MindScience Academy Logo
Close this search box.
focus on February 2024

"Appearance and reality: dichotomy between the way of appearing and the way of existing" by Ven. Olivier Rossi

Understanding reality is at the heart of the Tibetan Buddhist path.
By dichotomy, I mean conceiving the impermanent as permanent, suffering as happiness, the impure as pure, and the non-self as having a self.
Composition G4 (1926), László Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian, 1895 - 1946) artvee.com

Understanding reality is at the heart of the Tibetan Buddhist path.

By dichotomy, I mean conceiving the impermanent as permanent, suffering as happiness, the impure as pure, and the non-self as having a self.

For Buddhism, happiness is tied to understanding reality, stemming not so much from external conditions but from how the mind interacts with circumstances, people, and so on. Therefore, having an interpretative framework in harmony with reality is crucial. The farther we deviate from the way phenomena exist and the characteristics of attributes, the more likely one is to live in a fantasyland, experiencing expectation, disappointment, and dissatisfaction because expectations are not in line with what external phenomena can offer. Agitation and unhappiness result from being out of sync with reality.

Existing phenomena are infinite, and for each phenomenon, we have various distortions. We can encapsulate these distortions into four main overlays: conceiving the impermanent as permanent, suffering as happiness, the impure as pure, and the non-self as having a self.
The first three of these erroneous overlays correspond to the attributes of phenomena, while the last relates to the mode of a phenomenon's existence.

The Four Schools of Philosophical Principles (a single final intention)
The Buddha taught for 42 years with the sole intention of pacifying people's minds, helping them overcome individual suffering. However, due to people's inclinations and predispositions, he provided various teachings, which were later classified into four schools:
The Four Schools of Philosophical Principles (a single final intention) The Buddha taught for 42 years with the sole intention of pacifying people's minds, helping them overcome individual suffering. However, due to people's inclinations and predispositions, he provided various teachings, which were later classified into four schools:
Vaibashika – Great Exposition
Sautantrika – Sutra School
Cittamatra – Mind Only
Madhyamika – Middle Way

Through these schools, we explore an increasingly subtle way of investigating reality, representing the Buddha's ultimate intention.

Vaibashika and Sautantrika express an initial effort to understand what exists and what is real. Something that exists is perceived or observed by a valid mind (a mind incontrovertible regarding its primary object), and something that is true and real is a phenomenon in which its mode of appearance and existence is the same.

In these schools, there is an initial push to understand conventional (sensory-observable) and ultimate (real, withstands analysis) phenomena.

The analysis probing reality (the mode of being of a phenomenon) varies among the various systems. In the Vaibashika context, the analysis involves verifying whether a perceiving mind that apprehends a certain phenomenon is obliterated or not when that phenomenon is mentally broken or separated into its individual parts.

For Vaibashika, infinitesimal, indivisible particles withstand analysis, constituting ultimate reality. The rest is created by a conceptual mind and does not withstand analysis. For example, a vase.

For Sautantrika, the ultimate truth is that which performs a function. All impermanent phenomena that perform a function are ultimate truths; the rest belongs to the conventional realm of permanent phenomena. All superimposed concepts pertain to the world of conventionality, lacking objective reality.

In the Sautantrika school with the Indian scholar Dharmakirti, there is a significant effort to define the validity of a perception because the quality of a perception is what distinguishes the existence from the non-existence of a phenomenon. Therefore, a valid perception, which is the measure of existence, is a new and incontrovertible cognizer (a mind considered from the perspective of the agent of perception, of knowledge). The aspect of incontrovertibility of perception is precisely the definition of what exists. Thus, an incontrovertible perception is capable of eliminating overlays concerning a phenomenon.

The cognitive process
Dharmakirti made a significant contribution to perception by introducing a perception that occurs through appearance. For Dharmakirti, the cognitive act is not bare; it is direct but passes through appearance. The object projects its appearance onto the mind, and the mind, this clear cognizer, is generated in the appearance of the object. It's somewhat like a mirror that reflects; this is the cognitive act: the reflection (or generation of the mind) in the entity of appearance. Here, there is already an initial insight as we are deceived by perception because we do not directly contact the object; instead, the mind is generated in the appearance of an object, and this is the cognition of the object, so we are already moving into a mental dimension.

The appearance also conveys another deception: at the moment of perceiving the object, when the mind generates within the appearance of the object, the object that is the cause of this perception no longer exists. As the cause of this perception, it must be destroyed at the moment when the cognition of the object takes place.

Since the object is the cause of perception, and since causes and effects can never be simultaneous, the particular moment of the object that is the cause of this specific perception no longer exists at the moment of this precise instant of perception. This is due to the momentary nature, the continuous disintegration of all compounded phenomena.

Here there is already a beginning of deception because there is a time gap between the cognitive act and the present object.

