Imaginary beings

What sorts of beings are purely imaginary?

One of the most philosophical of the Mahāyāna canonical texts is one commonly called Laṅkāvatārasūtram, which is a shortened version of the full Sanskrit title, which can be translated “Introduction of the true religion into Lanka.” This text begins with a fantastical story of the Buddha meeting with the demon king Rāvaṇa. In their first encounter, the Buddha causes several mountain ranges to appear, and on the top of every mountain peak there stands a likeness of Rāvaṇa. As Rāvaṇa looks around at all these images of himself, the Buddha suddenly makes all the mountain ranges and all the peaks with Rāvaṇa on top of them disappear. He then explains to the demon king that this whole world of experience is like the hallucination he has just induced in that it appears to the discriminating mind that deals in conceptual constructs to which nothing in the world outside the mind corresponds. Eventually the Buddha is portrayed as saying that all the following are nothing more than ideas: a person, a continuum, aggregates, conditions, atoms, primordial matter, God as agent. Not all these things are regarded unreal for the same reasons. Persons, continua and aggregates are unreal because they are complex or composite beings and thus less real than the components that go into their making. Atoms are unreal because the idea of a dimensionless building block of a macroscopic object makes no sense. Primordial matter, which was supposed by some philosophers to be the single source of the manifest plurality of things, was dismissed because it makes no sense to saw that many things can have a single source, for reasons that will be explored in the next chapter. God as a singe creator of all things was rejected for the same reason as primordial matter. God’s agency was seen as an incomprehensible idea for reasons that will also be explored in the next chapter.

The trajectory of Buddhist philosophy in India was to begin with the notion that complex beings are less real than the simple components of which they are made. Further inquiry called simple beings into question with the result that they came to be regarded as having a merely fictional status. Further investigation raised the question whether anything has more than a fictional status, or, in other words, whether there are any beings external to consciousness that correspond to the ideas within consciousness.

Questions for discussion

Work cited

  • Laṅkāvatārasūtram. 1932. The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra: A Mahāyāna Text translated for the first time from the original Sanskrit. Translated by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.