Down with “Reality”!

First, a thank you to Selfawarepatterns; his comments to my last article inspired me to clarify some of my positions with respect to inner paths (which may also be his suggested wording), thus leading to something of an overdue manifesto.

Let’s say I have an inner path (be it Buddhism, Taoism, or whatever) — and let’s call that path X.

Let’s say X works for me, but it doesn’t work for another person.  Assuming the person practiced X properly, what am I to conclude? Two main possibilities come to mind…

  1. That X worked for me, but not for hims/her.
  2. That s/he was dishonest.

(1) is unsettling for many as it questions X’s universality.  This in turn invites another question: how do I know that X really worked and wasn’t just a placebo?

(2) is also unsettling; not knowing if the person really practiced X, I am in no position to judge his/her intentions.  Yet, if I conclude that X is universal, I must doubt the person for whom it didn’t work.

How do I reconcile these?

I don’t have to.

This false dilemma (and many others) are created by a fundamental mistake about these paths, one that cuts deep into how we think and act. When dealing with X, a useful slogan to remember is…

Phenomena, not Ontology.

What does this mean?

  1. Phenomena are how things appear (subjectivity).
  2. Ontology is how things really are (objectivity).

It’s the confused relationship among (1) & (2) and a confusion about what matters in our life that gets us into trouble.

We pay lip service to (2) but truly value (1). For instance, take happiness.  Most people value it very highly.  Yet happiness is not ontological, but a phenomenon. Whatever the objective facts about my body when I’m happy, it’s only the FEELING of happiness that I seek.  If my bodily state is objectively consistent with happiness, yet I feel sad, then nothing will convince me that I’m happy.  Conversely, if I think I’m happy, then by definition, I am and no one can tell me I’m not “really” happy, unless I really do not feel happy and am simply lying to myself.

In short, when we are in the realm of phenomena, the real/unreal divide vanishes.

This is critical.

Take my goals.  I value them only because of their phenomenal impact.  For instance, if I want a new car, it’s only because I expect a phenomenal reaction to this car; the ontological (objective) facts of the car are irrelevant.

However, this goes deeper for the phenomena/ontology duality is a false one.  All I have are phenomena and ontology is simply an inference from phenomena.  For instance, take the process of seeing a mirage of water, and realizing it’s a mirage…

  1. I see water (phenomena).
  2. I see and hear others saying they don’t see water (phenomena).
  3. I conclude the water is not there (phenomena).

Where is the ontology?  It’s simply a particular phenomenal state in my mind (itself a phenomena that I label “mind”).  In fact, to even claim something is not real, I have to posit a duality among my phenomena (which is my universe) and what’s “really there” which I can never experience. So really, the thing against which I measure phenomena is itself another phenomena.

Further, I never denied (1), only its ontological status.

Now I’m not trying to attack ontology.  Ontology — like any other tool — can be used or misused.  Further, that we cannot know what (if anything) lies outside of phenomena means we can’t deny ontology because this would imply that we know that nothing lies outside phenomena.

What I am trying to get at is this: X is not about being better, finding truth etc… X is about being happier in a transient, often disappointing world over which we have limited control. This is a phenomenal concern and as such, we should hold a ruthlessly phenomenal view towards X, and not let it be compromised by ontology.

Wondering if X is a placebo is an example of ontology corrupting a perfectly good phenomenal experience.  What matters is the experience, not its supposed ontology.  Besides, all our happiness is based on a placebo — I only seek things because I think they’re good, and getting something that I think is good is what makes me happy.  Well, if I’m content to pursue happiness on those terms, why do I suddenly balk at doing the same with X?

All attempts at installing an ontology in X lead to problems, as they confuse my focus and raise the possibility of X being disproved (something impossible with phenomena).  In particular, questions about whether X is a placebo, delusion, lie, or conditioned don’t arise in a purely phenomenal view.  They only arise when the ontological dog pees on the phenomenal carpet.

Bad ontology!  Bad bad ontology!

This is one reason why I really like the Pyrrhonists.  They not only seemed to be more free from ontology than any philosophy I’ve seen, but they even argued that ontology itself was the problem!

