Are these two words synonymous? Is everything that exists, real? Is everything real, an existent? What is a proper relationship between the words "real" and "exists" in the context of Buddhist doctrine? What is a proper definition of "real" and of "exists" in the context of Buddhist doctrine?

Are dreams real? Do they exist? Are illusions real? Do they exist? Are chairs real? Do they exist? Are persons real? Do they exist? Is the son of a barren woman real? Do they exist? Is there anything that is real, but does not exist?

What do we really mean when we say something is real? Pun intended.

  • This question appears to me to be a reference to some aspect (or translation) of a Mahayana doctrine which some people would be already familiar with (perhaps see Posts containing 'existent' for example).
    – ChrisW
    Apr 4, 2021 at 8:23
  • 1
    I think the word used in the sutta which is closest to "real" is often ''true''. Eg the four noble truths can be expressed as the reality of suffering, the reality of it's conditioning, the reality of it's cessation and the reality of the path leading to the cessation.
    – user8527
    Apr 4, 2021 at 10:18

7 Answers 7


In the conventional truth, mirages exist and are real as a mirage but not real as water. Dreams exist and are real as dream but not as a play in a theater.

So there is nothing which can be said conventionally existing but unreal because it is real in that way it is called to exist.

Conventionally existent Buddhas alleviate the conventionally existing suffering of conventionally existent sentient beings.

The suffering sentient beings are conventionally existent and are also conventionally real.

Conventionally existent Buddhas however don't alleviate the conventionally unreal and nonexistent suffering of the son of a barren woman.

I think this answer by @Tenzin Dorje to a related question may be relevant too.

  • This is great and @Tenzin Dorje's answer is stupendous. I believe my answer is totally in accord with both, but if it is not then it's my fault.
    – user13375
    Apr 5, 2021 at 18:12
  • Hmm, Epic, I wonder about the third sentence though. I think it is in disagreement with the knowledge of the world. IOW, it is quite common and conventional to say that dreams are unreal. To tell your child not to worry because the movie isn't real, etc.
    – user13375
    Apr 6, 2021 at 0:22

There are 2 objects of knowing...

  1. Reality (yathabhūta) - the existent without imagination.

  2. Imagination (sammati,smaññā) - the conception which appearing only while imagining.

We are knowing both switching rapidly. Trillion times of mind moment in a second, there are many moment knowing realities and many moment imagining imaginations switching rapidly. We see many realities such as colors, voices, smells, tastes, tempture or hardness or motion, then we imagine "this is piece", "this is loaf", "This many loaf is body", "this body is me", etc.

Reality can be exist without imagination, but imagination never exist and never arise, only concept.

There are 2 realities...

  1. Saṅkhata - causes & their effect which constructing, conditioning each others to arise and to vanish. This is exist only when it arising. See SN. SaṅkhataLakkhaṇaSutta. It is exist only when arising, but it is real in every right recalling.

  2. Asaṅkhata- Nibbāna, the opposite of Saṅkhata. This is exist forever, but it is neither arising nor vanishing because it is the opposite of Saṅkhata.

Ther are 3 existents...

  1. real existent - Saṅkhata and Asaṅkhata.

  2. right imagined existent - the imagination which imagined by any mind without wrong-view-clinging about the reality which really possible to arise and to vanish (saṅkhāra) or to be (nibbāna).

  3. wrong imagined existent - the imagination which imagined by wrong-view-clinging about the misunderstood of reality, wrong causes and wrong effects in of trillions times arising in a second moment. For the example, when we are reading this answer, we read it by wholesome, unwholesome, resultant, and neither-wholesome-nor-unwholesome-minds switching rapidly. There also are many trillions of object pass trough the senses as well. However, we imagine they are only a wholesome mind, only an object, only me, one body from birth, etc. This is imagination.

There are deeply uncountable detail of the truth. This is why the concentration meditation is still important in Tipitaka, although the insight meditation is the way to see the truth. The deeply and variant detail makes the insight meditation hard to control without the concentration meditation for the practitioner who has low skill of 10 perfections (Pāramī).


