QUESTION: Can you explain the idea of "two truths"?
SHORT ANSWER: Truth is truth and all encompassing, but there is a relative and an absolute way of intuiting it.
LONGER ANSWER: I am inclined to say that this idea of two truths is a misnomer. It is not really that there are two types of truth. Their are two domains of understanding. These are like axes on different dimensions that intersect but do not interfere with one another. If you wanted to be philosophical, you could say that the question is epistemological rather than ontological. I shall try to explain my take on the matter.
In order to live we have to have faith. We might call it faith in life, or faith in the universe, or faith that existence is somehow worthwhile. It does not matter. These are really just turns of phrase. Faith does not need to have an object or content, necessarily. It is a universal foundational quality. It is universal and foundational, but it can vary in degree, intensity and application. In application it can have a content or object, by which I mean that we can invest it in this or that.
If a person’s faith is weak or confused it is an impediment to functioning in life. In that condition, it is hard to get out of bed in the morning. Clients who come into psychotherapy can sometimes be in that condition. At times we might find ourselves there. Some experiences tend to unify our faith and some shatter it.
Mostly people function by investing their faith in love (or hate) objects and projects. This keeps faith unified and concentrated (samadhi). This is what gets us going and keeps us striving. Yet these objects and objectives, even religious ones, all reside within the domain of samsara. Consequently, they are impermanent. We know that they are not ultimate, permanent, or completely reliable, even in a practical sense. It follows that our investment of faith in them cannot be total. Unconditional love does not exist within samsara.
Nonetheless, the intuition of unconditional faith and love is so much a part of us that we cannot do without it. We cannot avoid having an intuition of nirvana. We might call it different things according to our culture, but we cannot rid ourselves of it. Sometimes we might try to do so when in the grip of an impulse to reconstruct ourselves as “modern” people, or as rational and “no nonsense”, but even doing this implies that we do have faith that there is truth that is not falsehood and that this exists as an independent and ultimate yardstick that is implicitly not to be found exemplified in imperfect, impermanent phenomena. We live in a world of relativities, but cannot avoid appeal to an ultimate domain that can only be intuited, yet is necessarily intuited. There are thus always these two domains, the relative and the ultimate.
For example, although we never actually encounter it empirically, we all have an intuition of unconditional love and this plays a major role in our lives, even though we never actualise it. Nonetheless, it would not be nonsense to say that, for this same very reason, we are always encountering it, always realising it, precisely because every imperfect instance of relative being points to it. When Kashyapa gives Gotama a flower, this is not the ultimate gift. It is only a flower. It is already beginning to wilt. Yet, at the same time it is the ultimate gift for it signifies that love that surpasses all understanding. There are thus two truths. Therefore, Shakyamuni halved his seat and shared it with Kashyapa. Kashyapa’s human love for Gotama was inevitably less than perfect. There were times when his argumentative nature must have been a disappointment and a trial for his guru, but still, “behind” or “beyond” all that the perfect flower still floated in space.
Thus when Kashyapa holds up the flower and Shakyamuni winks, both relative and ultimate truth are manifest. The two dimensions do not interfere with each other. Who winks? What winks? Kashyapa and Shakyamuni have both disappeared and flowers fill the firmament.