1. Overview: What is Reality?

If, upon seeing “What is Reality?” as an introduction to a Buddhist blog, your first reaction is to wonder, “Do humans not understand reality?” “What about what I sensed,” and “What does it have to do with Buddhism?” you are probably not alone. You may also wonder, “Isn’t Buddhism a superstitious religion, an oriental mysticism, or even a “foreign faith?

Yes, humans do not understand reality and have wondered about the nature of reality since pre-Socratic times in Greece. Philosophers, from Plato in ancient Greece to Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in the eighteenth century, recognized the impermanence of the world and offered their respective theories, Theory of Forms and Noumenon, that bifurcates the universe as solutions. With the advent of quantum mechanics, not only is the idea that the world is bifurcated into known and unknown domains continuing, but humanity has also lost its sense of the reality of the world it experiences.  

No, Buddhism is not a religion, nor are any other misconceptions mentioned. Instead, Buddhism is education from our historical Shakyamuni Buddha on the mysteries of the two realities humans face: the visible phenomenal universe and the invisible reality filling all the spaces in between. The mystery is: between the two, which one is real? 

A) Let’s start with the visible reality: the phenomenal world humans experience. 

Historically, humans’ understanding of reality has come mainly from observation. However, since ancient Greece, understanding reality based on observation has not been reliable and is often subject to change.  

Euclid was an ancient Greek mathematician and considered the “father of geometry.” His geometry is called “planar geometry” because he thought the earth was flat based on his observations. Later, when scientists found the earth spherical, non-Euclidean geometry was subsequently developed. 

In the Middle Ages, the predominant view about the shape of the universe was geocentrism, the idea that the earth was at the center of the universe with the sun, moon, stars, and planets revolving around it. However, in the sixteenth century, Nicolaus Copernicus, a Renaissance astronomer and Catholic cleric, overthrew the idea and presented a mathematical model of heliocentrism, suggesting that it was the earth that evolved around the sun. Galileo Galilei then provided supporting evidence through observation through a telescope. 

Modern scientific understanding of reality started with Newton and his Classical Mechanics theory. For his Classical Mechanics theory, Newton needed forces to act between physical particles. However, finding no precedent for his ideas, Newton decided to invoke the name of his God and suggested God created everything he needed. 

According to author Fritjof Capra of The Tao of Physics, Newton wrote the following in his Opticks, “It seems probable to me that God in the beginning formed matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, movable particles, of such sizes and figures, and with such other properties, and in such proportion to space, as most conduced to the end for which he formed them; and that these primitive particles being solids, are incomparably harder than any porous bodies compounded of them; even so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary power being able to divide what God himself made one in the first creation.” 

The author added, “In the Newtonian view, God had created, in the beginning, the material particles, the forces between them, and the fundamental laws of motion.” 

While Newton’s mechanical universe worked exceptionally well for hundreds of years and is still in use today, his methodology of investigating reality changed significantly from that of scientists before him. While Copernicus and Euclid explored nature by observing reality directly, Newton was interested in verifying the correctness of his equations through observation. However, his assumption that particles that are “solid, massy, hard, impenetrable” existed was never directly verified but assumed. 

Significantly, scientists after Newton embraced his methodology and formalized it as the Scientific Method. Like Newton’s methodology, the Scientific Method does not start with direct observation of reality. Instead, it begins with an assumption. Experiments are then carried out to try to verify the correctness of the assumption. The results of experiments obtained from measuring, testing, observation, etc., are analyzed to see if the starting assumption is correct. 

Of course, this changes the focus of scientific inquiries from direct observation of reality to testing theories. In this video, Absolute Truth on Big Think, Dr. Sylvester J. Gates offered his opinion and said, “All we can do in science is construct theories, and that means, for example, that what we are ultimately doing is not about the truth…..Science is not about finding the truth. Science is about making our beliefs of nature less false. These are two different things.” 

In their efforts to make the beliefs of nature less false, physicists have advanced their methodology by defining a mathematical concept called energy. 

