10. The Three Self-Natures and Four Realms of Reality

After discussing the realms of enlightenment and unenlightenment, this post introduces Buddha’s teachings on their three self-natures and four ways of understanding them. 

A) Three Self-Natures

Self-nature, or intrinsic nature, is known in Romanized Sanskrit as svabhava.

Svabhava (Chinese=自性), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit, “self-nature,” “intrinsic existence,” or “inherent existence.” Furthermore, “the term has a general sense of “essence” or “nature.” “In Yogacara, as represented in the Samdhinirmocanasutra, “all phenomena can be categorized into three natures (trisvabhava): the imaginary (parikalpita), the dependent (paratantra), and the consummate(parikalpita).”

Samdhinirmocana Sutra(Chinese=解深密經), “or Noble Sūtra of the Explanation of the Profound Secrets, is a Mahāyāna Buddhist text and the most important sutra of the Yogācāra school. It contains explanations of key Yogācāra concepts such as the basal consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna), the doctrine of appearance-only (vijñapti-mātra), and the “three own natures” (trisvabhāva).”

The three self-natures are:

1) Parikalpita (Chinese=遍計所執性), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “imputed,” “imaginary,” or “artificial,” the first of the three natures.” “The Yogacara “mind only (cittamatra) system expounded in the Yogacarabhumi, Madhyantavibhga, Mahayanasutralamkara, and the commentaries of Asanga and Visubandhu asserts that external objects do not exist as materially different entities, separate from the consciousness that perceives them; all ordinary appearances are distorted by subject and object bifurcation (grahyagrahakavikalpa).” 

“That external objects do not exist as materially different entities, separate from the consciousness that perceives them” emphasizes the dependent nature of all phenomena in the world because they do not exist without their underly fluctuating mentality or consciousness, a topic discussed in the last two posts. 

“All ordinary appearances are distorted by subject and object bifurcation (grahyagrahakavikalpa)” refers to the fact that bifurcations of reality, such as the observer from the observed, the self from the others, and the subject from the object, are mental distortions. They are “imputed,” “imaginary,” or “artificial” because they do not exist in nature. 

2). Paratantra (Chinese=依他起性), according to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, “is other-powered,” viz. “dependent,” the second of the three natures, a central tenet of the Yogacara school.” Furthermore, “the paratantra category encompasses all impermanent phenomena, which are produced in dependence on causes and conditions.” 

The dependent nature of reality reflects the fact that when mentality fluctuates, rupa, “the body, form, and materiality” of the phenomenal world, appears. However, when mentality does not fluctuate, rupa disappears. Therefore, the existence of all world phenomena is dependent on mentality fluctuating. Without mentality fluctuating, no universal phenomenon can exist. Additionally, their dependency makes phenomena impermanent. When the right conditions allowing the dependency disappear, phenomena also vanish. Therefore, they are impermanent. 

3). Parinispanna (Chinese=圓成實性), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “perfected” or “consummate, the third of the three natures.” “Parinispanna is the emptiness or lack of an imaginary external world (bahyartha) materially different from the consciousness that perceives it.” “The consummate nature is the highest reality, according to Yogacara. ” 

“Perfected” or “consummate” self-nature belongs to the Ultimate 

Reality. It is “the highest reality” because Citta originates all other realities. In a future post, we will use the experience of Dharma Master Hui-Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, and let him inform us about the consummate nature of the Ultimate Reality that he realized upon his enlightenment. 

B) Four Realms of Reality

Buddhavatatamsaka Sutra  (Chinese=大方廣佛華嚴經), “is one of the most influential Mahāyāna sutras of East Asian Buddhism. It is often referred to in short as the Avataṃsaka Sūtra. In Classical Sanskrit, avataṃsaka means garland, wreath, or any circular ornament, such as an earring. Thus, the title may be rendered in English as A Garland of Buddhas, Buddha Ornaments, or Buddha’s Garland.

Four Realms of Reality do not mean there are four different kinds of reality. Indeed, mentality is the only reality in the cosmos, but with two different statuses. When mentality does not fluctuate, it does not manifest any visible phenomenon. On the other hand, when mentality fluctuates, it manifests the phenomenal universe. Four Realms of Reality refers to four ways of understanding reality between these two fluctuation statuses. 

In the Buddhavatatamsaka Sutra (Chinese=大方廣佛華嚴經), Buddha enumerates the following Four Realms of Reality (Chinese=四法界) are:

  • The dharmadhatu of the phenomena (Chinese=事法界).
  • “The dharmadhatu of the principle (Chinese=理法界).
  • “The dharmadhatu of the unobstructed interpenetration between principle and phenomena (Chinese=理事無礙法界).
  • The dharmadhatu of the unobstructed interpretation of phenomenon and phenomenon (Chinese=事事無礙法界).

But, before discussing them, let’s first define a few relevant terms. 

Dharmadhatu (Chinese=法界), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, “in Sanskrit, “dharma realms, viz., “realms of reality,” or “dharma element.” 

Tattva (Chinese=實相), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, “in Sanskrit, lit. “thatness,” a term with two important denotations. First, it can mean “ultimate reality,”… the reality, free from all conceptual elaboration, that must be understood in order to be liberated from rebirth, as well as the inexpressible reality that is the object of Buddha’s omniscient consciousness. Second, more prosaically, the term may be translated as “principle.”” 

