Do Buddhists see reality as consensual or individual? Are all persons' realities joined in a seamless whole, or is each person a window onto nothingness that can never be seen by anyone else? I am not finding easy words for my question which seems clear to me...

I see two real things (only), that are one: the Void, and Experience. So for me, everything in Experience is one thing, whether I perceive that or not. Yet each is also unique. Are we all connected like fingers on one hand, or more like ants in a colony: each distinct and un-mergeable with the others?

Please provide a reference that I can read. Thank you!

EDIT: I have this well-known quote attributed to the Buddha: "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the World." So, my question is:

The word "We" - does it mean collectively, as a plenary (not by assent but in fact), or does it mean each of us individually? The word "The" World - does it mean the common reality, or each of our individual "realities"? Simple, yet subtle.

  • Please note that I am not asking for an answer, I am asking how Buddhism would answer this question.
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 16:48
  • 1
    I think you are looking for a word other than "consensual", since this word means "with consent" (i.e. the opposite of against one's will) Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 0:18
  • Consensus reality
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 1:00
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    The quote is fake though. To quote Bodhipaksa, the expert on fakebuddhaquotes.com - "The Buddha certainly didn’t teach that we make the world with our thoughts, that all we are arises from our thoughts, or that we are what we think."
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 3:28
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    Apparently that's Thomas Byrom's translation of the beginning of the Dhammapada, which is on accesstoinsight as, "Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox." As Andrei said, this link suggests you use a more literal (and less poetic) translation.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 4:37

4 Answers 4


From Buddhist perspective, phenomenal (experiential) reality is dependently co-arisen phenomena. In other words, experience depends on convergence of a number of factors. Some of those factors are common across multiple cases of perception, and some are specific to an individual case of perception. To the extent that some factors are shared, realities are similar. To the extent that some factors are unique, realities are dissimilar.

This topic is discussed in depth in a very advanced work of 19th century Buddhist philosopher Mipham, called Beacon of Certainty (topic #6). For a more casual read, check out The Prayer of Kuntuzangpo. Also see Lamp of Mahamudra section one, "Ground Mahamudra".


The objects (and subjects!) appearing in each of the realities are not truly existing. But there is only one ground underlying them all. To realize the true meaning of this ground is to be Buddha.

There is an infinite number of valid, internally not inconsistent, but not necessarily compatible with each other, ways to cognize this ground. Although all cognitions (including cognition of the true meaning of the ground!) are construed on the basis of temporarily combined elements (so in this sense no one cognition is fundamentally better than any other), however, since there's a case of being aware (vs. being unaware) of dependently-coarisen nature of objects (and subjects!) of perception, there's a sense in which we can speak of an awakened cognition. Or as Master Dogen said in Genjo-Koan:

When all dharmas are [seen as] the Buddha-Dharma, then there is delusion and realization, there is practice, there is life and there is death, there are buddhas and there are ordinary beings. When the myriad dharmas are each not of the self, there is no delusion and no realization, no buddhas and no ordinary beings, no life and no death.

  • With regard to the ground underlying it all, it's a tricky subject, because there is this passage from MN1 which says this: He perceives Unbinding as Unbinding. Perceiving Unbinding as Unbinding, he conceives things about Unbinding, he conceives things in Unbinding, he conceives things coming out of Unbinding, he conceives Unbinding as 'mine,' he delights in Unbinding. Why is that? Because he has not comprehended it, I tell you.
    – Sadhana
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 19:08
  • @Sadhana very true, thank you! But with this we hit the limit of words and all we can do is speak in approximations.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Nov 21, 2015 at 15:04
  • regardless of subject/object differentiation, would you describe that ground you speak of as reality?
    – blue_ego
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 15:58
  • in a manner of speaking, it is the only reality, other realities being mere Umwelten.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 16:14

What is the "reality" in your question?

Are you asking about Sacca,

Sacca (Pāli; Sanskrit Satya) word meaning "real" or "true".[1] In early Buddhist literature, sacca is often found in the context of the "Four Noble Truths", a crystallization of Buddhist wisdom. In addition, sacca is one of the ten pāramitās or "perfections" a bodhisatta must develop in order to become a Buddha.

In the context of the "four noble truths" I guess Buddhists see (that kind of description of) "reality" as "applicable to everyone" or "general".

Pāramitā suggests that insight (into reality) and ability to speak truth (about reality) is Buddhist: i.e. it is something which the Buddha can do.

This may be another question-and-answer about that topic (i.e. "sacca" or "satya") here: What is Sat-Dharma?