According to this article, energy, “in physics,” is a “quantitative property that is transferred to a body or a physical system, recognizable in the performance of work and in the form of heat and light. Energy is a conserved quantity—the law of conservation of energy states that energy can be converted in form, but not created or destroyed.” 

Giving quantitative property to all material phenomena is indeed of great help to scientists, as it allows them to use it in their equations to investigate and discover new phenomena.    

One of these equations leads to the discovery in quantum mechanics that the fluctuating quantum energy field is the building block of the universe. With the quantum energy field as the building block of the universe, the character of particles changed. Dr. Frank Wiczek, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, put it succinctly, “The most basic objects out of which to construct the universe are not particles but objects we call quantum fields. We think of them as space-filling ethers that create and destroy the objects, the particles. …….. We see particles as epiphenomena. They are kind of ripples on the deep structure.” 

Not only have Newton’s “solid, massy, hard, impenetrable” particles become ripples of fluctuating waves, but the quantum energy field has become the building block of the universe.   

However, with epiphenomena as ripples of waves, what is known as the central mystery of quantum mechanics emerges. The central mystery states that “everything in the universe, from light to electrons to atoms, behaves like both a particle and a wave at the same time.” 

According to Dr. O’Dowd in this video, the preferred solution to the central mystery of quantum mechanics is the Copenhagen Interpretation. The Copenhagen Interpretation suggested when observation changes waves to particles, the probability wave function collapses. Obviously, while probability wave function collapse offers a solution, the wave function itself is not a reality. So, the central mystery of quantum mechanics is, as Dr. O’Dowd puts it, “What does the wave function represent? What are these waves of or waves in?” 

Since scientists do not know what waves are, they cannot know the building blocks of the universe. If scientists do not know the building blocks of the universe, they have no idea of reality.

Indeed, with the advent of quantum mechanics, humanity has lost its sense of what is real.

However, in explaining how the waves function collapse, Dr. O’Down indicates that the probability waves have to “hold information about all the possible final positions of the particle, but also about its possible positions at every stage in the journey. In fact, the wave must map out all the possible paths that particle could take. We have this family of could-be trajectories from start to finish, and for some reason, when the wave reaches the screen, it chooses a final location.” At that point, the wave function is deemed to collapse. 

It is unclear how probability waves can actually “hold information,” “map out,” or “choose.” Are these not mental functions? It seems like the Copenhagen Interpretation requires consciousness. 

This article, “Reality is an illusion: The scientific proof everything is energy and reality isn’t real,” offers a possible relationship between reality and consciousness from the quantum mechanical perspective. 

The article states this about the Copenhagen Interpretation, “The Copenhagen Interpretation comes from the school of quantum mechanics, and it believes that reality does not exist without an observer to observe it. As reality is nothing more than energy, then the energy is conscious when consciousness is observing it.”

By wanting energy to be consciousness, the article suggests that the Copenhagen Interpretation requires observation for reality to exist and that consciousness is as fundamental as energy for understanding reality. 

Indeed, this is the opinion of Dr. Max Planck, a 1918 Nobel Laureate in Physics, who said the following after spending practically his entire professional life studying matter:

“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about. Everything that we regard as existing postulates consciousness.” 

and

“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”

Indeed, Dr. Plancks’ opinions align with Buddha’s findings upon his enlightenment.   

B) Now, let’s discuss the never-visible but obviously-present reality: mentality.

The relationship between phenomenal reality and mentality has been debated for centuries, starting with the debate between empiricist John Locke of England and George of Berkley of Ireland.

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 sensory bases 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. 

Today, the same question is asked again in a modern scientific fashion on Closer to Truth, as What is the Mind-Body Problem:” “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 of the relationship between matter and mind 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. 

This was especially so when Buddha offered his solutions thousands of years ago. 

