No one can deny that a rainbow is as real as the term can be defined in any meaningful way.

You can point to it so that others can see it and you can even photograph it.

If a rainbow was a mind created phenomenon, then a camera, which has no mind or consciousness, would not be able to photograph it.

Yet, if you got into a helicopter and traveled into the rainbow, all you would find would be atmosphere, moisture and sunlight, i.e. the elements of the rainbow. You would no longer perceive the rainbow itself.

Yet, someone further away would see both the rainbow and the helicopter you were in, so even though you no longer perceived the rainbow because of your proximity at such close scale it would not mean that the rainbow ceased to exist or that it was never existent in the first place.

Similarly, a meditator might perceive a dissolution of the self into its constituent elements and thus conclude that the self does not truly exist, yet it wouldn't mean that it actually did not exist, only that the meditator's awareness of it had ceased.

As a comparison, if one is asleep and dreaming, one loses awareness of the body and the external world, yet both still exist for others, one of whom could wake up a sleeping person and return them to the world and body they had become unaware of.

Thus, only awareness would have ceased, not the objects of awareness.

Is the affirmation of a self somehow analogical to the affirmation of a rainbow ,is it just as real and not-real in that sense?

  • Hi @slowburn, please rephrase the body of the question to have an explicit inquiry you'd like to be answered, not just your own analysis. The question can be reopened after you do that.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Jun 30, 2021 at 13:24
  • @Andrei Not necessary. It's already been answered to my satisfaction.
    – SlowBurn
    Jun 30, 2021 at 13:30
  • @SlowBurn i will mend the body for you to include an explicit line of inquiry you'd like to be answered.
    – user8527
    Jun 30, 2021 at 15:28
  • @SlowBurn, that's your prerogative. FYI this is a Q&A site and not a discussion forum, in the future please use it appropriately. If you have doubts about the permitted tone and verbosity, amount of dialogue, comments etc feel free to ping one of the moderators.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Jun 30, 2021 at 15:31
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ruben2020
    Jun 30, 2021 at 18:49

7 Answers 7


OP: "No one can deny that a rainbow is as real as the term can be defined in any meaningful way."

In fact, I can define 'real' as follows:

real (adjective): actually existing in just the same way it appears to exist

In this sense, then neither the self nor the rainbow can be considered real. In the case of the rainbow, it appears to exist as a shimmering/solid object in the sky. It actually exists as an interplay of reflection/refraction of light with water moisture in the sky. Thus, a rainbow is not real.

Similarly, it can be said that the 'self' is not real as it appears to truly exist in a substantial and independent way, but it utterly does not. Thus, the self is not real.

This definition can be found in the "Explanation of the Presentation of Objects and Object-Possessors as well as Awarenesses and Knowers" by Pur-bu-chok and is the definition used in the the Tibetan Gelugpa tradition of Buddhism.

OP: "Is the Buddhist conception of a self similar to that of a rainbow or not?"

It can be said given the above definition that both are not real. However, the same can be said of (nearly) all things. That is, phenomenal things in this world appear to have true existence, but they utterly do not.

This is why it is said in the Diamond Cutter sutra:

“As a star, a visual aberration, a lamp, an illusion, dew, a bubble, a dream, lightning, and a cloud – view all the compounded like that.”

And as it says in the Lump of Foam sutta:

“Form is like a lump of foam; feeling is like a bubble; perception seems like a mirage; choices like a banana tree; and consciousness like a magic trick: so taught the Kinsman of the Sun."

  • I never asserted that the rainbow existed independently or that the self or anything else exists independently either. Our bodies don't exist independently of its atoms or the external environment which supports and sustains it, but I wouldn't then conclude that it wasn't real merely because it lacked independent existence or was composed of constituent parts as you are claiming.
    – SlowBurn
    Jun 29, 2021 at 23:56
  • According to my definition of real you can clearly see that they are unreal. Of course, you may have another definition, but that's on you to provide what that definition is.
    – user13375
    Jun 29, 2021 at 23:57
  • A rocket is composed of compounded things as is the fuel which propels it to the moon which is also composed of compounded things. I wouldn't deny any of it as real. If a lump of foam, a banana tree or a rainbow isn't real, then what is real in your opinion? If consciousness is a magic trick and perception a mirage, then why would you trust those senses when they convey the teachings of the Buddha?
    – SlowBurn
    Jun 30, 2021 at 0:00
  • 1
    Excellent question was closed. Please look at DN9. It discusses self and perception. suttacentral.net/dn9/en/sujato
    – OyaMist
    Jun 30, 2021 at 13:46
  • 1
    @OyaMist I'm sure Andrei believes his actions are for the greater good. Rules are rules. Thanks for your reference and I will check it out!
    – SlowBurn
    Jun 30, 2021 at 13:53