The operation of the conceptual mind retains a margin of error because it does not distinguish between the appearing object and the one that is realized. For example, at a certain moment, I can think of the Eiffel Tower, and through this conceptual representation, which is not the Eiffel Tower, I realize the Eiffel Tower. However, the conceptual mind is unable to make this distinction.

Another aspect of the functioning of the conceptual mind is that it operates in an eliminative manner, in contrast to direct perception, which operates in a collective manner. At the moment a direct perceiver realizes its object, everything that is one with this object appears to the mind. Not all aspects of that object are necessarily realized or ascertained, but everything that an entity does in terms of production, maintenance, and disintegration—all of this appears to the direct perceiver. For example, when my visual knowledge realizes the vase, everything that is one with this vase appears to my mind, such as its impermanence, although it is not realized by this visual consciousness.

Instead, the conceptual mind is an eliminative agent, meaning it captures only one attribute. For example, if I observe a table with visual consciousness, everything that is one with the table appears to my sensory, visual consciousness. On the other hand, the conceptual mind automatically isolates individual aspects from others. Therefore, the conceptual mind is something limiting because it is a re-presentation of reality that focuses on aspects in isolation from others. If I think about the impermanence of the table, only this one aspect of the table's reality appears to my mind. The others, such as its shape, color, function, etc., do not appear.

There is another aspect related to the deception of the conceptual mind, and there are two obscurations associated with the conceptual mind: one is deep, remote, innate, linked to conceiving the phenomenon as having objective existence. Still, the interesting one is to isolate the immediate obscuration, or of the moment. That is, every time we use the conceptual mind, an overlay is made, and the instant after, the overlay is mixed with the object. For example, if I say something is beautiful or ugly, that someone is skilled or not skilled, the moment my mind creates that aspect, the next instant that concept appears in my mind mixed with the basis and indistinguishable, as if that quality appeared from its objective side. This holds true for every conceptual overlay we have regarding phenomena. So, at every moment, we are modifying and creating our own reality and the appearance we have of events, people, even ourselves. This is at the conceptual level.

We also have the influence of mental factors, and this is the great work of Asanga: the 6 main minds (5 sensory + 1 mental) and the 51 mental factors, and this is what I would define as the painting of one's own appearance.

The first 6 engage or realize the mere entity of a present object, for example, visual consciousness realizes or is aware of the existence of a shape or color. Accompanying this main mind is an activity of mental events that function with the mind but have a different function than that of the main mind. The main mind engages with the entity of the object, while the mental factors go on to grasp attributes and qualities of these objects that are present.

So we have various categories of mental factors, 5 omnipresent ones that accompany every moment of consciousness and are necessary for the experience of the phenomenon. Determinant mental factors are related to the understanding of the phenomenon, but what interests us in this context are the virtuous mental factors, root afflictions, and the 20 secondary afflictions. In particular, our concern revolves around the root and secondary afflictions, also called mental poisons or mental disturbances.

This means that one's choice of aspects that we capture on these bases is linked to the choice of these various mental factors that engage certain attributes and, in this way, create a particular appearance to one's mind.

So in a certain way, if we have a certain appearance to the mind, for example, a pleasant appearance of people or a pleasant or unpleasant appearance of the environment, we are responsible for it because we have authorized a certain appearance to our mind directly linked, or in function of the types of mental factors that we allow to manifest or not.

So in every moment, we are responsible and we are creating our reality through our environment, people, etc., and this is also valid with respect to the image or appearance we have of ourselves.

To simplify, we can refer to the glass half empty and half full: mental activity focuses on certain aspects, does not observe others, and therefore, automatically, a certain appearance arises in the mind, and this becomes one's reality.

Over time, with familiarity and perhaps even with imprints, the mind continues to function in this way, in the sense that it always captures these attributes in people, in the environment, in oneself, and therefore, this becomes one's reality. So, a person wakes up in the morning in a world they don't like, having neighbors they don't like, colleagues they don't like, because in a certain way, they have authorized that appearance in the mind and cultivated it.

This is very important in the Buddhist context: the careful cultivation of mental activity, because in doing so, we can modify perceptual habits and, in the same way, enhance our life experience.

Every moment of consciousness, as we have seen, is accompanied by various mental factors. One of the 5 omnipresent mental factors is sensation. In Buddhism, sensation is a mind, it realizes an object, and its function is to experience contact. If the contact is discerned as pleasant, then the sensation is pleasant, and vice versa.

So, if we focus on unpleasant attributes in the object of observation, something unpleasant appears to our mind. If we realize that what we notice are always the faults of people, the living environment, what we don't have, what we are not, then automatically, the sensation accompanying that moment of perception is an unpleasant sensation, called suffering.

The same happens with the conceptual mind, which, being a mind, is accompanied by a sensation: every moment of consciousness is tied to a sensation.