Whether we can differentiate the word exist from real is only for the mind's playground, and that is the key word: the mind is that which creates the idea of existing and the idea of what is real from its concept of itself as the body looking out into the concept of the world. It's like an illusion looking back onto itself for a remedy to that illusion only to delve deeper into its own illusion. In simple terms those words (real & exist) are placeholders for consciousness to find a convenient footing which turns out to be a cyclic, neurotic and fruitless endeavour. Those consciousness-based things rise and fall, almost as if converging within a narrow aperture of time we call now and then confining itself to the annals of our memories. What about that now part? Could that be real? Could that exist? Not at all. Anything that passes through that now-ness has already fallen away.

Therefore, the words real and exist might be better understood as avijjā or ignorance. This is not to say that there is nothing, but that the six-sense consciousnesses are not the resting place for wisdom-understanding - rather, the six-sense consciousnesses have form-becoming as their self-governing impetus.

To a Puthujjana or a struggling noble one, this can easily be mistaken as a solipsistic view. You can read my answer here about why suffering is still acknowledge by an enlightened mind thus refuting the ideas of solipsism.

Back to the answer, there's a great book called Mae Chee Kaew and in that book is a section you might like about how she suddenly comes to understand that what her mind created only appeared to be real, only appeared to exist. See if the wisdom here calls out to you.

Spontaneous Awarenes - Page 184

Mae Chee Kaew’s meditation had reached a decisive phase in body contemplation, a turning point in which the root-cause of the mind’s attachment to bodily form was seen in stark clarity. As instinctive feelings of revulsion reunited with their primary cause, a profound realization suddenly occurred: the mind itself produced feelings of revulsion and attraction; the mind alone created perceptions of ugliness and beauty.

Those qualities did not actually exist in the objects of perception. The mind projected those attributes onto the images it perceived, and then deceived itself into believing that the objects themselves were beautiful and attractive, or ugly and repulsive.

In truth, the flow of consciousness was consistently steeped in a proliferation of mental imagery and attending emotion. Her mind painted elaborate pictures all the time — pictures of herself and pictures of the external world. It then fell for its own mental imagery, believing it to be substantially real.

At that stage, the infinite, space-like awareness of mind essence and the particularity of conscious perception were operating simultaneously.

Gradually the illusion of cohesive mental images began to break down as well. Within the flowing current of consciousness, myriad amorphous forms and fragmentary shapes arose, coalesced into images, and then broke apart immediately, only to regroup and disband time and time again. No sooner did an image of the body appear than it vanished instantly.

Before a particular desire or expression could fully formulate, the source of awareness simply enveloped it, causing it to dissolve into emptiness and disappear. Countless potential ways in which body and mind could express themselves seemed to arise in random succession, only to dissolve into emptiness, one after another.

Habitual concepts of bodily existence expressed a desire to take form and declare their individual characteristics, but the knowing essence dissolved them all before they could establish a definite presence in the mind.

This insight occasioned a momentous revolution of Mae Chee Kaew’s entire being. She understood the truth with absolute certainty: delusion about imagery produced by the flow of consciousness leads to feelings of repulsion and attraction.

She realized that both were rooted in a deeply instinctive, but almost subliminal, distortion of conscious perceptions of body and form. When the real basis of those perceptions was exposed, completely undermining their validity, the external world of appearances collapsed, and her attachment to it ceased of its own accord.

With the cessation of all images created by the mind, came the cessation of attachment to form. Once her mind had withdrawn completely from all sensual involvement, a feeling of profound serenity enveloped her entire mental being.

Finally, for Mae Chee Kaew, bodily images, even as bare forms, no longer existed within her mind’s conscious framework. Since no shapes or forms remained in the mind to be grasped, Mae Chee Kaew knew she could never be reborn in the realms of form again.

The mind’s usual sense of physical limitation and embodiment completely disappeared. She felt her being dissolve, expand outward and merge with all things, as though forming one essence with the universe; resting within, unfettered by any dependency, was a supreme emptiness — clear, bright and still."

