Nagarjuna’s Doctrine of Two Worlds and Two Truths and the Reason Why Words that are Rigorously True Seem Paradoxical

The second century CE Buddhist philosopher-sage Nagarjuna is famous for his philosophical exposition of the Buddha’s teachings and for his explanation of its philosophical foundation. The language of Buddhism is riddled through with paradox and contradiction and in his Fundamental Versus on the Middle Way Nagarjuna explains why this must be so. Here is an extract from an excellent recent book Nagarjuna’s Middle Way by Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura, (Wisdom Books, 21013). It briefly and neatly outlines the reason why this dual-aspect language is used, which would be that a statement may be true at one level of meaning and false at another.

“There are two ways in which a statement may be true, conventionally and ultimately.

a. To say of a statement that it is conventionally true is to say that action based on its acceptance reliably leads to successful practice. Our commonsense convictions concerning ourselves and the world are for the most part conventionally true, since they reflect conventions that have been found to be useful in every day practice.

b. To say of a statement that it is ultimately true is to say that it corresponds to the nature of reality and neither asserts nor pre-supposes any mere conceptual fiction. A conceptual fiction is something that is thought to exist only because of facts about us concept-users and the concepts that we happen to employ.  For instance, a chariot is a conceptual fiction. When a set of parts is assembled in the right way, we only believe there is a chariot in addition to the parts because of the facts about our interests and our cognitive limitations: We have an interest in assemblages that facilitate transportation, and we would have trouble listing all the parts and all their connections. The ultimate truth is absolutely objective; it reflects the way the world is independently of what happens to be useful for us. No statement about a chariot could be ultimately true (or ultimately false). ”

When we speak about chariots in ordinary life we meet no problems. But if our words are to be rigorous we would have to take into account that the chariot is a fiction. Accordingly, we might say ‘Chariots are vehicles with two wheels but there is no such thing’, and we might even buy a chariot knowing there is no such thing.

Thus in metaphysics, where we are always concerned with both of Nagarjuna’s two truths and must always take into account both the conventional and ultimate ‘worlds’, we will often be forced to speak in riddles. A classic case would be Heraclitus’ statement, ‘We are and are not’. This is not a contradiction but the recognition that there are two ways we might speak about our existence, one that is indispensable for everyday communication in daily life and that respects our shared conventions and one that indicates the ultimate truth independent of our mental constructs.

The doctrine of two truths would be vital for an interpretation of most of the Buddhist literature and, as the message remains always much the same, most of the world’s mystical literature likewise. Where a statement seems non-paradoxical we would need to know which level the writer is speaking from, and where it seems paradoxical we would need to know why this is so.

If we do not grasp this idea of conventional and ultimate truths than we are likely to interpret the contradictory-seeming words of the mystics as signifying true contradictions, as if it is the world itself that is paradoxical rather than the language needed to describe it, and so entirely miss the reason for the use of this language of contradictory complementarity.

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