This is why — despite being a big advocate of Buddhism — I have a very iconoclastic attitude towards it.  I believe that veneration is often ontology in disguise as we’re now making statements about things we can’t experience, like the history of the path, the character of the founder, the mechanisms by which it works, and so on.  However, iconoclasm invites throwing away all that; well if all the wrapping is gone, we either see what was inside the box, or realize the box was empty and move on.

Given that I write about inner paths, I believe they can help others.  However, I acknowledge that this may not be the case, that not every path can help every person, and that my beliefs are inferences that like everything else in my life, are provisional and thus subject to change.


  1. Yes, the concept of Reality is unhelpful here. Those who might object to such a statement will tend to do so arguing the existence of its counterpart – Unreality – and posit that its referents are the absence of physical or verifiable evidence. What?! So, the game then becomes one of what can be named that is extant as Unreal and which stands in contradistinction to that which is putatively Real. At this point, we usually hear about unicorns, and then must enter a discussion about whether or not the belief they exist and the belief that they do not exist are different categories. In the unlikely event that we get past this point, we then have the unfruitful discussion about how subjectivity and objectivity mutually sublate one another and merge in a no-two-ism or multiplicious monism! Words – difficult. o_O

    • True. I’d likely bypass such arguments by emphasizing my goal of keeping ontology from hijacking my phenomenal well-being :). Still, if pressed, I’d emphasize the phenomenal grounding of ontology (the subjective grounding of objectivity). Physical evidence is a (subjective) experience and certain illusions are dispelled not by denying senses, but by coordinating them (if I see something, but cannot touch it, it’s likely a mirage, etc…). The unicorn example would get a similar treatment; my experience of unicorns differs from my experience of horses, hence according them less reality is simply a short-hand that compares my set of experiences among both classes.

  2. any “path” needs a direction, else it is as good as no path at all.

    Buddhist path is crystal clear – ending/transcending of one’s suffering. And the way do that, is also crystal clear. Its like science, or an algorithm/math. Everything falls into place, makes perfect sense. Any other path that doesn’t give me this kind of logical/preciseness, is ultimately “direction less”…as good as no path at all.

    PYRRHONISM in the link you provided seem to have some buddhist roots, but it looks (to me) like every other buddhist off-spring that misses the point about 4 noble truths (suffering).

    • I agree — a path is a process, but the sole validation for a process is in its effectiveness. For instance, the validation of the 4 Noble Truths is that if relieves one’s suffering, and not that it supposedly came from the Buddha, or was the result of him entering a particular state, etc…

      Pyrrhonism has some parallels with Buddhism — pecifically Nagarjuna’s philosophy, and there’s a documented historical link between Pyrrho and some Indian ascetics. If you haven’t done so, and are interested, here’s a book on the subject, freely available online:

      Click to access Pyrrhonism.pdf

      • It has always been about one’s salvation, not about buddha. In fact, it was claimed there were no buddha statues in early buddhist times. Humans need symbols (just like they need books) to remember, thus all the literature henceforth.

        Buddha and his life are like tools (say, a map for the path). He gained the perfect wisdom mid-late 30s, and lived till ~80. So he left 40 years worth of examples, clues, pointers, about the path. It has always been about these, not himself, or his physical body.

      • I read it some where else … but a quick google search shows

        Isn’t it ironic the first buddha statue was built by a greek…some ~300 after buddha’s time. …I am guessing the greek brought in existing greek statues customs.

        Its not really hard to believe this, as buddha himself would never allow someone praying to him as god, His teachings are crystal clear about this. Heck, one of his main follower Nagarjuna logically , and once and for all, proves there is “emptiness” only (and its yang/opposite is “suffering”). How would buddha claim he/his-body has anything to with anything. It would be hypocritical of highest order. For me, its obvious. Only the ideas/teachings/dharma are the focus.

  3. Great post! I love how you frame the distinction between phenomena and ontology. The only issue I have is with the characterization of ontology as bad thing. When the dog pees on the carpet, it’s not the dog that’s bad – it’s the owner who failed to take the dog out in a timely manner. Or rather, it’s the person dragging out the ontological question improperly. I’m not saying I know how to approach ontological questions properly, but embracing our own subjective experiences as valid doesn’t necessarily mean that ontological objectivity is invalid. It’s not a dichotomous spectrum where if one is real, the other cannot be; I think it’s a lot more complex than that.

