I'm reading Rob Burbea's book Seeing That Frees. The book is about ways of working with emptiness. In the book he says that things lack inherent existence. I'm fairly sure this isnt the same as not been real. Is that right? Can things be real and lack inherent existence?

I appreciate the real answer will be to meditate on this but I find exploring the issues more intellectually helpful too.

6 Answers 6


Things do exist just not in the way they appear to be existing.

Lacking inherent existency means that things/objects/phenomena are not set up by themselves. They are set up dependent on other factors. In other words they are conditioned.

That can be seen with e.g. a tree. A tree changes during the different seasons. Why does it change? It changes due to being set up dependent on other factors which again is set up dependent on other factors etc. That means that objects are in a constant flux. They do not stay constant or stable.

If a tree where inherent existent it would never change. It would stay green with flowers on it forever. If it truly were inherent existent then it would be uncaused. It would be completely defined by its own nature. Nothing could be removed or added to it since that would change its inherent existent nature. It would be both eternal and indestructible.

If we take a look at samsara the conditioned existence then we see that all physical and mental phenomena are caused by other factors. They are not stand-alone units. That does not mean that they are not real. It just means that they do not exist in the way they appear to be.

The Dalai Lama has written many great sections on Emptiness in his book "How to See Yourself As You Really Are". Here is a short quote on the existence of phenomena. The quote is from chapter 19: "Viewing Yourself As Like an Illusion", p. 187-188:

"A face in a mirror appears to be a face, but this image is not a real face in any way; it is from all viewpoints empty of being a face. Likewise, a magician can conjure up illusions that seem to be certain things, like a person in a box being skewered by a sword, but they are not at all established as those things. Similarly, phenomena such as bodies appear to be established from the objects' own side but are empty of being established that way and always have been.

It is not that phenomena are illusions; rather, they are like illusions. Even if a mirror image of your face is not really your face, the reflection is not utterly nonexistent. Through its appearance you can understand how your actual face looks. Similarly, although persons and things are empty of existing the way they appear to be established in their own right, they are not utterly nonexistent; they can act and be experienced. Therefore, being like an illusion is not the same as appearing to exist but actually not existing, like the horns of a rabbit, which do not exist at all."

Here is another one with the title "Emptiness does not mean Nothingness". The quote is from chapter 5: "Appreciating the Reasoning of Dependent-Arising", p. 71-73:

"There is no question that persons and things exist; the question is how, or in what manner, they exist. When we consider a flower, for instance, and think, "This flower has a nice shape, nice color, and nice texture," it seems as if there is something concrete that possesses these qualities of shape, color, and texture. When we look into these qualities, as well as the parts of the flower, they seem to be qualities or parts of the flower, such as the color of the flower, the shape of the flower, the stem of the flower, and the petals of the flower - as if there is a flower that possesses these qualities or parts.

However, if the flower really exists the way it appears, we should be able to come up with something separate from all of these qualities and parts that is the flower. But we cannot. Such a flower is not found upon analysis, or through other scientific tools, even though previously it seemed so substantial, so findable. Because a flower has effects, it certainly exists, but when we search to find a flower existing in accordance with our ideas about it, that is not at all findable.

Something that truly exists from its own side should become more and more obvious when analyzed - it should be clearly found. But the opposite is the case. Nevertheless, this does not meant hat it does not exist, for it is effective - it creates effects. The fact that it is not found under analysis just indicates that it does not exists the way it appear to our senses and to our thoughts - that is, so concretely established with itself."

I would really recommend reading this book since it has a lot of insights about emptiness. I think sometimes its greatly beneficial to study another buddhists school's take on e.g. Anatta/Emptiness in order to "get it" cooked and prepared in another way. Of course the basic doctrine is the same but when reading about it in other terms and ways of expression that gives variety and nuances on the topic.

On purpose i did not go into the insight-meditational aspect of this profound teaching that emptiness is since you asked for an intellectual opinion. Hope this might be of some help.



We could say that absolute reality is the antonym of emptiness in the Buddhist sense of the words. According to the Pali Canon (Sunya Sutta), everything is empty (therefore not absolutely real) as in they are empty of a self. That is, they don't have an inherent base or core of reality. Or that nothing has its own independent existence. This also relates to Buddha's statement "sabbe dhamma anatta" or "all phenomena is not-self".

This means that there is a lack of absolute reality, but not a lack of relative reality. What is relative reality? Things which are perceived to be true by your senses are relatively real.

