Discovering Basic Sanity

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Section 2

  • Absolute and Relative Truth
  • Emptiness

    So in Buddhism we have varieties of methods of doing these different types of practice. They all have the same goal, which is to go from settling the mind and developing concentration, to giving rise to insight. Neither one of the two is over-emphasised or neglected, but one has to practice both. It is the same even when we do visualisation of deities and recite mantras and so on, in Tibetan Buddhism.
    Outwardly on first appearance, the normal type of meditation that people do and visualisation practice, may appear to be very different, but even the practice of visualisation has the same function. In that, according to Tibetan Buddhism when we sit in meditation we have thoughts and concepts arising in our mind, so instead of spending time day-dreaming or thinking about this and that, one can use those same thoughts and concepts in order to develop concentration, and finally give rise to insight. So that's why we do the practice of visualisation of deities. The practice of deity yoga is nothing to do with making some kind of mysterious contact with some divine beings, who exist independently of our mind. The practice of deity yoga is just a skillful method to achieve these two ends, namely to settle the mind and give rise to insight. So all different types of meditation have these two goals.
    We talk about giving rise to insight. What this means is, as we continue with our practice of meditation, as the mind becomes not only more stabilised and less restless, when it becomes more aware and more conscious, then we realise that the nature of the mind is awareness. The nature of the mind is luminous, what we in Tibetan call 'osel' which is sometimes translated as clear light. Basically what that means is, that when the mind begins to become more stable and less restless, when our concentration increases, and on top of that when we use awareness in order to gain insight into what is occurring in our mind, then we will have experience of innate awareness, and that is the nature of the mind. In Mahayana teachings this is referred to as Buddha Nature, in any case the innate nature of the mind, which is luminous, provides the condition for one to become enlightened, for one to attain Buddhahood.

    Absolute and Relative Truth

    So when we gain insight into this we begin to get some idea of the relationship between the absolute truth and the relative truth. According to the Buddhist tradition it is very important to have a proper insight into the relationship between relative truth and absolute truth. Unless we have some understanding of what is the real nature of things, and what is the real nature of the mind, then even if we are able to gain a certain amount of mental peace and a sense of harmony within through practice of meditation, we will not really be able to achieve any kind of spiritual attainment. Spiritual attainment has to come from the gaining of insight, not just simply through pacification of our emotional conflicts, which can be done through practice of meditation of tranquillity and practice of mindfulness.
    What this realisation of the two truths means is, that most religions have this idea that there is something we might call the absolute or the ultimate reality or God, and on the other side what is called the created world, the relative, the phenomenal world etc. They are seen as very different, they have a very different nature. The relative is seen as multiple, many, or it is seen as temporal, impermanent, transient. The Absolute or the ultimate reality is seen as unity, permanent, unchanging, and so on. So you have this dualistic notion, on the one side are listed all the things that are changing and impermanent, and considered not really real, and on the other side everything that doesn't change, that is one, or unity and considered absolutely real. Now from a Buddhist point of view this way of thinking is created due to a lack of proper insight into the nature of mind, the phenomenal world, and the physical world. The Absolute is not discovered as something different from the relative, but is discovered through understanding the nature of the world itself. It is the same in relation to our mind; the nature of the mind is realised through dealing with concepts, ideas and emotions that arise. The innate awareness, or the luminous nature of the mind, is discovered through working with the varieties of experiences that we have in the mind ,not rejecting them ,but by dealing with them .
    Chandrikirti has said in his text on Madyamika*, "Kunzop la ne ma ten par. Dam pe don ne tog me jur," which means "without relying on the relative you cannot understand what the absolute is." So the absolute is present in the relative , the absolute is not understood by saying, "Oh this physical world ,this world that we live in is illusory, it is completely unreal,we have to look for reality somewhere else." The absolute is understood through trying to understand this very world that we live in and the mind that we already have, by relating to these two right now in the present. Then it is possible to realise the absolute through that. So relative and absolute must be understood as co-existing, they are not different and they are not mutually exclusive. That is a very important insight, as far as the Buddhist tradition is concerned.
    So when we talk about the absolute, what do we mean by the absolute, and what do we mean by saying the absolute is something that can be understood through the relative? What we mean is that the physical world that we live in exists in terms of inter-relationships, nothing exists of its own accord, everything is dependant upon other in varieties of ways , causally , temporally, spatially and so on. So one thing causes another thing, one thing comes into being before something else, and one thing is related to another thing in terms of space, for example this table is located here in relation to the rest of the objects in the world etc.


