The Buddhist Concept of Reality

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In Buddhism, the issue of what is reality is central to one’s approach to life. There is a big difference between the world of appearances that our minds create and the world of reality that the laws of cause and effect give rise to. When we mistake the former for the latter and believe that how things appear to us correspond to reality, we create problems and suffering for ourselves and others. But no one wants to be unhappy and suffer; everyone wants to be happy. This is the aim of all life, and, in this regard, we all are the same – humans and animals alike. All life strives for well-being and happiness; and all religions, both those that assert a creator God and those, like Buddhism and Jainism, that do not, and all secular systems as well, share this aim and thus provide varying methods for bringing about that common goal. 

The Buddhist Emphasis on Analysis with Logic

The Buddhist approach to achieving this common goal, particularly in its Indo-Tibetan traditions, focuses on analyzing how things appear to us and, by using logic and reason, deconstructing any false appearances that our minds are projecting. Then, based on seeing and accepting reality, the emphasis is on employing rational, realistic methods for achieving this goal of happiness and well-being. 

In our present, so-called “post-truth” era, when conspiracy theories and disinformation abound, this approach is crucial, regardless of our religion or system of beliefs. It is essential even if we follow no religion at all. Thus, in Buddhism, the issue of the existence of God does not arise in relation to the core concern, which is bringing about the liberation of all beings from uncontrollably recurring suffering. Since both the world of false appearances and the world of reality arise dependently on cause and effect, each is affected causally by the attitudes and behavior of those who experience them. Thus, overcoming the suffering caused by believing in the reality of the former and bringing about happiness caused by believing in the reality of the later can only arise dependently on our own causal efforts. This is the core Buddhist belief.

In terms of reality, we all live in what we can say is “true or actual reality,” verifiable by scientific method, which Buddhism agrees with. After all, Buddha said not to accept what he taught just on faith, but to examine it like when buying gold. Therefore, in Buddhism, examination and analysis are the supreme methods for discovering and verifying reality. Problems arise when people make up an alternative, false reality and mistake it for what is actually the truth. We can see this happening in the political sphere, but Buddhism looks at this phenomenon on a broader, more universal level. 

The False Reality That We Are Special

One false reality that many people create is that they are somehow special. This leads to a self-centered attitude with which we think that whatever happens to us, especially bad things, happens only to us. We feel, for instance, that we are the only ones who get sick, lose our jobs, lose our loved ones, or face death. How did Buddha help someone like this to see reality? Let’s look at an example that may help us to understand the Buddhist approach. 

Once a mother brought her dead baby to the Buddha and asked him to bring her child back to life. Buddha agreed, but told her first to bring him a grain of rice from a household where death had never visited. The woman went all around the village, house to house, seeking such a household, but soon discovered that every family has had someone who has died, whether young or old. Realizing that she was not alone in having lost a loved one, she finally understood and accepted the reality that death comes to everyone. In this way, she was able to let go and let her child be cremated. 

When people are facing a difficult situation – be it an addiction, cancer, having a Down’s syndrome child and so on – they often feel alone. We think we are the only ones who have ever had this problem. Believing such a false reality leads to isolating ourselves emotionally from others and great mental turmoil. The true reality is that there are many others facing a similar type of situation. One way to realize this reality is to participate in a support group of others sharing the same type of situation. It has been scientifically demonstrated that participating in such groups is extremely beneficial for dealing with such issues. This is clearly the case no matter what our difficulty may be. 

We don’t even need to participate in a support group to realize that we are not the only ones to ever have to deal with the difficulty we are facing. Seeing this reality helps us to broaden our perspective to include others and, in doing so, we realize that just as we want to get over our difficulty and be happy, so does everyone else. Just as we do not want to suffer, so does everyone else. This helps us to develop compassion. 

Compassion

Compassion is the wish for everyone to be free of their suffering and unhappiness, including ourselves. When we narrowly think of only ourselves, we mentally constrict and thus squeeze down on our emotional energies. We experience this disturbance as anxiety, distress and insecurity. Opening up our hearts to others breaks this syndrome. Compassion, plus the realization that we are not alone, calms us down. It allows us to see more clearly the actual reality of our situation and what realistic measures we can take to alleviate the problems involved. Thus, compassion gives us the self-confidence to deal with whatever the challenges may be.