Quoting the Sunya Sutta:

Then Ven. Ananda 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, "It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?"

"Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty. And what is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self? The eye (ear, nose, tongue, body ...) is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Forms... Eye-consciousness... Eye-contact is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self.

The above discusses emptiness from the perspective of the Pali Canon and the Theravada tradition.

If you want perspectives from other Buddhist traditions, please see the wikipedia page on Sunyata.

Here is a related quote by Sogyal Rinpoche from the perspective of inter-dependence or conditioning (Sogyal Rinpoche (2009), The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Harper Collins, Kindle Edition):

...all things, when seen and understood in their true relation, are not independent but interdependent with all other things. The Buddha compared the universe to a vast net woven of a countless variety of brilliant jewels, each with a countless number of facets. Each jewel reflects in itself every other jewel in the net and is, in fact, one with every other jewel... Think of a tree. When you think of a tree, you tend to think of a distinctly defined object; and on a certain level...it is. But when you look more closely at the tree, you will see that ultimately it has no independent existence. When you contemplate it, you will find that it dissolves into an extremely subtle net of relationships that stretches across the universe. The rain that falls on its leaves, the wind that sways it, the soil that nourishes and sustains it, all the seasons and the weather, moonlight and starlight and sunlight—all form part of this tree. As you begin to think about the tree more and more, you will discover that everything in the universe helps to make the tree what it is; that it cannot at any moment be isolated from anything else; and that at every moment its nature is subtly changing. This is what we mean when we say things are empty, that they have no independent existence.

  • when you say relative reality, do you mean a fluctuating reality? for instance, let's say craving skews reality, still there is continuity there which can be thought of as absolute no?
    – blue_ego
    Oct 26, 2022 at 7:34

I think that a summary ruben2020's answer is that things have no independent existence i.e. they are conditioned: Saṅkhāra.

I think of that as meaning that the apparent boundary of a thing is artificial (i.e. not real). For example you may look at a car and think "that's a car", but the boundary where the 'car' is isn't clear: a car wouldn't be the same without a driver, and a road to drive on, and fuel to put in it, and a mechanic to keep it running: so maybe all those seemingly-external-to-the-car-object are part of the car (or car-system) too. Similarly a car consists of wheels etc., and wheels consist of rubber and plastic etc., and those materials consist of subcomponents etc., so it's also true that the car doesn't have much inherent existence independent of its components. But then the Ship of Theseus paradox discounts the inherent importance of specific components too.

If you're going to ask whether something is "real" I think that the antithesis of "real" in Western philosophy/ontology is "ideal": i.e. "real" is to do with 'things' and "ideal" is to do with 'ideas'. If you accept that definition of "real" then maybe sunyata implies that things are real but not ideal, i.e. they have physical existence but they're not what you think they are (i.e. your ideas about them are wrong).

I'm not sure whether Buddhism has a notion of thingness independent of the observer. I think that in the West it's more or less axiomatic to assume that there exists a 'me', and 'my sense of sight', and 'the things' which are the objects I see: and that the things I see have some independent or objective existence (independent of me). I'm not sure whether that kind of objective thingness, independent of the observer, is implied in saḷāyatana and Āyatana.

I shouldn't be surprised if this relates to self-view (identity view) too, somehow.

It's a fairly dry theory when you consider an object like a 'car', perhaps more important when you apply it to something for which you feel more emotional attachment/idealism, for example 'wife' or 'money'.

In practice I suspect it implies that feelings I experience about something are a property or attribute or description of me, not of the object: if I think "that object is desirable" then that's more a statement about my desire then inherent in the object itself. Conversely, "that person makes me angry" should be taken less as a statement about the other person and more as a statement about my susceptibility to anger.

  • are you saying reality is empty? in which case the essence of reality is empty. in which case, there is the mundane reality, or perhaps emptiness is not empty, but has real essence.
    – blue_ego
    Oct 26, 2022 at 7:59
  • more likely reality is essence, and emptiness is void of essence...
    – blue_ego
    Oct 26, 2022 at 8:04

On the question whether things are "real".

If by "real" is meant independent objective existent then "sabbe sankhara annica" or "anicca vata sankhara" (all conditions things are impermanent) and that they are dependently originated, "theory of dependent origination, paticcasamuppada); both would rule them out as having an objective existence.