Excellent question, and the analogy is very appropriate in a Buddhist context. I would point to instructions that one receives for meditation practices, to meditate on the meditator (in different ways). The objective is to see the ‘self’ that we habitually cling to, as you have described seeing a rainbow up close. When we, as you say, fly up to it in a helicopter (meditation practice ☺️) we can no longer see it. And yet, until we reach a certain stage in our meditation practice, that self causes all sorts of mayhem. You can see what I mean exhibited all around us, even here.

So is the self as real as a rainbow? Hearing your intent in asking your question, rather than focusing on word definitions and imposing idiosyncratic or otherwise scholarly meanings on them, I would say, yes, the self is as real as a rainbow. And I would add that while a rainbow is real, flying into one won’t kill you, whereas, getting hit by a bus will.

And yet, both the rainbow and the bus, when analyzed, lack a permanent and intrinsic self existence. Emaho ☺️enter image description here

  • I was going to write a response for you, but this topic has been closed. Kudos for your nice picture!
    – SlowBurn
    Jun 30, 2021 at 13:41
  • 1
    Well, I've voted to reopen the question. Perhaps others will as well. The only clarity issues are not in your question, nor your explanation of your question, using your analogy of a rainbow. I hope that a sincere question will be met in the spirit of open inquiry. Jun 30, 2021 at 14:07
  • "focusing on word definitions and imposing idiosyncratic or otherwise scholarly meanings on them" ... if this was directed at my answer I'd just note that the def. I wrote is not meant as scholarly or idiosyncratic. Rather, it is meant as the same usage that the Shariputra used in SN 22.85 when it was said the Tathagata was not to be regarded as real and actual. It is a very easy to understand def. and fits with the everyday language of the world.
    – user13375
    Jun 30, 2021 at 14:39
  • @StillJustJames Yes, I think it's my sincerity that's being questioned, but your actions and responses vindicate me. All I've ever tried to do is to formulate questions to stimulate genuine discussion of difficult, nuanced topics with no easy answers. Thank you for participating in that instead of cowering behind rules and etiquette
    – SlowBurn
    Jun 30, 2021 at 14:49
  • Oh, I should add that I've been informed that this is not a discussion board, yet I still don't understand how you can find answers to difficult questions, if at all, without a meaningful and possibly lengthy discussion of a complex topic, which is pretty much any topic related to Buddhism.
    – SlowBurn
    Jun 30, 2021 at 14:57

the deluded self is not like a rainbow.

the delusive self is not formed from five aggregates but is merely a thought (sankhara; SN 22.81)

therefore the delusive self does not dissolve into any constituent elements because the delusive self is merely a thought and all that dissolves is the thought of self

when there is a rainbow, the different colors can be clearly seen. even a child can discern red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet

but the deluded puthujjana (worldling) cannot clearly discern the various aggregates clung to & identified with that cause the becoming/creation of the delusive self. the deluded puthujjana (worldling) cannot discern the various manifestations of form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations & consciousness

the analogy of the rainbow appears unwarranted & merely theoretical

  • Are you claiming that thoughts aren't real? If not, then what can you define as real? Also, just because some of my posts apparently cause cognitive dissonance in some, it does not mean it's "opinion based", "unwarranted" or "merely theoretical".
    – SlowBurn
    Jun 29, 2021 at 22:52
  • thoughts are formations in Buddhism. SN 22.95 says they are without any real tangible substance, like a banana tree that has no heartwood or core and is merely bark Jun 29, 2021 at 22:54
  • Maybe it's just semantics, but a banana tree is still substantial even without heartwood because it's still made of atoms, just as heartwood is. So are formations real? If not, then what can be defined as real as a reference point to compare with what is not real?
    – SlowBurn
    Jun 29, 2021 at 22:58
  • i answered your question. your premise of "real" and "unreal" is not related to what the Buddha taught. MN 122 says talk about whether things are real or not is animal talk. in Buddhism conditioned things arise & cease. naturally, the arising is "real" and the cessation is also "real". the delusive "self" in buddhism is conditioned & impermanent. refer to SN 22.81 Jun 29, 2021 at 23:00
  • Teaching a doctrine of non-self implies that the self is not real, so I can't see how discussing what is defined as real can be dismissed as "animal talk." Also, the hallucinations of schizophrenics are also conditioned things which arise and cease. They are experienced as real by the schizophrenic but not acknowledged as objectively real by anyone else. Having an objective definition of what is real is a necessary starting pointing for understanding anything at all. If you say that the here and now is the only thing that is real, then what about dreams?
    – SlowBurn
    Jun 29, 2021 at 23:09

Is the self like a rainbow and is it just as real?

