One of the most humorous things among Buddhists is that many believe that enlightenment means one has managed to see reality. It is quite the opposite!
The Diamond Sutra says, “Don’t let your mind be attached to anything.” Similarly, the Heart Sutra says, “No wisdom and no attainment.” If the practitioner feels that s/he has attained something, it is a sure sign that something has gone wrong. Buddha himself said that we should regard his teaching as a raft. A raft is a vehicle for crossing over. No one ever carries a raft with him after the crossing is done.
Most people talks about reality as if it were something we can all agree on. But it isn’t. The physicists don’t know what reality is. The philosophers don’t know what it is. The theologians don’t know it either. If they appear to know, they are just pretending. In a sense, reality is just a social construct, but a useful fiction. It is a made-up idea. But an idea is like a map. We should not confuse a map with the territory.
The Tao Te Ching opens with the statement: “The Tao that can be stated is not the eternal Tao; the Name that can be named is not the everlasting name.” Similarly, the Indian saint Anandameyi Ma said, “Reality is beyond speech and thought. Only that which can be expressed in words is being said. But what cannot be put into language is indeed That which IS.” The apostle Paul had this to say to the Athenians about their Unknown God:
The God who made the world and all things in it, he is Lord of Heaven and earth. So he doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands, neither is he served by men’s hands as though he needed anything; since he himself gives to everyone life and breath and everything. … Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. (Acts 17: 24–20)
I like the last line. It is from the English Standard Version of the Bible. Of course, ultimate reality cannot be put into words or concepts. It cannot even be imagined.
The Tao Te Ching also says that the Tao is fuzzy and amorphous. It is easy to understand why. The dog’s reality is not the same as a human’s reality. And a human’s reality is different from a caterpillar’s reality. What we sense and observe depends on what we are!
Most of us still retain the classical Newtonian worldview. In that framework, there is some kind of external and objective reality. But just considering the matter from the perspectives of different organisms, it is clear that there is no such thing.
There is a classical koan-like question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, if there is no observer (not even an animal), then how can there be a sound? A sound exists only to the extent that there is an observer with auditory organs.
So, the Tao is fuzzy. If we define “reality” as what we perceive, then reality is observer-dependent. With that kind of changeable and subjective “reality,” how can we find words for it? We cannot even conceptualize.
In regard to reality, we can only say we don’t know. It is beyond speech and thought. Even beyond our imagination!