Moreover, how things appear is dependent on the observer (e.g. eye-base). And as the observer's eye-base is a result of kamma the world is different for different observer within this world and also from brahma to peta. If the reasonable assumption, that all beings can only observe with only the 5 senses and the mind sense. Hope all this make sense.

  • Are you sure that conditioned things have "no objective existence"? Maybe dependent origination implies that things are impermanent (temporary) and do not arise spontaneously ... I'm not sure whether that is also sufficient proof that they are not "objective".
    – ChrisW
    Jun 2, 2015 at 15:58
  • 1
    @ChrisW DO implies that things are temporary and what is more their "existence" (or coming to being (CTB)) is dependent on the "existence"(CTB) of previous "existence"(CTB) and so on.. so on this criteria do they have objective existence? Now with the cessation of ignorance, mental volition ceased, with the cessation of mental volition, re-birth consciousness ceased..and so on. ..that is how with the cessation of ignorance...there can be total unbinding(nibbana)..or else how can there be total unbinding?
    – Samadhi
    Jun 2, 2015 at 16:11

I'm a little late to the party, but I love this question, so I'll offer my insight.

Things lack inherent existence

is a great starting point for thinking. The great thing about this is that the thinking that follows from this premise works like a diamond drill, chiseling through years of accumulated morass. In other words, anyone can get themselves into this inquiry and roll it around in their mind; inspect it; test it; poke holes in it; and basically just look at it - and in thinking on this phrase, you will find yourself opening up. Just using it as a tool to stimulate thinking can teach you how to think and open you up to different insights. It is the perfect "koan" for a person at any level of experience and practice.

There are two guides that help for thinking about this - in a way they represent polar extremes of the spaces people often go through when considering notions like this:

  1. Don't be an idiot - There is a tiger in the field in front of you if you see him. Do not chase him to prove that he doesn't exist.

  2. Don't rule out anything - While not being an idiot, also allow your mind to venture far beyond what you consider to be possible or true; and don't get attached to anything you come up with. A quote from Dogen(I think) sums this up well:

    "Don't cling to your own understanding. Even if you do understand something, you should ask yourself if there might be something you have not fully resolved, or if there maybe some higher meaning yet"

That being said, the basic premise that will provide the basic entrance into this question can be stated another way, "There is no independently existing thing called you, yourself, or your life". And beginning there, we can immediately see aspects of truth in this. Thoughts we have repeated to ourselves for decades have nothing in common with reality. If I tell myself "I'm no good" every time I fail, then I will come to believe that there is an 'I' that failed, and that 'I' has has a property called I'm no good, and that property then becomes a plausible explanation for the failure.

Over time, the existence of the property gains form and mass, and becomes more and more certain. However: the 'I' that 'is no good' can only exist with the support of the properties that construct it. Before 'I'm no good, the 'I' simply is, and empty of content, it is likewise formless - rootless. There is no true you underneath the you that is constructed by repeated habits, constant dialogue, internal chatter, and unawareness. To put it another way - if there is a you, then the you or I is the space that gives rise to properties as possibilities - that can create 'I'm no good'.

That space, as space, has no existence independently in the universe. The space that you are is neither separate from, nor distinct from the space that you are not. The mind - which is also not divided - but appears to be - is not separate from anything else (though our experience of the mind is that it is within us) - the wall in front of us cannot exist as it exists without us standing before it and perceiving it. Does that mean that if I leave, the wall ceases to exist? That is the type of thinking that traps us in duality. The wall is not separate from you, nor you from the universe - so how can it not exist - and how can you leave? Where would you go?

Everything I'm writing here is merely like a sculptor's hammer. I don't know you, and I am unable to offer you anything that would speak directly to your concerns without knowing them. However, imagine I am offering you piece[s] of tile that you can use to knock on the door of your own understanding. Since everything is right here, quoting ta-tu,

Attaining Enlightenment shouldn't take a finger snap....Even so, you have to be the one to do it.

  • 1
    Wild up-vote for an answer that proposes a thought or phrase as a tool to get under our conditioning!
    – user2341
    Jun 13, 2015 at 17:33

Is lack of inherent existence the same as 'not real'?


  • This is a low quality answer. Please improve it with explanation, elaboration and citation if possible.
    – ruben2020
    Apr 4, 2021 at 14:17
  • This is a low quality answer. Please see this page for advice on how to write a good answer.
    – ruben2020
    Jul 29, 2021 at 8:33

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