Oakville Zen Meditation

#102. What is real and what is not: a Zen perspective Part 1.28MAR16 

I have been requested to talk about what is real and what is not. After some hesitations here are few thoughts.

When asked to define reality and non-reality the Buddha replied in many ways often contradicting himself. Maybe his contradictions had a purpose since he did not like metaphysical or philosophical stuff, preferring being down to earth. For example he would rather answer the following: What are the causes of suffering and how to prevent them? Regarding what is reality and not, he replied the following:

“If you think, nothing is real because our thoughts are immaterial”

Another day he would teach this: “Everything is real when I am using my 5 senses.”

Or in modern English he also said: “I don’t know the difference, what is the point of your question?”

So, this is a difficult topic to talk about and I am not sure about its practical value in making your life easier, better and more serene. However this is a good challenge for discussion.

Step #1

The first step is to try to define and differentiate 2 key words that seem somewhat similar: To exist and to be real. Is there a difference between them?

  • To exist implies the notion of time. To exist is to be present in the current moment that is now.

By definition, nothing exists per se if not present in the present moment.

  • Real is an adjective meaning concrete or material. The precondition to be real is to exist now.

Its antonym is immaterial, virtual.

This distinction is very important and should help somewhat in the following second step.

Step #2

Let us use 2 practical examples to differentiate the 2 words

  • A exists; does it mean that A is real? The answer is YES in the following example.

If I pinch my skin I am aware of it because my skin does exist in the current moment and is real because my skin is material with a proven concrete reality. In fact, by using our 5 senses one can confirm that something exists – that is now- and is real or not.

2) B exists; does it mean that B is real? The answer is NO in the following example.

You have a thought. Does this thought exist? Yes of course, because this thought is present in the current moment. But your thought, whatever true or not, is not real because it does not have any material reality.

The distinction between ”what is existing” and “what is real,” sounds purely academic and useless. However its importance is crucial because, by definition, our mind’s world does exist but are immaterial. Our perception, thought, emotion, belief, desire, expectations, memory do exist and maybe true or not but they are not real since lacking concrete reality. So, everything created by our mind 1) does exist if perceived in the current moment, 2) maybe true or not, 3) but is not real per se since being immaterial.

Zen says: “Don’t believe in all your thoughts, just observe them since, despite existing, they are not real”.

In summary and using a very pragmatic and simple approach:

Something exists only in the current moment. It may or may not be real that is with a concrete reality.

Something that is real - material - must exist because of the verb to be is in its present form “IS real” that is now.

                 An existing state can be real or virtual. A real state always exists

Being aware of what is real and of what is not such as our perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions is a giant step in discovering your dormant awakening.

 For your reflections:

  • Can you say that your great-great mother is real? Yes but only when she existed.
  • Does awakening exist? Is this state real?
  • Do your dreams exist? They exist only when we dream otherwise they are memory. Are they real