Buddhism’s View on Reality

Understanding the Doctrine of Dependent Origination and the Doctrine of Cause and Effect

Buddhist sutras delve deeply into the concept of reality, exploring our place in the world and how we understand it. Buddhism’s approach differs from other religious traditions, as the Buddha emphasized experience over mere theoretical formulations. He discouraged his followers from substituting conceptual understanding or religious faith for experience, which he believed was the path to enlightenment. This led to the development of two major doctrines: the Doctrine of Dependent Origination (pratitya-samutpada) and the Doctrine of Cause and Effect (karma and vipaka), both of which aim to incorporate the natural and the spiritual into their overall worldview.

In early Buddhism, the experience was seen as the path most elaborated. The Buddha avoided making doctrinal formulations concerning the final reality, as he did not want his followers to become complacent with minor achievements on the path. The Mahayana school developed the statements he did make into an extensive, diverse set of sometimes contrasting descriptions of reality “as it really is.” For instance, in Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelugpa distinguishes between Svatantrika-Prasaṅgika in Madhyamika philosophy.

The Theravada school teaches that there is no universal personal god, and the world does not have its origin in a primordial being such as brahman or the creator god. What is seen is only a product of transitory factors of existence that depend functionally upon each other. The Buddha is quoted as saying:

“The world exists because of causal actions, all things are produced by causal actions, and all beings are governed and bound by causal actions. They are fixed like the rolling wheel of a cart, fixed by the pin of its axle shaft” (Sutta Nipata 654).

The word ‘illusion’ is frequently associated with Buddhism and the nature of reality. Some interpretations of Buddhism teach that reality is like a coin with two sides: the not-permanent characteristic or anicca and the “not-self characteristic” or anatta, referred to as “emptiness” in some Mahayana schools. Dzogchen, as the non-dual culmination of the Nyingmapa sect, resolves atman and anatman into the Mindstream Doctrine of Tapihritsa. The Shakyamuni Buddha is said to have taught the concept of “not-self” in the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, where he lists the characteristics often associated with self-identity and explains that they are ultimately not who an individual is because they are subject to change without control. He further illustrates the changing nature of feelings, perceptions, and consciousness.

Concepts of not-permanent

To understand the concepts of not-permanent and not-self, one can deconstruct the concept of an aggregated object such as a lotus and see that the flower is made up entirely of non-flower elements like soil, nutrients, photosynthetic energy, rainwater, and the effort of the entities that nourished and grew the flower. According to the Diamond Sutra (in Mahayana Buddhism), all of these factors coexist to manifest what we call a ‘flower.’ In other words, no essence arises from nothingness that is unique and personal to any being. In particular, there is neither a human soul that lives on beyond the death of the physical body nor one that is extinguished at death since, strictly speaking, there is nothing to extinguish.

The relative reality (i.e., the illusory perceived reality) comes from our belief that human life is separate from the rest of the things in the universe and, at times, at odds with the processes of nature and other beings. The ultimate or absolute reality, in some schools of Buddhist thought, shows that we are interconnected with all things. This concept is central to the Buddhist notion of emptiness, which is not a negation of existence, but rather a recognition that all phenomena arise interdependently and lack inherent, independent existence. This means that everything in the world is empty of a fixed and permanent essence and that all phenomena are constantly changing and interdependent.

Concept of emptiness

The concept of emptiness is not just a philosophical idea, but also a practical tool for achieving enlightenment. By understanding emptiness, one can begin to see through the illusions of the world and experience the ultimate reality, which is said to be blissful and free from suffering.

However, the concept of emptiness can be difficult to grasp, and some Buddhist schools have developed different approaches to teaching it. For example, the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the use of logical reasoning to deconstruct the illusions of the world, while the Dzogchen and Mahamudra schools of Tibetan Buddhism emphasize direct experience through meditation.

In addition to the concept of emptiness, Buddhists also explore the nature of consciousness and the mind. According to Buddhist teachings, the mind is not a fixed and permanent entity, but rather a stream of ever-changing thoughts and perceptions. By training the mind through meditation and mindfulness, one can develop greater clarity and insight into the nature of reality.