The conceptual mind realizes that generality of meaning, the image that exists within a conceptual thought. If that thought is pleasant, the sensation is pleasant. Therefore, if one constantly has a critical mind, for example, towards people, etc., then automatically the sensation accompanying that conceptual thought is unpleasant. That's why even if we live in an apparently pleasant place, don't have major health problems, and generally things are not going so badly in our lives, if our conceptual mind is always involved in negative images, then automatically the sensation accompanying the entire day, and therefore the experience of that day, is unpleasant for us.

This is very important in Buddhism because the purpose of Buddhism is the increase of well-being and the elimination of suffering. Therefore, it is crucial to begin living with greater introspection to connect with that mental chatter that is always present, to observe its quality because this is the immediate fabric of our mind. Living in greater introspection allows us to work on these aspects and thus improve the sensation, the experience of one's existence on a daily basis.

So, this is the great work of Asanga in his Abhidharmasamuccaya when he presents all the various mental factors, their entities, definitions, etc. This also illustrates the fact that the choice of these mental factors that grasp certain attributes, the choice of conceptual activity that overlays other attributes, defects, qualities on the perceived object, always leads us more into a mental world, brings us much more towards an inner world.

The leap is made by the Cittamatra who argue that various experiences arise from a single base, are of the same substantial entity as the mind, so there is no external world. We indeed have the Lankavatara Sutra where the Buddha presented an interpretive teaching aimed at helping his followers pacify their mental afflictions, especially attachment, but his ultimate intention was to teach that there is no inherently existing external world. So, he says...

The external appears but does not exist,
The mind appears as variety.
The likeness of bodies, enjoyments, and abodes,
I explain as the sole mind.

Here, there is a shift in the interpretation of reality. In the earlier two schools, consciousness or the mind acted as a witness to externally existing phenomena, subject to various interpretations. However, with the Cittamatra, the first Mahayana school, there is an initial effort to emphasize that the mind plays a predominant role in bringing a phenomenon into existence. It is no longer merely a witness to what is around, as is commonly perceived today – the existence of phenomena that I notice, like/dislike. According to Cittamatra, these phenomena exist externally, and the mind does not play a role in the process of their production or existence; it simply adds positive or negative attributes.
Here, we begin to enter a phase where the mind is closely tied to the existence of phenomena because Cittamatra refutes external existence; there is no external dimension in this Buddhist philosophy.

It's like a dream; there are imprints on consciousness, and at the moment of the dream, consciousness divides in a certain way, creating a variety of appearances, an actor, an environment, with people and adventures. Perhaps a person may experience fear, love, go skiing, eat, run in the meadows, and for the person who is dreaming, everything is real. It's only when one wakes up that they realize it wasn't exactly like that; it was all false.

So, this is the Cittamatra dimension, where indeed it is said that the world is like a dream because it appears in one way but exists in another. There is then an intention in this school to effectively discriminate between what is truly established and what is not truly established. Truly established means that it can withstand a certain type of analysis, that there is something to be traced from the side of the phenomenon when investigated.

We thus have the three natures that explain the correct discrimination between what is truly established, retaining a level of true existence, and what is not. Composite phenomena and ultimate truth do exist truly; however, everything projected by conceptuality lacks true reality.

So the quest for this objective existence or true existence is something that gains its full meaning in the Madhyamika school, where what is refuted is no longer an imposition from the side of the phenomenon, it is no longer an external existence of the phenomenon but an objective existence, the fact that the phenomenon exists by virtue of its nature retaining a self-establishing capacity. In short, it retains a level of independent existence. In concrete terms, it means that when I look at, for example, the vase, the appearance I have is that - from the side of the vase - the vase exists, and my mind does not at all enter into the process of bringing the vase into existence. This is what is refuted in the Madhyamika school, and we have in the treatise on the Middle Way the reasoning of the Tathagata that says

He is not the aggregates, and he is not different from the aggregates,
The aggregates are not in him, and he is not in the aggregates.
The Tathagata does not possess the aggregates:
What is the Tathagata?

So let's see what is sought: the object imputed from the side of the basis of imputation, the constitutive parts, the components of the phenomenon.

That is, we have a phenomenon, and instead of the Tathagata, you can take the person or take the table. If the table exists as it appears to me, then there are only two possibilities:
- either the table is traceable in its components,
- or separated from its components,
since it retains an appearance of objective existence, and these are the two possibilities of objective or autonomous existence.
This is the simplest reasoning that represents the entry into the non-self.

It does not mean that the self or the person, or the table, is denied. A particular mode of existence of the person, as conceived by confusion, distortion, is denied.

