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An Interview with the Dalai Lama
»» The Two Truths

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Mike Austin: Could you describe the two truths: ultimate and conventional; what they are, and how they work?

Dalai Latma: This is important. Take the table as an example. If one searches for the object designated - the table itself - it can’t be found. If one divides up the parts of the table in terms of directions or divides up its qualities or substances, then one can’t find a whole which is the table.

Indeed, to our minds there is a distinction between whole and parts such that when they appear to us, there seems to be a whole separate from parts - parts separate from whole.

In reality, however, there isn’t. Now, when one searches in this way, one will not find the table. This non - finding, though, does not mean that the table doesn’t exist. We’re using it, right? But if we search for it, we can’t find it.

So there are two types of modes of being of the table. One is the positing of the table by a mind which doesn’t analyse and is just involved in the conventionality. That sort of table is found by that sort of mind. However, if you take the table as the object, if you are not satisfied with just this which you put your hand on but search to discover what it actually is among the parts - whether this is it or that is it - then there isn’t anything that can be found to be it. Why is there this nonfinding of the table? It’s because the table is something that is such that if analytically sought, it can’t be found.

Now what does the mind searching to find the table among its parts discover? It finds just that non-finding of the table. This non-finding itself is a quality of the table; its substratum or base, This non-finding is the final nature of the table. Something more subtle does not exist. Thus, this is the ultimate or final mode of establishment of the table.

Now, this mode of being is sought with respect to the table as the base or substratum. Therefore, this non - finding is the actual mode of being of the table.

Thus, with respect to the one basis, the table, there are two natures: one that is found by a non-analytical mind and one that is found by the analytical mind. With respect to one base, then, there is an object found by a consciousness distinguishing the ultimate and an object found by a consciousness distinguishing the conventional. Thus it is said: “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.” Now these two are mutually exclusive. The two truths are one entity but are mutually exclusive.

Mike Austin: How?

Dalai Latma: With respect to a phenomenon, that which is its ultimate truth is not its conventional truth and visa versa.

Mike Austin: So, it’s incorrect to say that they are mutually definitive?

Dalai Latma: The one doesn’t define the other. Still, if you take the ultimate reality or emptiness of the table as the substratum and search to see if it can be found; then it becomes a conventional truth in terms of itself as the substratum. In relation to the table, its emptiness is an ultimate truth, but in relation to its own reality, i.e., the reality of the reality, it’s a conventional truth.

It’s contradictory for something to be its own mode of being. Therefore, the reality of something, is not its own reality. This is because when reality is sought, when the nature of things is sought, it can’t be found either.

Mike Austin: When emptiness first appears to the mind, what is it like?

Dalai Latma: Even though the word, dharmata, doesn’t have any negative particle in it, when that - the nature or reality of phenomena - appears to the mind, it must appear through the root of a negation. It is important to make this distinction.

I’m talking within the context of the two truths as set forth in Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way. Is it that when inherent existence is sought, it is not found because it doesn’t exist, or even though it exists, it isn’t found because it can’t be found under analysis? It is the former. When you look at how things appear to your mind, they appear as if they were such that they could be found upon analysis. Therefore, if things did exist in the way they appear to our minds, when you examine them they should become clearer and clearer. The fact that they do not, is a sign that they don’t exist in the way they appear to. In sum, though they appear to inherently exist, they don’t exist in that way.

Now, in your mind, you initially have a sense that the object doesn’t exist in the way it appears to. When you get used to this thought, accustomed to it, you eventually gain ascertainment that the object does not exist at all in the way it appears. At that time, your own sense of appearance is an experience of vacuity, which is simply the absence of inherent existence.

At the beginning of this process, the object - this thing which is empty - might still appear. In an easy way, if one goes to a cinema, you might differentiate two different times while watching the movie. In both cases pictures would appear to your eye consciousness, but in the first instance one would just observe them, while in the latter you would be thinking strongly that this doesn’t exist as a fact.

If you strongly develop and maintain the thought that this doesn’t exist - if you concentrate on its non - existence - then in time the appearance itself will begin to vanish. This is because the immediately preceding condition of the eye consciousness will begin to deteriorate. Therefore, when you initially ascertain emptiness, just a mere negative or absence of the object of negation - inherent existence is ascertained. Even if at the beginning the object still appears; in time, with concentration just on emptiness, it will disappear. Then due to observing the emptiness of the object, when the object reappears, the thought that it doesn’t exist in the way that it seems to, is induced.

This is called the illusory - like appearance. At this point you are able to control your afflictive emotions. These faulty consciousnesses can in no way be produced without the assistance of the conception of inherent existence. Even though for beginners there are cases when the conception of inherent existence acts as an assistor to a virtuous consciousness, in general, it is not necessary that such a consciousness have assistance from the misconception of the nature of existence.

Therefore, a consciousness realizing that objects do not exist in their own right serves to obstruct the generation of afflictions whereas it doesn’t serve to obstruct a virtuous consciousness.

Mike Austin: At the moment emptiness is understood - when the object vanishes - what does it feel like?

Dalai Latma: I’ll just give a conventional example. For instance, the reflection of a face is empty of being a face, but its emptiness of being a face is not its reality; its emptiness of inherent existence is. When from the very depths the mind realizes the absence of this kind of existence of the object, at that point no other consciousness is being generated. Not even the thought, “this is emptiness.” If you did think, “this is emptiness,” then emptiness would be distant. It would be like an object under observation. It would not have arrived at being the actual object of apprehension by the consciousness.