    • Thanks!

      I didn’t mean to imply that ontology was a bad thing and did state that I wasn’t arguing for one over the other, but it might have helped had I stressed this more, given the tone of the article.

      I really like your furthering of the dog analogy! Yes, ontology is a tool, and like any tool, whether it’s good or bad depends on how it’s used.

      You are absolutely right that embracing phenomena doesn’t invalidate ontology. In fact, if we argue that phenomena are all we can access, then by definition, we cannot know if there are things outside of phenomena, which means we can’t argue that ontology doesn’t exist!

      I’m going to edit the article a bit to make these points clear.

      • I expanded the section on not making any valuations on phenomena or ontology, and was clearer about the specific role of ontology that I was critiquing. The two paragraphs starting with “Now I’m not trying to attack ontology…” represent the edits. Please let me know if those edits clarify things.

  4. Wow. I’m honored that my comments inspired such profound contemplation.

    I agree that ontology has limited utility in assessing something like Buddhism and similar types of endeavors that are about phenomenal experience.

    I’m glad you specified that ontology itself has a place. Ontology is a theory inferred from phenomena, and its primary use, it seems to me, seems to be its use in predicting future phenomena. For example, if I’m buying a car, I may well be interested in my phenomenal response, but if I care about my phenomenal response toward the car as it gets older, it might be worth my while to be concerned about the ontology of its reliability.

    But we have to be cautious with making ontological pronouncements, for all the reasons you discuss. Ontology is something we construct from numerous subjective experiences, and it’s always subject to revision or revocation on new experiences. Epistemic humility is wisdom.

      • Ontology may be a part of Buddhism, but they can be abandoned without affecting Buddhism one bit. In fact, Buddhism is more effective for dropping those things. After all, miraculous stories of the Buddha and claims for lineages are also part of Buddhism, and they’re easily ignored.

      • Like everything else in buddhism, they are all tools, including ontology. The ultimate/root is 4 noble truths (suffering), and that is all really matters.

        It is just like meditation. Anything(eg: mudra, mantra) and everything (eg: breathing!) will and can be used , all to get your mind fully be aware of itself, present. “mind seeing itself perfectly”. Dependent origination(Ontology) , i would say, is probably the one of the top tools for this. The lineages/stories you mention is a good fillerb…at the most (usually used for lay people, beginners). (not comparable to dependent origination, which is used by serious mind slayers, intermediate-to-advanced buddhists)

      • Dependent Origination is everywhere, one of the central topics of buddhism.

        Please see Pratītyasamutpāda for detailed discussion.

        I personally find it very useful anytime i see myself get carried away by phenomenal experience, either in mediation, or daily life.

        Nagarjuna uses it masterfully to establish emptiness/nothing/sunyata. And a major follower of his, an important buddhist figure, shantideva, relies on this in his epic book Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, one of my favorites, strongly recommended. Both these two, use logic/ontology without compromise.

      • Thanks — I’ll check those resources out.

        It will be great to find something useful on dependent origination, as everything I read was either so banal as to be useless, or nonsensical.

        I’m surprised Nagarjuna would use dependent origination (or any other ontology) given his thorough deconstructionism. Wasn’t he the guy who argued against causality? Seems dependent origination is a claim of causality in a certain sphere.

      • yes he ultimately deconstructs everything…leaving with “nothing” (of course, “nothing” as such, isn’t there either).

        But, there is WAY of the world. There is life, death. Apple falls from the tree., etc.etc. Dependent origination is just the way of the world. Nagarjuna shows if x leads to y, it doesn’t mean “y” is a thing in itself, or existent on its own. “x” came into being from its pre-conditions, just like “y”. In this context/sequence, there is no beginning, or end. There is your reasoning for immortality and nirvana. And there in lies the concept of karma, dharma (the WAY), as well.

        And all these concepts came into being purely due to “dependent origination”, which is just the way (logical, and ontological) things are.

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