In this koan, a monastic asks Zhaozhou which of the three aspects of Buddha is the real one. He’s saying, which one is the real Buddha, the physical, the moral, or the metaphysical? The same question can be asked in any religion. When the founder dies, what are the followers left with? Where does the archive of the founder’s teachings rest? Is it their person, their legacy, or something beyond? Where are the true archives for Jesus, Luther, Mary Baker Eddy, Abraham?

The monastic wanted to know, where is the real Buddha? Is the real Buddha his material existence—that which can be perceived through the senses? Obviously that won’t work because he is no longer present. Or, is it in the symbols of his existence, such as his moral teachings, his wisdom, compassion, the sutras? This aspect of the teachings was present during the Buddha’s lifetime, and it remains after his death, so is that the real Buddha? Or is it his transcendent reality—that which we point to in sutras, liturgy, and images, in esoteric invocations? Zhaozhou said, “Don’t leave out any of it.”


Photo by Kelvin Cantlon


Is the Buddha the pictures that we have painted of him? Think of all of the thousands of images we are constantly creating—and when I speak of images, I am also referring to poetry, pottery, theater, creative expression in general. The commentary asks, “What is his reality and what is the picture of his reality? Indeed we could ask, is there a difference between the picture of reality and reality itself?”

This brings us to the question, what is real and what is reality? According to the dictionary, for something to be real it must exist in fact, rather than as a product of dreams or imagination. Reality is something that must have actual physical existence. But what is physical existence? In Buddhism we say that the three worlds are nothing but mind. Form, formlessness, desire, the three worlds, the totality of human experience, are nothing other than mind. Given this truth, then all of physical existence is mind. When I perceive an object, the organ of perception, the object of perception, and consciousness create what I—and everyone else—call physical reality.

A few years ago, Karl Pribram, a neurosurgeon teaching at George Washington University, presented what came to be known as the holographic brain theory. He did this in collaboration with quantum physicist David Bohm who also had a theory on the holographic nature of the universe. Michael Talbot, author of The Elegant Universe, comments on this collaboration, saying that when you put the two theories together—a holographic brain and a holographic universe—what you end up with is a holographic blur. In other words, the concreteness of the world, its physical reality, is but a secondary reality, and the primary reality, if you will, is actually a holographic blur of frequencies that the brain selectively picks up and mathematically transforms into sensory perception. But this then begs the question, what becomes of objective reality? Talbot says, “Put quite simply, it ceases to exist, just as the religions of the East have long upheld. The material world is maya, an illusion. And although we may think we are physical beings moving through a physical world, this too is an illusion. We are really receivers floating through a kaleidoscopic sea of frequency and what we extract from this sea and transform into physical reality is but one channel from many that can be extracted out of the hologram.”