Chapter nine begins with the statement, “It is for the sake of wisdom that the Sage taught this entire collection of preparations. Therefore, in the desire to put an end to suffering, one should develop wisdom.” (IX.1) Śāntideva now turns to the cultivation of the perfection of wisdom as understood in the Consequentialist (S. Prāsaṅgika) sub-school of the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The Middle Way school focuses on showing that all phenomena are empty of intrinsic existence, and therefore there is not only no self, but no phenomena at all that can be grasped or held to have a simple, uncompounded, and unchanging essence or self-nature. The Consequentialist sub-school furthermore takes the ironic position that it need not take a position or prove that all things are empty of intrinsic existence. Its proponents simply have to show that no view that upholds the concept of a self-nature can withstand analysis. In other words, they use the method of reductio ad absurdum, to show that the consequences or conclusions of the views of those who believe that there are things with a self-nature are all contradictory and/or nonsensical.

I believe that it is vital for Mahāyāna Buddhists who wish to understand any of the Mahāyāna sūtras, including the Lotus Sūtra, to have more than just a passing familiarity with the teaching that all things are empty of intrinsic existence. Śāntideva argues in this chapter that even the goal of attaining nirvana sought by the voice-hearers and privately awakened-ones cannot be achieved without understanding emptiness, That emptiness was necessary to attain any kind of liberation was also taught by Tiantai Zhiyi. If emptiness is not understood, then one will misread the Mahāyāna sūtras and believe either that they are advocating nihilism, or that emptiness is some kind of mystical energy field or force out of which things arise and to which they return, but these are the false views of annilationshism and eternalism that the Middle Way teaching of emptiness is meant to correct.

Śāntideva begins with an explanation of the two truths saying,

It is agreed that there are these two truths: the conventional and the ultimate. Reality is beyond the scope of intellection. Intellection is said to be the conventional. In the light of this, people are seen to be of two types: namely, the spiritually developed and the spiritually undeveloped. Of these, the world-view of the undeveloped is invalidated by the world-view of the spiritually developed. Even the views of the spiritually developed are invalidated by the superior understanding of those at successively higher levels, by means of analogies accepted by both parties, irrespective of what they intend to prove. (IX.2-4)

This means that there are different levels of perceiving truth between ordinary people, and successively advanced practitioners. Conventional truths are agreed upon truths, worldly concepts and conventions that enable us to talk to each other. Conventional truths do not, however, deal with any kind of ultimate reality that can resist analysis. Ultimate truth is that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence. The direct perception of this emptiness is the end-point of any kind of analysis.

Verse 4 speaks of “analogies accepted by both parties.” Śāntideva and his contemporaries would argue their points by appealing to analogies that would either prove or disprove their points. Several of these kinds of analogies will appear throughout chapter nine, and while they may have made sense in northern India in the ninth century, the point of them is hard to grasp by modern readers in English translation, even apart from the fact that the analogies are sometimes not even fully explained but only alluded to in passing.  And of course it was as true then, as now, that all analogies break down. I will do my best in what follows to explain these analogies and what they were trying to prove or disprove as we come to them.

Ordinary people see existent things and also imagine them to be real, that is to say, not as an illusion. It is in this regard that there is fundamental disagreement between the ordinary person and the spiritually developed. Even that there are objects of direct perception, such as visible form, is a popular misconception, like, for example, the popular view that impure things are pure. The Protector taught in terms of existent things in order to guide people. If it is objected on the basis of conventional usage that in reality these entities are not momentary, [the fact is that] there is no fault in the use of conventional truth by the spiritually developed. They understand reality better than ordinary people do. Otherwise ordinary people would invalidate the definition of women as impure. (IX.5-8)

This means that those who are spiritually developed, such as the Buddha, know how to use conventional language without making the mistake that words refer to things with inherent existence.

To show that the views of ordinary people cannot be relied upon the unfortunate example is given of how ordinary people would “invalidate the definition of women as impure.” This is a terribly misogynistic statement, but in the context of a celibate monk speaking to other celibate monks in ninth century India, it is referring to the principle that celibate Buddhist practitioners took as axiomatic that the body is full of distasteful substances. In order to be attractive and comfortable, bodies require good hygienic practices such as constant washing and maintenance. So while the perspective of an unreflective heterosexual male housholder would be to find an attractive female purely and simply desirable, the celibate monk’s perspective is that this perceived “purity” is a delusion because it overlooks all the unwanted substances that bodies (male or female) are composed of and also the fact of their constant deterioration. Ultimately bodies are not simply “impure” anymore than they are “pure,” as all such characteristics are as empty of any intrinsic reality as the phenomena they characterize.

