The Relative and the Ultimate: A Love Story

One of the stated goals of Buddhist practice is non-attachment, to break free of conceptual thinking or as Nagarjuna described it, to “stand outside appearance, outside sensation, outside concepts, outside forms, and outside consciousness.”

In our pursuit of this goal, we are led to the ultimate truth, where we discover that all signs (nimitta) are meaningless. Nothing more than just labels to cling to, they are utterly false.

Yet, to live in this saha or mundane world, we must use signs, for without them there is no language and no communication. Signs have a practical value. It is helpful to be able to use names and labels to differentiate between various objects, for instance, to convey the difference between a pear and an apple. We know they are both fruit, but we want to determine which variety.

Nagarjuna says that designations and the objects they designate are not one, nor are they different.  They cannot be one for if that were the case then the word would burn when we said “fire.” They cannot be different because there is no designation without a thing designated and vice versa.

Language and the attempt to communicate lead us away from the ultimate truth and into the world of appearance, designation and differentiation – the trap of conceptual thinking wherein we seize and cling to false things believing them to be real. How can we break free from conceptual thinking when every word, every sentence, and for that matter, every thought, binds us further?

Nagarjuna goes on to say, “The Buddha’s dharma is based on two truths: the relative, or conventional truth, and the ultimate truth. Those who do not understand the relationship between the two do not understand the profound point of the Buddha’s teachings.”

This understanding is a gate to freedom.

Clinging to signs and appearances is just one end of the spectrum. At the other end are those who latch on to the ultimate truth and interpret everything from that perspective. They will stand on the ultimate to denounce the relative

They are justified in the ultimate sense, but  the efficacious aspect of the relative is disregarded. As a result, the ultimate becomes an object for clinging, and what on the surface appears to be non-dualistic thinking is actually the opposite.

Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, for whom the teachings of Nagarjuna were a primary influence, understood well this principle of the two truths. In Muchu Setsumu, he wrote, “Therefore, all things, both in a dream state and in an awakened one, are manifestations of the Truth.”

Dogen understood that the relative, represented here by the dream state, and the ultimate, the awakened state, are “two but not two.” They are one and the same truth. Each merely reflects a different aspect of the same reality. Two sides of the same coin.

Nagarjuna also tell us, “The ultimate truth cannot be taught except in the context of the conventional truth, and unless the ultimate truth is comprehended, Nirvana cannot be realized.”

In other words, we can use the relative to convey the ultimate. On one hand, the ultimate truth is inexpressible, but on the other hand, even though language is completely inadequate, it is possible to communicate our meanings for the ultimate truth by using concepts and signs. Language, then, becomes a tool to help us realize awakening.

Here we should see that the point is not merely that what is conventional or mundane is false. It’s actually about being be able to skillfully use knowledge of the ultimate in order to understand and utilize the relative, and to avoid clinging to either truth.

Through the false, we obtain the true. Looking at it another way, we can say that the relative truth is ultimate truth applied to daily life.

The Buddhas have the ability to keep free from clinging to individuality and yet help all in the spirit of great compassion. [Nagarjuna] points out that the Great Compassion is the root of the Way of the Buddha. The constitutive factors of the [dharma-body of the Buddha] are the limitless wisdom and the unbounded compassion; there are the different phases, different expressions of the ultimate truth of the undivided being on the plane of mundane life. It is as wisdom and compassion that the ultimate is relevant to the conventional, in regard to wayfaring.

K. Venkata Ramanan

As for the love story:

After waking enough times to think I see
The Holy Kiss that’s supposed to last eternity
Blow up in smoke, its destiny
Falls on strangers, travels free
Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me
And I do not really need to be
Assured that love is just a four letter word

Bob Dylan


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