Abstraction and reality are both sliding scales, shades of gray rather than black or white. And they are mutually obverse: that is, generally the more abstract a thing is, the less real and vice-versa.
Real doesn’t necessarily mean concrete, but persistent. Space, time and the awareness of sentient beings are remarkably persistent. Abstractions like names, forms and relations are impermanent as the foam of ocean waves.
There is no harm in working with abstractions, unless we mistake them as real. In today’s world, abstractions like corporations, money, religions and political affiliations are considered real. They are valued more than less abstract things like consciousness or happiness. This is nuts, and it has made us crazy.
The objectification of abstractions stems from very seriously defective discrimination. We can and should use symbols, but we must not confuse them with reality. The map is not the territory, nor is the name the person or thing it represents.
The danger of symbols is that we think we know a thing when we merely know its name or designation. And then we go on reasoning about the name as if it were the thing. Having reached some conclusion in the abstract, then when we are confronted with the actual thing, we often experience cognitive dissonance because our idea and the reality do not match.
The Buddha’s teaching contains information about Dhamma (what actually is) and adhamma (what is only conceptual or abstract). Westerners are frequently surprised to find out where the Buddha distinguished between Dhamma and adhamma.
For example, although people commonly measure reality by sense impressions, the Buddha considered them symbols, abstractions. And if we study the physiology of the senses, we shall see that the Buddha’s view is correct. We do not sense reality, but an abstraction of it created by the senses and curated by the mind. Otherwise we would be overwhelmed by a constant flood of sensory information.
The Buddha’s view may seem counterintuitive to people conditioned by western materialism. But if we enter into his understanding of Dhamma and consider it carefully, we can see that he is right. Why invest in fragile fabrications and fleeting abstractions, when there are far more reliable bases for our long-term benefit and happiness.
If we want substantial and enduring happiness, our values should reflect the distinction between reality and abstraction. Our fortune should be not in money or possessions, but in consciousness. Our refuge should be not in being and becoming, but in emptiness and nothingness. For unlike temporary fabrications and abstractions, these are truly real, permanent and enduring.