The Two Truths of Buddhism and The Emptiness of Emptiness

By Susan Kahn

Susan Kahn practices and teaches, personally and professionally, the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness, also known as The Middle Way. She is a psychotherapist in the Los Angeles area. We are grateful to her for allowing us to repost her lucid and eloquent article on The Two Truths.

There are two truths in Buddhism, conventional and ultimate truth.  Understanding the two truths and the relationship between them is vital in seeing through the illusion of inherent existence and realizing emptiness or Śūnyatā. Nagarjuna’s philosophy of the Middle Way or Mahyamaka school of Buddhism shows how the two truths are different and yet despite this difference are critically the same.

Conventional Truth

Conventional truth involves our everyday experience and understanding of the way the phenomenal world appears and functions.  If our senses and cognition are in working order we recognize that fire burns, that dark clouds foreshadow rain and that birds and not elephants fly.  Conventional truth is our agreed upon identification of things and how they work, and this understanding directs our worldly activities.

Conventional truth includes what is called valid cognition because it is able to distinguish conventional truth from conventional falsehood, an important difference.  For example, there are consequences in distinguishing a snake from a rope and that sense of being right matters.  If there was no reliability to our everyday assessments our activity would be senseless.  There is a coherence, so that conventional truth cannot be constructed randomly or simply as we choose.

However, our conventional reality is also deceptive.  Objects, both coarse as in a rock and subtle as in thought, appear as distinct entities when they are not. Phenomena are mistakenly perceived and conceptualized as self-established, each with their own core nature that makes them what they are.  In Buddhism, this deception is called inherent existence and is identified as the root error responsible for suffering.

Through examination and analysis, the Middle Way school asserts that no independent phenomena exist whatsoever.  While objects appear to exist as separate things, this sensory-cognitive appearance is illusory.   Phenomena are neither self-created nor self-enduring, but arise in dependence upon conditions without a nature or essence of their own.  The example of fire is classic in illustrating what it means to depend upon conditions, one of the key types of dependencies in emptiness teachings.

Fire, which is seen to fundamentally exist, depends upon oxygen, fuel, heat, friction, and other innumerable conditions to appear, and does not exist intrinsically, as a thing in itself.  If the conditions for fire are removed, there will be no fire. Fire cannot ignite itself or burn itself.  The characteristic of fire depends upon conditions that are not considered to be fire and that are also dependently arisen.  For instance, air is not considered to be fire because fire is not found in air.  Nor is fuel such as wood, that also depends upon sun, rain, soil, etc., considered to be fire either.  Fire, like all phenomena, is unfindable because it has no separate nature.  Because fire does not independently exist, it appears under certain conditions and no longer appears when conditions change.

The assumption that objects inherently exist does not hold up upon deeper examination.  This does not mean that fire does not exist at all, but that there is no independent nature or essence that is fire.  If things existed in and of themselves rather than dependently, everything would be isolated and unchanging and nothing would relate to anything.  It is the illusion of the inherent existence of phenomena that Buddhist philosophy targets and its nonexistence is the meaning of the word emptiness.

The Buddhist insight that form is empty is not an outright denial of phenomena but of their independent status.  It is the understanding that the only kind of reality phenomena can possibly have would be interdependent and thus essenceless, empty.  This leads to a central realization regarding the meaning of conventional truth.  To recognize that phenomena dependently exist is to see that because they cannot ultimately be singled out, they can only be conventionally designated and conventionally true.  This difficult and subtle point will be elaborated upon throughout the article.

“We do not say that because things are empty they do not exist; we say that because things exist they are empty.”   

–Prasaṅgika-Madhyamaka Tibetan saying

Because everything is empty of an essential, definable nature, conventional truth not only depends upon conditions but upon thought.  The conventional designation of phenomena does not point to inherently existent things, but are relative, relational characterizations, like large is to small, or as smooth is to rough. What we consider to be different things, depend upon other things to be considered different.  When characteristics are seen to exist independently, they deceptively appear to have their own inherent nature.  Such reification is a conceptual overlay that gives the false impression that characteristics stand outside of thought as their own separate things.

This reification process also mistakes empty, relative characteristics to be the properties, as they are literally called, of an object or objects, as in it’s solid or they’re shiny.  It mistakes relative descriptions as being owned by or belonging to an object, or to a subject as in the case of a self.  But there are no objects hiding behind these characteristics, collecting or harboring them, no concealed core in which to find the essence of things.  There are not two objects, one with characteristics and one without characteristics.  Instead, all objects are designated on the basis of relationally described characteristics and to be an object is merely to be characterized.

We call a table a table because the top is characterized as firm rather than pliable, because it has legs or a base for height, and functions in one way relative to another, not because it possesses a table nature or essence.  For if it was taken apart it would no longer be identified as a table.  This same understanding can be applied to a person.  There is no core nature that establishes a separate self, no center to which mind and body parts or characteristics belong.  Tables, fire, people and all phenomena are designated by thought in dependence upon relationally characterized parts.  They do not exist objectively, from their own side.

