Is it all real?

There’s a Tibetan Buddhist story, probably apocryphal, that goes a little something like this: The new meditation student, all full of eagerness and determination, applies himself to his practice diligently and starts to make some real progress. He’s an ideal pupil and his experiences start to unfold exactly as his lama has said they would. After a while, though, he comes up against a brick wall.

Lovely, lovely Green Tara. (From Wikimedia Commons)
Lovely, lovely Green Tara. (From Wikimedia Commons)

A hindrance starts as just a seed, and our student bravely applies his lessons, but eventually it is all-consuming and he know’s he’s beaten. So, he goes to see his lama.

“What’s the problem, pet?” says our strangely jocular and Mancunian lama.

“I’m doing the Green Tara practice you suggested for me, teacher, and it’s driving me up the wall.”

“What’s the problem? Are you not getting on with the Buddha of enlightened activity?” (I had to Google which one she was.)

“Well… to be honest, I don’t know if she’s… real… or not. I know, I know, I feel bad. I shouldn’t distrust you teacher. I should believe. But I’ve never seen her outside of meditation, I’m not sure I believe in supernatural stuff… so I need to know. Just let me cheat this once and tell me whether she’s real or not. I know I’ll be able to throw myself into the practice with my old gusto if you tell me she’s real. I’ll believe you.”

Sayeth the lama with a knowing grin: “She knows she is not real. But neither are you.”

The answer is not so much a trick answer, as one that cuts right to the heart of the teachings. For a while I went ‘ah, I get you’ in smug fashion to this story, but didn’t really get it, and that’s the difference between intellectually poking at an answer and starting to grasp it intuitively. The question is: what is real? Honestly, indubitably real?

Emptiness, the Mahayana teaching of the true nature of reality, is refractory when it comes to conceptualising. I find nearly all the usual metaphors that point to it highly unsatisfying: holograms, smoke and mirrors, the snake that is actually a rope when the lights are turned on, the stick that is a line of ants up close. A little philosophy gets you started though- look at some classical thought experiments. Take Theseus’s ship: If you replace all the ageing timbers in his ship as they start to wear out, eventually you’ll not have a single original timber in the boat. But the ship is still, recognisably, Theseus’s, and anyone who said it was a different ship would be laughed back to Ancient Greece.

Not Theseus's. Still pretty.
Not Theseus’s. Still pretty. (From Wikimedia Commons)

This demonstrates the inflexibility of thinking and some of our underlying fears. We have no problem with the idea that ‘ship’ is an identity or form, and that replacing bits of it doesn’t change the function. However, people can and do have issues with the idea that humans are exactly the same. Not so long ago in the recent past there was the world’s first face transplant, and the person in question was reported as having an identity crisis afterwards. Who was she if her face was different? Similarly, how would you feel about having to have a limb amputated? As usual, actually do the thought experiment: make it real in your head, how would you honestly feel? You would be losing something very integral to your body image, right? Never mind a foot, what about a hand or your eyes? Is there a visceral reaction there? (I had one.)

I won’t harp on forever because the arguments for non-inherency, the more technical phrase for emptiness of phenomena, are well documented everywhere. Why? Because people stubbornly refuse to believe that there is no essence, no unchanging core, to things, especially themselves, and a little chat about it helps to pave the way. The Buddhists call it not-self in a typically agnostic turn of phrase, rather than no-self. This is perhaps more intellectually rigorous, but I make no apologies for making the leap of faith and saying I’m convinced by the evidence I’ve seen that there is nothing that doesn’t change. Realising this in deeper and deeper ways, penetrating concepts that seemed so sure before, shooting sacred cows right between the eyes, is the clinical definition of contemplative insight, really. Again, the Buddhists call it ‘insight knowledge’: not a passing experience or perception, but suddenly knowing something in your bones is true, and it changing how you react to it forever. (Perhaps it is the ‘head’ of practice, with the ‘heart’ being the compassion that does a little dance with emptiness.)

So, back to the original story: Green Tara knows she is not real. As I said, a little philosophy helps: define ‘real’. The common definition of real, once examined, is ‘existent, arguable and causal’. This basically boils down to “I can touch it and no-one can argue I can’t”. I’ll leave you to blast great holes in that, and skip ahead to the conclusion that what seems so objective is in fact intra-subjective: we all agree something is real, what ‘real’ even means, and that’s the closest to objective we get. We want things we can, literally, hold onto that won’t disappear in a puff of smoke and sparklies- and it is the mental act of ‘grasping’ to what we want that the Buddha points to as being a key player in the causing of suffering. You can refine it all you like; we want something definite and there is no such thing. Three sides to a triangle, indeed, but does that help with your suffering? We’re composites- whatever is passing through the permeable and arbitrary boundary of ‘I’.

If you’re anything like me, then your seeking took the form of wanting to know what was worth holding onto in the world, as it became clear that security wasn’t hiding anywhere obvious. I wanted to know what unshakeable meaning there was in the world. And, just a little, I wanted to know if the stories of amazing jhanic states, supernormal abilities and whatnot were real, too- I’ve never gone in for that stuff hugely, but it was still a curiosity more than I’d admit. I will directly quote the extremely pragmatic Daniel Ingram: “Much more interesting than the question of what is real is the question of what is causal, i.e. what leads to what.” He points out that in a very concrete way, whether you believe in ghosts or not, everyone would be scared to see something spectral. If you believe God is going to damn you to hell if you aren’t baptised, you’re probably going to go dunk your head.

My own miniature, amusing example: On retreat once, with my eyes closed in meditation, I saw quite vividly an old person’s face looking me in the eye and their lips moving as if talking to me. I’d been long since warned to note whatever came up in meditation, whether pleasant feelings, acute terror or just the gurgling of my stomach. Therefore, I simply noted it, but I was also superstitious and retreat-crazy enough that I asked the face to politely disappear, to which it smiled kindly and naffed off. Mainly though, I was noting my own embarrassment, as the face was American Indian and I was cursing the racist undertones of my own unconscious that chose that person as a spiritual visitor. Others might have taken that as a genuine encounter with a Shaman pottering around the astral plane, but that was not my immediate reaction, as my belief system didn’t tell me that was very likely. I had my own conception that the weird stuff in my head was simply mental activity. Probably Dances With Wolves related. Sod off, I liked that film. My point, really, is keep your feet on the ground.

On the other hand though (always the other hand, Gubbins!) I do believe more and more in interdependence, that literally everything contacts everything else, and I’m getting more and more open minded, too. I know the power of prayer in my own life, and not just in some kind of mechanistic ‘training the brain’ way. Perhaps the psychic powers are real. At some point, it became important for me to invest in what I was doing, and that involved faith and belief, even if I was aware that that belief was somehow flawed and projective. Maybe that faith itself will empty out so that is a wordless answer to the original wordless question that brought me to practice.

However, God appearing in my spiritual life didn’t make me suddenly convert to an Abrahamic religion, nor even to a Polytheistic one. The conditions weren’t there. Dependent origination, the sure experience of causes and conditions creating the present moment, the present ‘I’, is what is more evident than what is Deathless, especially if you do a lot of vipassana. It becomes far less hard to say: I’m not real, but I know that I’m not real. Nirvana isn’t something you achieve and put in your trophy cabinet, as there is no one to win the game. No part of me stays, but this one here needs care.

Practice suggestions

  • Revisit the first questions this blog asked: What do you want from practice? What do you expect?
  • Meditate for fifteen minutes. Consider what meaning you ascribe to your experience.
  • Are you your thoughts? Your body? Your emotions? Your ideas? Your perceptions?