After all, as humans we are social animals. This is reality. Our welfare depends on others, starting from infancy and throughout our lives. Every item that we make use of or consume each day comes from the work of others, and, without others, we would not survive. Furthermore, the lives of everyone are interconnected. What affects people in one part of the world, affects everyone. Global issues, such as climate change and insufficient attention to what His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls “emotional hygiene,” affect everyone on this planet. This is reality. Therefore, a holistic approach to problem-solving, based on compassionate concern about the welfare of everyone, is the only realistic way to go forward in bringing about the happiness and well-being that we all desire. These points and this approach are not exclusively Buddhist, but as His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes, are based on common sense and universal values.  

Deconstructing False Appearances

But let us turn now to the distinctively Buddhist approach to deconstructing the deceptive appearances of false reality that, when we believe in them, cause us and others problems and suffering. 

Actually, the issue of false appearances and false realities is multilayered and quite complex. Buddhism analyzes the issue by first classifying the various types of false appearances that we could incorrectly believe correspond to reality. The principle behind this approach is that it is not possible to solve any problem without first identifying and understanding the problem. 

In general, some false realities are based on distorted or deceptive appearances of what does exist, while others are pure projections of fantasy. Some false appearances are sensorial, and thus are perceived non-conceptually, while others are purely conceptual. Some arise based on indoctrination from misleading sources of disinformation, while others arise automatically, such as the distortions coming from habitual anger. Let’s survey some of these distortions.

Deconstructing Sensorial Appearances of a False Reality

Sensorial false appearances may arise from four different sources: their reliance, their object, the situation in which they occur and the immediate condition of the mind that projects them: 

  1. The reliance of a false sensorial appearance is the cognitive equipment through which it arises and is perceived. The false sensorial appearance may be a distortion of what exists. For example, because of astigmatism, we may see blurred appearances, and because of faulty hearing, we may hear indistinct sounds of people speaking clearly. These false sensorial appearances may also be of something that does not exist. For example, after an amputation, we may still feel the sensation of a phantom limb or some sensation in a prosthetic one. 
  2. False appearances deriving from the object include optical illusions of patterns of color and light that confuse the brain, as well as things like a rapidly whirling torch appearing as a circle of light.
  3. False appearances from situations may be due to external circumstances such as fog or the dark, or they may be due to the circumstances of the perceiver, such as being in a moving train and seeing outside objects appearing to be moving backwards.
  4. False appearances from the immediate condition of the mind may be hallucinations caused by fever, drugs or fear.   

The Buddhist method for proving that these false sensorial appearances do not correspond to reality is to rely on the fact that they are contradicted by the valid sensorial cognition of those not subject to such causes for deception. When we put on our glasses, we no longer see a blur. When the train stops, we no longer see objects out the window moving backwards. Moreover, as with the scientific method, the correct perception of reality needs to be corroborated and verified by the repeated observation of many persons, not just ourselves and not just once.

Voidness

Buddhism speaks a great deal about voidness, usually translated as “emptiness.” Voidness refers to a total absence of something, namely the total absence of anything that corresponds to these false appearances that our minds create. Things do exist, but they do not exist in any of the false manners in which our minds make them appear to exist. 

For example, a tree outside our moving train does exist, but a tree that appears to us as moving backwards does not correspond to anything real. There is no such thing as trees that move backwards; but this does not mean that there are no such things as trees. Thus, voidness is not a view of nihilism; it does not deny everything. It does not even deny the fact that such false appearances arise in people’s minds and that people experience cognizing them and respond based on what they experience. Voidness merely refutes what is impossible – namely, an actual reality that corresponds to the false, deceptive appearances that our minds create.

Deconstructing Conceptual Appearances of a False Reality

For deconstructing and correcting conceptual appearances of a false reality, Buddhism employs a similar methodology to the one used to deconstruct false, non-conceptual sensorial appearances. If what such appearances would correspond to are found to be contradicted by valid cognition through either observation or logic, the appearances are of a false reality. Such false appearances vary from coarse to extremely subtle and need to be deconstructed layer by layer, like peeling an onion. But first, we need to understand what a conceptual cognition is.

The Example of a Friend

A conceptual cognition is exclusively mental and occurs through the medium of a category. For example, we have the conceptual category of “a friend,” with either a dictionary definition of what a friend is or perhaps our own variation on that definition. In Western terms, we would say we have an “idea” of what a friend is and, actually, a “fixed idea.” If we were asked to think of a friend, we might represent that category with a mental picture, like a mental hologram, of someone who fits that description – an ideal good friend. The mental hologram might not be a mental picture of a specific friend that we have, and it may not even be a clear mental picture, but more like an emotional feeling, or even just the mental representation of the sound of the word “friend.” 

