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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Illusion, truth and reality (Part 7)

I’m about to take a class in a first year unit I used to teach at the UNE. At the time I was teaching in three separate units; the Great Traditions of Asia, Introduction to Religions, and Islam in the Modern World.

    ‘I’m an academic schizophrenic,’ I said time and again, ‘because although I teach in cultural history and religions, my post-graduate students are all in the field of Asian modern politics and history, or the social phenomena spawned by them, like child labour, or women and child trafficking.’

    But here I am in this posting, inching my way towards some sort of personal explanation of illusion and reality – because without this, the study of any religion, or comparative religion is as pointless as comparing footballs with butter. Is it important? When you think of everything that’s done in the name of religion this day, too right it is.

    I tried to lay some groundwork for this in earlier postings, but it’s a tall order. Maybe the conflict between illusion and reality in my mother’s last months of life has helped. I don’t know. It was a while ago when I wrote it. You may decide to go back to it.

    ‘I want you to use your imagination here,’ I say. ‘Think of a stage magician – a very good one, like you might see on TV, but think of them firstly in front of a theatre audience right here on campus.’

    ‘If you’re like me, you watch magicians perform amazing feats and if they’re really good you can’t work out how they do them all. Maybe we have an idea how they did some tricks, but other illusions just seem to beggar rational explanation.’

    ‘Yet even if I don’t get how it’s done, there’s one thing I don’t believe. I don’t think for one moment that they’ve performed a feat of magic. I don’t believe that they made a flock of pigeons materialise out of thin air, even though the hat that they came from was so obviously empty a moment ago. Neither does the rest of the audience, I’m sure!’

    You know it’s an illusion. A trick. Sleight of hand or a distraction at the right time. You see things as you think they are, even though that other part of your brain tells you that you’ve been fooled. If only you had more information on what was really happening while the trick was being performed, you’d see it for what it was – something perfectly rational and explainable.

    It’s not a miracle at all. We comfort ourselves with that.

    ‘Now,’ I say, ‘imagine that same magician goes to an island and performs these same feats even we sophisticated people can’t understand. This island is totally isolated, and the local people have never before seen a stage magician. He performs his show for them. His audience is ignorant and uneducated by our standards, and have never seen anything that comes from modern civilisation.’

    ‘What would they see? They’d see him perform truly miraculous feats, there in front of them, right before their eyes. Why would they not believe what they’ve just seen?’

    Nothing is more believable than what’s appeared before you like this, as in my mother's case. How could they doubt it?

    ‘I haven’t said this to make another group look stupid. On the contrary, they have a clear explanation for what they just saw, and it’s this. He can perform magic. He has mysterious power. Maybe there’s nothing he can’t do, with that sort of power....’

    ‘And yet we feel content in our own knowledge of this magician, comforted by the knowledge that he’s a fraud; an entertaining one of course, but we know him for what he is.’

    We have him neatly labelled in the right part of our brain.

    ‘What we don’t understand is that the world we inhabit is just like that, full of illusion, and we accept that illusion just as easily as those folk on the island. It fools us constantly because we interpret things as rationally as we can, and though it might satisfy us, we still come up with a faulty explanation; one that might be fine until it reaches the limits of our understanding.’

    ‘There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a flat earth if you live out your life in a small village in the middle of Oxfordshire in the twelfth century. It’s only when things fail to add up on the high seas and you find there are no edges to the world, and that if you go in the same direction you’ll end up where you came from that you have to think about the earth in a different way.’

    We sophisticated humans think we’ve got a fair grasp of it all, even when we know we don’t understand something, but we’re deceived all the time by our ignorance of the nature of what’s around us.’

    ‘We’re trapped in illusion.’

    Some of the students look quizzical. Others believe in their own form of magic and think I’m making an issue of nothing.

    This time we’re sitting round a table in a tutorial room. I want to hear what they’ve got to say, not to harry them constantly.

