One of my favorite expressions from Buddhist literature is the three-word opening line of theMadhyantavibhaga, a late Sanskrit text attributed to Maitreya, the Buddha to come. The phrase, which nicely captures the subtle, paradoxical view of reality so unique to Buddhist thought, is abhutaparikalpo’sti, and translates as something like “unreal imagination exists.”

The middle word, parikalpa, is the noun and is based on a term that most immediately means “capability” or “feasibility.” With the prefix pari this word takes on the sense of something contrived, determined, or invented. Here it refers to the understanding that the mind and body are constructing a world of experience—each moment—out of the raw data of sensory input. Others might see this as the functioning of a conscious spiritual essence, but Buddhists regard every moment of consciousness as a synthetic event that is cobbled together out of presenting conditions, only to pass away as those conditions change to make way for the creation of a new configuration. The name given to this process in the opening line isparikalpa, a constructed, arranged, worked-out fabrication of some feasible or appropriate version of things that we can take as a plausible semblance of reality for the purposes of stumbling from one moment to another. Such is the nature of human experience, all wishful thinking or projected hopes aside. It is an illusion, the outcome of a potent imagination.

April 16, 1893; Linda Connor, 1999 © Regents University of California; Printed by the artist, Lick Observatory Plate Archive, Mt. Hamilton, CA; Contact printed in sunlight with the original glass plate negative
April 16, 1893; Linda Connor, 1999 © Regents University of California; Printed by the artist, Lick Observatory Plate Archive, Mt. Hamilton, CA; Contact printed in sunlight with the original glass plate negative

The first word of the phrase is an adjective, describing this product of our imagination as unreal, not truly existing, not grounded upon any ontological foundation. The verbal root, bhu, simply means “to be,” so the negative form of that, abhuta, quite strongly says that it does not really exist.This is a remarkable insight, one that pulls the ground out from under almost all other forms of human understanding of the ultimate. Existence is one of the primary definitions of God and soul in Hinduism (along with consciousness and bliss), and for the Buddhists to say that such a reassuring reality does not underlie the functioning of the mind and body was as challenging to the Buddha’s contemporaries as it is to us today. Yet this is what he saw on the night of his awakening: the world has no abiding essence.

The third word is a verb, asti, another form of “to be,” and simply declares that this imaginative act we call ourselves and our world, which ultimately has no basis, nevertheless “exists.” That is to say it appears, it is an event that occurs, it arises again after it passes away, it is present to experience, it serves as an object of awareness. This third word takes us away from the theoretical and into the practical realm of meditation and daily life. Even though the mind is synthesizing a virtual world, and even though this imaginative connivance is ultimately ungrounded in anything “out there,” it nevertheless is phenomenologically present. We have the option of paying careful attention to the flow of experience, and thereby of participating intimately in the manifestations of consciousness. When such conscious engagement is tempered by the first and second words—the insubstantiality and imperfection of it all—we gain back at least as much as we have lost. The bird in hand is a rich unfolding of phenomenological texture and nuance; the two in the bush, not worth pursuing, are merely conceptual and emotional urges to feel grounded in something transcendent.

IT IS OFTEN taken for granted that all religion points beyond the here and now to something wholly other, and that the value of this is entirely derived from the value of that. I think the Buddha had a very different view, one that is particularly suited to the postmodern world we are beginning to inhabit. The ontological ground has been pulled out from under us by every discovery of the new sciences over the last century, and increasingly isolated islands of religious bedrock are surrounded by shifting currents of diversity. The conventional wisdom has always been that we would be lost without some kind of transcendent grounding, and that human values, aspirations, and responsibilities would flounder without divine guidance.

The Buddha appears to have seen it the other way around. Clinging to a rock while being battered by waves only causes damage, while letting go and learning to swim freely in the changing waters can result in a great sense of meaning and well-being. We can accept the fact that our world-building apparatus is imperfect (parikalpa), and even that our world and our selves are not ultimately real (abhuta), while at the same time learning to pay ever closer attention to the flow of experience that is presenting itself to awareness (asti). We can rely upon the self-organizing principles of nature to build for ourselves a meaningful world, as long as we take care to do so in healthy rather than unhealthy ways. Having seen the empty nature of it all a long time ago, Buddhists went on to organize a way of life around such qualities as kindness, compassion, truthfulness, understanding, and, above all, around practices of heightened awareness. These factors are inherently valuable because they contribute to skillful living.

I understand that everything I know and do is a product of imagination; and I can accept without difficulty that it is ultimately unreal; but I’m glad it exists, and will engage that existence with as much conscious awareness as I can possibly muster. This is plenty to work with, and it inspires me to make the very best of what is present for myself, those around me, and for the collective whole. The future well-being of us all, said the Buddha a long time ago, lies in the direction of less conceptual attachment to views and more mindful awareness of phenomena. The simple opening line from the Madhyantavibhaga can serve as a good reminder of that.

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