According to I think all Buddhists, the whole is nothing more than its parts. I've read it claimed that, given everything is partite, nothing exists. Perhaps Being means something more than its parts, though I'm not sure. Anyway, do we perceive - with or as the skandhas - something as a thing that is more than its parts? Such as a chariot.

I think that would mean that things that don't exist can sometimes be the object of perception. In turn, that interests me because beings without any existence may - perhaps - be in some sense permanent and non-empty, as well as impermanent and empty.

The implications for karma seem obvious.

Update: it definitely seems that Theravada Buddhists claim that we only infer the whole, and do not perceive it. I'm unsure about the Mahayana, especially given how often "the whole universe" crops up in discussing the bodhisattva. So, if I may ask two follow up points:

  1. is the inference to a whole like something: so that the whole in some sense belongs to our mental life?
  2. what about in the Mahayana?
  • ps i will add a bounty when i can
    – user2512
    Sep 9, 2020 at 3:54

3 Answers 3


We do not need to see the whole to recognise what it is. Perception of parts of car or chariot is sufficient to establish it is car or chariot. Similarly parts of face features are enough for us to conclude who is. We do not necessarily perceive the whole. Yes we can hold perception of things which were but are no more.

  • sounds about right, with the implication we do not perceive the whole, as we don't need to... at least in theravada. however, some references would be ideal
    – user2512
    Sep 9, 2020 at 3:53

Perception is interpretation. Interpretation is inference. When we perceive the chariot we infer it from its signs, then project that inference back on the basis (the parts and the context).

This projection is the source of trouble (dukkha) because we ignorantly tend to attribute our own, often incorrect, interpretations, biases, and assumptions to the basis of inference.

The understanding that all entities without exception are inference and that in reality entities are not delineated (and lack fixed identities) is a big part of realization of Emptiness.

  • i more or less agree, thanks
    – user2512
    Sep 9, 2020 at 12:02
  • As one perceives so he thinks, speaks... perceiving and interpreting are two different mental spectrums and because mind is slippery, hardly to grasp, the Buddha didn't encouraged not instructed, trained, to develop householder-emptiness... Sep 9, 2020 at 14:46

The “whole” is neither the sum of parts, nor a unity. From the perspective of relative knowledge it would more correctly be stated to be multiplicity found in unity, but as soon as you start conceiving a thing called “unity” you are lost. This is philosophical.

From the perspective of absolute truth, there is nothing that can be accurately said—language is incapable of encompassing the absolute. Poetry helps a little though.

From the perspective of how we perceive, clearly our senses deliver a continuous (for the most part) stream of nerve impulses to the brain. Science asserts that then, once those impulses reach the brain, it and its constituent, “consciousness,” creates the experience of colorful light, sounds, sensations of touch and stretch, smells, and tastes, and somehow the brain organizes that into intelligible experiences—clearly an interpretation of what is arriving at any time. At the present time, however, this process is just asserted, and not shown, by scientists, who are constrained by their adherence to a certain understanding of reality, at any given time.

A better way to understand what is happening—a more Buddhist way—is to see all of those nerve impulses reaching various areas of the brain as the conditions for the manifestation in mind (mind and brain not being equivalent) of the various perceptions that flood over us throughout our waking moments. In this way, karma, and character, and even mood, as well as the body of our current state of understanding (our ‘knowledge’) have a place in the conditioning of what arises in mind. This way of understanding what is happening better fits both our wakeful experiences and our dreams while sleeping, or being ‘unconscious’.

In the end, mind is the only source of manifested experiences. So what do we perceive—the whole? The “whole” of what exactly? Our imaginary entities and their ‘wholes’ and ‘parts’?

Thus, direct meditative knowledge of the wisdom mind is the goal of mind-training, just as having a “ripped body” is the goal of weight-training. Wholes and parts are just concepts, as are what they describe, and these are like the wind: they arrive and create chaos in our mind, blowing concepts around like leaves, and then suddenly, they disappear once one has trained their mind to chill out and pay attention to what is truly happening.

You must log in to answer this question.