Buddhism is the education from our historical Shakyamuni Buddha. Buddhism is uniquely the only education in the world that teaches the Ultimate Reality of the cosmos and that it is perduring and verifiable. Furthermore, the Ultimate Reality also serves as the First Principle of Truth in Buddhism, meaning it is the verifiable ground truth from which Buddha’s doctrines sprout. Therefore, unlike science, there are no assumptions in Buddhism. Unlike philosophy, Buddhism is not Buddha’s personal opinion. Unlike religion, there are no anthropomorphic creators. Buddha teaches that the universe was not created, as if something from nothing, but its appearance is a natural event arising from pre-existing conditions.  

Buddha teaches that mentality is the only reality in the Cosmos and is also directly verifiable. Furthermore, Buddha teaches that mentality comes in two states: quiescent and active. 

Buddha calls the quiescent mentality “no thought” and deems it the enlightened Ultimate Reality in the cosmos. He further teaches that the active mentality, while unenlightened, is the foundational block of the universe, like the fluctuating quantum energy. 

Given that Buddhism is about the two realities of the Cosmos, the First Principle of Truth says that everything in the Cosmos can be explained as whether mentality fluctuates or not. 

Significantly, while everything is energy in the scientific universe, everything is mental in Buddha’s world. Because of this, Buddha’s teachings give humans what science cannot: their consciousness. With mentality as its essence, the world according to Buddha is vastly different from the scientific universe built from energy. 

However, Buddhism and science can be compatible. 

  • Since energy is defined to explain all universal physical phenomena, it can explain Buddha’s phenomena world, even if they are built from a domain of fluctuating mentality. If equations can explain the fluctuating quantum energy field, they should have no problem explaining the fluctuating mental field. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. 
  • It also means the Buddha’s teachings may help explain teachings in quantum mechanics, at least those which are better explained using mentality, such as the central mystery of quantum mechanics discussed. 

Besides their compatibility in the foundational block of the universe doctrine, other abundant examples show the compatibility between Buddhism and science when mentality replaces energy in science. 

Another example is the conservation of energy in science. In Buddhism, however, what is conserved is not energy but mentality in the form of karma, fruition, Causality, etc. Another example is that while science considers energy to be spread throughout the universe, in Buddhism, mentality is also spread throughout the universe. Another convincing example is Buddha’s teaching that “mentality is contrasted with the physical body and materiality.” In science, energy can also fit that description.

Indeed, Einstein, who allegedly said“If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it could be Buddhism,” alone provides three examples discussed in this blog. All three are significant, but the one with the most impact on individuals is that his equation for Special Relativity affirms Buddha’s Causality that “one person’s past may be another’s future” happens across time and space with mentality as the driver. 

However, while the compatibility between Buddhism and science is good, the real breakthrough in understanding Buddhism comes from discovering where the compatibility between Buddhism and science begins. With the help of a Nobel Prize-winning quantum scientist, one understands that they are compatible beginning from what quantum mechanics calls epiphenomenon. An epiphenomenon is the tiniest constituent in quantum mechanics for building the universe. It is so tiny that other scientists call an epiphenomenon a virtual particle. 

With that critical connection made, one finds that many of Buddha’s teachings resonate in great detail with the quantum field, considered the building block of the universe. Furthermore, epiphenomena makes it possible to understand most of Buddha’s core teachings, such as consciousness, the observer/observed duality, karma, etc., originate in the quantum realm. In teaching them, Buddha answered the mystery that scientists call the central mystery of quantum mechanics and other long-unsolved problems in science. 

Indeed, given that they are compatible at the most fundamental level of reality, Buddhism may be considered the mental version of quantum mechanics. For sure, Buddhism is just as mind-bogglingly weird as quantum mechanics to many! 

So, one naturally wonders, “Why can scientists not discover mentality while Buddha understood it more than 2600 years ago, even without the scientific method? ” 

 To answer this core of the core question, we explore epistemology. A new understanding of Buddha’s unique teaching of epistemology is the second topic that makes it possible to have a breakthrough understanding of Buddhism. With the help of a world-renowned historian and philosopher, we explore the relationship between the means of knowledge and the quality of knowledge thus gained. We detail the steps humans use to interact with nature to gain knowledge through inferentially connected word-based methodology and why it is insufficient to learn about mentality. In the words of the renowned philosopher, using inferentially connected words allows humans to “know pretty much about the self we experience, the world we experience, the world we find ourselves living in.” “We got it right. We got it right according to our standards, no other standards.”