Mike Austin: So there is a loss of duality?

Dalai Latma: No. Even here there is still duality. There is the duality of the appearance of the conventional object as well as the appearance of the image of emptiness.

Mike Austin: If you were to describe the image itself in conventional terms, would you say that it’s clear, vacuous, buoyant, luminous?

Dalai Latma: That’s very difficult to describe. To explain this exactly is very difficult. There are many different types of dualistic appearance. One is the appearance of conventionalities - objects as we normally see them. Then there is the appearance of inherent existence; also the appearance of subject and object as if different and the appearance of a general image - an image covering all objects in a particular group. When one gets used to the mind realizing emptiness - cultivating it even further in and out of meditative equipoise - and it turns into direct perception; then for that consciousness all types of dualistic appearance have vanished.

Mike Austin: There is no natural luminosity or clarity to the appearance of emptiness?

Dalai Latma: No, but in terms of tantric practice it’s a different story. That’s not from the point of view of emptiness, but from the consciousness. Due to the dissolving of the coarser consciousnesses, there are many different types of appearances. These appearances result from the subtler consciousnesses as well as being connected to one’s body the white and red constituents and so forth.

Mike Austin: Can you describe the mind of a Buddha?

Dalai Latma: That which prevents the mind from knowing all there is to be known, are called the obstructions to omniscience. With respect to the obstructions to omniscience, there are potencies which are established by the conception of inherent existence and which cause objects to appear as if they inherently or concretely exist. Even though primarily the false appearance of an object is the fault of the subject - the consciousness cognising it - there may be some fault with the object in that it itself is polluted by ignorance or the latencies of ignorance. From this appearance - that of objects as inherently existent - there is the defilement which conceives the two truths to be different entities. Due to this defilement, when phenomena appear, they seem to exist in their own right, thus preventing the appearance of their reality.

Similarly, when the reality of an object appears, the object cannot. We’re talking about direct perception. When this obstruction to omniscience is removed, however, then while knowing the object one can know its nature and while knowing its nature, one can know the object. One’s mind can then simultaneously and directly ascertain both an object and its nature.

Thus an omniscient consciousness - from the point of view of knowing conventional objects - is a consciousness which perceives the varieties of all phenomena. From the point of view of its knowing the nature of objects, it’s a consciousness which knows the mode of being of objects, i.e., emptiness. But it is just one consciousness that knows both. This is a distinctive feature of the omniscient consciousness of a Buddha.

Mike Austin: Why is omniscience dependent on the elimination of the latencies through compassion?

Dalai Latma: The reason for wanting to be omniscient is to help others. To do so, one must know how to help others. Thus, nothing can be obscured. Those defilements which obstruct knowledge of the different dispositions, interests and so forth of trainees, are the main enemy of a Bodhisattva. The obstructions to omniscience are never in any way helpful to a Bodhisattva, whereas the obstructions to liberation, that is to say the afflictions, can sometimes be helpful in achieving the welfare of others (as in the case of a leader’s fathering many children to help in administration).

For a viewing consciousness realizing emptiness to act as an antidote to the obstructions to omniscience depends greatly on motivation. Even though the view realizing emptiness in the continuum of a Listener or Solitary Realizer Superior, is the same as the view in the continuum of a Bodhisattva Superior, the ability of the latter to serve as an antidote to the obstructions to omniscience is due to motivation and also due to great merit.

There is no way for the collection of wisdom to be brought to completion without that of the collection of merit. It’s as if you are going to put up one of these rafters here. To do so, you need to put up two pillars. Even though you don’t need one pillar to put up the other, to hold up that rafter, both must be used. So in order for the view realizing emptiness to turn into the Truth Body of a Buddha, it is necessary for it to have all of the causes required for the production of a Form Body.

Mike Austin: How is it that compassionate means and the wisdom of emptiness are ultimately identical?

Dalai Latma: In the Perfection Vehicle there is a description of wisdom and method conjoined. For example, before entering into meditative equipoise on emptiness, one generates an altruistic mind directed toward becoming enlightened. Then the meditative equipoise is conjoined with the force of that altruistic motivation. Also, when one is practicing altruistic acts - giving, ethics, and so forth these should be conjoined with the force of the mind realizing emptiness. Thus in this way, there is a union of wisdom and method, the one affecting the other. In mantra, there is a union of method and wisdom within one consciousness and even more profound features of that union within Highest Yoga Tantra.

Mike Austin: How, in a Buddha’s mind, is bliss united with this?

Dalai Latma: Yes. There is a feeling of bliss. From a Buddha’s own point of view everything is a pure appearance, and a blissful appearance.

Mike Austin: From his own point of view, now, does suffering appear to a Buddha?

Dalai Latma: Yes, but not from his own point of view; but due to its appearance in another person undergoing suffering.

Mike Austin: Does an appearance of inherent existence occur to a Buddha?

Dalai Latma: Yes, but not from a Buddha’s own viewpoint; but by way of its appearing to a person who hasn’t abandoned the obstructions to omniscience. Now, the appearance of inherent existence does, in general, exist. Something’s existing, and its not appearing to a Buddha is contradictory. Therefore, whatever exists must appear to a Buddha, but not necessarily from his own point of view. Through the force of its appearing to someone else and only through that does it appear.

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