This is why conventional truth is referred to as nominal truth, as true in name only.  It is to point out that what depends upon conditions cannot have an essential nature or existence that can be pointed to, so that all objects of knowledge can only be nominal designations.  This does not mean that everything is only a name in the sense of being reducible to independent and imaginary mental activity.  If that was so, whether something was said to be a snake or a rope would make no difference and what was conventionally designated would have no rhyme or reason.  To exist nominally means that as everything is interdependent and boundaryless, nothing can ultimately be identified.  To say that phenomena are nominal is to say that they are conventionally constructed by what works, by what yields reliable results, not by what is, as in identifying real, self-grounded things.

We do not end up with objective truth in which our observations reference truly definable phenomena.  There is no observer that is separate from the observed and vice versa.  Like fire and light, subject and object are co-arisen and thus, both are empty.  But this is not to suggest that we are left with nonexistence or nonsense either.  A snake is distinguished from a rope amid the coherence of interdependent existence, but not because a snake and rope have their own self-nature.

This is the teaching of dependent arising, the teaching of the Middle Way, neither reifying conventional phenomena nor dismissing them as nonexistent.  Phenomena appear, function and exhibit consequences, but do so dependently and conventionally.  We need to engage in a vision of the essenceless interdependence of things, of the empty interrelatedness of what is neither thing nor nothing, like objects in a mirror or like echoes, like interreflections rather than entities. As Nagarjuna wrote:

“Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.

Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a non-empty thing
Does not exist.”      

When phenomena are understood as dependent, conventional designations, this constitutes a conventional truth and not a conventional falsehood.  Deconstructing deceptive appearances involves another kind of insight as well, a non-conceptual mode of apprehension that Buddhism calls ultimate truth.  There are two truths, and one cannot be understood without the other.

Ultimate Truth

Conventional truth is truth about phenomena that is inferred through cognition. When conventional truth asserts the emptiness of phenomena it does so conceptually and linguistically, through the abstract construction and analysis of conceptual objects.  Ultimate truth is different in this regard.  It is the direct, non-conceptual perception of the emptiness of phenomena.  It is like realizing that something you were looking for is not there, and right then, directly perceiving the absence of the object. The ultimate truth of emptiness is not mediated by thought at the time of the apprehension.  It is not a conceptual realization. There is no reification involved, no subject-object duality present.  An absence is objectless, non-deceptive, free from conceptual construction.

When the inherent existence of an object or property is looked for using ultimate analysis, as in the example of fire, it cannot be found.  A shift then occurs and the meditator experiences a vacuity, directly perceiving the absence.  With practice, as one continues to negate the inherent existence of all kinds of objects, as well as processes such as motion and cause and effect, emptiness becomes global.  The illusion of inherent existence is dispelled.  When one is no longer ruled by the attraction and aversion that accompanies the reification of phenomena, equanimity is finally possible.

From the ultimate standpoint, there are no phenomena or for that matter standpoints.  Being dependently arisen, phenomena are ultimately unfindable, which includes finding that they are empty.  The conventional designation of objects requires conceptual boundaries in which to single things out and ultimately there are no boundaries, no independent things to designate.  Objects are a conventional construct.  Only the conventional can name things, as empty, conceptual abstractions amid a sea of interdependencies, without that sea being a definable whole either.

Emptiness is an absence, a negation of inherent existence, nothing more substantive or eliminative than that.  Ultimate analysis does not negate conventional existence or truth.  It is only the superimposition of inherent existence upon conventional, phenomenal appearances that ultimate analysis targets.  After all, the conventional is but conventional by definition.  When objects cannot be found from an ultimate perspective it means only that they do not inherently exist, not that they do not conventionally exist and in a way that works in everyday life.  Conventional existence yields reliable causes and effects and works precisely because it is dependent and empty.

When inherent existence is globally negated through ultimate analysis, conventional images do not then disappear, but no longer deceive.  There is no need to withdraw from objects, for they are directly and immediately recognized as illusory-like.  In order to experience the direct, non-deceptive force of emptiness, the liberating role of ultimate truth is required.  It is not enough to conceptually infer the emptiness of things.  Deception cannot be penetrated through conventional analysis alone.  However, without the role of conventional truth there could be no liberation.  Conventional truth is the ladder by which the deceptive structure of its own conceptuality is ultimately undermined.

The direct perception of emptiness depends upon conventionally designated phenomena to discover that they are empty.  Conventional truth provides the conceptual force necessary to subsequently perceive the ultimate emptiness of phenomena.  Ultimate truth is not more than phenomenal emptiness.  If ultimate truth was the entire truth, then nothing could be said to exist at all, as all there would be was an absence, a negation.  This would take us to the affliction of nihilism.  That is why it is so important to identify the object of negation to be only the inherent existence of phenomena, not their conventional existence, and to recognize ultimate truth as only that absence.  Liberation requires a well-reasoned path.

