People sometimes qualify their statements, by adding the word, "conventionally" — and people distinguish between Conventional Truth (Sammuti Sacca) versus Ultimate Truth (Paramattha Sacca).

  1. When (historically) does this distinction begin: if the distinction is made in the Abhidhamma Pitaka, is there also doctrine like that in the Sutta Pitaka (and if not, do we know why not)?

    This Wikipedia section says that the "two truths" distinction is not made in the suttas, though there are some "suttas of indirect meaning".

  2. Is "ultimate" in some way better or more right than "conventional"? Or are they both mere views or descriptions of reality, more or less equal (like a left hand and a right hand) and it's important to select (perhaps, I guess, by using 'wisdom') whichever of the two may be the more appropriate?

    Is it OK to regard them both as "views" instead of as "truths"? Is there an important difference between e.g. sacca, vacana, dhamma, and ditthi?

  3. If/when/after people have made a distinction between "conventional" and "ultimate", do people subsequently try to recombine these views? I'm thinking of the Zen-like aphorism, "after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water": is that something to do with "two truths"? Does it imply a continuation of or a return to the conventional? Or does it differ/vary a lot from school to school?

I imagine these questions could be answered with a paragraph each; but please tell me if any of them need to be separate questions, to allow a longer or more detailed answer.


5 Answers 5

  1. The distinction goes back all the way to Buddha's students' original Maha-Sangha and its two sub-schools Bahushrutiya and Prajnaptivada. From Wikipedia:

According to Paramārtha, the Bahuśrutīya school was formed in order to fully embrace both "conventional truth" and "ultimate truth."


The Prajñaptivādins were early articulators of the two truths doctrine.

  1. The relationship of the two truths is the main concern of Buddhist ontological tradition called "Madhyamaka". According to them, the "ultimate" that is defined in opposition to "conventional" is not the true ultimate. As you say, these two are mere views or descriptions of reality. The true "ultimate", they argue, is beyond all descriptions, and therefore complete and does not stand in opposition to anything (is all inclusive). One of the very many texts that elaborate on this point and its implications is Karmapa's commentary on an ancient little stanza known as The Cuckoo of Awareness.

  2. As my Zen Master said, it is one thing if I explain this, and another thing if you get it yourself. Therefore I will leave this one unanswered.


Your question is tagged "Abhidhamma" and "Pāḷi Canon", so I am going to limit my answer to the Theravāda perspective. I am only going to answer the first part of the question. Please leave me a comment if you want me to answer the other parts of the question (I want to make sure that we are on the same wavelength before proceeding).

Here is an entry as part of Nyanatiloka’s Buddhist Dictionary:

paramattha (-sacca, -vacana, -desanā): 'truth (or term, exposition) that is true in the highest (or ultimate) sense', as contrasted with the 'conventional truth' (vohāra-sacca), which is also called 'commonly accepted truth' (sammuti-sacca; in Skr: samvrti-satya). The Buddha, in explaining his doctrine, sometimes used conventional language and sometimes the philosophical mode of expression which is in accordance with undeluded insight into reality. In that ultimate sense, existence is a mere process of physical and mental phenomena within which, or beyond which, no real ego-entity nor any abiding substance can ever be found. Thus, whenever the Suttas speak of man, woman or person, or of the rebirth of a being, this must not be taken as being valid in the ultimate sense, but as a mere conventional mode of speech (vohāra-vacana).

It is one of the main characteristics of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, in distinction from most of the Sutta Piṭaka, that it does not employ conventional language, but deals only with ultimates, or realities in the highest sense (paramattha-dhammā). But also in the Sutta Piṭaka there are many expositions in terms of ultimate language (paramattha-desanā), namely, wherever these texts deal with the groups (khandha), elements (dhātu) or sense-bases (āyatana), and their components; and wherever the 3 characteristics (ti-lakkhaṇa, q.v.) are applied. The majority of Sutta texts, however, use the conventional language, as appropriate in a practical or ethical context, because it “would not be right to say that 'the groups' (khandha) feel shame, etc.”

It should be noted, however, that also statements of the Buddha couched in conventional language, are called 'truth' (vohāra-sacca), being correct on their own level, which does not contradict the fact that such statements ultimately refer to impermanent and impersonal processes.

The two truths - ultimate and conventional - appear in that form only in the commentaries, but are implied in a Sutta-distinction of 'explicit (or direct) meaning' (nītattha, q.v.) and 'implicit meaning (to be inferred)' (neyyattha). Further, the Buddha repeatedly mentioned his reservations when using conventional speech, e.g. in D. 9: "These are merely names, expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use in the world, which the Perfect Qne (Tathāgata) uses without misapprehending them." See also S. I. 25.

The term paramattha, in the sense here used, occurs in the first para. of the Kathāvatthu, a work of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka (s. Guide, p. 62). (App: vohāra).

