ and "Truth so-called" (saṃvṛti satya), "truth as conventionally believed in common parlance."¿
♦ = Conze (1959: pp.140-141)
† = Sextus Empericus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism
‡ = Anthologia Palatina (Palatine Anthology)
¡ = Conze (1959: p.244)
¿ = Conze (1959: p.244)
- Levinson, Jules (August 2006) Lotsawa Times Volume II
- Berzin, Alexander (2007). The Two Truths in Vaibhashika and Sautrantika. March 2001; revised September 2002 and July 2006. Source:  (accessed: January 2, 2008).
- Source: Kaccāyanagotta Sutta on Access to Insight (accessed: January 2, 2008)
- Sutta Nipata
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