If you're asking about "physical reality" then I don't think so -- I think that Buddhism describes a reality that's more complicated than merely 'physical' reality.

If you're asking about conscious or experiential realities then, well, I won't try to answer that. Maybe that's getting into material in the Abhidhamma.

  • By "reality" I mean what you see you when you open your eyes each morning. Is it one for all, or a separate instance for each? This is not about perfection or practice, it is about what is there, unbidden.
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 16:46
  • Perhaps you're looking for Rūpa then.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 17:59
  • OK, Rupa: is it individual or collective? Where is the distinction spelled out?
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 18:42
  • Rūpa is Anattā isn't it?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 18:53
  • Anatta - No self - no thing or being has a self. But does "all thing" have one, or many, or does Anatta mean that "all thing" is zero? What do I see when I open my eyes? 0, 1, many?
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 19:29

In the early suttas, this sort of question is deemed irrelevant for the practice; that is, as long as there's a problem, and you can do something about it, then any time wasted on wondering whose problem is it, what constitutes a problem, does it have an inherent existence shared by all beings, etc, is categorized as falling victim to Mara. [1]

That being said, here are a few things to consider:

  1. The Buddha said that each being is the heir of their own actions - not others' actions. And that we experience rebirth from life to life, i.e. death isn't the end of our heritage. [2]
  2. He suggested developing equanimity for people who are hopeless, so that implies that there isn't any inherent dependency on others' states of mind. [3]
  3. When the Buddha and his noble disciples gained awakening, nobody but them was awakened. It's an individual accomplishment.
  4. There are documented cases in the canon of arahants synchronously experiencing things which ordinary people don't. [4]

  • I wondered if my question falls under the category of "Vexing". I was not so much concerned with problems or selves, but simply what Buddhism says about what I call "Experience." Thank you for the reply.
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 14:38
  • @nocomprende I understand, and maybe the relation of my answer to this question isn't clear. Maybe you can help: when asking your question, would you say that if reality were strictly individual, or conversely existing inherently by itself (e.g. if there were at least 2 beings, their experiences would necessarily intersect at some level), and that claim would have any practicality in and of itself, then it would have to entail corollaries which would also have to be true for the sake of that practicality?
    – Sadhana
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 15:19
  • That is supposing, by the way, that I understood you correctly in that you weren't talking about qualia (i.e. is your blue the same as my blue).
    – Sadhana
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 15:21
  • E.g. if reality were inherently completely consensual, as you put it, then we'd have no individual control over it. Because reality encompasses all forms, feelings, perceptions, etc, we'd have no way to just decide for everyone how our experience is going to be like.This is in fact the view of determinism, which is one of the grossest forms of wrong view.If it were strictly individual, then why can't we all attain awakening by snapping out fingers? And why would other people manage to be obstacles in our path, if they wanted to (which is part of the reason Buddhists focus so much on morality).
    – Sadhana
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 15:34
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    Thus, the question which you ask, either this or that, is framed such that it leads to an endless discussion and zero utility for purposes of the path. Sticking to it, seeing it as of any relevance, is an obstacle.
    – Sadhana
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 15:35

Reality is neither consensual or an individual perception. Of course when one practices Vipassana and realize what reality actually is, then your individual perception of reality coincides with the actual reality. Until then there is a divergence. Practice of Vipassana is to close this divergence where you move from gross reality to the subtlest realities until you have realized the ultimate reality. Also if we see reality as it is then your would be enlightened or as an individual an Arahath, which is achieved through Vipassana. As many individuals are not enlightened their perception of reality in different from the actual. Also note, consensus view on any things is cultural and time wearying and definitely will not coincide with reality. Even science is in a flux of change with new theories and old being dispelled. So scientific understanding is not reality per say through it is and approximation of reality.

E.g. When you play doctor in kindergarten then you are not a doctor but when you actually become one then this is the reality. Many are in the kindergarten stage of understanding of reality but have not progressed. Similar to a person not going to school. Once you learn and then go to medical school then you only become a proper doctor. Similarly when you practice Vipassana only you progress to higher stages of understanding of reality.

Also see: Reality in Buddhism

  • 1
    When people distinguish "actual reality" from what we see each moment, then I don't follow. I am just asking: what we see each moment - is it common or individual? For everyone, even people who have no idea of Buddhism or spiritual growth. Even animals, plants, everything. Does the same sun shine on every plant? Or does each plant "make" a sun? How does Buddhism describe this universality? Calling it error or deception misses the point, for me. It would be like a PhD student calling kindergarten an error. No, just less awareness and experience. It must be there or what are we talking about?
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 16:50

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