Appearance and Reality






Is that, all things seemingly exist dependently to us, reality? Is that real whatever appears to us through our sense-experiences? Is there a real world out there? Are we people living in a vast dream from where we can never wake up unless the enlightened Yogis?

Appearance and reality are the one of the main question of philosophy, some would say the main question, is: how do you know? This doesn’t mean how do you come to know to be sure?  But what entitles you to be sure?  We may have come to be sure by having the statement repeated to us countless times since early childhood, but that doesn’t entitle us to be sure of it.


Main topic


One of the most basic beliefs we all have is that there is a world out there, a world of soil and mountains and trees and lovely oceans and buildings and stars.  How could one possibly doubt this? After all, we see these things constantly, don’t we?  Can there be any doubt that they exist? Not only we do believe that they exist, but we believe they have certain characteristics, or properties, we believe that here before us is a real book: it is made of paper; it has print on it; it contains cover; the pages are white and the print is black –and so on. No matter how often we check, our senses seem to tell us the same thing. There it is—we can see and touch it and take a picture of it as well. We also believe it has a certain shape (approximately rectangular) and is gray in color, and that it retains this shape and color until something happens to change it. The truth of all doubt if? Isn’t the truth of these beliefs so obvious that it’s a waste of time to doubt them or even discuss the possibility of their being mistaken? What is there in all this that could possibly create a problem?


We have already had some indications that the perceptual process is not perfect. We all know, or think we know, that there are times when our senses lead us to make incorrect judgments; things aren’t always the way they appear. Thus much we know.


First of all, there are illusions. For example, (1) the trees on the distant hillside look grayish-blue, yet we believe they are green. (2) The stick looks bent when it is half immersed in water, when we pull the stick out it looks straight, but when we pull it out it looks straight, but when we put it back in the water it looks bent again, yet we are quite sure that it remains straight like that all the time, and that the bent appearance is an illusion. (3) The whistle of the train sounds higher in pitch as the train approaches and lower in pitch as the train recedes, yet we believe that the pitch is the same throughout.  (4) You place on hand in hot water, the other hand in cold water, and then you place both hands in a vessel of lukewarm water. The lukewarm water feels cold to the one hand, warm to the other, yet we believe the water is lukewarm all the time, it is just seems hot or cold.  (5) The stars look very small as we look up at the night sky; in fact they seem to be little points of light; yet, we are told by the scientists that they are enormous spheres of gas like the sun, often much larger than the sun- but they certainly don’t look that way.


When we believe that something appears looks, sounds, smells, tastes, feels to have one quality but actually has a different quality, we are misled by perceptual illusions. We encounter many of these every day.

In daily life, we say that a thing has the quality it appears to have under certain conditions. We say the curtains in the room are blue; they look blue now, with the sunshine coming in through the windows. In artificial light they may look black. And in the dark they surely look black, as everything else does in the dark. Yet we don’t say that at night everything-the curtains, the chairs and tables, and so forth-have all become black. We say the curtains are blue all the time even though they look black in the dark. We take the way they look in sunlight to be the color they “really have.” Is this because sunlight is the condition in which we see them most of the time? No, sometimes it isn’t as we can imagine.


A black dress and a dark blue dress may both look black in artificial light, but in sunlight we can tell the difference. We want to be able to describe that difference, which we all perceive, and so we take that as the standard condition. Thus we say “it’s really dark blue, but it looks black under artificial light,” and we do not say “it’s really black, but only looks dark blue in the sunlight.”


Have you ever thought like this, imagine an old-fashioned telephone exchange, all he the operator knows of the people placing or receiving the calls is the voices he hears through the wires. He never sees the customers themselves; he only hears the voices as they are transmitted via the telephone to his end of the wires. In the same way, all we know of an external world is what comes in via the optic nerve, the auditory never, and so forth-the impressions of sight and sound and so on which we get after the nerves and brain have received the appropriate stimulus from the outside world. Each perceiver is like the operator of the telephone exchange whose knowledge of the customers is limited to the sound of their voices as conveyed along the wire. The situation is dramatically described by the late-nineteenth century philosopher Karl Pearson:


How close then can we actually get to this supposed world outside ourselves? Just as near but no nearer than the brain terminals of the sensory nerves. We are like the clerk in the central telephone exchange who cannot get nearer to his customers than his end of the telephone wires. We are indeed worse off than the clerk, for carry out the analogy properly we must suppose him never to have been outside the telephone exchange, never to have seen s customer or any one like a customer-in short, never, except through the telephone wire, to have come in contact with the outside universe. Of that “real” universe outside himself he would be able to form no direct impression; the real universe for him would be the aggregate of his constructs from the messages which were cause by the telephone wires in his office. About those messages and the ideas raised in his mink by them he might reason and draw his inferences; and his conclusions would be correct-for what? For the world of telephonic messages, for the type of messages that go through the telephone. Something definite and valuable he night know with regard to the spheres of action and of thought of his telephonic subscribers, but outside those spheres he could have no experience. Pent up in his office he could never have seen or touched even a telephonic subscriber in himself. Very much in the position of such a telephone clerk is the conscious ego of each one of us seated at the brain terminals of the sensory nerves. Not a step nearer than those terminals can the ego get to the “out world,” and what in and for themselves are the subscribers to its nerve exchange it has no means of ascertaining. Messages in the form of sense-impressions come flowing in from that “outside world,” and these we analyze, classify, store up, and reason about. But of the nature of “things-in-themselves,” of what may exist at the other end of out system of telephone wires, we know nothing at all.[1]


In this theory, the sense organs, nerves, and brain are the connecting links between the physical objects outside and the sense-experiences that occur after the brain has been stimulated by way of the sense organs. But brain, sense organs, and nerves are just as much physical objects as are table, trees, and rocks. If we are acquainted with them, then they must be sense-experiences also. But a sense-experience can hardly be the connecting link between physical objects and sense-experiences. On the other hand, if we are not acquainted with them, how can we know that the sense-organs, nerves, and brains exist?

