This is the third and final part of the interview with Tony Sager. It concerns one of the questions I asked him that touched upon the Buddhist concept of the two truths, the relationship between the absolute and the relative truth.
The two truths point to the discovery that reality as we typically know it—called the relative truth—is just one part of the full truth about how things actually exist. The relative truth is called relative because everything can be seen and understood from different points of view, and labeled in different ways. But these labels are only skin-deep. At the same time that all things appear as something to someone, they have no essential nature or essence. Things are constantly changing, every moment; no one thing is permanent. We may label things as something, but every thing is actually empty of an inherent essence or existence. And this emptiness of an essential nature—called the absolute truth—is the deepest statement about the true condition of things.
These two truths play a central role in Buddhist teachings and practice. They are subtle concepts to understand and experience as truth, especially how they relate to one another. But for the informal practice that happens within everyday life, the two truths have some relevance; they are not just philosophy. As we relate to the daily relative reality of our life we can know that absolute reality is something we can experience in everything too. There are some useful entry points to this understanding:
• We know that everything changes; nothing stays forever as it is, and this affects our decisions daily.
• We know that everyone who is born will die, and this is important to us!
• We know that things aren’t just how they appear: Physicists have demonstrated conclusively, for example, that what we experience as a wooden table is actually made up of different atoms, and those atoms are essentially composed of space and infinitesimal particles which are themselves essentially energy fields. In other words, matter is not composed of matter.
• We don’t even know what we are. We can ask ourselves, “What was I 100 years ago?” And we might find our knowledge of relative truth ending rather quickly!
There are different ways of explaining the two truths within Buddhist philosophy and tradition. Within Buddhist practice itself we might have experiences of a greater truth, or as Tony calls it, a “greater I or self.” In such experiences we might see that our ordinary way of thinking and seeing things is quite limited. Such experiences can stop us in our tracks and encourage us to look fresh and find awe in what is right now. These moments can be supportive stepping stones for our inner development.
Back to Tony’s interview
“Through practice we might have experiences, those aha moments, little breakthrough moments, where the regular consciousness is broken open and we shed a part of the ‘false I.’ There we can connect a bit more with the ‘greater I,’ and we see that we are not separate. We are all brothers and sisters. No matter what this present moment holds for us, we are never separate from the immediacy of our experience right now.”
“Before we see that, we protect the false self, the false identity. This ‘I’ is so precious to us that we protect it against others and even accept hurting them to do so. But it’s false, and we can experience a greater self. The more we connect to it the more we connect with ‘the absolute.’
“After a certain time a practitioner doesn’t lose sight of that. We might lose it at moments and get angry and unclear, but generally after a certain time we don’t lose sight of it.”
“But we have to come back to the now and be right here. Knowing ‘the absolute’ informs us about how to be today, in this situation, in this work right here. It helps guide us all the time to know how to be here now with this person.”
“We are brothers and sisters and we are connected and we also have separate selves. But we don’t need to hurt each other, we don’t need to be so greedy, as we might notice we are at times.”
“Through knowing about and having connected with ‘the absolute’ we learn more and more how to be in ‘the relative,’ now, this state… It’s a learning process and that’s the beauty of the path. We never stop learning.”
“We can’t just stay in that blissed-out state of oneness and emptiness as we might have experienced in long retreats. That’s great, but if we don’t come out then we can’t do ‘the relative.’ Then we may have clarity on some levels, but we don’t know how to connect with others or function in certain situations. That’s why everyday life is so important and taking our everyday life, everything we do as practice, is so important. That’s the relative, the other big piece of the path.”
I love how Tony points out the benefits that this knowledge—the somewhat surprising absolute truth—has for our day-to-day experience. We all are imperfect beings, we all struggle with emotions and thought processes that bother us at times. At the same time we all try to be the best version of ourselves we can be. Applying the bigger, more spacious view of these two truths allows us to be very honest and compassionate about where we are and at the same time see and feel the space that is there for us to grow into.
This can be a challenge and it can be a relief. Especially knowing that this is not something we need to be able to do already, but something we are here to move towards, can let a little smile appear on our lips.
I hope this was interesting for you. Have a good week and see you soon.