HH the Dalai Lama understands that questions (or “qualms”) naturally arise for students as they think about key Buddhist tenets. In this adaptation from his book Transcendent Wisdom (now published as Perfecting Wisdom)—translated and edited by B. Alan Wallace—he brings up qualms and gives his responses about what it means for things to be real or not real.
Qualm: If it is an error to think of form and so forth as real, how can it be that we verifiably perceive them? What further criterion beyond verifying perception is needed to establish the true existence of entities?
Response: Such entities are indeed verifiably perceived. However, when we say “verifying cognition” this suggests infallibility. It is a non-deceptive awareness with reference to the appearance of a self-defining object. Realists—those who assert true existence—have just this in mind when speaking of verifying cognition. They believe that phenomena appear just as they exist, and they appear to be truly existent. They call a cognition that is non-deceptive with regard to that appearance “verifying.”
Now in the Centrist context, infallible cognition is acknowledged, while denying that there is any such thing as even conventional intrinsic existence. Such cognition is said to be deceptive with regard to the appearance of phenomena as intrinsically existent. The Prasangikas, who hold this view, do not accept verifying cognition with respect to such appearance. Thus, they allow that a deceptive awareness may nevertheless verify its object. Therefore, phenomena exist by the power of consensus, not by their own intrinsic reality.
Such phenomena as form are regarded as misleading, for their mode of appearance and their mode of existence are not in accord with each other. Common people regard impure objects as pure, for the way those objects appear belies the way they actually exist. Although they are thought by consensus to be pure, that conviction is false. Likewise, although phenomena are not truly existent, they appear as if they were; and thus they are asserted to be misleading.
Qualm: The Lord Buddha is recorded in the scriptures as saying that all composites are impermanent and all tainted things are unsatisfactory. Thus, when the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, he spoke of sixteen attributes, including impermanence. Are those not ultimate truths; are they not absolute?
Response: The Buddha taught these in order for people to enter into the experience of emptiness; but ultimately speaking, there is no such thing as the impermanence of a pot. Ultimately, events are not momentary. Ultimately, the object itself does not exist, so it has no properties such as impermanence.
Qualm: If one takes the position that ultimately events are not of a momentary nature, does that mean that the conventional presentation of phenomena as passing away moment by moment is incorrect?
Response: No, that is not incorrect. That momentary nature is established by conventionally verifying cognition, so we accept that on a conventional basis. All the sixteen attributes of the Four Noble Truths are conventionally realized by contemplatives, so we can accept them.
Qualm: Well then, can we not call those sixteen “reality”?
Response: Common people mistake things that are essentially impermanent as permanent, and impure things as pure. In comparison to such attitudes, the contemplative experiences reality. It is conventional reality.
Qualm: If you deny true existence, do you still assert that one accumulates merit by making offerings to Awakened Beings and so on?
Response: Yes. One engages in illusion-like actions, and illusion-like fruits of those actions ensue. For example, Realists, who assert true existence, maintain that from real actions, real merit is accumulated and real results are experienced. The Centrists acknowledge the accumulation of merit and the effects of actions but as not truly existent.
Qualm: If sentient beings are like illusions, how can they take birth again after having died?
Response: An illusion is not truly existent. If an illusion appears as a horse or elephant, it does not exist as such. Although it is not real, it appears due to a complex of conditions, and it vanishes due to the cessation of that complex of conditions. So even an illusion depends upon causes and conditions. One cannot establish duration as a criterion for true existence.