Let’s see how cognition through such a concept of a friend occurs. When we meet someone whom we consider a friend and we experience them doing or saying something unwelcomed, like not doing what we asked them to do, we experience it with unhappiness and perhaps become angry with them. Driven by that anger, we may scold them with harsh words. If we analyze how our response has arisen, it is because we have cognized our friend conceptually through the category that we have of a friend and what a good friend should be and should do. Because they do not fit into that category at this moment and thus do not meet our expectations, we respond with unhappiness and annoyance. Bad habits then take over and we impulsively say things that we may later regret. 

To overcome or avoid this compulsive response, we need to realize that although this person is a friend, our mental picture of an ideal friend – someone who always fulfills our expectations, which, in fact, is based on how we define a “friend” – does not correspond to anyone real. With this realization in mind, we can deconstruct the situation on many levels and thereby either avoid getting angry or even becoming disappointed with our friend; or at least we can temper and quickly get over our anger if it has already arisen. To do this, we need to analyze any false appearances our minds have constructed and uncover the reality of what has happened. 

First, on the most basic level, we need to investigate whether or not our information is correct. Did they, in fact, not do what we asked them to do, or did they just not report back to us, or did we simply not notice or recognize what they had done? To rectify any misunderstanding and false accusations, we need to examine the evidence. This is the same methodology that is used in legal trials to avoid false charges. 

If, in fact, they didn’t do what we asked them to do, we need next to examine the reasons why. The conceptual appearance our minds created was that they are not a good friend, because in our imaginations it appears as though being a good friend is established by the defining characteristic of a good friend found on the side of the person. Here, one of the defining characteristics of a good friend that we have made up is being someone who always is there for us and always does what we ask them to do. But is this a reasonable defining characteristic?

When we analyze, we realize that the behavior of people arises dependently on causes and conditions. It is not ruled by some defining characteristic findable inside them that determines their behavior regardless of circumstances. That is impossible; otherwise, everyone, including ourselves, would always be consistent in our behavior, no matter what the circumstances may be. For instance, we would always arrive on time even when we have gotten caught in a traffic jam due to an accident on the road. Evidence, even from just our own personal experience, clearly contradicts the expectation that anyone’s behavior will always be the same and is unaffected by causes and conditions.

To get to the reality of the situation and deconstruct any false reality our minds might have created – like that they didn’t do what we asked because they don’t like us and are no longer our friend – we would then simply ask our friend why they didn’t do what we asked. There could have been a huge variety of circumstances that could have caused them not to comply with our wishes. They might explain that they were too busy or too stressed, or other more urgent things had come up, or they were upset about something, or were sick, had simply forgotten, or out of laziness had kept on putting it off. It could even have been that they considered, rightly or wrongly, that what we asked was unreasonable and so, being annoyed with us, just ignored our request. Analyzing more deeply, we would discover that each of these reasons had itself arisen because of many causes and circumstances. For instance, they were too busy and stressed because a lot of urgent work had come up at their jobs and they had a deadline to meet. 

The reality, then, of what happened was that their not doing what we asked them to do was what Buddhism calls “a dependently arising event.” It arose dependently on many causes and conditions, and not because of some defining characteristic findable in them that, by its own power, made them a “bad friend.” Further, it was not because they were inherently, self-established as a “bad friend” that they did not fit in to our concept and idea of what a good friend should be. It was because our concept of a good friend was based on an unreasonable defining characteristic and, because of that, no one fits in that category. The mental image we have of a good friend does not correspond to anyone real. 

That absence of anything corresponding to this false appearance is the voidness of the appearance. When we focus on that voidness – on that fact of there being no such thing – the false appearance no longer arises. Even when we see our friend again, although that voidness no longer appears, we need to remain mindful of it while viewing them with the understanding of the dependently arising nature of their behavior. In this way, we no longer get angry or remain angry, and we deal calmly, rationally and compassionately with the situation. 

If they were unable to do what we asked because of some urgent or stressful situation in their work or personal lives, we respond with empathy and compassion, the wish for them to be free of that difficulty. If they were just under the control of laziness, we also feel compassion, wishing that they get over this, and offer advice for overcoming laziness. If they found our request to be unreasonable, we examine why. If our request was, in fact unreasonable or appeared to be a demand, we apologize and work to stop making unreasonable requests or demands. If they found it unreasonable because of their own definition of what is reasonable to expect from a friend, we respect their point of view and discuss it with them to perhaps find a compromise definition. All these methods are shared in common with mediators for conflict resolution in general. 

