Three modes of Reality

Over the holidays, I recited the Lankavatara Sutra. This sutra is often said to expound the hallmark of the Zen school and very important in Early Zen in China. It seems to be a synchronistic occurrence that after studying the Gate Gate Mantra, I would stumble across this sutra, which really explores even more how to perceive reality according to Buddhism.

It continues to show how we can stay with the current, momentary reality without sticking to our perceptions, our conceptions and the projections of our mind that creates a world of suffering. It also is adding to the material Reb Anderson Roshi brought to Clouds in Water two years ago when he taught on the Sandhinirmocana Sutra.

The big question is how to be aware of the present moment without introducing a “self” but without annihilating cause and effect either. How does karma and present moment interact? How does story and suchness interbe? This can be practiced as a conscious process of dis-assembling our self-reflective perceptions and ideas, and just entering into the suchness of each moment but knowing that each moment is produced by the past which is now gone and affects the future which has yet to arise. The past and the future only exist in the present moment!

From the Lankavatara Sutra:

I always teach emptiness

To transcend eternity and annihilation

The two extremes that Buddha guarded against are eternalism (eternity) or nihilism (annihilation). The nihilistic approach is that “nothing exists” and all is emptiness and no-time. The approach of eternalism is that there is something solid that exists through time. This translates in a more gross way to our belief that the appearance of life, time, and being are solid, concrete and just as they appear. We believe in the “story” and linear time, and “self” as solid and the only reality. Buddhist life works with reality in a way that is non-dual. The Middle Way. The opposites of existence and non-existence, are a dynamic polarity that exists always in ever-changing reality. The teaching on the three modes of reality in the Lankavatara Sutra helps us understand this even more.

The beginning of the sutra talks about the “twining vines” (as Dogen would say) of all the different modes of reality that occur simultaneously in each moment. They are not three separate modes but three facets of the “now” that can’t be separated. Like the facets of a diamond that show all sides of the jewel. Or like a cubist painter trying to show all sides of a dimensional object at once.

Three modes (natures, characteristics) of reality

  1. Imagined or imputational reality
  2. Dependent or other-dependent reality
  3. Perfected reality — thoroughly established reality.

And In this sutra, part of the explanation for the Three modes of reality corresponds to the Five dharmas:

  1. Name
  2. Appearance
  3. Projection
  4. Correct knowledge
  5. Suchness

Here they are combined:

Imputational reality
Name and appearance
Dependent reality
We correctly perceive that things are dependant on each other
But we still perceive the world as things in themselves or “out there”
Perfected reality
True knowledge
And suchness


Imagined or imputational reality is based on the first two dharmas; name and appearance. We believe that the conceptualization that we construct in our minds is real. We believe that our language and formation of ideas IS the true reality. That Past, present and future exist, and that there is a life span. Though this is one of the ideas we try to deconstruct as we practice, it also, if we are humans with minds, actually never goes away. Buddha was teaching to the human world. We are endlessly constructing a reality that we think exists through time and has a solidity to it. We mentally construct a World with many projected storylines. It is the nature of mind to name and construct reality but it is the nature of practice to see these objects that arise from a much larger basis of reality. This is not “bad” but it is ignorant, it ignores the total picture. This mode is the mental construction of our “story”.

Dependent reality or other-dependent reality. Another way of looking at the reality of the moment is that it is dependent on all the other conditions and causes that came before it. This is karma. We are all connected in the great net of Indra and if one being moves, all the beings are affected (other-dependent reality). It is a greater understanding of inter-being, but still this is based on; a before and after, a cause and effect, an object and a subject. Katagiri Roshi taught, “Can you see cause and effect as one arising?” Can you see each moment as both a cause and an effect? Can you see each moment as subject and object merged? Dependent reality is the ancient law of the form world — cause and effect that is beyond personal identity.

Which leaves us Perfected Reality or thoroughly established reality. Other words for it are true knowledge or suchness. It is the pure aliveness of the moment including everything and nothing. It is the dynamic working of life itself in each moment without, as Katagiri Roshi, would say, poking our head in there. It is existence and non-existence, production and non-production working together to arise as the mystery of life. This can never be rejected or avoided because it is always present whether we know it or not. This is the true suchness of each moment.

What is important for me is that these three modes of reality are always present in each moment. We don’t have to fight them or cling to one or the other. Each moment endlessly contains all three if we are human beings. This helps me understand how to bring my ordinary life and the sacredness of life together in each moment. It breaks through compartmentalizing or dualistic thinking and helps me to receive life just the way it is.