Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Relativity In The Light Of Double Truth

Relativity In The Light Of Double Truth


The Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

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Relativity In The Light Of Double Truth


The theory of the two truths is an innovation on the part of the Theravada Abhidhamma. Here, we find the concept of the two levels of reality, the one which is amenable to analysis and the other which defies further analysis. There are some striking similarities present between Buddhist concept of Double Truth and modern scientific views related to the notion of time and space.

The concept of Time is psychological and it is also considered to be an imputed entity. This is because it is identified on the basis of something that is other than itself. The whole process of cosmo-genesis according to Buddhism is catalyzed by the actions of living beings or Kamma. The Theravāda concept of space is found only in Milindapañha where the only two things which are considered to be independent of kamma or of causes or of season are namely Nibbāna and space. But it carefully avoids the use of the term “unconditioned” (asańkhata) and relates space as neither conditioned nor unconditioned. However, In the Sarvāstivāda Abhidhamma, space is elevated to the level of an unconditioned dhamma.

Key Words: Sammuti, Paññatti , Conventional, Paramattha, Absolute, Double Truth, Relativity, Abhidhamma, Einstein, Time, Space, Emptiness, Psychological, Nibbāna, Tathata

Relativity In The Light Of Double Truth

In Buddhist doctrines, the Sutta passages mention the theory of double truth which is a logical extension of the dhamma theory. The theory of the two truths is an innovation on the part of the Theravada Abhidhamma. Here, we find the concept of the two levels of reality, the one which is amenable to analysis and the other which defies further analysis. The first level is called sammuti because it represents conventional or relative truth or consensual reality. The second is called paramattha because it represents the absolute truth or ultimate reality.1,2

There are some controversies related to the degree of reality that should be attributed to the sum total of the dhammas that make up the ‘person’. According to the Puggalavādins the sum total should be assigned the same degree of reality that is assigned to the constituents. However, the Theravādins consider that the sum total is not real in an ultimate sense because of its analyzability. The ultimate constituents into which, the sum total is analyzable are ultimately real because they are not amenable to further analysis.2,3

An interesting feature in the Theravāda version of the theory is the use of the term sammuti for relative truth. For in all other schools of Buddhist thought the term used is saṃvrti. The difference is not simply that between Pali and Sanskrit, for the two terms differ both in etymology and meaning. Since sammuti refers to convention or general agreement, sammuti-sacca means truth based on convention or general agreement. On the other hand, the idea behind saṃvrti-satya is that which covers up the true nature of things and makes them appear otherwise. As saṃvrti means that which covers, hides, or conceals the true nature of reality, it is clearly implied that paramārtha is that which reveals the true nature of reality. Thus, the very use of the term saṃvrti to express one of the truths shows that that particular truth is less truthful and therefore inferior to what is called paramārtha-satya, the absolute truth. That is why, in all other schools of Buddhist thought belonging to the ‘Hīnayāna’ and ‘Mahāyāna’ traditions, the paramārtha satya is considered superior to saṃvrti satya.4,5

In the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma the difference between saṃvrti (relative) and paramārtha (absolute) is explained in a different manner. It is sought to be based on the principle of physical reducibility and mental analyzability. When there are the five aggregates as objects of clinging, there comes to be the mere term of common usage “a being”, “a person”, yet when each component is examined, there is no being as a basis for the assumption of “I am” or “I”. Here, the idea of a human being disappears when it is reduced to pieces. If the notion of a thing disappears when it is analyzed by mind, then it is to be regarded as existing relatively. If the idea of a thing does not persist any more when it is analyzed, then it exists in a conventional sense (saṃvrtisat).On the other hand, when a given thing is analyzed by mind, if the idea of it continues to persist, then that particular thing is said to exist in an ultimate sense (paramārtha-sat). For example, materiality (rūpana) or impenetrability (pratighāta) continues to persist when what is material or impenetrable is reduced to atoms or analyzed by mind into their constituents. The same is true when we consider mental phenomena such as feeling (vedanā), ideation (sajña), etc. According to Bhadanta Śrilāta, one of the celebrities of the Sautrāntika School of Buddhism, if the thing in question loses its original name when it is analyzed, then it is saṃvrti and if it does not, then it is paramārtha. Here, too, analyzability is taken as the sole criterion in distinguishing the two kinds of truth.3,4,5

