Mirage you are

Things don't exist, yet they do

Buddhist philosophy makes two seemingly contradictory claims - that while nothing really exists, yet things do exist. It sounds very abstract, or intentionally convoluted, "woo"-ish; and the sort of thing that would require a leap of faith, or some sort of enlightenment, to fully understand.

That is not the case though. It is a demonstrable, simple, and practical concept really, and one that I feel can help us in day to day life even if taken in a totally secular way.

I have no claims whatsoever to have seen the full extent of these teachings, and indeed from my past experience it is very likely that there are deeper meanings that I don’t yet understand.

But I do feel that there is a helpful kernel that I’ve understood, and that’s what I’ll tell you about.

Does a mirage exist?

In one way, the answer is no. It does not really exist - that’s why it is called a mirage.

In the other way, the answer is yes. It does exist - after all, we’re talking about it now!

But which of these two is the truth? Does a mirage exist, or does it not exist?

The answer that (some) Buddhist philosophers have given to this question is that there are two different existences:

  • a conventional existence,

  • and an inherent existence.

The mirage exists in a conventional sense (the “yes” answer above), but it does not have any inherent existence (the “no” answer).

This is not just philosophical nit picking, this is actually a very helpful distinction.

Normally, and most of the time we can coast along with attributing conventional existence to things. It is a helpful fiction; an abstraction that serves as well.

But if we are aware of the lack of inherent existence we can also choose to pause, reflect and understand when “things” behave in seemingly irrational manners. The irrationality or incoherence is not in the thing, it is an artifact of trying to attribute a solid unity to something that is more contingent. The irrational behaviour arises because we're trying to attribute existence of a thing when it is just a helpful but fictional abstraction.

Does India exist?

If you live in India you'd know that “India” does not really exist. There is a mindbogglingly large number of individuals, groups, languages, motivations, histories, upbringings, genetics, beliefs and tendencies that make up India – attributing a singular existence to it is just plain wrong.

At the same time, India does exist. In the minds of many an Indians, who take pride in their nationality. As a notion in history books. As a trading partner to other countries. As a member of, say, the UN.

There is nothing special about India in this example, you can substitute your own country in the preceding too. It is just that with a multicultural mishmash like India, this dichotomy is easier to see. Other good examples may be the EU, or the US.

So India exists conventionally, but not inherently.

Saying that India exists conventionally is a convenient shorthand, a useful abstraction. But recalling that India does not exist inherently can help us understand when “India” (or any country) takes decisions that we might not understand.

India doesn’t really exist, it is not really taking a single decision, and it is at these times when letting go of its conventional existence can help us analyse “its” actions better (whether as a citizen, or a friend, or a foe). It can help us see why it is not weird for a country, or a big company, or any other large human organisation really, to take contradictory decisions.

Do you exist?

This is where the push comes to shove. This is the bit that the Buddha was concerned with.

Buddha wasn’t a fan of philosophical nitpickings – the reason he was concerned with these distinctions was because he felt that understanding our lack of inherent existence can help us.

In particular, he was trying to guide people to the middle way between two extremes of eternalism (“I”, “my soul”, eternally exists) and nihilism (“I don’t exist”(really dude?!)).

I'll stop now though, and let you answer this question on your own. Up until this point, I have a intuitive understanding of all I've been talking about. Often times I can see how a problem or dilemma I'm struggling with is not a real problem, but a made up one because I'm trying to deal with, or attribute coherent causality to, a thing that don’t really exist.

But when applying the same concept to myself, I don't yet know what I end up with. I understand it intellectually, but not viscerally.

Footnote: It is not just Buddhists

To drive home the fact that these are not (just) spiritual concepts, we can see how "rational" Greek philosophers arrived at the similar conclusions in much more secular contexts.

There are two aspects at play here:

  • Things are not singular, but are made up of parts, of flowing streams. What looks like a unity from outside is often a thick syrup of varied fluids impenetrably flowing in the same direction.

  • Things can only be defined in terms of their relationships with other things. Further, these sets of relationships are continually changing, as are the other "thing"s it has a relationship to, so everything is just a big flux.

The first aspect is illustrated by the analogy of Ship of Thesus.

And the second aspect is immortalized in Heraclitus' quote:

No man can step into the same river twice, for he will not remain the same man, and nor will it be the same river.

Manav Rathi
Nov 2023