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Two days ago, I posted a comment in a Buddhist group on Facebook. It reads: Many Buddhists think that they know what “reality” is. They don’t realize that “reality” is a product of their imagination.

The reaction has been fierce. Many people don’t like that remark. They are irritated because they take it as an insult. So, there are many angry responses. But it is important that we pay attention to things that irritate us. I certainly investigate things that irritate me. I know that it is for my own good. If we reject the things that are irritating, then we may miss some good learning opportunities. Carl Jung said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

Perhaps I should mention something about my personal style too. I am a teacher by training. I have taught on a college level and on a high school level. I have taught a wide variety of subjects — math, science, art, philosophy, Buddhism … As a teacher, I always try to provoke. It is my belief that the job of a teacher is to be a provocateur. What good would it do to repeat some cliché? What good is it to bring up a subject that we can all agree on and there is no controversy?

In my remark, I target the Buddhists because many of them are obsessed with “enlightenment.” They think that there is an enlightenment that can be achieved and after achieving that, they will enjoy permanent bliss, leaving suffering forever. That is a serious misconception. This notion of enlightenment is a figment of one’s imagination. My comment, though shocking, is actually based on the Mahayana scriptures. The Heart Sutra says “No wisdom and no attainment.” There is no special achievement to be pursued. There is nothing to attain. There is no magical transformation. It is not as if there were some kind of mystical “enlightenment” that enables one to see “reality.”

In a sense, “reality” is just a concept. It is no different from the concept of a corporation, a university or a country. It is an abstraction and a social construct. As such, it is a kind of “useful fiction.” Yuval Noah Harari did a wonderful job introducing us to the useful fictions in human cognitive history. Peugeot, the automobile manufacturer, is a limited liability corporation. As such, it is a “legal fiction.” The existence of Peugeot does not depend on the continued existence of the automobiles it manufactured. It does not depend on the continued existence of its workers, managers, offices or factories. Peugeot is a product of our collective imagination. The same can be said about Harvard University. The entire student body of Harvard can be turned over. The entire faculty can be replaced. The physical site of Harvard can be moved from the East coast to the West coast. Yet, Harvard will continue to exist in our collective imagination. These examples are good illustrations of the Buddhist notion of “emptiness.”

Few people are aware of the imaginary nature of corporations. Few people are aware of the imaginary nature of our countries, our states and our colleges. For the same reason, few people are aware of the imaginary nature of reality, because the concept is so well-established in our collective consciousness. Because “everybody” believes in it, we take it for granted.

No one really knows what “reality” is. The physicists don’t know. “Reality” is a concept in metaphysics, not physics. The “realists” don’t know either, although they think they know. The gurus and spiritual masters also don’t know. Why? Because we can “know” something only if it is an object. Most people think of “reality” as the objects we can paint in a picture. Thus, a painting of a still life picture of some flowers is called realistic if the painted images capture the essence and nuances of the flowers they portray. There is a faithful correspondence between the object and its image.

But what if “reality” is the ALL? What if it is the entire system? Even if you could paint all the objects in the universe in a picture, it would not be complete. For reality includes not only the objects, but also the subject. What if reality includes your consciousness. But consciousness cannot be an object that can be examined or studied. Of the subject, we know nothing. We also know little about the processes and conditioning that are involved in cognition. How can the eye see itself? We can only say we don’t know.

This is the hard problem of reality. Reality is probably not just the objects we perceive. It is also the observer. It is also the background on which the images appear. It is also the frame and the processes. Of reality, we must remain silent. I never claim that I know. So, why are my readers so angry? It may very well be that the thought that we actually don’t know what reality is a scary one. Reality is so basic and fundamental. Yet, of this foundation we know nothing. Are we living in a matrix? Are we brains in vats? Who knows?

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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