Why Do Buddhists Say That Everything’s Unreal?


From the get-go, Buddhists have been throwing the word “Unreal” around like it’s a Frisbee and we’re a bunch of hipster university students. And for everyone who grazes the topic, there are scores of seasoned practitioners lecturing them to hunker down and study/practice.

But it’s not a topic to ignore since it’s at the heart of Buddhism, yet we can’t get lost in it either because that’s unhealthy.

Whenever you see terms like not-self, empty, impermanent, fabricated, conditioned, dependent, illusion, or mind-only, those are synonyms for unreal. To make sense of this clusterfuck, it’s helpful to be mindful of what we mean by real and unreal.

Something real is, “Actually existing as a thing, not imagined or supposed.” Buddhists – of all traditions – say that nothing in the phenomenal world meets that description. Nothing exists as 1) a thing, or 2) unimagined. Everything exists as a single interwoven flow of moments, both within and without imagination (consciousness/mind).

A lot of us say something is real if it’s there and can be experienced by others, but that’s not the actual definition because mass delusions are a common phenomenon. Just because we’re experiencing it—and others are too—doesn’t mean it’s real by defintion.

Reality doesn’t depend on consensus. Strength in numbers doesn’t make a circle a square. The strength or weakness of a view depends on the evidence behind it. “Spoken like a true empiricist” “Fuck you, Harvey.”

Really, Buddhism is just as much a blow to science as it is to religion. It rips the foundation out from under all of our paradigms—both material and spiritual. That’s what it was designed to do: be a Middle Way between extremes of all kinds.

If we go by the dictionary definition of real, then Buddhism is correct: the things that it says are unreal, are unreal. They’re unreal because 1) They don’t exist as things, and/or 2) They don’t exist as things outside of imagination (consciousness or mind) and supposition.

But that doesn’t mean they’re totally unreal, either—that’s another extreme. Things do exist in imagination and supposition, they do exist as not-self, as empty, as part of the whole stream of consciousness or emptiness. The, “Nothing exists,” crowd in Buddhism often miss that vital point and end up slipping into a stagnant and apathetic nihilism.

This isn’t just a view for the sake of having a view; it’s designed to alleviate suffering.

When we think that the first definition applies to anything in this universe (and the universe itself) we suffer because things are impermanent. This cup I’m looking at wasn’t always real. Before it was made, it was only an idea in someone’s head—imagination. And it won’t always be real, one day it’ll break. Then it’ll be a memory, imagination again.

When we think the first definition actually applies to anything we experience, then everything is always shifting between real and unreal, existing and not existing. If we toss clinging and craving into that deluge, we suffer (Plot twist, our suffering isn’t real either).

Buddhism’s solution was to say we’re misunderstanding reality. That, really, things aren’t shifting from unreal to real to unreal again, they’re just unreal. That means that that shifting is unreal too.

The image of reality that Buddhism gives us is one of a flowing world, a stream of consciousness. When we seek satisfaction, that’s like the wind creating whirlpools, and then we mistake those whirlpools as something separate from the water. So when they disappear, we suffer because they’re gone and we think they no longer exist.

When I look at this cup and say that it’s real, I’m basically saying that a whirlpool can exist without water, that a tornado can exist without wind. And it can, but only in imagination.

That’s the Middle Way. As a cup-unto-itself, it doesn’t exist outside of imagination. As a cup-unto-its-not-self and a cup-unto-itself, it does exist within imagination. But that’s just hearsay until we stop imagining it and give it back to the stream that it’s already a part of.

And we don’t have to run to the hills and trip out staring at a wall in a cave to make them exist in this way—it’s the way things already are. Bodhidharma didn’t seclude himself for nine years so that he would Wake Up; he secluded himself for nine years because he was already Awake and that was he best way he knew how to express it.

We can’t make something be as it really is, it already is that way. The appearance of things existing apart from imagination and as separate from each other, is a genuine aspect of their unreality.

The second definition is that something is real if it’s genuine or authentic. Authenticity is about us, our relationship with reality. Everything is already authentic, but our distorted views make them seem either authentic or inauthentic. Fool’s gold is not authentic gold, but it is authentic fool’s gold.

If we believe that the first definition of real applies to anything in the world, then we’re living in an inauthentic world.

The Dharma basically says that we suffer—that we experience this constant thirst for satisfaction in life—because we’re trying to buy satisfaction with counterfeit bills. Reality has a good eye, it isn’t fooled by our tomfuckery. This realization that they’re counterfeit is itself legal tender, real gold that we can use to buy real satisfaction.

Think of Neo and the Matrix. When he understood the nature of Matrix, he was limitless, he was unhindered… while he was in the Matrix. Outside of it, he was just some guy.

In Buddhism, understanding the Matrix is itself awakening, not stepping outside it to some more real world. The unreality of things is their reality. In Buddhism, truth has always been the truth of the fiction. Understanding our misunderstanding is understanding. There’s no separate understanding apart from it. The real is the nature of the unreal, our True Nature is the truth of appearances.

“It’s all fools gold,” is the real gold. It allows us to interact with the world in a genuine, happier, more compassionate and understanding way. We can’t buy anything with fool’s gold, and we don’t need to buy it. This realization is the ultimate satisfaction.

“What about nibbana?” That’s just seeing that the stream is still a stream with or without whirlpools in it. It’s not the realization that, “It is now so but it wasn’t before.” It’s the realization that, “It’s always been so.”

2 thoughts on “Why Do Buddhists Say That Everything’s Unreal?

  1. I feel like I got my money’s worth 😉. Thanks.

    I wonder, epistemologically, if enough people call a circle a square if it isn’t a square since the name is a construct. Even the concept is a construct. What’s a fucking circle? What does “round” mean?

    Isn’t that what “knowledge” is: agreement that d-o-g means a canine pet, until some people change their assent or shift it. Truth isn’t really a popularity contest. It’s a belief, right?

    So everything is made up, and knowing this is the truth?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, and great point! But I guess if someone came up to me, pointed at my cat and said, “I like your dog,” I’d probably giggle and reply, “Thanks! But she still meows and claws the furniture.” If we called a circle a square, I could still trace my hands around it without grazing a corner.

      So I’d say the concepts are only part of it. It seems like the other senses also play a pivotal role in (mis)understanding the nature of things.

      But what remains is definitely easier to work with once the fog of labels has lifted.

      Liked by 1 person

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