Conventional truth, then, is what is true only from a conventional or worldly perspective. It is not the truth revealed by a deeper analysis. Ultimate truth is the truth that no claim of anything having an intrinsic existence can withstand thorough analysis. Śāntideva alludes to the successively higher levels of development among the spiritually developed but does not elaborate on what those levels and changing perspectives of what is ultimately true might be. Here I will leave Śāntideva briefly in order to present Tiantai Zhiyi’s differentiation of the two truths into seven different levels, and his further elaboration in terms of five categories of the threefold truth. In doing this, I hope to show that through continuing contemplation a Buddhist practitioner can progress from the crude understanding of the two truths of pre-Mahāyāna Buddhism to the perfected understanding of buddhahood.

According to Zhiyi, conventional truth deals with such things as the twelvefold chain of dependent origination, whereas the ultimate truth deals with the “sign of the nature of reality.” This is understood in seven different ways depending upon the ability and level of progress of the Buddhist practitioner. Within the last five of the seven levels are five categories of understanding the threefold truth, which will also be explained below.

The Seven Levels of the Two Truths and Five Categories of the Threefold Truth:

  1. Tripitika: This level is the perspective taken in the Buddha’s teaching of the three baskets of pre-Mahāyāna sutras, or discourses; vinaya, or precepts; and the abhidharma, the systemization and technical commentaries on the discourses. The Tripitika teaching was directed towards the voice-hearers, those of the Buddha’s disciples who wished to become arhats and forever leave the cycle of birth and death within the six destinies of the hells, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons, humans, and gods. At this level, conventional truth refers to the practitioner’s belief that the various elements of the chain of dependent origination (such as ignorance, action, consciousness, name and form, and so forth) are things that have a real existence, even if the “self” that one had thought existed on the basis of those elements does not have its own real or intrinsic existence and is just an abstraction. The ultimate truth is that through Buddhist practice and realization, the existence of these things can be extinguished (or be nirvanized). Frankly, I have to say that I think this is a misrepresentation of the pre-Mahāyāna discourses, wherein the Buddha is careful to state that nirvana is the extinction of greed, hatred, and delusion and not the annihilation of anything with a real existence. However, it is undoubtedly true that some Buddhists have themselves misunderstood the pre-Mahāyāna teachings in this way and have both naively assumed that the categories of abhidharmic analysis were things that had a real existence and nihilistically sought to put an end to all of it as nothing more than suffering and the cause of suffering.
  2. Shared: This level is the perspective taken in those provisional Mahāyāna teachings the Buddha provided to the arhats and those starting out on the bodhisattva-vehicle. At this level, conventional truth is to recognize the illusory existence of the elements of dependent origination. The ultimate truth is to realize that these elements of dependent origination are all empty of intrinsic existence. This is what Śāntideva will be arguing throughout chapter nine, but Zhiyi characterizes this kind of emptiness as “mere emptiness” or a “one-sided emptiness” because it is solely negative. Even though the practitioner at this level may succeed at getting rid of even attachment to emptiness through the realization that even emptiness is empty of intrinsic existence (it is really just a description of how phenomena do not have the intrinsic existence they seem to have, and not a thing in and of itself), non-emptiness has not yet been realized. In other words, the practitioner at this level has not yet realized the positive value of conventional existence. This can undercut the motivation to progress in practice, to continue striving for the complete liberation of oneself and others, and to remain fully and skillfully engaged with conventional reality.
  3. Shared to Distinct: This level pertains to those bodhisattva who are transitioning from the perspective of the Shared teaching that focuses on how all things are empty and the Distinct teaching that focuses on skillful engagement with conventional reality in order to liberate all sentient beings. Here the conventional truth remains the recognition of illusory existence. The ultimate truth, however, shifts to a focus on “non-emptiness.” This means that they focus on illusory existence as manifesting a Middle Way that transcends mere existence or mere emptiness. This is the first glimmer of understanding the Middle Way, but it is not yet fully understood, let alone integrated with emptiness or conventional reality.
    This level is also the first category of understanding the threefold truth. The threefold truth consists of the truth of emptiness, that there is no phenomena with intrinsic existence; the truth of provisionality, that dharmas or phenomena arise and cease nevertheless in accordance with causes and conditions; and the truth of the middle, that there is a Middle Way. These three truths serve as a corrective to each other in that the truth of emptiness corrects the tendency to eternalism, the belief that there are phenomena that exist forever without changing. The truth of provisionality corrects the tendency to nihilism, the false view that nothing persists in any way whatsoever, which is sometimes how the teaching of emptiness is misconstrued. The truth of the middle corrects the tendency to overemphasize either emptiness or provisionality and preserves the balance between those two truths which are actually two different ways of saying that phenomena is causally conditioned – therefore provisionally existent and empty of intrinsic existence. In this category the three truths that comprise the threefold truth are viewed as three distinct truths or insights that have not yet been fully integrated, let alone understood in a non-conceptual intuitive manner. In particular, the truth of the middle is seen as an exclusive middle, which is irreducible to either emptiness or provisonality.
  4. Shared to Perfect: This level pertains to those bodhisattvas who are transitioning from the Shared teaching directly to the Perfect teaching. Here again the conventional truth remains the recognition of illusory existence. The ultimate truth, however, shifts to the realization that all dharmas or phenomena are empty and yet not-empty. All phenomena are the Middle Way which is the buddha-nature of which all dharmas are partial manifestations.
    This level is also the second category of the threefold truth. In this category, the truth of the middle is understood to embrace all phenomena and the bodhisattva begins to realize the total integration of the threefold truth.
  5. Distinct: This level pertains to those bodhisattvas who have advanced to the Distinct teaching, embarking upon the long course of cultivating innumerable skillful means in order to attain liberation for themselves and others. At this level, conventional truth is to recognize illusory existence and also its emptiness of inherent existence. The ultimate truth is to realize that ultimately phenomena are neither existent nor empty but transcend such characterizations.
    This level is also the third category of the threefold truth. In this category, the bodhisattva realizes the threefold truth but sees each of the three as distinct from one another as explained under the first category of the threefold truth.
  6. Distinct to Perfect: This level pertains to those bodhisattvas who are transitioning from the Distinct teaching to the Perfect teaching. Here again the conventional remains the recognition of illusory existence and its emptiness of inherent existence. The ultimate truth, however, shifts to the realization that all dharmas or phenomena are included in the Middle Way that is both empty and yet not-empty.
    This level is also the fourth category of the threefold truth. In this category, the bodhisattva begins to realize the total integration of the threefold truth.
  7. Perfect: This level pertains to those bodhisattvas who have advanced to the Perfect teaching. They realize that reality includes provisional existence, emptiness, and neither existence nor emptiness. They have a spontaneous and intuitive inconceivable understanding of the two truths as distinct and yet non-dual.
    This level is also the fifth category of the threefold truth. In this category, the bodhisattva fully realizes the total integration of the threefold truth. Each truth of the threefold truth is integrated and mutually implicative of the other two. The threefold truth is one and yet three, three and yet one. All of reality is empty, is conventionally existent, and is the Middle Way. Here the truth of the middle is realized as an inclusive middle that embraces both emptiness and provisionality.