Teachings of the Buddha in the light of Double Truth
The Buddha preached his doctrine by adopting either the sammuti-kathā or the paramattha-kathā according to the suitability of the occasion. He had used the dialect that a person readily understands. There was no implication that one dialect was superior or inferior to another. After taking into consideration the ability of each individual to understand the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha had presented his teaching, either by way of sammuti, or by way of paramattha, or by way of both. These are just two different ways of presenting the same set of doctrines. Although the sammuti-sacca is quite different from the paramattha-sacca, but both are expressed through paññatti. The commentarial literatures stated that ‘the ultimately real is expressed (communicated) without going beyond paññatti’ (Paññattim anatikkamma paramattho pakāsito) and also the Madhyamaka stating that ‘the absolute is not taught without resorting to the conventional’ (Vyavahāram anāsrtya paramārtho na deśyate). Both statements refer to the invariable association between the two truths and the symbolic medium of language.3,4,5

In the Sutta Piṭaka there is more use of conventional terms in ordinary parlance, whereas in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka more use is made of specific, technical terms which directly refer to the ultimate categories of empirical existence. The difference is only pertaining to method and not the content. Thus, what is intended to show by the description of the Sutta Piṭaka and the Abhidhamma Piṭaka as sammuti-desanā and paramattha-desanā respectively is that they represent two different ways of presenting the same doctrine. So, we should remember that whatever method the Buddha had adopted, the purpose was the same. He wanted to show the way to immortality through the analysis of mental and physical phenomena. Hence, one is advised not to adhere dogmatically to the mere superficial meanings of words (Na vacanabhedamattam ālambitabbaṃ), while understanding the teaching of the Buddha.3,5

Application of the Concept of Double Truth in Modern Science
Though Buddhism did not have any rigorous methodology for studying the physical world, but the Buddhist scholars and contemplatives had developed views on matters related to the universe and its contents. This was based on pure logical and rational thinking and no experimental model was applied to prove or disprove any of these observations. These phenomena were discussed in detail in the early Buddhism, the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the Visuddhimagga, the Pali commentaries, Mahāvibhāṣā-śāstra, the Kālacackra Tantra and in the literature on Buddhist epistemology.1,3,6 Although the study of physical world was not the central focus of the traditional areas of learning and specialization in Buddhism, but there are some striking similarities present between Buddhist concept of Double Truth and modern scientific views related to the notion of time and space.

Einstein’s Theories on Relativity
Albert Einstein is generally regarded as the greatest theoretical physicist of all times. His contributions to atomic physics and study of the photoelectric effect had earned him the Noble Prize. His theory of relativity with its profound modifications of the notions of space, time and gravitation had fundamentally changed and deepened our understanding of the physical and philosophical conception of the universe. The historians call the year 1905 as the “annus mirabilis” or “miracle year”, because in that year the renowned scientist Albert Einstein published four remarkable scientific papers addressing fundamental problems about the nature of energy, matter, motion, time and space. He was awarded the noble prize in the year 1921 for his outstanding contributions to the Theoretical Physics and especially for his discovery of the “Law of the Photoelectric Effect”.7,8 Some of his theories which could be viewed in the light of Buddhist concept of Double Truth are as follows:8,9

• In June 1905, Einstein proposed his concept of special relativity. Einstein's March paper treated light as particles, but special relativity estimated light as a continuous field of waves. So, Einstein observed light both as wave and particle.

