Is the World Real?

Thinking about Buddha Nature lately, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve come around to the question of whether the world is “real”. Or the question, at least, of whether the Buddhadharma – with it’s tropes of “illusion,” “bubble,” “dream” – is actually about the unreality of the world.

It can really sound like it; isn’t the ultimate understanding something like, “no eyes, no ears, no nose…”? Buddhism does teach that there are no substantial person-selves (Pali teachings), and that indeed nothing at all exists of itself (Mahayana). Buddhism also teaches that nothing can really be said about “reality” (Madhyamaka), and that what we see as the external world is completely informed by our own mind – projected from it, dependent on it – and lacks substance in that way as well (Yogacara).

All of these teachings can sound like “this isn’t real,” but it seems to me that that isn’t really the point. The teachings are that nothing can be grasped, that nothing persists over time, and that nothing is independent. That nothing can be ultimately said or posited about reality.

The teachings don’t seem to me, though, to deny that something is happening. Actually something really cool is happening. Something inconceivably amazing.

But what is that? And how do we talk about it?

Radical negation is one approach – “This thing that’s happening is not what we think it is!”

Mind-only is another approach – “This thing that’s happening is only what we think it is!”

But these are principally negative approaches, they are apophatic. And in that, they can be easily misconstrued as pointing away from the world, pointing away from this delusive, perceived reality. “Oh, this world – it’s not real.”

Buddha Nature teaching, on the other hand, is willing – like the bodhisattva – to wholeheartedly enter the muddy world of perceived reality, and to not just dismiss it but to say something positive about it. To say something like: “What this reality is, is awakened nature, is the process of awakening, is awakened mind.”

This is to describe reality in a cataphatic way, one that invites us more brightly to open to the fullness of our world, our perceived, and however deluded, experience of it.

This positive approach doesn’t overturn any of the other teachings, but it adds to them. It even carries them, because in a way they are what this wonderful nature refers to. Their truth is itself what is meant by the unborn and undying Buddha nature.

Buddhism does seem to say that generally speaking we don’t really get what’s going on here, but it also says that what’s going on here is unspeakable beautiful, unspeakably perfect, unspeakably, vibrantly, awake to its own truth.

Since I have to think of “reality” in some way, why not take a view that’s that friendly?

It might help me relax, and actually arrive here.

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One Response to Is the World Real?

  1. Mike Haitch says:

    The mind is a funny thing, always seems to be flitting around or The Answer To Everything, On various days I find each viewpoint being grasped. On various days one seems more right than another. Yet dammit the evidence for each view also arises and departs. It’s damn annoying!

    Funnily, however whatever the answer might be – and who can say that the answer is static – some things never change and thebactions required never change.

    I’ve laid out ingredients for my main meal. If this body is real it needs food and likes flavours. If it is unreal it still dreams that it likes these things an dreams that it is happier when it gets them. So whatever is real, the actions required are the same.

    My screen-saver shows a stylised Indra’s Net. Is the net real or not? I’ve no idea. But if this body is real it seems happiest when honouring other bodies with empathy and compassion. It seems happiest when able to defend itself from violation and harm. If this body is part of the net it also is happiest doing these things.

    Maybe bodies talk to bodies in ways that mind cannot grasp so mind creates an answer.

    Mind seems to paint the world. Does it decorate what already exists or create something?

    Indra’s Net is for me an icon. It may not exist in the literal sense but even so everything This body does seems to affects this body and may affect those around it.

    So in any reality it is time for me to go to work because not doing so impacts on me and others. In the future the answer may be to not go to work for exactly the same reasons.

    Whatever mind thinks reality is does not answer “what do I do NOW?”

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