The provisional and the definitive teachings each have a different function in freeing us, personally and collectively, from wrong views and suffering…
If we don’t know this, we may spend time and energy over the years, expecting a result from practicing one aspect alone, when our attention and energy can be more effectively used.
We get hints that the provisional teachings alone are not enough, for example, in the calm abiding or jhana teachings, where we are reminded that we need wisdom to uproot the defilements; and in the teachings on loving kindness, and the other Brahma Viharas, we’re told that although we can attain very refined states through these practices, we need insight to complete our practice, both for our own sake, and for all those we care for.
As I understand it, the teaching on the Two Truths developed out of Middle Way, Madhyamaka thought, as a practical expression, and a further clear statement of those teachings. One of the things I admire about these particular teachings is that they aim to be inclusive of all states of mind, in all realms, from our various mistakes and their results, all the way to the pure, clear mind of wisdom, and freedom. They divide our experiences into the relative, and the ultimate, which I have defined for practical purposes as that which is true, whether we see it or not. This allows room to grow as we learn to see more deeply.
When it comes to practicing with the relative and ultimate truths, we have the provisional and the definitive teachings.
The purpose of all the relative practices, I’ve seen, is to purify and transform the qualitative aspect of our mind and heart;
and the purpose of the definitive teachings is to purify and transform the conceptual aspect of the mind, and this is what brings freedom.
As Shantideva said,
All of the teachings have been given for the sake of wisdom
If we depend on the provisional to accomplish what only the definitive can do, we will be disappointed. We will not realize our aim. At this point, we need wisdom, in the form of insight into our true nature.
We do need both the relative practices, and the definitive. They each have an essential role to play in our fulfillment, but they are different.
The necessary relative practices, such as ethics, patience, meditation, generosity, the purification of faults, renunciation, faith and devotion, are also called provisional in the sense that they enable us to move from one place to another; they prepare the ground, they nurture and sustain us, just as our everyday provisions do, and they provide necessary the supporting conditions where wisdom-insight can arise and become strong.
To make the distinction, in Mipham’s Sword of Wisdom, it says,
Whichever sutras (teachings and practices) are directed toward engaging the path are called provisional, and whichever sutras are directed towards engaging the result are called definitive.
In more detail, whichever sutras teach about the self, living beings, and a self where there is (in fact) not a self are called the provisional teaching;
And whichever sutras teach about emptiness, the signless, the wishless, and the absence of self – these teachings on the doors to liberation are called the definitive meaning.
There’s a well known quote of Einstein where he says, We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
And I found an exposition on this idea from Babaji Bob Kindler. He said,
You can’t solve a problem created at one level with a solution that is also at that same level; you have to go to the next level and get the solution and then apply it back to the earlier level of the problem.
This is exactly what we should be aiming to do in Buddhism. If we don’t, but instead get caught up in an emotion, which feels right and does have some truth to it, the problems, and the suffering do not resolve. In every case, the freedom from suffering we seek comes from wisdom.
I heard this line back in the early 1990’s that has stayed with me lo these many years.
Back then, I was careful not to take initiations I was not ready for, especially when they involved commitments. I remember calling the hosts here in Northern California of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, who was scheduled to give a Manjushri empowerment at Pema Osel Ling. I asked the person who answered the phone if he could ask Rinpoche if there was any commitment accompanying this initiation, and I could hear him in the background be asked and say, ‘Is there a commitment? Yes, Seek wisdom, and not emotion’, which the host then repeated to me.
Wisdom has a dispassionate quality to it that allows us to see more deeply than when we are stirred up, even with a righteous emotion, such as referential, subjective compassion, or devotion to a teacher or to an ideal. By comparison, whether we like to hear it or not, that kind of mind stays on the surface. So much of what I see in our modern social political engagement is strong on emotion, but without the insight that can finally resolve these challenges, of racism, violence, greed and corruption.
The hard part to express about this is that we need more than emotion. There is truth to the wisdom of our feeling nature, and it is necessary to educate our emotions to the truth, but that is only the qualitative, the provisional, the relative, and not the complete right view, which has the right conceptual understanding, and gives the definitive answer.
We are naturally attached to what we know on some level is a right, true, and appropriate way of responding, but we need to ask ourselves if our view is complete, and if we we are achieving our aims, with just our passionate convictions. If we have not yet accomplished our goals, personally or collectively, then we have to think more deeply about what could be missing, and this, for me is where the teachings on the Two Truths are invaluable.
In terms of practice, we need both the provisional and the definitive, working together towards our one end, of resolving suffering, personally, in our communities, and in our world. From the outside, they may seem to be contradictory, involving as they do self and no self (or what transcends the self), but when practiced, all this becomes clear.
Ani Tenzin Palmo said,
The ego (wrong view) dissolves naturally through deep insight into the nature of mind… until then it is the self, the ego that walks the path…
and in The Buddha Within, Shenpen Hookham says,
One cannot rely on the dualistic, deluded mind to undo its own delusions (which is using the same kind of mind that created the problems)
Finally, it is the non-deluded, noncompounded, nondual (knowledge of the) ultimate reality itself that has the real power to remove delusions…
This distinction, and the balance and harmony of the relative and the ultimate comprise the whole of the spiritual path.
We can fully understand these two aspects, and how to apply them most efficiently, guided by our noble spiritual friends.
This series of articles concludes with an essay on the inseparability of the two truths.