    So there is no such thing as a thing that exists of its own accord, everthing exists in relation to other. This is called emptiness, because nothing has any enduring substance. If there is some 'thing' called a substance then it should be able to exist by itself, on its own accord, without being dependant upon anything else other than itself, but that is not the case. Both in terms of our mind, and also in terms of the physical world, there is no such thing as material stuff or some kind of substance that is unchanging, enduring, etc. Everything is subjected to change, everything is conditioned due to causes and conditions, so realising this is what is called emptiness. Emptiness means lack of inherent existence, or lack of enduring essence. Emptiness does not mean non-existence, but it means that things do not have enduring essence, and the same thing applies to the mind.
    Now when we look at it this way on the absolute level, from the point of view of emptiness, there is no difference, everything has the same nature which is emptiness. Whether we are talking about the table, the carpet, the room, the mountain, whatever object we look at, has the same nature, it has the nature of emptiness. There is no differentiation on the absolute level, but on the relative level, everything is different, a table is a table, a chair is a chair, a carpet is a carpet.
    Some people think if you realise emptiness you must lose any notion of discrimination, because everything is empty, but that is a misunderstanding of what is meant by emptiness. On the absolute level everything is non-differentiated, but on the relative level each single thing is different, so a table is still a table it is not a car, and they have different functions and they serve different purposes and so on. In this way there is that relationship between relative truth and absolute truth in terms of the physical world. The same thing applies to the mind, from the point of view of the absolute, all the mental processes that go on in the mind have the nature of being luminous, that is from the absolute point of view. From the point of view of the relative aspect, then still there are unceasing thoughts and concepts and ideas etc happening in the mind. So there is that relationship between the absolute and the relative truth on that level as well.
    According to the Buddhist tradition different people have fallen into all kinds of extremes. Some people, who actually try to become more reflective and lead a spiritual life, fall into the trap of a dualistic way of thinking, separating the relative from the absolute and denying the importance of the relative truth. Ordinary people, who do not concern themselves with religious matters, fall into the other extreme, which is to become immersed in the relative, into the multiplicity, into what is temporal.
    From a Buddhist point of view what one has to realise is the unity between the absolute and the relative truth. Both are co-existent, one cannot say one is more real than the other. Unless we understand that, then we cannot develop insight. Insight is attained through what is called the middle view, which means not falling into any kind of extreme view, not falling onto one side or another. If we say that what is relative is illusory, that it is like a dream, then it becomes very difficult, for example to fight for social justice or to care for the environment, to have regard for others welfare, to think about other peoples suffering. Because we can say: "Oh, it is all illusory it is all like a dream, like a nightmare, it is actually not happening you know it is not real." On the other hand if one does not have any sense of transcendent reality, if one becomes totally caught up in the empirical world, then one has no higher perspective to look at what is going on. One becomes swayed this way and that way by delusions and prejudices and so on.

    So according to Buddhism, to attain insight is to actually have our feet planted in both worlds at the same time. What is important is not to over-emphasise one or the other, and that is called unity of absolute and relative truth. To understand that is to gain insight, that is to achieve enlightenment.

    This Booklet is the transcript of three talks given by the Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche at Sukhavati Forest Retreat, Jackeys Marsh Tasmania in January 1992

    The Venerable Traleg Rinpoche is the President and Spiritual Director of Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute(KEBI) Melbourne, and Sukhavati Forest Retreat.

    If you have any questions about this text or would like further information please feel free to email a message .


    Published in 1994.

    1994 Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche.

    For further information about the contents of this booklet feel free to contact:

    Kagyu Evam Buddhist Institute

    673-691 Lygon Street Carlton North

    Victoria 3054 Australia

    Ph (03) 387 0863


    Sukhavati Forest Retreat P.O. Box 49 Meander

    Tasmania 7304 Australia

    Ph. 03-63695275

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