• Later in 1905 came an extension of special relativity in which Einstein proved that energy and matter are linked in the most famous relationship in physics: E=mc2. (The energy content of a body is equal to the mass of the body times the speed of light in vacuum squared). This equation predicted an evolution of energy roughly a million times more efficient than that obtained by ordinary physiochemical means. This led to the theory of the conservation of energy, in the form of the first law of thermodynamics, which stated that the total amount of energy in any isolated system always remains constant. Although it can only be changed from one form to another, e.g. friction turns kinetic energy into thermal energy; this energy cannot be created or destroyed. If we calculate how much energy is being produced within the volume by stars and galaxies and also calculate how much energy is leaving the region, then the difference between the two parts should equal zero. Therefore, hypothetically, the energy produced by the universe is zero. So, another expression of this assumption is that “the total amount of energy in the universe is always constant. It is only that one form transforms into the other”.

• During 1915, Einstein completed the General Theory of Relativity and showed that matter and energy actually mold the shape of space and the flow of time. What we feel as the 'force' of gravity is simply the sensation of following the shortest path we can through curved, four-dimensional space-time. It was a radical vision where space was no longer considered to be the box to enclose the universe. Instead, space and time along with matter and energy are all locked together in the most intimate embrace.

The Concept of Double Truth and Relativity
The Buddhist view was always aware of the unity and mutual interaction of all events. This concept of “seeing things as they are themselves” was also called “Tathata” or “suchness”. The Theravāda version of the two truths are considered as conventional truth (sammuti-sacca) and absolute or ultimate truth (paramattha-sacca). The theory of double truth as developed by the Abhidhamma has a close connection with the early Buddhist analysis of empirical existence into aggregates (khandha), sense bases (ayatana), and elements (dhātu) of cognition. Although what is analysed is called sammuti, unlike in the Abhidhamma, that into which it is analysed is not called paramattha. What is more, in the early Buddhist scriptures the term paramattha is used only as a descriptive term of Nibbāna, to show that, from an ethico-psychological perspectivbe, Nibbana is the ‘highest ideal’(sumnum bonum). Whereas in the Abhidhamma the term paramattha is used in an ontological sense to mean ‘what exists in a real and ultimate sense’. In this ontological sense the term paramattha denotes not only Nibbāna as the Unconditioned Element, but also all mental and material elements into which the conditioned existence is analyzed.2,3 Einstein had also expressed that “there is no place in this kind of physics both for the field and matter, for the field is the only reality.”7,8

In the Madhyamaka system, nītārtha (nītattha) and neyyārtha (neyyattha) are explained as a parallel to its version of the two kinds of truth (saṃvrti and paramārtha). Nagarjuna’s analysis of “Sunyata” was based on the concept of rejection of all sorts of impositions. It revealed the fact that anything internal or external that appears to us as existing is in fact unreal and virtual. Thus, it emphasized the dynamicity and relativity of our own individual perceptions. The Mahayanists had claimed that nothing exists in our universe of experience in real form. What we perceive through our senses is all virtual and subjected to constant change from moment to moment.4,5,6 This implies that there is no static and permanent entity and everything is subjected to transformation. Since, every phenomenon is relative to each other and follows the rule of Dependent Origination, it is considered to be dynamic.

Time: A Psychological Concept
Since ages, “time” had been a topic extensive analysis in both the Buddhist and scientific traditions. Long before Galileo or Newton, many of the Ancient philosophers speculated on the nature of time. One view that is relevant to the history of non-mathematical concept of time is Augustine’s suggestion that the only time is lived-time. This theory reflects the existence of “psychological time;” the sense of time that we all normally experience. It is psychological, rather than the mathematical or scientific concept of time, which was most recently explored by the German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger. This “psychological time” has been discussed by Buddhism as well.7,8

Galileo was the first modern scientist to work with the concept of time. In his studies, he used a simple water clock to measure relative passages of time while rolling balls down inclined planes. Despite these pioneering efforts, he could not provide any systematic or functional definition of time. A clear definition of time did not come until Newton, who had universalized time and employed the concept of time in mathematical frameworks.7,8