So, is there a real solid world outside our mind?  How do you think about it? What is the reason behind it?  Answering this question, they are many distinct philosophies and perspectives distinctively interpreted as we can see from Buddhist viewpoint as well.


Yogacara  charges that, we recognize, of course, that “mental representation seem to be correlated with external (non-mental )objects; but this may be no different from situation in which people with vision disorder ‘see’ hairs, moons, and other things that are ‘not there'”[2]


When they are refuted by saying if there is perception and consciousness without any corresponding external object, any idea could arise at any time or in any place, different minds could contain ideas of different objects at the same time and place, and object could function in unexpected ways?


in other words, (1) if the perception of an object arises without any object existing external to the mind, why is it that it arises only in certain places and not everywhere; and even in those places, why is it that it arises only sometimes and not all the time? (2) And why is it that it arises in the minds of all who are present at that particular time and in that particular place and not just in the mind of one, just as the appearance of hair, bees, etc., seen by those suffering from an optical disorder do not perform the function of hair, bees, etc., while the hair, bees, etc., seen by those not so afflicted do perform the functions of hair, etc.? Food, drink, clothes, poison, weapons, etc., that are seen in a dream don’ t perform the functions of food, drink, etc., while food, drink, etc., experienced in the waking state do perform them. An illusory town does not perform the functions of a town because of its non-existence, while an existing town does perform such functions. If external objects do not exist, these facts of experiences cannot be accounted for[3].


Yogacara thus replies: “Even in dreams, certain ideas arise only in certain places and at certain time.” That is, in a dream, even without external objects of consciousness, only certain things are seen – for example, bees, gardens, women, men, etc. – and these only in certain places and not everywhere. And even there in those places, they are to be seen only sometimes and not all the time. In this way, even without an external object of perception or thought, a particular idea may arise only in certain places at certain times.[4]


For this criterion, critics refuting by saying that there is a significant difference between waking states and dream states. Everybody recognize that object experienced in dreams aren’t real but rather constructed. But this is not recognized with regard to objects experienced in waking states…


Yogacara thus replies: This is argument won’t sustain your position because “someone who isn’t awake doesn’t recognize the unreality of objects experienced in a dream.” Only he who has awakened from a dream is able to “see through” the objects experienced while he was dreaming. In the same way, only those who have achieved enlightenment are able to discern the unreality of the world presented in what is commonly taken to be [but which really is not] the waking state. Thus, the dream experience and the so-called waking experience are similar [in that they are both superseded by a “higher consciousness”].[5]





We therefore can’t cease to doubt about whether are all these things appeared to us through our human six organs are reality or are they otherwise? What about the reality? Are they really existing just like they appear to us?

Is it all a dream?  Yes, says perceptual skeptics. Go on asserting by saying can’t we be dreaming all the time? How do we know that your whole life isn’t one vast dream? Maybe there isn’t a world out there at all, and you’re just dreaming the whole thing. You are now writing an assignment; but perhaps that too is part of your dream. In your dreams you dream of things that never existed anywhere; and if your whole life is a dream, then it’s all a series of dream-experiences, and perhaps there is no real physical world ‘out there’ at all.







Karl Pearson, The Grammar of Science (oxford: Everyman Library, 1892), pp. 57-58.


Vasubandhu, Twenty verses on consciousness-only,(Vimsatika-Karika) p 169





[1]  Karl Pearson, The Grammar of Science (oxford: Everyman Library, 1892), pp. 57-58.


[2]  འདི་ནི་རྣམ་པར་རིག་ཙམ་ཉིད།། ཡོད་པ་མ་ཡིན་དོན་སྣང་ཕྱིར།།  དཔེར་ན་རབ་རིབ་ཅན་དག་གིས།།  སྐྲ་ཟླ་ལ་སོགས་མེད་མཐོང་བཞིན།།  Vasubandhu, Twenty verses on consciousness-only,(Vimsatika-Karika) p 169


[3]  གལ་ཏེ་རྣམ་རིག་དོན་མིན་ན།།  ཡུལ་དང་དུས་ལ་ངེས་མེད་ཅིང་།།   སེམས་ཀྱང་ངེས་མེད་མ་ཡིན་ལ།།  བྱ་བ་བྱེད་པའང་མི་རིགས་འགྱུར།།  Vasubandhu, Twenty verses on consciousness-only,(Vimsatika-Karika) p 169



[4]  ཡུལ་ས་སོགས་པ་ངེས་འགྲུབ་སྟེ།།  རྨི་འདྲའོ་སེམས་ཀྱང་ངེས་པ་མེད།།  ཡི་དྭགས་བཞིན་ཏེ་ཐམས་ཅད་ཀྱིས།།  ཀླུང་ལ་རྣག་ལ་སོགས་མཐོང་བཞིན།།  Vasubandhu, Twenty verses on consciousness-only,(Vimsatika-Karika) p 169



[5]   དཔེར་ན་དེར་སྣང་རྣམ་རིག་བཞིན།།  བཤད་ཟིན་དེ་ལས་དྲན་པར་ཟད།།  རྨི་ལམ་མཐོང་བ་ཡུལ་མེད་པར།།  མ་སད་བར་དུ་རྟོགས་མ་ཡིན།།   Vasubandhu, Twenty verses on consciousness-only,(Vimsatika-Karika) p 169


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