We discuss the subject of relative and absolute truth a great deal in Tibet; to understand it is really to understand the root of Buddha’s teaching. The relative is the particular and limited, the absolute is the unlimited and universal.
What is it that one sees when one looks at the world? In one sense one sees the relative — particular things happening which are changing all the time. And yet how does one perceive them altogether, as a whole? Only because of the absolute. For example, suppose you are watching a river flowing by. How do you know it is a river? There is no continuity in the particles of water; from moment to moment the water changes and we do not see the same river twice. It only becomes a river by virtue of the absolute nature of flowing water by which the particulars are joined together into the whole; without the universal one cannot form any connection between the particulars.
In Buddhism we say that we should not confuse the relative with the absolute. Most people see only the relative, and take it as being completely real. They are absorbed in the particular things they are doing, once did, or will do. These become so real that everything else is blocked out, and if some of these things go wrong, they get upset and suffer. We say that this is like being taken in by an artificial snake: you go into a room where someone has left a toy snake; for a moment you think it is real, and so you are frightened, but as soon as you see that it is not real it ceases to frighten you. Similarly with all events in the relative world, all feelings of pleasure and pain, every memory we have: by seeing that they are not the whole of reality we can become free from them.
How does one come to see the absolute truth? One cannot see it as an object, by trying to find it in one particular place, or by piling one relative truth on top of another until the pile is high enough. It does not happen like that. The whole is always there — it is only because of the whole that the particular exists, but one cannot see the whole as one would a part. We say it is like the eye which sees, but cannot see itself, or the knife which can cut, but cannot cut itself. So to see the absolute, one should not hold on to anything in the relative world.
There is a story of a man who was travelling and who was attacked by two robbers. He was a strong man, and so he seized them both by their necks and was about to knock their heads together when he thought, ‘What is the point of doing this?’ So he let them go, gave them all he had and watched them go off. Then he went into the forest and meditated. What was essential could never be taken away from him.
On the other hand, it is not necessary to destroy the relative in order to see the absolute. They are not in conflict; the relative comes from the absolute in a natural and spontaneous way. It is only from our way of seeing things and our attachments that conflict arises. We have a simile: absolute truth is like the moon in the sky, and relative truth is like a reflection of the moon in a pool of water. Normally, we only see the reflection and not the real moon, but in order to see the latter, we do not have to destroy the reflection, but only have to look up. In fact, to try to destroy something is only another way of emphasizing its existence.
So we have to be in the middle, on the knife edge between yes and no, between affirming and denying the relative world. And so perhaps it will happen that we shall enter the absolute truth; our minds will become all-inclusive. We cannot make this happen; though to some extent we can prepare for it, it occurs beyond our contriving. We see the whole — we are the whole, beyond separation or distinction.
There is the same distinction between absolute and relative in the practice of Buddhist religion. Taking the refuges, making vows, performing ceremonies and chanting, reading scriptures and so on —these are relative truths. They may help us, and prepare us in a certain faith and understanding, but once we have seen the absolute truth, there is no need to continue with them; they are merely a ship that takes us towards where we really are. To say Buddhism is taking refuge in the triple gem of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and practising the eightfold noble path is only true in a relative way. Buddha himself compared his teachings to a raft which could carry the traveller across the stream of existence, but he asked, ‘If you had crossed over to the other bank, would you go on carrying your raft on your back?’
The absolute truth of Buddhism is nirvana, and nirvana includes all of samsara as well.
It is said that for the absolute, one has wisdom, and for the relative, one has compassion. After his enlightenment Buddha did not need to teach people in order for them to become essentially wiser; he did so in order to try to help people, to provide them with a means by which some of them could come to the same understanding that he had reached. So even though one may have understood the absolute truth, one need not be opposed to the outward forms of religion, but work through them if they are the forms best suited to one’s needs and understanding.
The absolute does not contradict the relative. Nirvana does not contradict samsara. Nirvana is not another place and time. It is here and everywhere, a timeless present in which past and future are included. In Zen Buddhism there is a saying, ‘Before one practises Zen, mountains are mountains and trees are trees.’ That is to say, there is only the reality of the relative world. ‘After one has practised Zen for some time,’ the saying continues, ‘mountains are no longer mountains and trees are no longer trees.’ One has seen the absolute, underlying unity of all things. ‘But at the completion of one’s practice of Zen, mountains are again mountains and trees are again trees,’ The relative is the absolute and yet at the same time it is the relative. We live in the same world, and yet it is completely transformed. It does not overwhelm us; we do not need it and yet we can enjoy it. It is one, and yet it is always changing. To the unenlightened it is a source of bondage, but to the enlightened it is a source of freedom, freedom at the heart of all things.
Lama Chime Rinpoche is the spiritual director of: Marpa House, Rectory Lane, Ashdon, CB10 2HN, UK
This article is reproduced from the of The Tibet Society Newsletter Relief Fund of the United Kingdom, 139 Fonthill Road, London N4 3HF. (Summer 1982 edition). The Tibet Society was founded in June 1959 to help Tibetan refugees.
This version published by the Buddhist Publishing Group in 1984. © Lama Chime Rinpoche