By Rev. Ken Yamada
To really understand life, we must understand there are two truths. I think most people only understand one truth, and that’s where we go wrong.
According to Buddhism, there’s the conventional truth of our everyday life. Those truths say, “Today the sun is shining,” or “He is 12 years old,” or “Next month is April.” These are all statements of fact, but I call them “truth” with a little “t.” They are true today, but may not be truth tomorrow. They are temporary truths.
If something is really true, it must always be true. It must be true yesterday, today and tomorrow. It must be true a million years ago and a million years from now. It must be true on Earth and on Mars. According to Buddhism, this kind of truth is “ultimate truth” or “ultimate reality.” I call this truth with a big “T.”
An ultimate truth emphasized by the Buddha is the impermanence of life. The weather may be sunny today, cloudy tomorrow and raining the next day. In all cases, the only certainty is that the weather constantly changes. This is the truth of impermanence.
Impermanence is true for all things, all the time. The entire universe is impermanent, which means dynamic and forever changing.
In his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Root Verses of the Middle Way), Nagarjuna, considered the second greatest Buddhist teacher after the Buddha, attributed the two truths teaching to the Buddha: “the Dharma taught by the buddhas is precisely based on the two truths: a truth of mundane conventions and a truth of the ultimate.” Shinran Shonin considered Nagarjuna the first of the Seven Patriarchs of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.
It’s important to understand these Two Truths, otherwise we’ll tie ourselves into knots trying to explain life. For example, Nagarjuna explained and clarified the truth of sunyata, “emptiness,” which holds that all things are ultimately empty of existence.
“Whoa!” you may say. “Are you saying this table in front of me doesn’t exist? If I kick it and hurt my toe, then surely something exists.”
Nagarjuna would say in “conventional” terms, the table exists. But what came before the table? A tree provided the wood. What will happen afterwards? The table eventually will turn to dust. Each is inter-connected, but where is the table? The table merely has a temporary existence, which we must acknowledge in everyday life. In the world of ultimate truth, the table has no permanent existence.
This truth of emptiness is true of all things. Nagarjuna noted he could not see a beginning of time, nor the ending of time. Therefore, how could there be a middle? He was referring to past, present and future, and how each has no actual existence.
However, we cannot live by saying “Time does not exist,” otherwise, we could not go to school or work, celebrate birthdays and have dinner with friends. We need to live within the confines of conventional reality and keep track of “time.”
When we face great difficulties and challenges in life, then the true value of ultimate truth emerges. Ultimate truth provides a way to see the world and our lives as whole, connected and One.
For example, when someone close to us dies, we suffer. We feel our loved one has gone and we are alone. We lament death and fear it ourselves.
However, knowing the greater Truth, that life is impermanent, we realize that death is part of a greater Life. If we truly understand that everything is impermanent, then death becomes easier to accept.
If we know that in the world of ultimate Truth, we are always connected to one another, then a person who has passed away is not far away. In my family’s case, my father will always be my father, my brother will always be my brother, and I will always be connected to them, although they passed away several years ago and I can no longer see them. In this way, their lives and mine become One, and the past and present become One.
If we only live in the world of conventional truth, the world becomes a very limited and confusing place. When we start to see the world of ultimate truth, our world becomes boundless and we can appreciate this Life ever more deeply.
-Rev. Yamada is editor of Higashi Honganji’s Shinshu Center of America.