Reality, Appearance, and What Separates Them

How can we determine what is real and what is not? Panelists discussed this question at a recent event on campus.

By Sarah Flynn

What is real and what is not real? This a question contemplated by many but answered by few. The opinions on how to distinguish the imaginary from reality have been discussed and compared for generations by people all over the globe, a snapshot of which was captured by a panel discussion at Worcester State University earlier this month.

On the cold day of Feb. 11, a panel of diverse women and men gathered in the Blue Lounge of the Student Center to try to answer this question.

The following speakers gave their thoughts regarding the inquiry: visual and performing arts professor Adam Zahler, philosophy professors Jonathan Flowers and Elena Cuffari, and psychology professor Charles Fox. Visitors at the university consisted of Tibetan nuns Thiley Chachung Ghale and Karma Yangu Gurung, as well as Tibetan monks Cheki Dorji and Pema Wangdak, all of whom were part of the campus’ cultural exchange program with Namdroling Monastery in South India. Finally came surprise participant Gyaten Lekden, a Harvard Divinity graduate from Worcester who is currently studying Buddhism at the Sera Je Monastery, located in close proximity to Namdroling Monastery.

Reality and appearance have long been debated throughout history and this group of people also had their individual ideas about what defines reality. Their responses, based on their greatly differing backgrounds and areas of expertise, revealed just how endless the solutions to such a matter truly are.

“Appearance is something that I deal with a lot in my work,” said Zahler, who started off the discussion by addressing the fact that he is the chairperson of the Visual and Performing Arts Department. “Reality is a whole different thing; in the theater we don’t give you reality, we give you the opportunity to suspend your disbelief.”

He talked about how the idea of the theater is to give the audience truthfulness through performance, allowing viewers to have an evocative and dynamic experience that can be considered real in the way that it is portrayed. Whether this idea can be considered reality or not is a decision Zahler expressed would require deep consideration, revealing how acting is one of the many examples of an issue that can be taken both ways, real and unreal, depending on the viewpoint.

Jonathan Flowers followed Zahler, and considered the work of John Dewey, an American philosopher and founder of pragmatism. He spoke about how reality and appearance are actually very similar. In one instance, Flowers explained that when hearing a branch banging on a window, one may feel fear. While this fear may occur for a false reason, the emotion endured is real, as the person’s beliefs are what created their tense reaction before it could be discovered that the noise was only produced by a tree.

“The appearance of something in a moment can be just as real as the thing on further reflection,” said Flowers. “The different relations we adopt towards things affects their reality or how they affect us in a very real sense.”

Elena Cuffari spoke next, agreeing with Flowers as she explained her experience with reality and appearance as both a philosopher and as an everyday citizen.

“What we deal with is meaning,” Cuffari described. “Meaning is relational; it has to deal with organism and environment interactions, and given the kind of organisms we are, the world does not reveal itself to us in a neutral way, but is always mediated by language.”

Further on, Cuffari told the audience about some instances where the phrasing of words makes reality difficult to process. In one of her most notable statements, she asked “is Paddington Bear real?” This came up when she and her son were reading a story together, where the beloved book character went to Hampton Court Palace, a place that exists outside of the fictional world. With Cuffari having actually visited the location, her familiarity with the place caused her son to wonder whether or not the character itself was real just like the setting in the story. Cuffari’s other examples also derived from everyday occurrences, showing just how relevant the question of reality versus appearance is in any setting, not just an academic one.

The first of the Lopons’ opinions came from the two Tibetan nuns, Thiley Chachung Ghale and Karma Yangu Gurung. Each held similar standings on the difference between reality and appearance. Both nuns mentioned the two truths of Buddhism, conventional and ultimate, to explain their reasoning.

Ghale started off with a summary of how appearances do not give insight into everything that can be understood, saying, “What appears to be seen is not what it is in reality.”

Gurung expanded on her fellow nun’s views, showing how true understanding cannot be met if either aspect, reality or appearance, are absent.

“In order to realize the reality, we need to depend on appearance,” said Gurung. “They both play an important role.”

She then pointed out how this works by talking about a human being, saying that the the human itself is only the appearance; investigating just how it looks on the surface will never open us up to seeing the reality of who that person is.

Both women stood for the idea that the two truths of Buddhism describe appearance and reality. The ultimate truth, reality, is not met when one only considers the conventional truth, which is appearance.

Cheki Dorji also spoke from this notion, describing how, in order to have complete understanding of the matter, one truth cannot be taken into account without the other. His primary example was a table. He explained how it is impossible to tell if a table is truly a table when being seen as broken pieces, for there is no information in its current appearance to suggest the reality of those pieces formally making up a table.

When considering how inseparable reality and appearance are, Dorji said he is sure that those who realize this coexistence will come to reach enlightenment and ultimately understand the world as it was meant to be viewed.

Before the last Lopon was Gyalten Lekden, who reflected on the many previous comments and connected each to the idea that ultimate truth can be found in how nothing exists in the way it initially seems.

Relating to the matter of appearance, he addressed the idea of emptiness, claiming it does not mean that something non-existent, but rather something that cannot be seen as what it truly is. He mentioned Flowers’ example of a branch tapping on a window, and provided his own version with a coiled rope being mistaken for a snake, saying that the reaction of fear is a result of perception instead of what is truly present in reality.

“That’s how we live in our world: reacting to coiled ropes as if they were snakes,” Lekden said. “But then the truth is that coiled rope isn’t even a coiled rope, it is merely designated as a coiled rope by our confused minds.”

With everything else having been labeled by people, Lekden believes that emptiness is the only real attribute of this world. His ideas then spread to considering how objects and items are thought of differently depending on the situation, like how cake makes people happy before eating it, but that emotion can turn to regret if that person indulges beyond their limit.

The last Tibetan monk, Pema Wangdak, spoke after Lekden’s explanation, and he described the Buddhist truths and their relation with emptiness from his own perspective.

“What Buddhists are trying to say is that we are not still; we are our own nature of our mind,” said Wangdak.

He explained to the audience how reality is understood by what the person understands through their individual mindset and that the truth is different for each person.

Finally there was Charles Fox, who conducted his own brief psychology experiment right there in the Blue Lounge. The audience was asked to close their eyes and put one finger on their eyelid, pressing down gently until they would see flashes of light. Speaking of neuroscience, he described how perception plays the biggest role in the human’s biological system and that reality is what each individual understands. All in all, Fox found that experience is what makes feelings real, and these experiences can be different for everyone.

Countless conclusions can be made from this idea of appearance versus reality, some intertwining and some being in direct conflict. Ultimately, it all depends on who the opinion is coming from because their knowledge and experiences determine what they believe.

Have an opinion on this? Disagree or agree? Let us know in the comments!

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