    ‘Let’s do a thought experiment. I want you to imagine that today I’ve brought a large box into the room and it’s in the centre of the table. Around the sides of this box are ten small holes an equal distance apart through which you can see what’s in the box. There’s ten of you here today. I want you to write down in one sentence what you can see of what’s in the box through your one little window, given the fact that the object has shape and colour.’

    They get into the spirit of the exercise. Let’s go round and see what they’re seeing.

    ‘It’s red and square and is made of metal.’

    ‘It’s black, round on one end and pointed on the other.’

    ‘It’s made of wood and rough and brown.’

    ‘Maybe it’s alive and fluffy,’ says the jokester. There’s always one, which can be a relief in a tutorial sometimes.

    ‘Let’s not complicate things too much right now,’ I say. But you get the idea. All have their turn at describing the object.

    ‘What have we learned from this?’

    Everyone interprets things from their own viewpoint. Each person has their own window to look at the same thing but it looks different from where they are. Each person has just their own version of something, unique to them. If we could look through more of the windows we’d get a better idea of what the thing really is. If we could take away the box covering it altogether we’d understand what it is much better. Maybe we could all agree much more about it in that case.

    ‘Does it mean if we all see it differently that the thing in the box doesn’t exist?’

    ‘Of course not!’ They are almost indignant at the suggestion.

    'I’m glad you said that. So are we all right?' 

   'Not really.'

   'Are we all wrong?'

   'We're all partly right, but we can only see it through our window and interpret it from the info we've got.'

   'Bingo! That's how we always see the world. In Hinduism, there’s a term for all this. It’s called maya, and that can be translated as illusion. Hinduism says that a characteristic of existence is maya. Sometimes people have said that if the world is maya, or illusion, then it doesn’t really exist, and you have to look elsewhere for reality. But of course it exists. Confronting maya is an awareness that human understanding is partial, or relative - that maya is an integral part of reality, not the opposite of it.’

    ‘If part of what’s in our box is religion, then this helps us understand what the problems are when it comes to discussing it. And there’s one other vital thing in understanding why we have such a problem with religion.’

    We have to think about what religion really is. Who can say, maybe it’s alive and fluffy after all.... But in trying to do that, we run into yet another problem.


  1. I reckon that the "creator" would be pretty insulted to hear that her own creation has turned around and said she doesn't exist and neither does her creation. But I hear this all the time from the neo-advaitists, who are so popular today and think they are uncovering Shankara's and Ramana Maharshi's truths.

    If some one walked into one of my exhibitions and said, there is nothing here but clay, ink, and paper, I'd say, look again. Don't you see the leaves, flowers, moon, and goddesses?

    The physicists would say, there's nothing here but knots of energy.

    Maya is also Leela. I prefer to see the goddess at play instead of knots of energy and nothingness.

  2. Oh, I think the goddesses all look after themselves pretty well and don't get too upset by the shortsightedness and smug self-assured complacency of some humans. The finite can only be part of the infinite, and how smug would one have to be to suggest that the finite mind knows all the answers to infinite questions. Maybe some do just see the clay, but I guess that's only their problem so long as they don't declare it to be just clay as a truth the whole world must acknowledge.
    Knots of energy is a good term.... as far as it goes. At least it by-passes for the moment the puzzling question of why things have mass!
    Leela - a great expression of why dance isn't just a series of movements... among other things. The gods and goddesses at play, if you like, or the interaction of the earthly and the divine. Hmmmm? Now the words are getting in the way....

  3. I believe that the people who say nothing exists, there is no one here, nothing to do, nothing to be done, etc., are sincere and truly see things this way. "Doing nothing, everything gets done." But they do not accept that their view may be, as you so brilliantly described it, one view from a limited hole in the box.

    What they claim is that there is nothing inside the box. Whatever you see is just an illusion; nothing exists. I've heard these people mock anyone who dares to disagree. It makes discussion very difficult, and in a small room of a just a few people discussing the same subject, just to go somewhere else is not the solution if that's the topic you wish to discuss.