Beyond Newton, time eventually became important in relation to the thermodynamics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Observing the irreversibility or asymmetry between the past and future, it has been argued that time is uni-directional and is also associated with the experience of “psychological time”. The concept of the uni-directional nature of time is not without controversy. Einstein himself had felt the uni-directionality of time and considered the concept of time to be an illusion.9,10

According to Newton, time was universal and unchanging and provides a kind of backdrop with space where all events took place. This concept was also based on the view that time was completely unrelated to space and uni-directional. As compared to this existing notion, Einstein’s contribution to the understanding of time was revolutionary. In Einstein’s theory of relativity, time (with space) becomes relative and contingent both on speed and gravity. The faster one travels or the closer one is to an object with a very strong gravitational pull, time elapses more slowly. This theory was supported by Langevin who proposed the concept of “twin paradox” and predicted that one twin traveling through space at great speeds will age much more slowly than her twin who is living on earth. A similar concept has been described in our psychological experience of time. Sometimes, we perceive as time to fly off very fast while in other situations, we perceive time to move very slowly.7,11

The Buddhist concept of time is equally diverse. Like “psychological time” described in Western contexts, Buddhists recognize that time can be experienced as moving faster or slower in certain situations. Buddhist contemplatives had often claimed to be able to alter their experience of time. What others might experience as only an instant, could be experienced by a person meditating as a much longer period of time. From the Buddhist perspective, when one actually analyzes time; it is found to not really exist. So, according to Buddhism, time is a “conventional truth” (paññatti) and a verbal or conceptual designation which is imputed onto experiences of a past, present, and future. It is called “conventional” because it is only established nominally on the basis of words and thoughts. If we actually try to point to an instant of time, the moment that we try to pinpoint has already passed and a future moment has now become the “present.” In this way, we cannot technically speak of any fixed, locatable present as it always vanishes upon close examination. Because of its conventional or dependent nature, time is an excellent example of the Buddhist concept of interdependence. The present only exists in dependence upon the concepts of past and future and none of these make sense without the others.3,10,11,12

Time is also considered an imputed entity in a yet more scholastic and technical context. This is because it is identified on the basis of something that is other than itself. A substantial entity, by contrast, is something that can be pointed to and identified directly. For example, when we speak of time, we point to a clock (a substantial entity) and as we watch the second hand go by, we perceive that we are watching the “time” to pass. We have not pointed to the “time” in reality, but rather perceived it through designations on things that are not time, like the clock. Though the things which serve as the basis for designations of time can be physical or mental, but time itself is neither physical nor mental. Instead, time fits in a third class of phenomenon technically referred to as “non-associated composite phenomena.” Here, “Non-associated” means that it is neither physical nor mental and “composite” means that time is dependent on other factors and is impermanent.8,10,11

Beyond these technical understandings of time, the Buddhists in Mahayana tradition believe in the existence of “three forms of time” consisting of past, present, and future. But the Theravāda tradition only recognizes the present moment as a marker of time. From a contemplative perspective, a major practice in Buddhism, is abiding in the “present moment.” In other contexts, time is discussed as an accessible way to introduce the Buddhist concept of dependent-origination. Apart from this concept of time, these two Buddhist schools had also identified the shortest possible divisions of time that is required to perform an act and the shortest division of time in general. An example of the shortest possible divisions of time is the time it takes to blink our eye, which is called a moment. The shortest division of time is considered to be 1/60th (or even 1/365th, depending on the source) the duration of a finger snap, a number which one Buddhist scholar has calculated roughly as one millisecond.11,13

