Island Or Illusion?
Who knew that Tasmania – along with being a favorite haunt of fictional characters (often in fearful retreat from a pack of Tasmanian Devils) – is an actual place?! Until a few days ago, “Tasmania” was (in my mind) no more than a vague concept, with no known referent outside the realms of film and fiction.
But now – trusting the expert testimony of Wikipedia – I understand Tasmania to be an island state of Australia, located 150 miles south of the mainland’s southern-most tip. It consists of the large main island of Tasmania in addition to 334 smaller islands that surround it.
What’s now the island of Tasmania used to be continuous with the rest of Australia. But sometime around 10,000 years ago, the water of the Indian Ocean began to rise – eventually forming what is now known as the Bass Strait, which fully covered (and so rendered invisible) the land that had previously connected Tasmania with the Australian continent. So Tasmania now appears as a separate island, with the waters of the Bass Strait obscuring its deeper continuity with mainland Australia.
Just so: It’s our ignorant habit of attributing inherent existence (as separate, autonomous entities) to self and phenomena that obscures the dependently-arisen nature of all appearances, and the “one taste” (sweet or sea-salty?) of their ultimate reality. In Buddhism, the so-called “two truths doctrine” explores this relationship between appearance and ultimate reality.
The Two Truths Debate
One great thing about the island of Tasmania – and how I discovered it to be a real (in the sense of dependently-arisen) as apposed to just an imaginary entity, is that it’s home to Sonam Thakchoe – a former Tibetan Buddhist monk who currently teaches Buddhist philosophy at the University of Tasmania.
Mr. Thackchoe has written a book called The Two Truths Debate, which I haven’t yet read. What I have read is the excellent essay, The Theory Of The Two Truths, which I assume to be something like a condensed version of the book. Though this essay could definitely benefit from some thorough copy-editing, for the most part the grammatical errors do not detract from the overall precision and clarity of its presentation of the Two Truths debate among various Tibetan Buddhist schools/lineages.
Though this isn’t easy reading, it is – imo – well worth the effort, for its overall effect as a kind of “mental floss,” viz. its power to remove the calcified plaque of reified notions; and clarify our understanding of the relationship between ultimate reality/truth and conventional reality/truth — by presenting a spectrum of interpretations of this relationship.
Affinities, Old & New
Among the offered interpretations of the Two Truths, the ones that, as of late, I’ve aligned most closely with are (1) Yogācāra, which is similar if not identical to an Advaita Vedanta view; and (2) Yogācāra-Svātantratika Madhyamaka. So almost as surprising as learning of the actual existence of Tasmania, was the genuine affinity I felt for the “ultimately real unique particulars” of the Sautrāntika tradition — a kind of materialism that seemed (upon first reading) genuinely useful and inspired: somehow in possession of at least a kernel of truth.
And the section on Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka helped me to understand, more clearly than ever before, how making the claim that Ultimate Reality is not “intrinsically real” – isn’t necessarily an oxymoron 🙂
But the essay as a whole really is impossible to summarize – since already it offers a pithy summary of literally centuries of scholarly debate, rooted in the meditative insight of a number of accomplished practitioners. So once again, I can only encourage you to check it out for yourself.
Only Two Two-Truths?
What may be useful as an entry point, however, is the following passage from The Wisdom Chapter (p. 270) — which is what initially motivated me to search for more detailed analyses of the Two Truths, and which in and of itself is quite interesting for its description of just two alternate ways of interpreting the Two Truths:
Generally speaking, in the sutras and the shastras, there are two different methods of positing the two truths. According to the first method, the two truths are individually posited as being, on the one hand, the way that things actually are (gnas tshul), established by an investigation aiming at the ultimate level and, on the other hand, the way that things appear (snang tshul), established by an investigation that aims at the conventional level.
According to the second method, the knowing subject and its object are posited as the relative truth when the mode of being and the mode of appearance are at variance. They are posited as the ultimate truth when the mode of being and the mode of appearance are in agreement.