Buddhism teaches that what is real is experience; seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking.

From this perspective, is virtual reality, (video games, Oculus Rift, and such) objectively less "real" than reality? One certainly sees, hears, feels and thinks in virtual reality.

If material objects are not real; are digital images of them any less real?

I suspect there is an objective answer to this from a Buddhist point of view and I'm interested in understanding it.

  • When you say 'virtual reality', do you mean a digital representation of physical reality (e.g. a video camera), or do you mean a synthetic simulation of reality (e.g. a video game)?
    – ChrisW
    Jan 21, 2015 at 3:10
  • I suspect the notion of 'real' here might approach The Unanswered Questions, or speculative view. Somewhat like in tkp's answer.
    – Anthony
    Jan 21, 2015 at 3:18
  • @qweilun Doesn't 'real' (from the Latin res meaning 'thing') correspond to the "'form', 'matter' or 'rupa'" of the 5 skandhas?
    – ChrisW
    Jan 21, 2015 at 3:28
  • I don't know, that's beyond me :-)
    – Anthony
    Jan 21, 2015 at 4:36
  • Thank you for the answers. @ChrisW, I'm referring to synthetic simulation of reality. So while conventionally, one might see a great distinction between experience in the physical world (conventionally real) and experience while immersed in a simulated digital environment (conventionally not real), from a Buddhist PoV is there an objective difference? Good answers below. Thanks!
    – Robin111
    Jan 21, 2015 at 11:03

9 Answers 9


If we are able to taste a "fake" flavor in a way as "rich" as we deem a real taste, we could ask what is the difference? As far as our sensorial system is concerned, it's definitely taste. So, it is reasonable to say it is real in the experiential sense.

What distinguishes a "real" taste and a "simulated taste"? From the perspective outlined above, one answer is how "rich" the experience is (to our senses). Thus, an initial approach to identify virtuality (or "artificiality") is to identify how "simplified" an experience is compared to an understanding of its "real" counterpart (where "real" here just means "richer" in regard to stimuli).

If an experience is "rich enough" to our senses, a priori, we are unable to distinguish "virtual" from "real" unless, perhaps, through sophisticated maneuvers (eg. clever reasoning, clever observations -- science). In fact, our inclination is to say "it felt so real", which puts the idea of "reality" itself into question [again].

But of course, "virtual worlds" of today do not offer such "richness". Wearing glasses and playing a game is real in the sense that we are living an experience of playing, and we are stimulated by the the instruments of the game (display, sounds, tactile facilities). However they still fall short both in its ability to "fool" ourselves and to be fully capable of supporting a life such as ours within its environment.

Even if we put aside ontological questions, as until now, there are important points to consider (whether we are in a "real universe" or fooled in a "virtual universe"), like the hard problems of identifying life and intelligence -- and how "hurting" a character whose behavior is "artificial" different, karmically, from hurting an actual living being?

Voluntary imagination and dreams, on the other hand, may be different enough to introduce some subtleties.

In terms of [early] buddhist doctrine, I understand that whether the experience is, in essence, virtual or real is insignificant. The point is that we find ourselves in an environment ( a realm of existence, virtual or real) where there is contact through sense bases (irrespective of the "substantial reality" of external objects) and volition (or, to answer fully, paṭiccasamuppāda).

Finally, I seem to recall a sutta where the Buddha might have said something like "there is nothing beyond the sense bases". But I'm very unsure about this, even the actual wording and meaning. Then, there is the question of how supramundane experiences are sensed, and Nibbana itself -- if that makes sense --, which I'm not comfortable to elaborate.


Gosh, that's a heavy question. All I'll do is point you to some potentially useful material. I suggest you take a look at comparisons between the philosophy of Wittgenstein, and that of Nagarjuna. (Professional analytic philosophers may be knee-jerking like crazy here, but I'll persist.) The central idea that connects them -- if anything does -- is the idea that what you are asking sits outside the bounds of what language can express. It -- the notion of more or less "real"-ness -- is an example of what Wittgenstein referred to in stating "Whereof one cannot speak, thereon one must remain silent."

Or, less exotically, I really do think that the movie "The Matrix" has something to offer here. When Neo asks Morpheus, inside the battle simulation, "So this isn't real?", Morpheus replies "What is real?" Put another way, why are you distinguishing between "virtual" reality, and "real" reality? Ultimately we have no idea what is "out there"; the only thing we do know for sure is that we are perceiving it.