The commentarial discussions on these truths (Com. to D. 9 and M. 5) have not yet been translated in full. On these see K N. Jayatilleke, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (London, 1963), pp. 361ff.

In Mahāyana, the Mādhyamika school has given a prominent place to the teaching of the two truths.

In DN 9, you will find the quote, "[names] are the world's designations, the world's expressions, the world's ways of speaking, the world's descriptions, with which the Tathāgata expresses himself but without grasping to them."

Regarding this verse, Thanissaro Bhikkhu makes the comment:

The Commentary takes this is as the Buddha's affirmation of the idea — which in later centuries became current in all schools of Buddhism — that he spoke truth on two levels: conventional and ultimate. In context, though, the Buddha seems to be referring merely to the fact that he has adopted the linguistic usages of his interlocutors simply for the sake of discussion, and that they should not be interpreted out of context.

Regarding this verse, Maurice Walshe makes the comment:

An important reference to the two truths referred in [the Dīgha Nikāya commentary] as 'conventional speech' (sammuti-kathā) and 'ultimately true speech' (paramattha-kathā). It is important to be aware of the level of truth at which any statements are made. In the [Majjhimma commentary to MN 5], the following verse is quoted (source unknown), 'Two truths the Buddha, best of all who speak, declared: conventional and ultimate – no third can be. Terms agreed are true by usage of the world; words of ultimate significance are true in terms of dhammas. Thus the Lord, a Teacher, he who is skilled in this world’s speech can use it, and not lie.'

Here is my personal conjecture (this is my own assumption, I have not seen this anywhere else, so take it with a grain of salt). According to the Wikipedia page on “Atomism”, the idea of breaking things into “ultimate realities” arose in India around the time of the Buddha and was adopted by some of the Buddha’s “competitors” such as the Jains, Ājīvikas (followers of Makkhali Gosala) and Carvaka schools. My assumption is that Buddhist had to defend themselves in debates against these “competitors” and felt that the Buddha’s overlapping analysis of aggregates / bases / elements was not “robust” enough to counter the detailed ontological arguments put forth by the “competition”.

As a response, each Buddhist school created their own set of "ultimate realities". Just to give an indication of the differences between schools: the Theravāda school has 1 citta (arising in 89 or 121 combinations, Mental States), 52 cetasika, 28 rūpa and 1 unconditioned element. The Sarvāstivāda school had 1 citta, 60 cetasika, 11 rūpa and 3 unconditioned elements. The Sautrāntika school had 6 citta, 29 cetasika, 8 rūpa and 1 unconditioned element. The Yogācāra school had 8 citta, 75 cetasika, 11 rūpa and 6 unconditioned elements. Each of these schools used the same set of Suttas, but analyzed them in a different way, according to their own doctrines.

Second part of the question

In AN 4.94, the Buddha defined samatha as a process of steadying, settling, unifying and composing (saṇṭhapetabbaṁ, sannisādetabbaṁ, ekodi kātabbaṁ, samādahātabban) the mind. When discussing samatha, the Suttas do not specify an object or a type of object (concept or ultimate reality). Samatha is a process, irrespective of the object. The result of samatha is internal tranquility. Of course, the commentaries focus on the object of samatha.

The same sutta describes vipassanā as distinct seeing of things through higher wisdom. Vipassanā is described as viewing saṅkhārā, investigating saṅkhārā and distinctly seeing saṅkhārā. The object of vipassanā is saṅkhārā. In this context, saṅkhārā can be interpreted as being the three characteristics (anicca, dukkha, anattā). The result of vipassanā is the insight knowledges.

Concepts do not possess the three characteristics and are therefore not valid objects of vipassanā meditation. On the other hand, citta, cetasika and rūpa do possess the three characteristics and are therefore valid objects of vipassanā meditation.

So it is important to know the difference between conventional realities and ultimate realities to understand the teachings. It is also important to only use ultimate realities as the object of vipassanā meditation.

  • Re. the second part of the question, this paragraph in an article which is hyperlinked in Andrei's answer says that in Mahayana the "two truths" are characterized/named as "skillful means" and "wisdom". Assuming that's so, I think that terminology make it clear/clearer that both are worthwhile (whereas I thought that calling them "conventional" versus "ultimate" suggested that "ultimate" was better than "conventional", maybe that the conventional should be discarded, etc.).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 14:51

Conventional truth:

This is a macro view in which we deal with compounded entities like you, me, Ananda. The language mode of teaching of the Sutta and Vinaya Pitaka takes this route2 and is as old as the formalising of the Tripitaka as we have it today.

On diving any concept into a more granular form (you have a dead cow and you cut out a pound of flesh then the flesh is no longer a cow and you break the flesh into its chemical this is not longer flesh) then the original meaning disappears.