So, how does the 'I' spontaneously appear, at a non-analytical level, when we are involved in an emotional situation? It appears as inherently existent due to its own power. This is the object that needs to be negated in the view of the Middle Way. So, through these four essentials:
- identifying the object of negation,
- establishing pervasion, which implies understanding that yes, the phenomenon exists objectively, and we have only these two possibilities: either with the constituents or different from the constituents,
- finally, the actual analysis, the investigation of the imputed phenomenon in its constituents,
- or separate from its constituents.

For example, if we take a person – the person cannot be the same as their constituents, simply because taken individually, the constituents are not the person – and so, even put together, they cannot be the person. This is simply because a collection of non-persons cannot become a person.

Another way to look at this is that the person is the possessor of their constituents, and therefore, in no way can the constituents also be the possessor.

We have these notions: my body, my mind, my mental factors, my intelligence, my attachment, my anger. So we see that the self appears as something different from the aggregates, so in no way can the self be the same as its components.

We then understand that the self is not even something different from its components; if we remove the body and mind, there is nothing.

In this way, we come to understand the absence of an objective self and, at that moment, understand how the conventional self exists; it exists as a dependent arising. Here, we distinguish three levels:
- dependence on causes and conditions,
- dependence on its own constituents,
- dependence on designation. The self is projected by the conceptual mind onto the basis of constituents.

This is extremely difficult and subtle to understand. In this context, it means that the person exists merely as a conceptual appearance based on the five aggregates, just as the table exists for the mind in dependence on its own parts.

To consider a well-known case in the Prasangika school, we have the example of the rope-snake. Imagine being in nature, you see an old coiled rope, and someone, due to lack of clarity, thinks it's a snake. So, the appearance of a snake arises in the conceptual mind, and emotions follow. However, even though there is that appearance in the mind, from the side of the rope, there is no slightest illustration of what a snke is, in the sense that the snake cannot be traced in the base.

In the same way, when the thought 'I' arises in relation to the five aggregates, there is nothing that can be traced as the illustration of this self.

So, the notion of self appears to the mind simply in dependence on a continuum of physical and mental events that arise at high speed. Due to this appearance, the concept, the idea of self arises and allows for the grasping of the whole, but if we search for what corresponds to the self, either as a particular event or as the whole, it is impossible.

So, this leads us to perceive that the meaning of emptiness resides in the meaning of dependent arising, and the meaning of dependent arising resides in the meaning of emptiness.

We have seen that the self does not have an existence by its own nature, it is untraceable, but it exists due to the convergence of numerous factors, so it exists dependently on causes and conditions. Therefore, if it exists dependently, it is devoid of existence by its own nature. Thus, the meaning of emptiness resides precisely in this notion of dependent arising. Devoid means lacking existence by its own nature, and that emptiness, that lack, must be perceived as a certain openness and malleability to the aggregation of causes and conditions. In this context, the most important thing is conceptual designation, that mental construct applied to a particular basis.

Let me propose a concrete example. Imagine it's 1997/1998, before the official introduction of the euro. Suppose the new banknotes were already at your national bank, but for you, those banknotes meant nothing yet; they had no existence. Imagine an individual offering to sell you a certain amount of euros at half the price, but at that moment, you had no interest in that transaction.

Before the euro was officially issued, it had all the necessary qualities like paper, design, etc. – the combination of elements was correct. However, it didn't yet have monetary value. All elements were correct and complete, but the phenomenon, that basis, had not acquired financial value yet.

It's only at the moment of the official release a few years later that each individual would attribute a particular value to that basis. At that moment, the concept of 500 euros arises in the mind and is projected onto the basis. So, as long as the person has not projected the name, value, and function onto the basis, the phenomenon "500 euros" has no existence.

Even though we have the thought of holding 500 euros in hand, the banknote is only the basis of imputation for 500 euros.

How do these 500 euros come into existence? They arise from the mind in function of this basis. It's a mental construct that appears to the mind in dependence on its valid basis and is projected onto the basis by the mind.

You see that neither in the paper, nor in the color, nor in the image can it be traced. Agreement, projection of value, name, and function are needed for its existence. Existence is thus a function, on one hand, of the qualities of the object itself and, on the other, of the knowledge that the subject has about it and the name attributed to it.

Only at that moment do the 500 euros exist. However, the instant after – and this is the deception – the basis of imputation and the imputed object appear mixed, indistinguishable, and 500 euros appear to exist objectively, as one with the basis.

When, starting from a certain day, the government decrees that a particular banknote will no longer be in circulation, all projections and feelings it elicited until that moment disappear instantly. The banknote as such will have no more value. If the basis remains, the subject's projection has become nonexistent. This applies to all phenomena.

So, being part of this Buddhist investigation means accepting the possibility of being wrong about things we cannot even imagine we are wrong about.

In this way, I wanted to illustrate how appearance and reality are extremely distant from each other.

Share this article

Other entries

focus on February 2024
focus on February 2024