A rainbow is not real. It is a concept. What is really going on is the process of seeing, i.e. visible forms come into contact with the eye faculty whereafter eye-consciousness arises and passes away. After that arises a mind-door process wherein the object just seen is being cognized. If one is not mindful before that point, conceptual proliferation will take place.

The self doesn't exist. It is a concept as well. It's an idea that belongs to the 4th aggregate of mental formations. A self cannot (nor anything pertaining to a self) be found inside the 5 aggregates of clinging.

  • If a rainbow is merely a concept, then what would you consider real and not merely a concept? And if nothing is real, then why have a designation for it at all? Actually, nevermind, Andrei has unilaterally decided that this discussion is over. Better luck next time.
    – SlowBurn
    Jun 30, 2021 at 13:35
  • @SlowBurn. According to the Theravada Abhidhamma the only (ultimate) realities that can be considered real in and of themselves are: Rupa, Citta, Cetasika and Nibbana (Paramattha Dhammas).
    – user21421
    Jun 30, 2021 at 13:42
  • you can't say both that self doesnt exist while saying that is exists within the 4th aggregate.
    – bw tho
    Jun 30, 2021 at 14:25
  • In defense of Jade's expression, he didn't say that the concepts aren't real or that they don't come into play. It is like saying "thinking about thinking" one is a process of ideation and one is the object of ideation, which is the realest? Jade basically says the object of ideation is not the process of ideation and that the process of ideation is always a truth in that it is something other people can see with intellect; whereas the object of ideation can be entirely fictional and untrue, not something great minds can think about alike.
    – user8527
    Jun 30, 2021 at 16:48
  • Therefore his definition of real seems to be derived from the inherently true property of the process because great minds can agree upon that there is thinking, whether they agree on an idea being true or not is not a given because ideas can be delusional.
    – user8527
    Jun 30, 2021 at 16:50

the buddha didnt asset that not-self is the dissolution of the self. nor that nonapprehension of yourself is the meaning of selflessness.

that deluded ppl lose the capacity to clearly ascertain in deep sleep or even recognise dreams as dreams is standard but has nothing to do with examples of ascertaining reality. falling asleep and failing to ascertain urself is not a perception of not-self


Someone may say the rainbow doesn't exist.

But you can see it with your eyes and you can take photos of it, so it surely exists.

Similarly, someone told the Buddha that the self-doer doesn't exist at all.

But the Buddha said, hey, one could decide to move forwards and backwards by his own volition, so a self-doer surely exists. Or I may say, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck.

“Venerable Gotama, I am one of such a doctrine, of such a view: ‘There is no self-doer, there is no other-doer.’” ...

“So, brahmin, when there is the element of endeavoring, endeavoring beings are clearly discerned; of such beings, this is the self-doer, this, the other-doer. I have not, brahmin, seen or heard such a doctrine, such a view as yours. How, indeed, could one — moving forward by himself, moving back by himself — say ‘There is no self-doer, there is no other-doer’?”
AN 6.38

On the other hand, if you look closely at the rainbow, it doesn't exist as a single standalone object or entity. Rather, it is an emergent phenomena.

The Buddha used a similar analogy - a stringed musical instrument called the lute. The lute produces music. But if you break it down into its constituent parts, you cannot find music as a single standalone object or entity.

Similarly, the self doesn't exist as a single standalone object or entity. Rather, it's an emergent phenomena that appears when the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, consciousness, mental formations) work together according to dependent origination, just as music is an emergent phenomena that appears when different parts of the lute work together.

"Suppose there were a king or king's minister who had never heard the sound of a lute before. He might hear the sound of a lute and say, 'What, my good men, is that sound — so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling?' They would say, 'That, sire, is called a lute, whose sound is so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling.' Then he would say, 'Go & fetch me that lute.' They would fetch the lute and say, 'Here, sire, is the lute whose sound is so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling.' He would say, 'Enough of your lute. Fetch me just the sound.' Then they would say, 'This lute, sire, is made of numerous components, a great many components. It's through the activity of numerous components that it sounds: that is, in dependence on the body, the skin, the neck, the frame, the strings, the bridge, and the appropriate human effort. Thus it is that this lute — made of numerous components, a great many components — sounds through the activity of numerous components.'

