True Illusion

F E B R U A R Y   2 0 2 1

My little cat jumps into my lap as I start to write. I sit back to give her space. She curls in a spiral like a nautilus shell, closes her eyes, and sleeps. She doesn’t know what is happening. She doesn’t know about the pandemic. She doesn’t know how much we humans miss seeing each other’s smiles, hidden beneath our masks.

lotus reflectionHer ears flick slightly. I think she’s dreaming. Whatever she’s dreaming about seems real to her, at least until she wakes up. Then another “reality” will appear to her which she’ll accept as real. To me, both her dream-reality and her waking-reality—if I could experience them—would likely seem partial, limited, not the “true” depiction of the world that I have. They would seem to me dream-like—brightly apparent, yes, but fictive, not really existing in the way they seem to exist to her.

But what’s to say that’s not also true about my own waking-reality? I know the dream I had last night was not real, at least I do now, but what about this waking-reality? Could it also be dream-like—a fictive illusion created by my own limited interpretation of what’s happening, just the same as my cat’s limited interpretation of what’s happening?

How do we tell what is real? We measure the space between things, we knock on wood, we stroke the cat, we count the time between one event and the next, and by all this evidence we become confident there is a real world out there that exists as we perceive it. My lap, the cat, my neighbor’s garage, the sun climbing into the morning, all truly existing.

But then, what do we make of these lines from Rumi:

Out of unconditional emptiness
comes this planet with all its qualities.

Is this true? If it is, if “this planet with all its qualities” comes out of unconditional emptiness, it must be doing that right now, not just in the primordial past. This moment with all its attendant perceptions spontaneously appears, but how? From where? And doesn’t it instantly vanish, right now, back into “unconditional emptiness? In the infinitely short duration of the present instant, can any of this that is appearing really claim “existence”? Perhaps what we assume to be reality actually is a kind of dream, a mirage, an evanescence no more substantial than the play of light on the surface of a pond, or the changing shapes in a mirror?

This radical form of inquiry and contemplation is at the heart of the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. While present in early Buddhist sutras and the teachings of the 2nd Century Nagarjuna, it was precisely described as a practice by the 14th Century master Longchenpa in his famous manual Finding Comfort and Ease in Enchantment. (There are several translations of this text available; Keith Dowman’s translation entitled Maya Yoga is, in my view, the most accessible, poetic, and illuminating.)

Longchenpa’s text gathers eight analogies to help describe our ephemeral experience of reality: it is like a dream, like a magical show, like an optical illusion, a mirage, the reflection of the moon on water, an echo, a magic city, an apparition. With each analogy he prescribes the same basic practice: that we apprehend all our experience as maya, illusion, mirage, a magic show, etc. Here he describes the dream practice:

The outer world, its mountains and valleys,
villages and towns and its living beings,
compounds of earth, water, fire, air and space,
all forms, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations,
the five sensory objects,
and the internal world of body-mind
and its sensory consciousness,
all experience, should be attended to incessantly as dream.

It’s not surprising that our minds rebel at this suggestion. We’re not ready to concede that the world of phenomena around us—and that we’re part of—is a dream. Surely not! This great heavy earth, the oceans, the mountains…

And then once more, Rumi drops this on us:

The here-and-now mountain is a tiny piece of a piece of straw
blown off into emptiness.

If this is true of the mountain, what about all the suffering in the world, the pandemic, the wars, the bombs slamming into buildings—are these also a dream, blown off into emptiness? And the people we love, our children and grandchildren, the work we do, everything we hold dear—are these a dream? Doesn’t this practice of apprehending all experience as dream diminish the value, depth, and joy of life?

Here I can only say, try it. Try attending to all your experience as dream, at least for short bursts. See what happens. In my experience the value, depth, and joy of life is not diminished by this practice, in fact just the opposite. But descriptive words here about “what happens” when you attempt this practice are not very helpful. Just try it yourself and see.

This maya yoga—attending to all experience as maya—is known as one of the most direct “short-cuts” in Dzogchen. In attempting it, you may sense for a brief moment something of what Longchenpa calls a state of “empty clarity” that shimmers “with an unbroken natural happiness.” Curiously, in that empty clarity the world doesn’t go away just because it’s seen as evanescent. After all, in a lucid dream when we’re sleeping—when we wake in the dream and know it’s a dream—the dream-world doesn’t disappear. We remain in its “enchantment” but we’re no longer bewitched by it. We’re at ease, as in Longchenpa’s title: finding comfort and ease in enchantment.

Peter Fenner, the Buddhist nondual teacher, once remarked that an illusion is illusory only as long as we are fooled into believing it is real. When we recognize our perception of reality is an illusion it ceases being an illusion! It becomes what I call true illusion, and the comfort and ease that ensues has a playful quality to it: we are unattached to the dream but intimately and compassionately responsive with it, “at play in the fields of the Lord.” Or as Keith Dowman writes, “To regard every situation as a magic show is simply to relax and enjoy it.”

Of course, our capacity to do this is weak; we’ve spent our entire lives asserting that the phenomenal world is real, not a dream or a magic show. Now and then we may get an intuition of this comfort and ease, but the density of apparent reality quickly reconstitutes itself. Remember what the old Taoist sage Chuang Tzu said:

Only after the great awakening will we realize that this is a great dream. And yet fools think they are awake, presuming to know that they are rulers or herdsmen. How dense!

So you and I, writing and reading this together, what are we? How can we understand this? Are we real? Are we a dream? What are we?

Let’s give Rumi the last word:

We are the night ocean filled with glints of light.
We are the space between the fish and the moon,
while we sit here together.