However, while the term “principle ” applies to the Ultimate Reality because Citta is the First Principle of Truth, “principle” can also refer to mentality in general because mentality is “free from all conceptual elaboration,” whether fluctuating or not. 

The following is an image by Dr. David Tong depicting a fluctuating quantum energy field with ripples. We will use his image to help us understand Buddha’s teachings, where waves are mental, not energy.


1) “The dharmadhatu of the phenomena” means looking at the ripples without seeing their underlying waves. Buddha calls this misunderstanding of reality and delusional. 

However, this is how every human on earth looks at the world. No one sees the waves underlying the phenomena. Does that mean that everyone is delusional? The answer is yes. In Buddhism, human delusion comes not from eating apples or having forbidden fun. It is inherent. We will discuss how we discuss the Three Delicate Marks in the quantum realm.

2) “The dharmadhatu of the principle” is a realm of mentality only. Therefore, it refers to Citta of the Ultimate Reality. The Ultimate Reality is not represented in Dr. Tong’s image. However, if you can consider the waving “ocean” connecting the ripples flat, without ripples, and invisible, that will work.

3) “The dharmadhatu of the unobstructed interpenetration between principle and phenomena (Chinese=理事無礙法界)” means that mentality and phenomena coexist as one. In Dr. Tong’s image, this is represented by each ripple rippling in the “ocean” of ripples connecting them. In science, the “dharmadhatu of the unobstructed interpenetration between principle and phenomena” is called wave-particle duality, also known as the central mystery of quantum mechanics, which says that “everything in the universe, from light to electrons to atoms, behaves like both a particle and wave at the same time.” Wave-particle duality is not only true with the ripples in the quantum realm, but it also applies to galaxies in the sky, as the image from Dr. Tony Tyson shows.


Indeed, nothing is solid in the universe. All phenomena in the universe are fluctuations manifesting as if they are solid. 

With energy as the constituent of the waves in the wave-particle duality, it leads to the mystery of the so-called  Mind-Body Dualism in science, a problem that has bothered humanity since Plato. Mind-Body Dualism is defined as “either the view that mental phenomena are non-physical, or that the mind and body are distinct and separate.” 

However, if the mind and body are “distinct and separate,” how can humans understand reality ?” How can the physical interact with the mental?” 

According to Bryan Magee, author of The Story of Philosophy, John Locke (1632-1704) “is regarded as the chief founding father of empiricism and all that flows from it.” 

As an empiricist, “Locke came to the conclusion that our notion about what actually exists – and therefore our understanding of the reality of the world – must always derive ultimately from what has been experienced through the senses.”

To Locke’s assertion, Irish philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) wondered, “What possible warrant can we have for asserting that the existence of these mental contents is caused by things of an entirely and fundamentally different character from them to which we can never have direct access, namely objects.” 

Indeed, how can reality be experienced through human sensors if it is physical? After all, when you look at a mountain in the distance, you do not sense it because it crashes into your eyes. Instead, it is the waves of mentality underlying the mountain that enter your eyes, carrying with them its “experiential content.”  

Today, the same question is asked again in a modern scientific fashion on Closer to Truth, “How is it possible that mushy masses of brain cells, passing chemicals and shooting sparks, literally are mental sensations and subjective feelings? They seem so radically different.” Despite considerable scientific advances since Locke and Berkeley, the problem remains unsolved. 

However, repeatedly asking the same question, even using newer scientific terms, will not change the situation if the attitude that the body and the mind are “so radically different” does not change. 

In “The dharmadhatu of the unobstructed interpenetration between principle and phenomena,” Buddha solves the problem.  

Buddha teaches that the waves in wave-particle duality are waves of mentality. In Buddhism, therefore, wave-particle duality means that mentality and particle coexist in the same phenomenon. Therefore, there is no Body-Mind duality, at least not in nature. 

In Buddha’s opinion, the “bifurcation” of “all ordinary appearances” is “imputed,” “imaginary,” or “artificial.” 

4) “The dharmadhatu of the unobstructed interpretation of phenomenon and phenomenon.” The dharmadhatu of the unobstructed interpenetration of phenomenon and phenomenon means that all phenomena are connected. In both images, this is represented by the “ocean” connecting all the ripples.

Quantum scientists, such as Dr. Tong in his video lecture, Quantum Fields: The Real Building Blocks of the Universe, also realize that, as he said, “we are all connected to each other.” However, since scientific connections are through energy, Dr. Tongs also acknowledges that our reality is “abstract and nebulous.” Indeed, when numbers in scientific equations link all the phenomena together, consciousness is nowhere to be found. 

The idea that all are connected as one is important in Buddhism. It is the foundation of Buddha’s doctrine known as Compassion-Empathy or Loving-Kindness.

Since all are connected, Buddha teaches us to be compassionate and empathetic to others. The difference between compassion and empathy is that “Compassion gives joy, empathy lifts sorrows (Chinese=慈能予樂,悲能拔苦).” Buddha also advises all to practice altruism: benefit the self by benefitting others. It is the middle way of living that allows you to enjoy what you have while leading a kind, harmonious, and peaceful life.