"Then the king would split the lute into ten pieces, a hundred pieces. Having split the lute into ten pieces, a hundred pieces, he would shave it to splinters. Having shaved it to splinters, he would burn it in a fire. Having burned it in a fire, he would reduce it to ashes. Having reduced it to ashes, he would winnow it before a high wind or let it be washed away by a swift-flowing stream. He would then say, 'A sorry thing, this lute — whatever a lute may be — by which people have been so thoroughly tricked & deceived.'

"In the same way, a monk investigates form, however far form may go. He investigates feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness, however far consciousness may go. As he is investigating form... feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness, however far consciousness may go, any thoughts of 'me' or 'mine' or 'I am' do not occur to him."
SN 35.205

  • >if you look closely at the rainbow, it doesn't exist as a single standalone object or entity. Rather, it is an emergent phenomena. If you read my earlier comments, I never denied this, but pointed out that this fact doesn't make the phenomenon unreal. Yes, if you tear a lute apart, music can't be found, but the "tearing apart" is done by the analytical mind, i.e. in the imagination, whereas, in reality, the lute is real in its wholeness, though comprised of constituent elements and, therefore, music is heard.
    – SlowBurn
    Jun 30, 2021 at 7:34
  • It's like saying, you know, if you think about all the components of what an airplane is made of, "flying" can't be found. Yeah, that might be true in an abstract, academic way, but in reality, planes are real and they fly. I tried to add this to my earlier comment, but it went over the character limit.
    – SlowBurn
    Jun 30, 2021 at 7:39

If a rainbow was a mind created phenomenon, then a camera, which has no mind or consciousness, would not be able to photograph it.

Hold on. If rainbow was mind created phenomena, wouldn't the camera also be mind created, wouldn't the eye be mind-made and if these are likewise mind-made then why wouldn't the camera be able to photograph it? Seems like photographing would be the only thing a camera should do, it is not going to cognize the shape & color of a tree or see it, the instrument is essentially an extention to the nervous system and is not supposed to do what mind does.

Similarly, a meditator might perceive a dissolution of the self into its constituent elements and thus conclude that the self does not truly exist,

There is something that can be spoken of as 'a sign' in your analogy, the sign is complete with form & color, which is perceived as it is grasped & interpreted by the nervous system to be 'a rainbow' or 'sign of a rainbow'.

That which is thought about & called 'sign' can be said to be an abstract expression of what is thought to be the sign's causes & conditions coming into play. If the causes & conditions prompting the expression are understood then there is no confusion in regards to the expression and it's meaning is rightly seen with intellect.

Interpreting & grasping the signs correctly is the directed development, grasping correctly one acts correctly, acting correctly one begets the correct sign which is associated with the consummation of the 5 faculties.

When a person grasps with underdeveloped intellect he reacts badly, in example a person grasps the sign of a bodypart and assumes that it is personal or that it is a self and makes an evaluation. Based on this evaluation he may become glad or aversive. Experiencing this excitement the intellect is clouded, one is not thinking straight and is carried away on the currents of bad intention, due to bad intention there is a wrong directing of attention and a weakening of the faculties due to frequent giving of attention to unwholesome themes which become the inclination of the mind due to a frequent giving of attention.

In this way a person might grasp something as self and be stuck thinking along those lines due to obliviousness to that which is his best knowledge.

Then having calmed down one might realize that he has been stuck interpreting the signs according to the false doctrine of 'self' and having become aware he is no longer entertaining those lines of reasoning based on delusion and is at that time interpreting the signs correctly.

There is this kind of dissolution of self. I don't know another.

As a comparison, if one is asleep and dreaming, one loses awareness of the body and the external world, yet both still exist for others,

Well yeas but the others, like the dream, don't exist for you until you start perceiving them, so the others are here semantically just as real as the dream because both elements come into play only when they are perceived by the observer and you have absolutely no way to establish these as a truth or reality beyond a particular person's seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling with the body and grasping with intellect.

To say that external world persists beyond it's conception & perception on a base primary frame of reference is akin to saying that dreams are a place you go to and that it persists while you are awake without your participation.

Thus, only awareness would have ceased, not the objects of awareness.

It is kind of amusing how people first establish something as a truth based on it essentially being an "objects of awareness" and then attempt to remove the 'of awareness' part.

It is not defined as an object which is sometimes of awareness and sometimes not of awareness. You don't get to take something defined & understood exclusively to be an object of awareness and talk about it as an not an object of perception.

