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Buddhadharma : Fall 2007
buddhadharma| 79 |fall 2007 The Sanskrit term samvrti satya, used in Buddhist teachings that explore the nature of reality, is often translated as “relative truth” or “conventional truth,” but these renderings don’t quite convey the full meaning of the term. Superficial truth, deceptive truth, or obscured truth seem to come closer. Samvrti means to conceal, hide, or cover. Satya means truth. Together they mean something like “truth that conceals.” Usually, truth is related to revealing, and falsehood to conceal- ing. How are we to understand a truth that conceals? In fact, samvrti satya is a truth that both reveals and conceals. It reveals the causes of things while concealing their nature. Revealing the causes of things means showing how causes and condi- tions gather to produce appearances. Water boils under certain conditions of temperature and pressure and freezes under other conditions; crops grow when seeds get the right amount of water, warmth, nutrients, and light; if we look both ways before crossing the street, we are likely to get to the other side. Through understanding the causes of things, we are able to manipulate appearances and pre- dict things that will appear in the future. Samvriti satya is very handy. During the past century, science and technology have developed a remarkable understanding of the causes of things, giv- ing us the power to produce the appear- ances of everything from Prozac to atom bombs. These advances have been so dra- matic that we often overlook the limits of the conceptual understanding that is samvriti satya. Buddhism, too, presents teachings about causes and results; for example, that suffering comes from self-concern and happiness comes from concern for the welfare of others. But Buddhism’s aim is liberation from conditioned existence, not just temporary improvement. Ironi- cally, liberation comes from revealing the nature of things that is concealed by conceptual understanding. The nature of things is variously described as emptiness, egolessness, or suchness, and it is called “ultimate truth.” In Sanskrit, it is known as paramartha satya. The term parama- rtha gives rise to a variety of connotations and is worthy of its own full-length treat- ment. The key point, though, is that the ultimate truth refers to genuine reality, unconcealed reality. By contrast, samvrti satya conceals because it is conceptual. Concepts may correctly or incorrectly describe the rela- tionship between causes and results, but both correct and incorrect concepts cover the ultimate. This is because the objects of concepts don’t exist. Conceptual mind is mistaken about what appears to it. To illustrate this, think of the relation- ship between a map and a journey. By looking at the map, we understand which direction to head in, how far to go, when to turn, and so on. When we make the actual journey, we won’t find any of the objects shown on the map, because they dhArmA dicTionAry sAmvrTi sATyA defined by andy Karr Andy kArr is the Author of contemPlating reality: a Practitioner’S guiDe to the View in inDo-tibetan buDDhiSm (shAmbhAlA publicAtions, 2007).