I don't know if that is of any use whatsoever :-)


Buddhism teaches that what is real is experience; seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking.

Forgive me for disagreeing but I though it might teach slightly the opposite: it teaches that that-which-is-experienced are your own senses, and your senses depend on your impermanent body, therefore your experience of 'form' is 'conditioned', therefore your experience is 'empty', therefore you can manifest detachment towards your experience and not suffer from your experiences ...

is virtual reality, (video games, oculus, and such) objectively less "real" than reality?

Digitizing a material object doesn't make it less real: for example, imagine you're a surgeon doing real-life surgery on a living being; and, by contrast, imagine the same except that you're doing real-time remote surgery (via the internet, remote control, etc.).

I think we're taught to feel compassion for sentient beings: not for images. I might not like to burn a photograph (because I feel an attachment to that kind of thing) but I don't think it's morally wrong to burn (non-sentient) photographic paper, however burning a real live (sentient) person would be wrong.

Conversely being nice to real ('sentient') people is IMO better than winning in a (simulated) video game.

If material objects are not real; are digital images of them any less real?

I don't think it's true to say that objects (forms) not 'real'.

And when the forms in question are the forms of sentient beings, then those forms are like 'self': i.e. it's not true to say that 'self' isn't real. The 'self' might be difficult to define (or not worth defining), but it's not true to say that 'it doesn't exist' and in the same way it's not true to say that objects don't exist.

That they don't exist 'permanently' is true.

And that whether you perceive them depends on certain (temporary) conditions is also true.

  • +1 for the first half, -1 for the second :)
    – Andriy Volkov
    Aug 13, 2015 at 2:28
  • -1 because 'form' (not to mention to self) is not only impermanent but, like a wagon, a mere aggregate of parts?
    – ChrisW
    Aug 13, 2015 at 9:15
  • yes, and not only aggregate of physical parts, but an aggregate of causes and conditions, both objective and subjective
    – Andriy Volkov
    Aug 13, 2015 at 10:47

I don't believe that grading sensual experience by how corporale they are is the way one could tackle the question. One can easily have a more sensually rich imaginary intercourse then the one she has in reality. All western succubus/incubus mythology confirms that. In china there is a medical text that describes the cure for a girl that is haunted (frequently visited) by a ghost in her dreams. One of the symptoms of the condition is that she finds the ghost a better partner compared to what she has in waking. The key here for me at least is the uprooting of Saṅkhāras. One grades them by how persistent they are during practice. Simply put how often similar ideas pop up on the surface. Therefore it seems that Virtual reality does not propose a special problem, it is again a question of how one is attached (pun unintended) to it.

One can go scholastically on the question where I believe Ahmed gave a pretty good answer - all phenomena are the same level of not-Real.

One can of course approach it phenomenologically. Here is a dirty question: How many of us have played video games or stared in front of a monitor and go about to do a sitting after that?

For me at least the images and impressions appear as equally as anything else during the day and they are as persistent as I have persistently dwelled on them...


Ultimately, there is experience - and just that is real. When you say - "physical world (conventionally real) & simulated digital environment (conventionally not real)" - you're still on the linguistic level (conventional reality) - neither are ultimate reality.

Now, as far as one might see a great distinction between the virtual and the physical goes - that would really just depend on the perceptions on the basis of which one forms one's thoughts and views.

For example , there is the case where a person cultivates the perception of a "3D-physical-world" (so to speak) - and assigns "3D objects" with certain characteristics and keeps in mind certain laws by which these "3D objects" interact - now to one cultivating such thoughts and views - an experience of the "virtual simulated environment" will appear to be a "different world"(so to speak).

And why is that ? Simply because the fundamental units of the "world" on which the mind of such a person is operating are these "3D objects" and their characteristics and laws of interaction (as he perceives them to be).

Now, in the "virtual world" - these "3D objects" and their characteristics and laws of interaction are radically different - so much so - that a mind operating and even clinging to a certain conceptual paradigm as mentioned above - would be almost certain to give rise to the perception of a "radically different new world".