Considering these facts, we observe that the Buddhist concept of “psychological time” is similar to Einstein’s perception that time is illusory. Since, Buddhism originated 2500 years ago and Einstein had a good understanding of the doctrines of Buddhism, there is a high possibility that he was influenced by this Buddhist concept of time as a “conventional truth” and used it to explain his theory of relativity which is accepted by modern science.
Space: Ambiguity on its Status of Conditioned or Unconditioned
Another major area of discussion for Buddhists, physicists, and cosmologists is the nature of empty space and cosmogony. The concept of Time and Space in relation to Buddhism are the two varieties of paññatti. They are two conceptual constructs without any corresponding objective reality. In Buddhism, the only two things which are considered to be not born of kamma (akammaja) or of causes (ahetuja) or of season (anutuja) are namely Nibbāna and Space. In Milindapañha, the only two things which are considered to be independent of kamma or of causes or of season are namely Nibbāna and space. But it carefully avoids the use of the term “unconditioned” (asańkhata) and relates space as neither conditioned nor unconditioned. The Theravāda concept of space is found only in Milindapañha where the space is defined as infinite (ananta), boundless (appamāna) and immeasurable (appameyya). It does not cling to anything (alagga), is not attached to anything (asatta), rests on nothing (appatițțha) and is not obstructed anything (apalibuddha). The Theravādins include the space element concept in the objective field of mental objects (dhammāyatana) which means that it is not visible but can be cognized only as an object of mind-consciousness.3,10,11,12,13

In the Sarvāstivāda Abhidhamma, the counterpart of space element is referred to as ākāśa-dhātu. The space element is either light (āloka) or darkness (tamas) and therefore it is included in the objective sense-field of the visible (rupāyatana). Besides this, the Sarvāstivādins recognize another kind of space which is called ākāśa and not ākāśa dhātu. It is defined not as space bound by matter, but as that which provides room for the movement of matter (yatra rūpasya gati). It is omni-present (sarvagata), eternal (nitya) and its nature is non-obstruction (anāvaraṇa-svabhāva). It does not obstruct matter, which freely exists therein. It is also not obstructed by matter, for it cannot be dislodged by matter. However, space is not the mere absence of obstruction of matter, but something passively real. Hence, in the Sarvāstivāda Abhidhamma, space is elevated to the level of an unconditioned dhamma. Thus, what the Sarvāstivādins call unconditioned space is the space considered absolutely real and as serving as a receptacle for the existence and movement of material phenomena.4,10,12

In the Madhyamaka system Nagarjuna had explained the Buddhist Doctrine of Dependent Origination in the light of “Sunyata” which means “void or emptiness”. The space in universe is also intimately connected to this Buddhist concept of śūnyatā or emptiness. Just as nothing can exist without space, so too can nothing exist without emptiness. Because all phenomena are empty of a static, independent and permanent existence, they can come into existence, change their forms and pass on. Emptiness is alternatively understood through the concept of dependent-origination. It is because things arise by depending on other things that exist. The notion of a permanent and independent phenomenon therefore, can never exist without interacting with anything else and itself undergoing some changes in the process. We should realize the “absolute truth” behind the concept of “emptiness” as absence of self-entity and attachment. We should also understand the fact that interdependence is the nature of reality in order to eliminate ignorance and free our minds from the ocean of conditioned, karmic-driven existence.4,8,10,11

In physics, there are highly developed mathematical theories which suggest the empty space of a vacuum actually contains an infinite amount of energy. It is speculated that this energy has a role in the evolution in the universe. While this is still an area of controversy and mystery within theoretical physics, it makes for a rough parallel to the Buddhist concept of empty-particles and the universe arising out of space. In Buddhist literature, empty space is an important concept in understanding the origins of the universe. It is traditionally presumed that at the beginning of a cosmic cycle, the various elements arise from empty space catalyzed by the karmic winds of sentient beings. From space comes wind or kinetic energy. From wind comes fire or thermal energy. From fire comes water or fluidity. Finally, from water comes earth or solidity.10,11,12 According to Hinduism, these five elements (space, wind, fire, water, and earth) make up the basis for matter in the universe. But Buddhism does not accept space as a primary element for matter and regard it as paññatti, which is based on conceptual constructs without any corresponding objective reality.