    Fortunately, I am starting to hear more sophisticated voices engaging in this discussion. I suspect this is the same debate that has gone on in Hindu philosophy for centuries, nay millennia. Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. So form is there, even in such a reductionist philosophy as Buddhism.

    Two birds sit on a branch; one eats, the other watches.

    Goddess, I rant.

    Did you know that there is an excellent discussion of this in the form of Shiva and Shakti by Julie Marsh at

    I just found it today. She's a dark horse, isn't she :), not telling us.

  4. "Doing nothing, everything gets done." That's straight from the Daodejing, but it's completely misunderstood. Again, it's the word problem, compounded by a contextual one and ignorance. Very sad if people try to lives out a meaningful existence they don't believe in one! It's as much the interaction of opposites that makes sense.

    Julie Marsh is hiding her light under a bushel as she always does. I was NOT aware she had put that out there! You and I know she's the most knowledgeable person in the country on the subject of maya. Well, I sure do, as I read all those chapters in her Ph D thesis those years ago.

  5. I think there are some people who do understand that aphorism, given their descriptions of their own experience. However, I feel what they fail to acknowledge is that this experience is only the beginning of a long process of transformation.

    For anyone interested in the subject, I highly recommend Susan Segal's book, Collision with the Infinite.

    Yes, Julie is indeed a treasure and an expert in her area. Julie -- come out from under your bushel. Whatever a bushel is.

  6. You made me think about this! I think it comes from the container which holds - or held - a bushel. I also suspect that is where we get our word 'bashful' from. Now back to work before sleeping. Me I mean. I'm betting JR doesn't sleep much in the daytime..... :)

  7. Well thanks for those kind words dear friends,but as the bushel is right now a pile of essays I'm marking, I'm a bit mentally stale for adding to this thoughtful conversation, as it deserves.

    Reality, hmm. Of course sticks and stones can break your bones,but they'll all be dissolved in the passing of time. The material world (including emotion,and time too) is impermanent or conceptual -that's why (imo)it's not, ultimately, 'real'.Your paintings, Joan, won't be 'real' when they've rotted and disappeared in a thousand years or so. So what is beyond that?

    As for the Shiva/Shakti essay, it is an undergraduate piece, not very original, but maybe of interest to some who can bother with philosophy :)

    You're right Joan, this is a conversation that has gone on for a very long time! And how lucky we are, to know others who understand its place in trying to understand 'life'. What is the point of this miraculous world and experience if it doesn't provoke wonder? Even writing that, I feel each moment is a jewel.

  8. Well my paintings might rot, and so will the universe dissolve, but that doesn't stop it from all starting up again. What is "beyond all that" has no "existence" if there is not something for it to be beyond.

    It's not the paintings themselves nor the universe itself, but what they express that is real, and yet, neither really "exists" in a substantial way.

    Your piece on Shiva and Shakti, indeed, does not say anything that has not already been said, i.e. as you point out it is not an original piece of research, but it does sum up the topic in a very readable, accessible, informative way, and I was thinking of a generalist journal such as the Australian Religious Studies Reivew, not a specialist journal in Hindu philosophy, which indeed, most people would not read, and those who do already know about the subject.

  9. True, all of the above. (and good suggestion about the journal). Emptiness is not empty, or at least, we may need to reassess our definition of 'empty' (or sunyata). I think my final simplistic summing up in my own head about maya is that 'things are not as they seem'.

  10. Someone said about "emptiness" that it was crammed full of aliveness.

    Indeed, things are not as they seem. The earth is not flat; the sun does not revolve around the earth; and the physicists tell us that the solidity of everything is in appearance only and that at the quantum level, events are happening simultaneously, not consecutively and there are no things at all. Sounds a bit like a sutra from some Upanishad.

    And yet, here we are. Spinning and whirling away. No wonder our minds rarely go quiet.


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