That is a mistake of mixing two mutually negating contexts and you get a contradiction where you basically say 'this object of awareness is not an object of awareness because it's an object' and on this basis you create a doctrine about an object disconnected from everything meaningful as if a term's meaning is changed by using a shorter expression, in particular 'object of awareness' to 'object [not of awareness]', that doesn't work.

The problem arises when you talk about an object of awareness as an object and then insist on overriding normal usage in making the assumption that it's affirmation of a truth & reality isn't presumed to be dependent on contact and awareness.

"Monks, I will teach you the All. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak."

"As you say, lord," the monks responded.

The Blessed One said, "What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. [1] Anyone who would say, 'Repudiating this All, I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range."

To say that the perceived world & it's objects exist independently of a single observer's frame of reference is not to be done because without an observer the world can't even be talked about in terms of the electromagnetic process because there [that frame of reference] is then not a process, not without an observer to collapse the wave function.

In non physics terms;

There being no observation there is no contact, there being no contact there is no expression of causes & conditions, there being no expression there are no signs, there being no signs there is no awareness of signs, there being no awareness of signs there is no awareness and that exactly because awareness is also always associated with a sign or an object of the 6 sense doors as it's existence is postulated on it being demonstrably implicated in contact which is a requisite for expression of a sign. There being no awareness there is then no awareness of a before & after and hence it is not a process.

Think about this.

If you and i both look at a rainbow, we are actually conceiving & perceiving two different worlds altogether because you can calculate the distance light travels to hit your eye and compare it to the distance light has to travel to hit my eye and take note of the fact that it's not even technically the same light that does the travelling.

Let alone the fact that we are technically only seeing the light that was emitted before contact occured and our seeing depends on it but we are not seeing things change simultaneously. Given the variance in the distances the sign of the rainbow will even dissolve at different time assuming our clocks were calibrated correctly and we could even prove it by making timestamped video.

Of course the distance between us would have to be enormous for light to be measurably delayed but as a thought experiment..

Suppose you are looking at a rainbow from a helicopter and i teleported instantly 1 light year away, i wouldn't even see the rainbow for a year no matter what optical zoom i have because the light from the rainbow won't make contact for a year whilst my watch would still be aligned with yours if i were to teleport right back.

Furthermore were i to immediately look back at earth with superzoom, i wouldn't see the rainbow at all and would be looking at events from 1 year ago.

Furthermore with this kind of teleportation powers i could teleport and watch myself teleport to my current location appearing as a second me beside because apparently i got faster than light travel...

"When the four bases of spiritual power have been developed and cultivated in this way, a bhikkhu (monk) wields the various kinds of spiritual power: having been one, he becomes many; having been many, he becomes one; he appears and vanishes;

note: here by light speed i talk about just the speed of the smallest discernable change in the electromagnetic process. It is entirely dependent on the instrument of measure.

  • The word real isn't in & by itself tricky. It is only made tricky by people insisting on overriding normative contextually defined usage, the Buddha never did that. We can say dreams aren't real in the sense that it is not like being awake but there is no 3rd control for what is the measure of real in definitive sense in this discussion. Therefore one can say either is realest or that both are equally real or that neither is real, pick your poison.
    – user8527
    Jun 30, 2021 at 1:44
  • So you believe that all subjective experience is a mind created event and that there is no external reality impinging upon your senses? What is the purpose of the mind creating anything at all?
    – SlowBurn
    Jun 30, 2021 at 7:30
  • It is not that mind creates it per se. That which we call mind is part of the creation. It is not one and the same mind that creates everything else because then what created the mind one would ask. Subjective experience changes as it persists, it i's a process of signs persisting as they change, all things are thought about as an All, it is thought about as an everything; dreams, the waking state and what can be derived from that, all of it is collectively called 'everything' .
    – user8527
    Jun 30, 2021 at 10:54
  • That which is called mind is a term used to understand the requisite conditions for the subjects affirmation of everything & anything. Since it is an everything then it can not have an outside cause, it's must be internally caused & perceived. Seeing is something of nature, it sees nature and that in nature. Conception [creation] is also something of nature, it is in nature and it creates nature; it is thought of as creating form as form, mind as mind and etc.
    – user8527
    Jun 30, 2021 at 11:08
  • An analogy i can give is to language. Every person carries a personal dialect of a language, there are no two alike like fingerprints. We say we speak the same language but if we were to draw 'a dog' it will come out different. Therefore each person has his own language and other people are merely trying to interpret the signs they see. If a person was to disappear then a language would have disappeared analogically to how a world would disappear.
    – user8527
    Jun 30, 2021 at 11:17

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