Zhiyi’s point is that only in the Perfect teaching is provisionality or conventional existence fully rehabilitated, put on a par with and fully integrated with the reality that all phenoena are empty of intrinsic existence and the Middle Way. Only when there is an awakening to the Perfect teaching can all three truths of the threefold truth be intuited in a non-conceptual manner. At that point, there is no longer any need to compare and contrast them, as they each fully implicate one another without becoming indistinct. This is the subtlest, most refined, and perfect understanding of the two truths according to Zhiyi. On this level, the buddhas are perfectly liberated from phenomena (even free of the views that there are or are not anything to grasp as phenomena) and yet perfectly able to embrace and be embraced by all phenomena.

The rest of chapter nine takes up a series of questions dealing with the truth of emptiness. In Zhiyi’s presentation of the four doctrinal teachings (the Tripitika, Shared, Distinct, and Perfect) emptiness is first approached analytically, then intuitively, then in terms of non-emptiness (i.e. provisionality and the middle), and finally as totally integrated with the truths of provisionality and the middle in the threefold truth. The analytic approach of the Tripitika teaching to emptiness means to break down a phenomena into its component parts in order to see that there is not a single unchanging thing that can be identified as its essence or self-nature. The intuitive understanding of emptiness of the Shared teaching is when the practitioner realizes that there can be no end to analysis and that all phenomena on any level of analysis can be broken down into a set of relationships of other factors which are in turn analyzable and so on. At this point, one can let go of analysis and attain liberation from the false view that there is any such thing as an unchanging, uncompounded, and permanent essence or self-nature. Getting to this point is what chapter nine is aiming for. What Zhiyi would call the Distinct and Perfect teachings are not dealt with here, but it would be futile to try to understand the perspectives taken in those teachings if one has not yet comprehended and realized the truth of emptiness. So Tiantai or Nichiren Buddhism might view this chapter as lacking those two higher or more subtle forms of the Buddha’s teachings, but at the same time the chapter deals with the indispensable first two teachings that the bodhisattva must traverse to get to the last two.