Snp 1.1: Real vs. Unreal

“The monk who hasn’t slipped past or held back,
without greed (or aversion or delusion), as ‘All this is unreal,’ sloughs off the near shore & far—
as a snake, its decrepit old skin.”

‘All this is unreal’ is the translation of Bhikkhu Bodhi and also of Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu. But Bhikkhu Sujato translates this as ‘Knowing nothing is what it seems.’

So, I would conclude that this sutta does NOT necessarily mean that our lives in saṃsāra are mere illusions or dreams the way the movie “Matrix” describes. It only means that our lives are conditioned, fabricated, and dependently-arisen through saṅkhāra. This is also what ‘without substance’ mean. Am I right on this?

Heesoo 🙏

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To grasp and insist onto the world as some kind of real concrete absolute that we inhabit and exist in is tied to self-view (sakkāyadiṭṭhi). This could be that it exists in an absolute sense, or that it exists and is annihilated; either way it posits a concrete sense of existence that either endures or is annihilated.
The sage with right view knows that the world is conditional, and that it is nothing more than the saḷāyatana, or more philosophically, nothing more than nāmarūpa conditioned by viññāṇa and vice versa.

Hope this helps a bit! So yes, you are right: it is because of conditionality. But to say that it isn’t an illusion is to try and grasp a metaphysical absolute, and this is wrong to. What it is is a conditional phenomenological experience characterized by dukkha that has arisen due to ignorance/delusion, and which will cease without remainder. If all of existence rests on sheer delusion, that sounds rather illusory to me! But not in the same sense some may think, perhaps.



This is a very important point as determining the difference between conventional and ultimate reality controls whether or not insight is achieved. It is like a gateway to pass through, and if not properly separated will cause the practitioner to beat their heads against a brick wall, unable to find the gate. If they pass through, they will be able to derive the joy from correctly seeing everyday life which is the necessary sustenance for path progress. You are correct, with two provisions. Conventional reality is not complete illusion, however it has less authority than ultimate. The reason is CR has been arrived at by common consensus (laws, institutions all based on the individual’s name, which is arbitrary), so has some wisdom, but applies primarily to management of the body as it passes through this life. These measures are merely conventions.

This shows how the arahant handles two realities:

“An arahant monk,
one who is done,
effluent-free, bearing his last body:
He would say, ‘I speak’;
would say, ‘They speak to me.’

knowing harmonious gnosis
with regard to the world,
he uses expressions
just as expressions.”—Samyutta Nikaya 1.25

This extract also shows how the noble eightfold path itself is conditioned, and treading the path requires development of skills with conventional reality.

“Many people have misunderstood this point, believing that the Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment require that one relinquish one’s attachment to the path of practice as quickly as possible. Actually, to make a show of abandoning the path before it is fully developed is to abort the entire practice. As one teacher has put it, a person climbing up to a roof by means of a ladder can let go of the ladder only when safely on the roof. In terms of the famous raft simile [§§113-114], one abandons the raft only after crossing the flood. If one were to abandon it in mid-flood, to make a show of going spontaneously with the flow of the flood’s many currents, one could drown.”—Thanissaro

The second provision is that from the earliest stage a category of nibbana (ultimate reality) should be formed, and all practice included as directing the mind towards nibbana even though it has not been achieved. In Majhima Nikaya 19 before awakening, it is explained how the Buddha-to-be divided thinking into two types, one of which he was aware was leading to nibbana.

Yes, exactly.

The Pali is vitatha, where tatha is “true or real”. Generally speaking early Buddhism is not idealist, i.e. it does not say that the world is purely illusion. Rather, we distort the world through our perception. The world arises in the relation between our perception and external stimuli.

So I take the prefix vi here in the sense of “distorts” or “twists” rather than a straight negative. Everything is twisted from the truth, or in other words, things are not what they seem.


There are of course different types of ‘universe is mental’ ( pun intended) philosophis. The movie matrix was supposedly influenced by eastern philosophy and mathematics.

That all pervading consciousness
Of stillness through eternity
Must of necessity proclaim
Its ultimate reality

Composed of nothing yet of which
All else is sure composed
He stands supreme beyond all dreams
Externally reposed

Whose one dream atom
Doth our universe contain
Its myriad worlds and planets
He doth orderly maintain

To this everlasting truth
This infinite divinity
Countless creations homage pay
Throughout his own eternity


An equation for me has no meaning, unless it expresses a thought of God.

~Srinivasa Ramanujan.

On a side note: probably these types of eastern thinkers have no problems with the mystery of ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences’.

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Another reason for some people to think that this life is a mere dream/illusion seems to be the first sentence of Dhp, usually translated as “Phenomena are preceded by the mind.” Is it ok to take this sentence to mean that the material phenomena start from the mental phenomena (intention or perception) but just because the material phenomena start from the mental phenomena does not mean that material phenomena are mere dreams/illusions?

I’ve discussed this passage here:

That’s not really what it is about. It’s about kamma: do good and get good, do bad and get bad. It’s an ethical statement, not an ontological one.


Dear Bhante Sujato, this brief introduction to SN 22.95, though, says “consciousness is like an illusion.” Again, it only means that phenomena including 5 aggregates are dependently co-arisen and LIKE illusions, but it does NOT mean that they ARE mere illusions. Am I right? Also what is the Pali word for ‘substance’? Does ‘substance’ in this sutta mean Spinoza’s substance (something very similar to Brahman or Atman)? I apologize for keeping bugging you.


I think it’s saro or sara, but maybe see what bhante says.

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I’m not sure that there is a definite difference, but sure, the text says they are “like” illusions.

But be careful what inferences to draw from this. If we reduce the level of abstraction, the text can also be interpreted as saying consciousness is like a “magic trick”. And thus we could say that consciousness is like a magic trick, because both of them are illusions.

Yes, as Adrian pointed out, sāra, also “essence”, “pith”, “core”, etc.

I’m not familiar enough with Spinoza to say how it relates.