Mae Chee Kaew pdf book

(Also an audio version here)

Allowing this radical change to come to the fore does not mean that one must sit on a zafu cushion, although that's helpful. In every waking moment it is possible to realise what is real through a practice called non-objectless awareness taught by Hongzhi Zhengjue but originating from the Buddha. From this practice comes a silent illumination brought about by the relinquishing of form-based consciousnesses and the best part: it can be done anywhere, at anytime and completely impromptu. It is a moving into the unadulterated, all-inclusive field of in the seeing, there is just seeing... without being clouded by concepts, grasping, clinging and duality. The Buddha teaches this to Bahiya thus:

"Herein, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: 'In the seen will be merely what is seen; in the heard will be merely what is heard; in the sensed will be merely what is sensed; in the cognized will be merely what is cognized.' In this way you should train yourself, Bahiya.

"When, Bahiya, for you in the seen is merely what is seen... in the cognized is merely what is cognized, then, Bahiya, you will not be 'with that.' When, Bahiya, you are not 'with that,' then, Bahiya, you will not be 'in that.' When, Bahiya, you are not 'in that,' then, Bahiya, you will be neither here nor beyond nor in between the two. Just this is the end of suffering."

  • "Suffering is real.” Atthi kho, kassapa, dukkhan’ti. SN 12.17 Apr 4, 2021 at 6:36
  • knows & sees things as they really are - yathābhūtaṁ jānāmi passāmī - AN 11.2 Apr 4, 2021 at 6:37
  • what is "cognized" appears to include "concepts". It appears you are stretching the reality of the Bahiya Sutta and making it conform with your Solipsism Apr 4, 2021 at 6:45
  • Thanks. I agree with these suttas, but the teachings are meant to be short and sharp. That is why they are delivered in that way. Constantly linking suttus is not always helpful. One can fall into an endless, maddening Mandala of suttas.
    – user17652
    Apr 4, 2021 at 6:47
  • Hi Neuromax, there is a lot to like in this answer, but it doesn't really give any def. and to my initial reading it appears to use 'real' and 'exists' synonymously which I think is an error. Also interesting you think the refutation of solipsism has to do with the 'real' existence of suffering? Anyway, see my answer if you want an alternative def.
    – user13375
    Apr 5, 2021 at 14:08

The Pali suttas are almost the same as Mahayana agamas in Sanskrit, and so would be on-topic as Mahayana-relevant content.

From DN 17:

See, Ānanda! All those conditioned phenomena have passed, ceased, and perished. So impermanent are conditions, so unstable are conditions, so unreliable are conditions. This is quite enough for you to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed regarding all conditions.

The Buddha was not concerned whether a chair is real or not. He only noted all such conditioned and compounded things as impermanent, unstable and unreliable.

If by "unreal", you mean that a chair is impermanent, unstable, unreliable, conditioned and compounded, then we can say that the chair is unreal.

However, if by "unreal" you mean the chair doesn't exist, then it's not acceptable, because according to MN 1 below, a Buddha (who is fully enlightened and fully understood it to the end) sees earth as earth, water as water, fire as fire etc. He sees things as they are. In other words, they exist, even if only for one moment.

From MN 1:

“Bhikkhus, the Tathāgata, too, accomplished and fully enlightened, directly knows earth as earth. Having directly known earth as earth, he does not conceive himself as earth, he does not conceive himself in earth, he does not conceive himself apart from earth, he does not conceive earth to be ‘mine,’ he does not delight in earth. Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has fully understood it to the end, I say.

“He too directly knows water as water ... Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has fully understood it to the end, I say.

  • I am emphatically not stating that "if by "unreal" you mean the chair doesn't exist, then it's not acceptable." And this is a great answer, but unfortunately I don't think "impermanent, unstable, unreliable, conditioned and compounded" is a very good def. of 'real'
    – user13375
    Apr 5, 2021 at 13:36
  • Also, suttacentral.net/sa273/en/choong has “Monks, these have the nature of birth, ageing, death, ceasing, and rebirth. Monks, all compounded things are as an illusion, a flame, ceasing in an instant; being not real they come (arise) and go (cease)." Emphasis on "being not real" as the specific characteristic in which he is drawing an allusion to an illusion and a flame. A chair is a compounded thing, right? If so, then I'd say this is an example of the Buddha caring enough about whether a chair is real to specifically call it out as not real. :)
    – user13375
    Apr 5, 2021 at 14:13
  • @YesheTenley This is good. According to SA 273 then, compounded things are an illusion because they are impermanent. So, then it's ok if you define "unreal" as "impermanent, unstable, unreliable, conditioned and compounded."
    – ruben2020
    Apr 5, 2021 at 14:16
  • Yes, I think you can define it that way and it is somewhat workable, but I think the Buddha had something more in mind. He used an 'illusion' specifically because it is unreal. And the thing about an illusion is that it does not exist as how it appears. And it is easy for people to see this and understand this. That is what I think 'real' means... something that exists exactly as it appears. And I think the Buddha was specifically drawing out and referring to this characteristic.
    – user13375
    Apr 5, 2021 at 14:19
  • 1
    We are in agreement there. There is no daylight between us on that.
    – user13375
    Apr 5, 2021 at 14:23