But, that's as far as it can go. Now, there is also the case - where a monk, firmly established in the seeing things as they really are (yatha-bhuta-ñana-dassana) ,with an unwavering perception (thira sañña) - who is just going to experience mentality-materiality(nāma-rūpa) processes arising and passing away - since in ultimate reality - there is no "3D-physical-world". The Buddha also said that just this - the five senses - is what is meant by "world".

I quote Lokasuttaṃ SN 35.82 (though it probably isn't directly relevant)

Then a certain monk went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One: "'The world, the world' it is said. In what respect does the word 'world' apply?

"Insofar as it disintegrates, monk, it is called the 'world.' Now what disintegrates? The eye disintegrates. Forms disintegrate. Consciousness at the eye disintegrates. Contact at the eye disintegrates. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too disintegrates.

"The ear disintegrates. Sounds disintegrate...

"The nose disintegrates. Aromas disintegrate...

"The tongue disintegrates. Tastes disintegrate...

"The body disintegrates. Tactile sensations disintegrate...

"The intellect disintegrates. Ideas disintegrate. Consciousness at the intellect consciousness disintegrates. Contact at the intellect disintegrates. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too disintegrates.

"Insofar as it disintegrates, it is called the 'world.'"


The classical Buddhist answer: From a Real point of view, the two are exactly the same. This is the kind of point of view one would take when doing Vipassana. Basically all phenomena are the same level of not-Real, all experiences including super-real dreams, insanely emotional visions or a simple computer game or even a vague dream are all the same.

On the other hand, from the relative "real" perspective, the answers are multitudinous and not Buddhist. This relative perspective is not dealt with in Buddhism because it is not relevant to the Pursuit of the Great Thing and one can only derive relative benefit.

Nonetheless, if you were to force myself, a Buddhist, to give an personal-experience answer, I would say that relativistically speaking certain realities are stronger than Oculus while other realities are less real than virtual reality. For instance, sexual intercourse is far more sensual and "real" than VR on many, many levels whereas a daydream might be equal or less "real" than a session of VR gaming.

A final realtivisitic "Buddhist" (remember that the Buddha avoided a lot of these kind of Useless questions) argument could be this: all VR is mere imitation and can never reach the reality that living reality has: the etheric, physical, emotional, social connections that are interdependent and transform and perfume each other within the great Alaya consciousness on nearly infinite levels that is far far beyond computer programming or any computer process.


The whole Buddhist philosophy is describing things, being on the base of "mind". Hence, it doesn't matter whether is it real or unreal, if you believe sort of perspective as real, that is enough. Because, though you think real world is "real", according to the Buddhist philosophy, nothing is real. All are momentarily illusions that we think of as real.


I'm hoping you know of the Microsoft HoloLens. Imagine that type of technology was implanted on a contact lense, and then glued to your eye at birth. What you see and know about this world from birth to today could be an illusion. Tibet Buddhist' would argue life itself is an illusion. But I would argue whoever comes to that conclusion claiming they themself are the illusion in the illusion, is correct, yet not correct. Because once realizing that you are real in a different perspective. You become real the world of illusion, and a new world opens up.

The revolution won't be televised. Break your tv. And start a revolution.


Well I just started reading about the whole real reality or simulated reality, or what ever else this what we are taking about could be interpreted as, but here's my theory. So if we are living a virtual type realism then just like wanting to know if aliens are real and trying to contact them with transmissions and sending messages by means of sending time capsules into space, maybe we shouldn't bother spending wasted time on seeing whether it's true or not. Why it's simple if we did by some what ever and was like ah haha we are not reality and you creator we know who you are, do you think the creator-s would be like hey what's up galaxy wow you guys are amazing you figured it out, now we gonna just let things go on so you can now with the rest of the universe live life happy knowing your data.

Uh don't think so I'm sure there would be some humanity laws for these creators because if not that sure be cruel don't you think. So they would shut us down or reboot us and return us to are last saved spot when we knew nothing of this theory or not reboot us at all. Just as aliens yeah maybe we get lucky meet some advanced extraterrestrial and they show us the lite or they just as clueless, or worst some evil reptilian type with only us as food source or slaves in mind. So let's just work on what we have try to prepare for outside this planets dangers, and all countries enough is enough and let's make 1 world order that is not communists and all should be as 1 nation of mixed creations of beauty and let's all integrate and evolve the ultimate species of human man kind and stop the racism and stupidity and just get along and try to work as one world one nation under the liberties of all race and creed.

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