The Example of Being Someone with Cancer

The above analysis of false conceptual appearances helps us to understand the example cited earlier of imagining and believing that we are the only ones experiencing some difficulty in life; for example, cancer. In this example, we have the concept of someone with cancer and, at first, we do not even want to acknowledge that we fit into this category. We are in denial. But when we do have a cancer, it is clearly a false reality that we are someone who does not fit in the category of someone with cancer. 

But suppose we finally acknowledge that we do fit into this category. If we create the false reality that we are the only example of such a person, then even if we intellectually know this reality is untrue, we might still emotionally subscribe to it and, as a result, feel isolated and wallow in self-pity and depression. But when we expand our awareness and include everyone else who fits into this category, whether through joining a cancer support group and just through our own analysis, we enable ourselves to dismiss this false reality that we have created. If we go on to develop compassion for all other cancer patients, we become able to dispel our self-pity and depression as well.

We create a further false reality if we add to the category of someone with cancer the defining characteristic of someone who is unavoidably condemned to die from the disease. Believing that we and everyone else with cancer fit into this category adds an emotional element of fear to our experience of the disease. We can negate this inappropriate defining characteristic by examining the statistics concerning cancer survivors. The verifiable evidence contradicts our mistaken belief.  

Two Aspects of Appearances and Two Aspects of Actual Reality

Buddhism goes even deeper in its analysis of false realities and actual reality. Concerning this issue, Buddhism asserts two aspects of each of these two realities. There is the appearance of what something is and the actual reality of what it is. Then there is the appearance of how the existence of something – both as what it is and as a validly knowable object in general – is established and the actual reality of how it is established. These two aspects of each of the two realities are inseparable; they always appear together. 

Furthermore, both aspects of the world of appearances may be accurate, in which case, they correspond to the two inseparable same aspects of actual reality; or they may be inaccurate, in which case they do not correspond. For example, if we have a sickness, it may be accurate that it is cancer and inaccurate that it is simply an infection. How its existence has been established as either a cancer or as an infection is accurate if it has been established and corroborated as having arisen dependently on causes and conditions and on the convention that such and such symptoms are the defining characteristics of cancer or an infection. An inaccurate way would be by something findable on the side of the sickness that by its own power makes it a cancer or an infection, independently of any other factor. This often happens with hypochondriacs who believe they are sick and have cancer simply because they think so.

Deconstructing the False Appearance of a Self

But let’s look at a deeper, more characteristically Buddhist example; namely, the example of the self, what we call “me.” According to Buddhism, there is such a thing as the self, “me.” When I am sick, it appears that it is “me” who is sick, which is an accurate appearance of who is sick. It is not “you” who is sick, or no one that is sick. To think in either of those two ways is to believe in a false reality. But what is this self, this person called “me,” and how is its existence established? 

According to Buddhism, the self is an individual, continually changing phenomenon that is neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something. In that regard, it is like age. It is sometimes called an “imputation phenomenon.” What that means is that neither a self nor age can exist by itself but is the type of phenomenon that is always tied to and thus dependent on something else. Age is always tied to an object; it must be the age of something. Likewise, a self is always tied to an individual, everchanging continuum of a living body and a mind that is functioning on the physical basis of that body. In other words, the self is the individual person, subjectively experienced as “me,” that dependently exists with respect to that continuum as its basis.  

Buddhism further asserts that each individual self continues from lifetime to lifetime, with no beginning and no end, changing the gross basis to which it is tied in each lifetime. But even between lifetimes, it is tied to a basis – namely, extremely subtle consciousness and life-supporting energy. 

The fact that extremely subtle consciousness, extremely subtle life-supporting energy and the self have no beginning and no end is the logical conclusion when analyzing cause and effect. Something that changes in each moment cannot arise from nothing, with no cause, and any causes from which it arises must also change in each moment in order to give rise to it. That means that any such causes must be affected by prior conditions in order to give rise to anything. Further, only something in the same category of phenomenon can transform and give rise, in sequence, to something else in the same category. Anger cannot transform into a sprout; only a seed can. So, only a previous moment of subtlest consciousness, subtlest life-supporting energy and an individual self that is tied to them can give rise to the first moment of them in a next lifetime. 