The whole process of cosmo-genesis according to Buddhism is catalyzed by the actions of living beings or Kamma.
When an action or Kamma is performed by an individual based on lust, anger, hatred and jealousy, then that action creates an imprint on one’s consciousness. This karmic imprint acts as a seed that lies dormant within consciousness until someday maturing into a fully ripened fruit or experience. When conditions are right, this imprint would manifest itself and stir into creation of some new universe of experience. Thus, in Buddhism, the universe is considered to be the space of our various kinds of Kammic experiences. In the context of cosmogony, Kamma is what catalyzes the formation of a new universe. From the Buddhist perspective, there are said to be multiple world systems which constantly go through a process of formation and dissipation across vast expanses of space and time without having any particular point of beginning. Einstein also accepted this concept and emphasized on the conduction of volitions activities by human beings.7,8,10,11

The expression ‘paramattha’ (absolute/ultimate) means that which is ultimate, that which is not further resolvable. The reference is to the dhammas, the ultimate data of existence. Accordingly, sammuti is conceptual (kappanā-siddha) and paramattha is objectively real (bhāva-siddha). Although paramattha can be designated and conceptualized by mind, it exists without being designated and conceptualized. In other words, it is the knowledge which is ultimate. Knowledge is present everywhere all the time irrespective of whether we perceive it or not. Thus, paramattha-sacca really means ‘the truth expressed by using the technical terms expressive of the ultimate elements of existence. Similarly, sammuti-sacca or conventional truth means the truth expressed by using conventional terms in common parlance’. It is to be noted that no preferential value-judgment should be used to distinguish between sammuti-sacca and paramattha-sacca while deciphering the doctrine of the Buddha.2,3,5

As mentioned in the Aṇguttaranikāya, the Theravada tradition also considers these as the two ways of presenting the same dhamma. Although the Four Noble Truths represent four different facts, no preferential value judgment is introduced in respect of them. One particular truth is not held out as superior or inferior to another. That is why they are all introduced as Noble Truths (Ariya-saccāni). All are equally noble (ariya), and all are equally true (sacca). None of them impose any preferential value judgment in respect of each of the other. This concept of non-value judgment is the most important common feature between nītattha and neyyattha, and the Four Noble Truths. 1,2,3,5

During the process of evolution of modern science, the basic elementary philosophical and logical concepts were already present in our religious practices. Though the modern scientists discard the concept of a “Creator God”, but they recognize the fact that there are a number of philosophical concepts of modern science embedded in Buddhism, which needs careful exploration. The interpretation of modern scientific theories, related to the universe and cosmology, in the light of Abhidhamma perspective of Buddhism is a sincere effort in this direction.


1. Karunadasa, Y. 2009. The Literature of the Theravāda Abhidhamma as a guide to the history of the Abhidhamma Systematization. Hong Kong: The Centre of Buddhist Studies, the University of Hong Kong.
2. Karunadasa, Y. 1996. The Dhamma Theory: Philosophical Cornerstone of the Abhidhamma. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.
3. Karunadasa, Y. 2008.Theravada Version of the Two Truths. Hong Kong: The Centre of Buddhist Studies, the University of Hong Kong.
4. Dhammajoti, K.L. 2003. Sarvāstivāda Abhidhamma. Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Centre for Buddhist Studies.
5. Bodhi, B., ed. 1993. A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma (the annotated translation of Abhidhammatthasangaha of Acariya Anuruddha). Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.
6. Lopez, Donald S. 2005. Critical terms for the study of Buddhism. Buddhism and modernity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
7. Jammer, Max. 1999. Einstein and religion: physics and theology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
8. Bharucha, Filita P. 1992. Buddhist theory of causation and Einstein's theory of relativity. Delhi, India: Sri Satguru Publications.
9. Einstein, A., 1931. The world as I see it. Forum and Century: Living Philosophies 84: 193-4.
10. Wallace,B.A., ed., 2003. Buddhism & science: breaking new ground. New York: Columbia University Press.
11. Wallace, B.A.1996. Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications: 18-27.
12. Karunadasa, Y. 2009. Time and Space. Hong Kong: The Centre of Buddhist Studies. The University of Hong Kong.
13. Lopez, D.S. 2008. Buddhism & science: A guide for the perplexed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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