This definition isn't the most rigorous I could give, but it is workable - I think - and may help others navigate around the thickets of uncomfortable emotions this question might bring up. Maybe others can help improve these definitions!

Exists: Something which can be known (perceived/conceived) to an awareness.

Real: Something that exists, but is not deceptive in its appearance. ie., it exists exactly how it appears.

So let's go through the questions with these preliminary definitions in mind and see how they fit.

Are these two words synonymous?

Obviously not.

Is everything that exists, real?

Nope! Examples incoming...

Is everything real, an existent?

Yep! If it is real, it must exist.

What is a proper relationship between the words "real" and "exists" in the context of Buddhist doctrine?

Probably the most important thing to know is that if you deny something is real it does not automatically mean you deny that it exists. This is ruling out naive nihilism.

What is a proper definition of "real" and of "exists" in the context of Buddhist doctrine?

Well, I've just given my def. haven't I. NOTE: I'm not claiming these def. are the end all be all of def. nor that they are infallible or somehow the one-true-definitions. But I think they are workable for most contexts and accord with the way normal people speak.

Are dreams real?


Do they exist?


Are illusions real?


Do they exist?


Are chairs real?

From the perspective of the world they sure are. From the perspective of an Arya being. Nope.

Do they exist?

Of course! How absurd would it be for me to say that chairs don't exist. Come on! :)

Are persons real?

Same answer for chairs.

Do they exist?

Same answer for chairs.

Is the son of a barren woman real?

Of course not.

Do they exist?

Please. How can they possibly exist! It is a paradoxically def!

Is there anything that is real, but does not exist?

That's a hard no.

What do we really mean when we say something is real? Pun intended.

Usually people bring all kinds of metaphorical baggage when speaking of 'real' and 'exists' that comes when the ego feels threatened. Often times people will use them synonymous, but when confronted with the obvious absurdities this entails (that dreams are real or alternatively that they somehow don't exist) they'll retreat into highly contrived definitions that also entail obvious absurdities. Others will lament the whole question and insist that the question itself shouldn't be dealt with. Like somehow defining 'real' and 'exists' will lead to madness. Again, that's the ego feeling threatened.

What people really mean when they are really invested in sticking up for the really real existence of things is that their own I is feeling really really threatened and how dare anyone even begin to question the really really really really concrete and clear existence of things.

PS: The above answer was intended to come across as lighthearted and humorous. If it doesn't read that way, then it is only due to the poor communicational ability of the author of the answer.


I think the question is concerning 'Conventional truth' because in the ultimate truth existence and reality have no meaning. However, in the Conventional truth, all conventionally existing things are also real and there are no unreal conventionally existing things.

  1. Conventional truth that which is conventionally real and existing
  2. Conventional falsehood that which is conventionally unreal and non-existing

A mirage is conventionally 'real and existing' as light rays bend via refraction, but the water perceived in the mirage is not conventionally 'real and existing'.

A dream is also conventionally 'real and existing' as a work of the mind, but the death of your partner in a car accident in your dream is not conventionally 'real and existing.

So if someone says 'I had a dream like MLK, and someone else says 'Dreams are not real' what he/she is saying is that the story in the dream is not conventionally real, they are not claiming that MLK didn't dream. Because dreams as a phenomenon of the mind are conventionally 'real and existing'.