These are some of the logical points that arise in the Buddhist analysis of creation of not only matter and energy, but also of consciousness and selves, by either an omnipotent God or a Big Bang. An absolute beginning, from nothing, of anything that changes from moment to moment contradicts logic. The assertion that how that is possible is a mystery beyond our comprehension is not compatible with Buddhist principles.

When we analyze further, we see that the self is neither identical with its basis nor totally separate and unrelated to its basis. We are believing in a false reality when we identify, for example, with our healthy, young body when we are actually old and sick with cancer, or when we refuse to accept that the cancer that we are diagnosed with is not happening to “me.” 

Further, not being a form of physical phenomenon, the self has no appearance of its own, and so cannot be cognized without some aspect of its basis also appearing and being cognized simultaneously. I cannot see myself without seeing some part of my body; I cannot think of myself without at least thinking the mental sound of the word, “I.” I can’t just “know myself” independently of knowing something about myself. But, whether or not I perceive or think of myself, I never stop existing. My perceiving or thinking of myself does not create me. 

How do we establish that there is such a thing as a self, an individual person called “me?” If we dissect the body, the brain, or consciousness itself, we cannot find a self. We cannot even find a defining characteristic, either in the self itself or in any part of its basis, that from its own side is the defining characteristic of a self, independently of it being designated as the defining characteristic of a self. 

Mental Labeling

Let us analyze this more closely. We all have the concept of a self, which we designate with the word “me.” As a category, this concept automatically arises whenever we think any thought in which there is the mental representation of the sound of the word “I” or “me,” like when we see a series of photos spanning our life and think about each of them, “That’s me.” Each of these mental sounds “me” is a conceptual representation of that category “me.” 

As mentioned before, all appearances have two aspects: what they appear to be and how they appear to be established as existing. Remember, both aspects are inseparable. When we think about all of those photos as, “That’s me,” it may or may not be accurate that each verbally thought “me” actually refers to me and not to my sibling who looked much like me when we were toddlers. But what about how those “me’s” are established as existing? 

On the grossest level, it seems as though the “me” that appears in each of those photos has always been the same “me” that has been there throughout my life without ever having been affected by what has happened, regardless of any parts or phases of life, and will go on like that for the rest of this lifetime and then ever after, independently of a body or a mind. But when we analyze, we realize that none of that makes any sense. We may have been taught that we exist like that, but it does not correspond to reality. There is no such self as one that is established as existing in this manner. There is a voidness of such a self.

On a subtler level, one that automatically arises, it appears, when I simply think, “me” after looking at these photos, that I can think “me” without simultaneously thinking of some basis for the “me,” even if it is just the mental sound of the word “me.” A self that can appear and be thought of all on its own is impossible. There is no such thing.

On an even subtler level, our conceptual cognitions when looking at these old photos mentally label the category “me,” represented by the mental sound “me,” onto the basis of each of them. If, in fact, all these photos are actually of us, and so our mentally labeling them all as photos of “me” corresponds to reality, then what establishes that they all are “me?” They appear to be “me,” but how do we prove that?

When we analyze each photo, we cannot find any unchanging defining characteristic present in each of them that by its own power establishes or proves that the person in the photo is “me.” Each photo looks different. We designate each of them equally as “me,” but there is no findable unchanged entity “me” that was photographed and equally corresponds to each of these mental sounds “me.” So, who was photographed in each? Conventionally, we would have to answer, “me.”

As for what establishes that they all are photos of “me,” it is established or proven merely by the power of their being mentally labeled and designated as “me” and not contradicting what those who have known us throughout our lives can corroborate. The person “me” is merely what the category and word “me” refer to on the basis of all these photos, without there being a findable “me” behind each of them corresponding to what all of them being called “me” seems to suggest. The total absence of such a findable entity with a findable defining characteristic backing up cognitions of a self, even the non-conceptual sensory ones, is the deepest view of voidness.

But voidness is only one aspect of reality, because we all do exist, and the laws of cause and effect do operate. The conventional existence of everything validly knowable, then, dependently arises based on causes, conditions, parts and what the concepts and words for them refer to. With this analysis of false and true reality, Buddhism has no need to include the role of a creator God. 

Summary

In summary, the Buddhist approach to differentiating reality from fantasy is to rely on analysis with logic and reason. The pathway to the happiness and well-being of everyone depends on everyone seeing and accepting reality and, by working together, finding and implementing realistic methods for solving the universal problems that plague us all. Thank you.  

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