Science is no different. By exclusively using inferentially connected word-based methodology as their only means of investigating nature, scientists’ use of the scientific method got it right according to human scientific standards but no other standards. However, scientists need empirical facts to get it right according to nature. 

From there, we discuss Buddha’s two means of knowledge to understand two realities humans face. Buddha agrees that inferentially connected words allow humans to know the phenomenal world. However, only direct perception can enable humans to realize the empirical facts of nature as-is and understand “how things stand in themselves.” “How things stand in themselves belongs to the realm of mentality, not the phenomenal one.

What Buddha learned from direction perception can be found in Buddhist sutras. In addition to the Ultimate Reality and the foundational block of the universe, Buddha’s empirical knowledge includes how the universe naturally appears from the fluctuating mentality when the right conditions exist. His other empirical knowledge that will be discussed includes Buddhism’s equivalence of epiphenomena and the Higgs Boson, including a particle classification scheme as precisely as the Standard Model of Particle Physics, but without the theory, the expansion of the universe, etc. At the same time, we will discuss how Buddha solves the problem deemed “the worst theoretical prediction in the history of physics” and other long-unsolved scientific and philosophical mysteries. Of course, discussions will be made regarding Buddha’s soteriological mission. In addition, we will discuss the importance of epiphenomena in Buddhism because most of Buddha’s fundamental teachings, such as consciousness, mind-body duality, the Observer Effect, Karma, delusion, and suffering, all debut on it. 

Indeed, in teaching reality, Buddha solves many long-unsolved scientific problems, such as “Why a Mind-Body Problem?” “Why is Consciousness so Mysterious?” “Is Consciousness Ultimate Reality?” Why the Cosmological Constant Problem? What was there before the universeWhat holds the key to a full understanding of nature? Why the Observer Effect

Buddha’s unique epistemology sets Buddhism apart from all the other “isms” in the world. However, Buddha teaches that the ability to perceive nature directly is not limited to him alone. All humans have the potential to do so. In other words, all humans can be enlightened as Buddha did. It is not easy, but the potential is within.

So, what is reality? What are you made of?

If you believe exclusively in science, you are energy, numbers in equations, and quantitative in nature.

If you believe in Buddhism, you can have your consciousness and be numbers in equations. 

Ultimately, however, Buddha wants you to understand the world is just not what you imagined! In an imaginary world that requires consciousness to exist, fighting for power, wealth, status, etc., is senseless. Don’t be greedy or crave more than you deserve. Enjoy life, relax, live harmoniously, be content and altruistic – that’s what Buddha advises. 

But, it is good to have both Buddhism and science because together, they help us understand reality fully. 

Most importantly, in this age when AI begins to enter the mainstream, and AI leaders are already calling for regulations “to prevent AI (from) destroying humanity,” is it not high time for humanity to seriously consider the mental nature of everything? How much higher would the risks be from AI if machines that learn are sentient?

If you are interested in Buddhism or just curious, please join me on this journey of discovery in Buddhism. Not only is Buddhism the unique teaching in the world, but it will also help you live a calm, contented, and peaceful life and become a better person at the same time. On the other hand, if you do not have faith in Buddhism or are a doubtful Buddhist, I invite you to join me and see if your opinion changes with the help of science and epistemology. Those already familiar with Buddhism are also invited to join, as you may find many previously hard-to-understand concepts clarified or reinterpreted with the help of science and epistemology. If you are religious, please understand that Buddhism and religious teachings share many similarities. Their significant difference is that there is no anthropomorphic creator in Buddhism. 

If you are not scientific, please do not worry, as I am not a scientist either. Except for some basic concepts, the difference between the waving and non-waving fields is about as profound as we need to go scientifically. Moreover, there will be no mathematics. If you are new to Buddhism, do not be concerned either, as all Buddhist concepts will be clearly defined with the help of Buddhist dictionaries.