  • I wonder about this, "all conventionally existing things are also real" ... this seems to me to be in contradiction or opposed to the way normal people speak. As you note, people say 'Dreams are not real' in everyday language of the world. People also say dreams exist in everyday language of the world. The 'death of your partner in a dream' doesn't exist? Then how do you perceive something that is non existent as opposed to say the son of a barren woman?
    – user13375
    Apr 6, 2021 at 13:58
  • Well, the dream is real and it exists for the dreaming mind, but once your friend is awake then it is correct to say that what he dreamed (i.e the death of his partner) doesn't exist because at that moment it doesn't exist to any mind.
    – Chu
    Apr 6, 2021 at 18:10
  • It's akin to someone with an impaired eye who sees a floating object, for him these floating objects are real and existing but once his sight is repaired, then the objects are not real and also don't exist. It would be very strange to say to the sick man the things he sees are not real but do exist because for his mind they are real and existing.
    – Chu
    Apr 6, 2021 at 18:15
  • All the above is of course "conventionally!"
    – Chu
    Apr 6, 2021 at 18:17

A way to think about this is that in the context of the doctrine of self then the Buddha is real but we won't be able to pin down the Buddha as a truth or reality and it is therefore a false doctrine precisely because we can't pin a Buddha down as a truth or reality.

What do you think, Anuradha: Is form constant or inconstant?"

"Inconstant, lord."

"And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?"

"Stressful, lord."

"And is it proper to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: 'This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am'?"

"No, lord."

"Is feeling constant or inconstant?"

"Inconstant, lord."...

"Is perception constant or inconstant?"

"Inconstant, lord."...

"Are fabrications constant or inconstant?"

"Inconstant, lord."...

"Is consciousness constant or inconstant?

"Inconstant, lord."

"And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?"

"Stressful, lord."

"And is it proper to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: 'This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am'?"

"No, lord."

"What do you think, Anuradha: Do you regard form as the Tathagata?"

"No, lord."

"Do you regard feeling as the Tathagata?"

"No, lord."

"Do you regard perception as the Tathagata?"

"No, lord."

"Do you regard fabrications as the Tathagata?"

"No, lord."

"Do you regard consciousness as the Tathagata?"

"No, lord."

"What do you think, Anuradha: Do you regard the Tathagata as being in form?... Elsewhere than form?... In feeling?... Elsewhere than feeling?... In perception?... Elsewhere than perception?... In fabrications?... Elsewhere than fabrications?... In consciousness?... Elsewhere than consciousness?"

"No, lord."

"What do you think: Do you regard the Tathagata as form-feeling-perception-fabrications-consciousness?"

"No, lord."

"Do you regard the Tathagata as that which is without form, without feeling, without perception, without fabrications, without consciousness?"

"No, lord."

"And so, Anuradha — when you can't pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life — is it proper for you to declare, 'Friends, the Tathagata — the supreme man, the superlative man, attainer of the superlative attainment — being described, is described otherwise than with these four positions: The Tathagata exists after death, does not exist after death, both does & does not exist after death, neither exists nor does not exist after death'?"

"No, lord."

"Very good, Anuradha. Very good. Both formerly & now, it is only stress that I describe, and the cessation of stress."

This is opposed to the truth & reality of the inferable elements which are experimentally verifiable.


  • we know that eye is by itself not seeing but there is no seeing without an eye
  • we know that visible medium is by itself not seeing but there is no seeing without the seen (ie a person can not see if there is no light.
  • we know that consciousness is not seeing but there is no seeing without consciousness, an unconscious person doesn't see even if you shine light in that eye

Only when there is a meeting of the eye, that which is visible to the eye and eye consciousness is there seeing, therefore contact is real and pinned as a true statement about that which we are thinking about.

Bhikkhus, there are these four kinds of clinging. What four? Clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self.

One who clings to this doctrine comes to ask questions like does the Buddha exist after death and etc

  • Just wonderful.
    – user13375
    Apr 6, 2021 at 14:27
  • I think so too, the anuradha sutta is one of the most awesome pieces of information in existence.
    – user8527
    Apr 6, 2021 at 14:47
  • like marvel heroes exist in dependence on the context of the doctrine of the marvel universe but are unpinnable as a truth & reality and if someone went looking for xmen in their backyard it would be a case for a psychiatrist
    – user8527
    Apr 6, 2021 at 16:37

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