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Indicative and Definitive Meanings

The third turning is called the dharma-chakra of thorough distinction because, at this time, Buddha made clear distinctions between his various statements. He divided them into indicative statements and definitive statements, or statements relating to relative truth and absolute truth. Statements with “indicative meaning” are those that indirectly indicate the path to awakening without being a direct or definitive statement of the final nature of awakening. These statements are not misleading; they lead you in the right direction in a manner that is appropriate to your particular concerns at that time. For example, in his initial presentation of dharma, Buddha did not present the complete teaching on the selflessness of persons; instead, he taught that the self had a composite nature, consisting of the five aggregates.
These teachings were not direct statements of or about absolute truth; they were concerned with relative truth or relative reality. By contrast, statements with “definitive meaning” are those that pertain directly to the absolute truth and do not require interpretation. They are final and, to some extent, literal. They do not indirectly lead to the meaning but are direct statements of it. Included in this category are the teachings on twofold selflessness, bodhicitta, the causes of final awakening, and buddhanature.

Three Turnings, One Path

The Buddha taught only one dharma, but people heard it in different ways. The Buddha’s teachings have been heard and repeated for many hundreds of years; different understandings have developed, and with them, more and more schools. The teachings of the three yanas (vehicles) and turnings, however, all play a vital role on the path. The Hinayana is the foundation for the Mahayana; Mahayana literally cannot exist without it. Similarly, Mahayana supports Vajrayana (Buddhist tantra) and is indispensable to it. Hinayana also has a close and direct relationship with Vajrayana.
In terms of practice, however, we need a certain amount of structure and a clear view of this path; otherwise, we will become confused and lost. In each of the three turnings, Buddha taught the “right view” of emptiness for each stage of the path. It is necessary to understand this at the beginning because, without having the right view, we cannot find the right path. Without discovering the right path, we will not meet with the right experiences and realizations. Without realizing the nature of mind correctly, we have no way to free ourselves from samsara. This is why the correct view is so important: to go beyond conceptual understanding to the direct realization of the absolute, awakened state.

The Two Truths

The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche on distinguishing between the relative & the ultimate.

The teachings in the second and third turnings approach reality through two truths: relative truth and absolute truth. In order to understand emptiness, it is very important to distinguish between these two truths.

Relative truth, or conventional reality, is that which is in accordance with ordinary worldly usage or understanding, something on which everyone will agree. It is concerned with the things of our everyday experience and is always conceptual. The reason it is not ultimate truth is because relative phenomena cannot withstand analysis. When subjected to analysis, relative phenomena disappear, and all you find is absolute truth, or emptiness.

For example, if I asked you, “Please hand me my thermos,” you would simply pass it to me without question. We understand each other perfectly and all this works quite well. You would not ask, “Does the thermos exist or not exist? From where does it arise?” If, however, you first wanted to find its essence, its thermos-ness, then you would subject the thermos to analysis. You would look at the whole thermos and then at each of its parts to try to locate its most fundamental entity-ness. As these parts are broken down further and further, you would continue to search for the essence of the thermos until nothing is left at all. At this point, the thermos has disappeared and you have come to the realization that it never possessed any true, substantial reality. The thermos before you is only a “mere appearance,” a dreamlike object. It is perceptible to the senses but its abiding nature is emptiness. Thus the same object has two natures: relative and absolute.

This process of analysis produces a clear understanding of emptiness; however, this determination of untrue existence is not the final absolute truth because it is still conceptual. There is still an “I” with a conceptual understanding that this thermos does not exist. In order to go further, there has to be nonconceptual meditation through which one experiences directly the nature of emptiness. What is experienced through nonconceptual meditation is the true, genuine, absolute truth.

The absolute truth is the real essence, the “suchness” or “isness” of things. It is not refutable. It is not merely temporary. Therefore, it is ultimate and that ultimate nature is the main object of our realization. It is characterized as being indescribable, inconceivable, and unable to be signified by any word, gesture, or concept.

At the same time, it is important to realize that understanding relative truth is the cause of understanding absolute truth. Thus relative truth should not be thought of as being something inferior and unrelated to absolute truth. Relative truth may be conceptual, but there is no way to realize nonconceptual absolute truth without it. The understanding of either one of the two truths assists the understanding of the other.

The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is founder and president of Nalandabodhi and Nitartha International, executive director of Nitartha Institute, and publisher of Bodhi magazine. He is the author of Wild Awakening: The Heart of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. A scholar, poet, and meditation master, he is also a member of the official Rolling Stones Fan Club.

What the Buddha Taught, by The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, May 2006.

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