“Since objects do not exist through their own nature, they are established as existing through the force of convention.”
–Je Tsongkhapa

Ultimate truth does not point to a transcendent reality, but to the transcendence of deception. It is critical to emphasize that the ultimate truth of emptiness is a negational truth.  In looking for inherently existent phenomena it is revealed that they cannot be found.  This absence is not findable because it is not an entity, just as a room without an elephant in it does not contain an elephantless substance.  Even conventionally, elephantlessness does not exist.  Ultimate truth or emptiness does not point to an essence or nature, however subtle, that everything is made of.

Together, conventional and ultimate truth give us insight into the two different, yet corresponding modes of apprehending emptiness.  Conventional truth explains emptiness as dependent arising and ultimate truth demonstrates the “unfindablility,” the emptiness of phenomena. Conventionally, phenomena arise, have location and function, without such arising, location or function being actual in the realist sense, which is their ultimate truth.  This is the emptiness of phenomena and thus, their mere conventional existence, the only existence we can know or speak of.

Conventional and ultimate truth are interrelated ways of understanding emptiness.  Yet there is another vital insight needed to explain why conventional and ultimate truths are not dualistic and this takes us to the doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness.

The Emptiness of Emptiness

Nagarjuna’s doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness involves many reasonings that interrelate in deep and comprehensive ways.  To begin with, to be empty is to be dependently arisen and emptiness is no exception.  Ultimate truth is fully dependent upon conventional phenomena to perceive their emptiness.  And as entities are ultimately unfindable, this absence that is emptiness, cannot be non-empty and findable.  This recognition uncovers the ultimate truth that emptiness is empty.  But there is more to the argument.

It can also be deduced that if the emptiness of inherent existence is ultimately true, then emptiness must also be empty.  If emptiness existed in the independent self-established sense, then emptiness would not be empty but inherently existent.  And since everything is empty, that would make everything inherently existent too. So if phenomena were empty but emptiness was non-empty, the ultimate truth of the negation of inherent existence would itself be negated.  Instead, the teaching that emptiness is empty is consistent with emptiness as an ultimate truth.

Nagarjuna’s reasoning extends into an eloquent somersault that completes the analysis.  If emptiness is empty, as in an absence, then it can only conventionally exist.  For there is nothing that can be identified about the emptiness of things, as in the example of elephantlessness.  What is not conventionally designated does not exist in any positive sense, is not an object, hence its emptiness. Therefore, to be empty is to only conventionally exist and likewise, to conventionally exist is the only way to be empty.  Furthermore, as there are no true objects to know, conventional truth is also the only truth there is.  This is the ultimate truth of emptiness and thus, a conventional truth.  The doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness culminates in the insight that the two truths, the ultimate and conventional are ontologically the same, like two different sides of the same coin.

To recognize emptiness as conventional is to thoroughly refute inherent existence and to underscore the recognition that emptiness is the emptiness of conventional phenomena, nothing more substantive than that.

This insight undermines a contradictory and dualistic reality where emptiness is totally real, while the conventional is totally unreal.  Nagarjuna’s doctrine negates ultimate truth as an independent base from which to assert an objective, non-empty view.  All views can only be conventionally true.

“Therefore it is said that whoever makes a philosophical view out of emptiness is indeed lost.”

Nagarjuna’s doctrine unifies the two truths as mutually dependent, as the ultimate absence of inherent existence and of the corresponding conventionality of all truth.  The doctrine boldly reaffirms emptiness by asserting ultimate truth as dependent and conventional despite the importance of the different lens and different purpose of the two truths.  For the ultimate truth of emptiness is non-deceptive only as an absence, not in the positive sense of existence or truth. Relatedly, conventional reality deceptively appears because it is empty, because ultimately all designation involves a kind of fabrication, though conventionally true.

The doctrine consistently upholds a non-foundational, empty relativity.  To realize emptiness is to recognize that there can be no ultimate reference points and therefore no ultimate positions.  It is to appreciate the negative assertion that as soon as anything is identified, it can only be a conventional designation as nothing can truly be located or pointed to.  The doctrine reveals that the ultimate truth about reality is that it is empty of any ultimate nature and thus of any ultimate truth. This penetrating and paradoxical insight reaffirms the emptiness of inherent existence including objects of knowledge.

The emptiness of emptiness refutes ultimate truth as yet another argument for essentialism under the guise of being beyond the conventional or as the foundation of it.  To realize emptiness is not to find a transcendent place or truth to land in but to see the conventional as merely conventional.  Here lies the key to liberation.  For to see the deception is to be free of deception, like a magician who knows the magic trick.  When one is no longer fooled by false appearances, phenomena are neither reified nor denied.  They are understood interdependently, as ultimately empty and thus, as only conventionally real.  This is the Middle Way.

The two truths are different aspects of the same emptiness, the ultimate emptiness of phenomena and their mere conventionality.  Nagarjuna’s doctrine uncovers the ultimate truth of emptiness as empty, as conventional, nothing more substantive, a complete and consistent deconstruction of inherent existence. The doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness reclaims a world where mountains are mountains, but no longer are they inherently existent mountains.  They are essenceless, empty and conventional, the only way there could be mountains.