Conventional truths arise from metal constructions. We construct so and so is Ananda but at a micro level there is only chain of thought moments arising based on a stimuli (Ārammana) at our sense doors. Any view arise though pondering hence is susceptible to further division and always and abstraction which will fall short of the reality at some degree. Wrong Views are ones which are completely divergent from reality. Even the Right View is still and abstraction constructed by the lower levels of building blocks as taught in the Abhidhamma.1

Ultimate truth

This is a micro view where we have divided mind, mental factors, material, nirvana into its most granular form where further divisibility is not possible. The language and teaching mode of the Abhidhamma Pitaka takes this route2.

Reconciliation between the two happen through Vipassana Meditation where start seeing things as they are. (Yathā Bhūta ñāna Dassana) You penetratingly see the constituents and the nature of the constituents or building blocks which create the mosaic in our mind as thoughts, views, cognitions, etc. - or how thoughts and concepts are create3. Also all human endeavors are based on these thought we create.


These two categoric.s, the pannatti and the paramattha, or the conceptual and the real, are said to be mutually exclusive and together exhaustive of the whole of the knowable (neyya-dhamma) Thus what is not paramattha is pannatti. Similarly whal is not pannatti is paramattha.

Hence the Abhidhamma makes the assertive statement: “ Besides the two categories of paramattha (the real) and pannatti (the conceptual), a third category does not exist. One who is skillful in these two categories does not tremble in the face o f other teachings”.

Source: THE THERAVĀDA ABHIDHAMMA - Its Inquiry into the Nature of Conditioned Reality by Y. KARUNADASA, p 49


The Sutta Pitaka is said to contain teachings mostly based on conventional terms {vohāra-desanā), because therein the Blessed One who is skilful in the use of conventions, has taught the doctrines with a preponderance of conventional term s. In contrast, the Abhidhamma Pitaka is said to contain teachings mostly based on paramattha-desanā because therein the Blessed One who is skilful in the use of absolute terms, has taught the doctrine with a preponderance of absolute terms.

Source: THE THERAVĀDA ABHIDHAMMA - Its Inquiry into the Nature of Conditioned Reality by Y. KARUNADASA, p 66


dependent on the diversity of elements, there arises the diversity of perceptions, dependent on the diversity of perceptions, there arises the diversity of thoughts; dependent on the diversity of thoughts, there arises the diversity of desires; dependent on the diversity of desires, there arises the diversity of passions; dependent on the diversity of passions, there arises the diversity of searching.

Source: Saññā Nānatta Sutta

This also can be further analyzed using an Abhidhamma as: sanna > vedana > sankhara (chetasika)


I suggest that a thorough account of the history of this distinction regarding language - the 'conventional' and 'ultimate' distinction - should take into account a rarely discussed sutta found in the Anguttara Nikaya: the KĀLAKARĀMA SUTTA.(AN.IV.24). Ven. Kaṭukurunde Ñāṇananda Mahathera has a translation and commentary in his 'The Magic of the Mind.' Various other translations are available on the net. The essential point, related to this thread, is that in that sutta the Buddha says that he knows all the things that humans know (for which, he obviously has conventional language). Then he says something that modifies that statement quite radically; which, in summary, is as follows: "When [experiencing], a Tathāgata does not imagine an [experienced]; he does not imagine an [not-experienced]; he does not imagine a ‘possible-to-[experience]’;and he does not imagine an [experiencer]." This seems to indicate how he doesn't 'get caught' by conventional usage - he doesn't imagine entities in experience. So, the KĀLAKARĀMA SUTTA, appears to refer to two kinds of knowing. (They might both be necessary to live practically in the world.) May all be safe, well and content.


Purely from a language perspective, usage of Ultimate Truth suggests a truth of a fundamental nature in relation to existence, or to the religion being discussed. This term may be used to describe a God-like quality such as Enlightenment, or an immutable law of nature. Ultimate Truths are thought to be of an esoteric nature, usually beyond the comprehension of lay people, and possibly of interest only in discussions among monks, scholars etc.

By contrast, usage of a Conventional Truth indicates a truth of a more mundane nature, which is generally accepted more-or-less by lay people. It indicates a "worldly-wise" or "normal" position regarding factuality of ordinary things, societal norms or ways of life, regularly accepted does-and-don'ts of the business of daily life, etc.

The Zen proverb such as the one you quoted sounds like an injunction not to shake the boat of normal living even after the extraordinary event of Enlightenment. It appears to stress the importance of maintaining the fabric of ones personal reality by not rejecting Conventional Truth, despite having seen or attained the Ultimate Truth.

Another Zen proverb that seems to juxtapose Ultimate Truth and Conventional Truth is this one: “Before I sought enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers. While I sought enlightenment, the mountains were not mountains and the rivers were not rivers. After I attained enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.”

Indeed, the essence of Zen appears to be the coexistence, inseparability and complementarity of Ultimate Truth and Conventional Truth.

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